To Read: The Power of Habit


PowerofHabit“A young woman walks into a laboratory. Over the past two years, she has transformed almost every aspect of her life. She has quit smoking, run a marathon, and been promoted at work. The patterns inside her brain, neurologists discover, have fundamentally changed.”

In 2012, New York Times award-winning business reporter Charles Duhigg chronicled what researchers have discovered in the last twenty years on why habits exist, how we form them, and how they can be changed. The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business was a New York Times bestseller for over 60 weeks when it was first published. Four years later, it is still at number 7 on the list of science best sellers. The first section of the book covers the habits of individuals. Duhig then covers the habits of organizations, and the final section of the book looks at the habits of societies.

Habits … are what allow us to “do a thing with difficulty the first time, but soon do it more and more easily, and finally, with sufficient practice, do it semi-mechanically, or with hardly any consciousness at all. [It is] the will to believe that is the most important ingredient in creating the belief in change. And…one of the most important methods for creating that belief [is] habits.” (The Power of Habit, quoting William James, p. 273).

The Power of Habit is a fascinating collection of narratives on individuals and organizations that have been able to significantly transform their daily actions or their approaches to business and to explain, in clear terms, why and how these changes were possible. It is a captivating fast-paced read.


According to researchers, up to 40% of the actions people take each day are a result of habits (Duke University 2006 study), rather than actual decisions. Science tells us that habits “emerge because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort “( p. 17). These habits come into being deep within our brain in the basal ganglia–when our brain cedes control of a behavior and lets a habit take over, for example, backing a car out of a driveway. This process in our brain is referred to as “the habit loop” and it occurs in three steps. First the cue–it tells your brain to act automatically and employ a habit; next is the routine, which Duhig points out can be physical, mental, or emotional; and finally, the reward that will influence whether the “loop” is “worth” remembering for future application. With repeated operations, a habit loop can become ingrained especially when it is associated with a craving for the reward.


New habits can occur or become entrenched when the habit loop is reinforced with a craving we have cultivated. With smoking, a person craves the nicotine “rush.” With exercise, people may begin to crave the endorphins or the feeling of accomplishment that is often associated with completing a run or a workout. The owners of Cinnabon stores understood this loop. They position themselves inside malls away from the location of the food court so the smell of their pastries does not have to compete–shoppers can smell the Cinnabons baking, thus creating a craving before the store is even in sight. Unsatisfied, the craving grows until the shopper arrives at  the store and purchases a roll.


“Keystone” habits are those that can spill over in many areas of an individual’s life or even a business–they matter more and can start a chain reaction. Sometimes they are referred to as “small wins.”

In the case of the story of the woman described at the outset who had transformed herself from an overweight, smoking, recently divorced distraught individual who had never stayed at a job for more than a few months, the keystone habit she focused on was exercise, and in order to do that she had to quit smoking. She also had a goal, after finding herself in despair, to get in shape and trek across part of a desert in Egypt one year later. The strategy worked, and her brain imaging became the neurologist’s favorite–neural activities of old habits and patterns were being overridden and altered with new ones, and that change became visible on the MRIs.

When Paul O’Neill became the new CEO of Alcoa in 1987 he announced that his first priority was to make the company the safest one in the United States with zero injuries.This was a remarkable and unprecedented goal given the nature of the company’s work–a business that invented smelting aluminum requiring employees to work with metals heated to 1500 degrees and dangerous machinery. O’Neill believed that focusing on this key priority would spill over to all other areas of the company and would help the company transform. He put routines in place to protect worker safety and those routines spilled over positively into other areas of management, union support, and ultimately worker productivity. Even though O’Neill never promised anything about increased profits when he took over, by 1996, just nine years later, the company’s stock had risen by 200%.


What works for one person may not work for another, but according to scientists, if we maintain the same cue and reward, habits can be replaced. For habit change to become lasting, however, there must be a belief that change is possible or the struggle will become too great when faced with obstacles. Researchers have observed that when individuals become part of a community, join a group, or get the support of just one other person, change is much more likely to occur. This is the process by which AA has been the key to success for so many–a group coming together to teach people “how to believe” that change can happen, and then being there to help their friends make that change permanent.


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