BLOG > Book Summaries > ,

The Power of Habit Summary – Charles Duhigg

Arthur Worsley
by Arthur Worsley
M.A. Psychology, Oxford. McKinsey Alum. Founder & Editor at TAoL.
The Power of Habit Summary, Charles Duhigg
The Power of Habit (2012)

Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business

by Charles Duhigg

A page-turning dive into the power and ubiquity of unconscious habits in shaping our decisions and destinies (plus a practical guide to changing them) – by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Charles Duhigg. (375 pages)

Paperback | eBook | Audiobook

This book summary is part of an ongoing project to summarise ~70 books on Productivity - for more, see the full reading list.

Perfect for you if:

  • You’re under the illusion that you’re in conscious control of most of your life.
  • You want to start a new habit but just can’t seem to make it stick.
  • You want to kick a bad habit but keep falling off the wagon.

Charle’s Duhigg’s “The Power of Habit” is a primer and guide for anyone that is fascinated by or has struggled with habits, cravings and willpower.

The idea that habits are a powerful driver of behaviour is not a new one. William James was one of many to observe that:

All our life so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits – practical, emotional, and intellectual – systematically organised for our weal or woe, and bearing us irresistibly toward our destiny, whatever the latter may be.

However, it is the author’s astonishing breadth of sources and Pulitzer worthy storytelling that makes this book a classic on the subject. From classical and sports psychology to rehabilitation programs, big business, government and cultural movements; Charles sets about demonstrating that habits dictate most of what goes on around us, whether we see them or not.

Most powerful of all are the practical implications of Charle’s writing. Anyone who knows firsthand the unstoppable destruction of craving and addiction can benefit from this book. But so can people looking to make small, positive changes in their lives. Even CEOs and leaders of communities and societal change can benefit from its insights.

The book’s closing sections touch lightly on the thorny nature of free-will and the ethics of habit. Charles concludes that habits can and do exert a power that may go beyond our conscious control to moderate. Changing those habits when we know about them, however, is within our control and a failure to try and change something you know about amounts to negligence.

This book teaches us not just what habits are but also how to change them. What follows is the essence of its main arguments.

The Anatomy of Habit

At some point, we notice that: Cue + Response => Reward.

  • Cues are combinations of stimuli (sight, smell, taste, touch, sound, thought).
  • Responses are chains of thoughts and/or actions.
  • Rewards are increases/decreases in pleasant/unpleasant sensations, emotions or thoughts.

As a result, we practice the response until it becomes a reliable and automatic habit.

  • Repetition triggers long-term changes to the brain’s structure (learning).
  • Coordination becomes independent of conscious decision making.

With time, the brain begins to expect and crave the reward as soon as the cue arises.

  • Cravings emerge even before the habitual response takes place.
  • Even similar cues (near misses) can begin to trigger these cravings.

These cravings then begin to drive responses that deliver the reward.

  • Cravings are powerful enough to override even basic survival instincts.
  • Physical cravings are mostly short-lived (e.g., nicotine in bloodstream < 100 hours).
  • The mental component tends to be much more powerful and enduring.

The Roles of Habit

As individuals, we rely on habits to free up our limited conscious resources.

  • Our conscious attention and working memory are limited.
  • Yet we must respond to thousands of stimuli throughout the day.
  • We manage this by delegating most of our responses to the subconscious.

As companies, we rely on creating or changing the habits of our customers to sell our products.

  • Companies have become masters of understanding and manipulating habit cycles.
  • They understand cravings, create new ones and identify and exploit periods of change.
  • Understanding our own habit loops as individuals can help us spot and limit this manipulation.

As groups, we rely on habits (laws, processes, routines) to encourage sustainable cooperation.

  • Organisational habits reduce the time and cost of making decisions.
  • Good habits set clear common goals and rules for reward and punishment.
  • Poor habits leave accountability ambiguous and undermine cooperation.

As societies, we rely on habits to make major changes/movements sustainable.

  • Societal change moves initially through strong (friendships) and then weak (community) ties.
  • But sustaining this change is effortful so long as its behaviours are a disruption to “normal life”.
  • To make the movement self-sustaining, leaders must set new habits and sustain the movement until these habits become the status quo.

The Properties of Habit.

Habits Are Prone to Relapse.

Habits can’t be erased.

  • Habits result from structural changes in our brains.
  • Once formed, these structural changes decay very slowly.

They can only be overridden by conscious willpower or a new, deeper habit.

  • The subconscious always follows the path of least resistance.
  • But we can use willpower to override a habit with a new behaviour.
  • Or to bridge the gap between a new habit and a deeper one.

But willpower is limited in capacity and endurance (like a physical muscle).

  • We can’t lift e.g., 3x our maximum weight at once nor 60% of it for three hours.
  • It can be strengthened through patient practice (but only within limits).
  • And willpower strength correlates highly with success over time.

This is why deep, old habits are prone to relapse.

  • Cravings drive habits that reinforce themselves.
  • And cues can be persistent and out of our control.
  • Eventually, willpower can become overwhelmed, leading to relapse.

Habits Cascade Like Dominos

The outcomes of habits are often cues for other habits.

This is why changing just one “keystone” habit can have far-reaching effects.

  • It can eliminate cues for habits further down the chain.
  • It can establish cues that create new or trigger other, existing habits.
  • It creates a period of wider change and a sense of belief in change.

But not all habits are effective keystone habits.

  • Some habits are better positioned to trigger cascades than others.
  • Keystone habits are often those that foster change across many different areas. e.g.,
    • Quitting smoking might not lead to starting running or improving your diet,
    • But starting running might encourage you to do both and more.

How to: Create a Habit

1. Identify the desired response.

  • Work on one new thing at a time.
    New habits need willpower and willpower is limited. Don’t bite off more than you can chew.
Remember, keystone effects may naturally trigger more change than you think.
  • Make it easy to follow through.
    Plan/prepare/do what you can in advance to make the new response easy to complete.
    e.g., put gym clothes on first thing for running, lay things out the night before for early rising. 

2. Select a cue.

  • Choose one or more of the following to establish as a cue for your response:
    • Location
      Somewhere unique that supports this habit (e.g., a library for studying)
    • Timing
      A regular time each day / week works best
    • Emotional state
      Is the trigger for this new habit excitement? anger? anxiety?
    • Other people
      Who will trigger the new habit? a spouse? a colleague? a friend?
    • Directly preceding sensation, thought or action
      What series of steps will trigger this response? Is it another habit?
  • Visualise the cue and plan out / rehearse your exact response to it in your head.

3. Design some carrots.

  • Treat yourself.
    Use something that makes you feel good like a small piece of chocolate, or chatting with friends.
    Be thoughtful about what new habits this reward itself might create.
  • Establish support networks.

    Find one or more people to tackle the habit and/or check in with to keep you motivated.
  • Visualise your desired outcome and remind yourself of it often.
    Write a clear visualisation of your end goal, print a photo, save a video etc…
  • Track progress and celebrate small wins.

    Small wins reinforce the behaviour and create a positive cycle of belief in change.

4. Set up some sticks.

  • Commit yourself to your new resolution on paper.

    Those who write down resolutions are ~10x more likely to complete them.
  • Track streaks of completed responses.

    The threat of breaking a long streak is a simple yet powerful motivator.
  • Make a public commitment, especially to your weak-ties (acquaintances and communities).

    People whose opinion you care about but who are not so close they won’t judge you if you fail.

5. Practice your new habit cycle every day for 30 days.

The structural changes that underlie habits are triggered only by extended, consistent practice.

How to: Change a habit

Caveat: There is no single formula to change a specific habit.

  • Every person has different cravings and drivers for the same routines/behaviours.
  • Some habits are simple to break down, others are complex and require prolonged study.
  • Some habits can be changed quickly, others are more obstinate.

1. Choose the existing response that you want to change.
e.g., snacking, web browsing, smoking, waking up late, nail-biting, stuttering

2. Experiment with rewards.
Rewards are often obvious in retrospect but hard to uncover.
e.g., snacking mid-afternoon may be more about taking a break than the need for sugar.

  1. Give yourself a few days, a week or even longer.
Don’t put yourself under pressure to change in this period, you’re just collecting data.
  2. Adjust your responses to test different rewards and determine the craving driving your routine.

    e.g., eat an apple instead of a cookie, take a break and socialise instead of snacking.
  3. After the response, jot down the first three sensations, emotions or thoughts on your mind.

    This creates momentary awareness. and helps with recall later.
  4. Set a timer for 15 minutes.

    Give the response and reward time to take effect.
  5. Review your notes and ask yourself if you still feel the same urge.
    If no: you have found the reward that satisfies your craving.
    If yes: the reward is something else, try again.

3. Isolate the cue.

Like rewards, cues are often obvious in retrospect but hard to uncover.

  1. Each time you feel the craving arise, make a quick note of:
    • Where you are
    • What time it is
    • How you feel
    • Who else is around
    • What you’ve just been doing or thinking about
  2. Review your notes for patterns to identify the cues for your craving.
    e.g., craving to take a break takes place between 15:00 and 16:00

4a. Either: Eliminate the cue.

  • Many cues are directly within our control.
  • The quickest way to stop a response is to simply eliminate the cue.
    e.g., block websites, delete apps, disable notifications, end relationships.
  • Eliminating cues is powerful because it requires no willpower.

4b. Or: Design an alternative response that delivers the same reward (see Create a Habit).
Some cues are not possible or practical to eliminate e.g., times of day, location of work, colleagues

N.b., Periods of major external change and crisis can uproot even old and entrenched habits
These periods give us and others a licence to shake up old habits and act in new ways.

  • Major external changes include e.g., starting a new school, getting married, moving home, changing job, having a child.
  • Crises include e.g., health scares, bankruptcy, accidents or near misses, global financial crises.
Fabricating or artificially prolonging a sense of crisis can be useful when promoting change in yourself and others.

Further Reading

“Thinking Fast and Slow”, Daniel Kahneman – A deeply insightful and Nobel Prize winning piece of work on the psychology of human misjudgment. A little hard work to get through but well worth it. I’ll be crunching this book at some point soon.

“Eat that Frog!”, Brian Tracey – I first picked up one of Brian Tracey’s books when I was 19 and it is no exaggeration to say that it changed my life. One of the best writers on habit-forming, goal-setting and general life-acing out there.

“A Mind for Numbers”, Barbara Oakley Book crunch here. A superb book and practical guide on the psychology of learning. Barbara touches on habit forming in her excellent primer.

“Deep Work”, Cal Newport Book crunch here. Cal’s book focuses specifically on building the habit of deep work. Its insights are both fascinating and practical.

“The Marshmallow Test” – three and a half adorable minutes of scientists torturing small children with marshmallows. A modern revival of the classic Stanford experiment.

The Power of Habit Quotes

These Power of Habit quotes come from TANQThe Art of Living‘s growing central library of thoughts, anecdotes, notes, and inspirational quotes.

“The brains dependence on automatic routines can be dangerous. Habits are often as much a curse as a benefit.”

— Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit

“Cravings are what drive habits.”

— Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit

“It seems ridiculously simple, but once you’re aware of how your habit works, once you recognize the cues and rewards, you’re halfway to changing it.”

— Nathan Arzin, The Power of Habit

“When people join groups where change seems possible, the potential for that change to occur becomes more real.”

— Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit

“A habit cannot be eradicated – it must, instead, be replaced.”

— Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit

“Habits are most malleable when the Golden Rule of habit change is applied: If we keep the same cue and the same reward, a new routine can be inserted.”

— Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit

“The habits that matter the most are the ones that, when they start to shift, dislodge and remake other patterns.”

— Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit

“Routines are the organisational analogue of habits.”

— Geoffrey Hodgson, The Power of Habit

“When people start habitually exercising, even as infrequently as once a week, they start changing other, unrelated patterns in their lives, often unknowingly. Typically, people who exercise start eating better and becoming more productive at work. They smoke less and show more patience with colleagues and family. They use their credit cards less frequently and say they feel less stressed. It’s not completely clear why But for many people, exercise is a keystone habit that triggers widespread change.”

— Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit

“Families who habitually eat dinner together seem to raise children with better homework skills, higher grades, greater emotional control, and more confidence.”

— Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit

“Making your bed every morning is correlated with better productivity, a greater sense of well-being, and stronger skills at sticking with a budget.”

— Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit

“Keystone habits offer what is known within academic literature as ‘small wins.’ They help other habits to flourish by creating new structures, and they establish cultures where change becomes contagious.”

— Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit

“Willpower is the single most important keystone habit for individual success.”

— Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit

“Among the most important benefits of routines [(organisational habits)] is that they create truces between potentially warring groups or individuals within an organisation” [Is the same true for potentially warring parts within us?]

— Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit

“Good leaders seize crises to remake organisational habits [and] crises are such valuable opportunities that a wise leader often prolongs a sense of emergency on purpose.”

— Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit

“People’s buying habits are more likely to change when they go through a major life event [and] there’s almost no greater upheaval for customers than the arrival of a new child.”

— Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit

“People, it turns out, often go to the gym looking for a human connection, not a treadmill.”

— Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit

“To sell a new habit… wrap it in something that people already know and like.”

— Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit

“A movement starts because of the social habits of friendship and the strong ties between close acquaintances.
It grows because of the habits of a community, and the weak ties that hold neighbourhoods and clans together.
And it endures because a movement’s leaders give participants new habits that create a fresh sense of identity and a feeling of ownership.”

— Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit

“All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits – practical, emotional, and intellectual – systematically organized for our weal or woe, and bearing us irresistibly toward our destiny, whatever the latter may be.”

— William James, The Power of Habit

“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes ‘What the hell is water?'”

— David Foster Wallace, The Power of Habit

“Water hollows out for itself a channel, which grows broader and deeper; and, after having ceased to flow, it resumes, when it flows again, the path traced by itself before.”

— William James, The Power of Habit

“Some habits yield easily to analysis and influence. Others are more complex and obstinate, and require prolonged study. And for others, change is a process that never fully concludes.”

— Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit
Arthur Worsley
I founded TAoL to discover and share the best wisdom on how to live long and prosper. Before that I studied Psychology, Philosophy & Physiology at Oxford and consulted at McKinsey. Still curious? Learn more or take my FREE productivity quiz.

Want A FREE Character Traits Cheatsheet?

Character Traits List

Send Yourself A FREE Printable Cheatsheet Of 800 Positive, Neutral & Negative Character Traits...

The Art of Living will never share your email. Unsubscribe easily anytime.

Want A FREE Printable Weekly Planner Template?

Weekly Planner Template Preview

Send yourself a FREE printable weekly planner template you can use to set every week up for success...

The Art of Living will never share your email. Unsubscribe easily anytime.

Want 6 FREE Interactive Memory Templates?

Memory Templates

Get 6 FREE templates & master the same tools used by Dominic O'Brien to become the 8-time World Memory Champion.

The Art of Living will never share your email. Unsubscribe easily anytime.

Want A FREE 10-Step Speed Reading Cheatsheet?

How to Read a Book, Mortimer J Adler

Get a FREE 10-step cheatsheet to help you read faster and remember more of what you read based on the classic guide, How to Read a Book.

The Art of Living will never share your email. Unsubscribe easily anytime.

Want 5 FREE Printable Productivity Templates?

Productivity Templates

Includes: Wheel of Life, Habit & Value Trackers, Goal Setting Worksheet, Daily Planner and Guided Reflection...

The Art of Living will never share your email. Unsubscribe easily anytime.

Want A FREE Language Learning Toolkit?

Save thousands of dollars and hours with this FREE 8,000-word language learning guide and toolkit...

The Art of Living will never share your email. Unsubscribe easily anytime.