The Power of Habit

The Power of Habit ( 2012 ) by Charles Duhigg is an entertaining look at how habits determine a significant bit of what we do. It provides a fascinating look into how nun’s headgear has shaped the twentieth century. The book straddles the line between being a self-help book, a business book and a general interest, Malcolm Gladwell type book.

The book is divided into three parts, The Habits of Individuals, The Habits of Successful Organisations and The Habits of Societies.

In the first part the way individual habits develop and occur is outlined. The process by which something becomes automatic in a person. The case of Eugene, a man who lost the ability to form any new memories later in life, is examined. The ability to lay new neural pathways is then looked at with the formation of habits. Laboratory rats running through mazes is then examined. When a rat runs through a maze initially the rat’s brain is highly active throughout the maze. However once the maze becomes a known activity there is a spike in activity as the maze starts and then when it ends. Running the maze has become a habit for a rat.

This same behaviour occurs in humans. The first few times we do things our brain activity spikes throughout and then is reduced as we habitualize the behaviour. The book argues that the initial spike of mental activity that drives a habit can in fact become a trigger for behaviour in detrimental ways as well as constructively. Resorting to a cigarette or a distraction when under stress will lead to us developing a bad habit.

Disrupting habits, Duhigg argues, often involves finding the pattern of behaviour and working out the causes of the bad habits and substituting and disrupting the pattern. It’s fairly well worn and sensible.

The Section on the Habits of Successful Organisations is where the book attempts to become a business book and adds some vaguely connected, but often interesting, anecdotes into the story. Duhigg goes over Paul O’neil and his turn around of Alcoa that Duhigg believes was driven by making safety a key concern that then got workers and managers to find inefficient patterns that led to accidents and by removing them both make the company safer and make the manufacturing process more efficient. Starbucks is the next business success habit story with Starbuck’s determination to give better habits to their staff so they provide better service to customers. Duhigg then goes in to the story of the London Underground fire of 1987. The details of the story are really interesting. Duhigg uses it to suggest that a crisis prompts organisations to change their ingrained behaviour which is undoubtedly often true. But the connection to personal habits is dubious. Finally Target’s data mining is described.

The Habits of Societies then draws a long bow as Duhigg tries to explain the successful of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in terms of habits. Again, the details are interesting and Duhigg does a good job of making it a good story but his attempt to tie it all into habits becomes a bit silly. Finally sleep killing and gambling problems are compared. It’s odd and doesn’t really work.

The book isn’t terrible and does provide some good uplifting advice on changing habits. The scientism of the book is somewhat silly though. I know this because scientists are now discovering that the such works of non-fiction cause a kind of “Gladwell effect” that makes you feel like you learnt lots of things and are on the way to improve your life but actually just had an amusing read for a while. But still, it’s worth thinking about bad habits and what you can do to change them and the book is less embarrassing to read than a self-help book.


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