The Power of Habit

‘The Power of Habit: Why we do what we do and how to change‘ is precisely my kind of book. So, this is more of a a book recommendation than a book review!

A bit about it…

‘The Power of Habit’ is written by Charles Duhigg, who I had never heard of before reading the book, but according to the blurb is an award winning journalist at the New York Times. It is the very well-told story of how habits work, as Duhigg draws on a combination of science, and carefully chosen case studies. The result is very readable, and for me, it generated lots of ‘aha!’ moments. I seriously love books that do that!

It also left me feeling excited about the opportunities to understand myself better and change my habits! Good / bad habits aren’t necessarily stuck for good, and the ability to make good habits (or get rid of the bad ones) isn’t so much a talent, or a sign of having amazing will power, but it is the application of sciencey principles! I love a bit of science, me.

How do habits work?

Well, according to the book, at the heart of our habits is a feedback loop, and the loop is made up of three stages:

  1. There is some kind of cue, like a location, time or emotional state.
  2. This is followed by some kind of routine response.
  3. Our brain receives a reward as a result.

And because the brain receives a reward, our brains are more likely to respond in the same way to the cue in the future.

The loop looks a bit like this:


Image from:


So for example, that might be:


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In this example, Duhigg was attempting to understand and change his mid-afternoon cookie habit! You might expect the cue to be hunger, and the reward to be feeling full, but it wasn’t. The cue was the time of day, and the reward was social time with his colleagues. 

After a while, the response to a cue becomes automatic – a habit that is wired into our brains. The reason our brains do this is to avoid wasting energy by thinking all the time.

For example, why should our brains bother to ask the questions:

“Shall I put fresh socks or yesterday’s socks on this morning?”

or “Shall I eat the dinner in front of me?”

Our brains instead, notice the cue, expect the reward (for example, the pleasant feeling of fresh socks, or the yummy taste of food), and then they power down and let the automatic processes take over.

These habits are wired into our brains so strongly that they can still function when our memory is impaired, or we’re sleep walking! I mean, have you ever done that thing where you’ve driven to work, and can’t actually remember the drive? Or left the house and been unable to remember if you’ve locked the door, and when you go back 99.9% of the time the house is all locked up. Your habits have taken care of it!

It’s fascinating! I love it.

How to create a new habit or change an old one:

According to the book, the keys to creating a new habit is finding the right cue and developing strong enough rewards; and the key to changing an old habit, is to change the routine (i.e. the route to the reward) in the middle.

The book also suggests that habit changes, of either kind, often require a moment of “things simply have to change”, and that our belief that we can change is genuinely critical.

In the process of reading and reflecting on these kinds of principles, I had a number of “aha”s, like these:

  • The reason why last Spring/Summer I ran every Monday and Wednesday, and this year I’ve run only a handful of times.

The reward of getting further, being better, seeing what’s round the next corner ran out once I could run for the distance I was aiming for. So, if I want to consider to exercise, I need to find a new reward! Or a different sport that gives me the same kinds of reward.

  • The reason why 95% of the time I stick to my bedtime and I love it, but when I’m exhausted, miserable, and mopey I often find myself watching nonsense on Netflix into the night.

In this case the emotional cue overrides the time cue because the reward for going to bed on time just isn’t strong enough. My brain strongly believes that watching nonsense will make me feel better. It may do whilst I’m watching, but it’s wrong in the long term! But watching TV when I feel emotional is a strategy I’ve used since I was a child, and it’s a habit loop that is deeply wired into my brain. 

  • The reason why I’ve managed to transform from someone uses will power to force herself to wash up, into someone who looks forward to her washing up session each day. And, why despite a good start I have failed to keep up with my weekly bathroom cleaning routine.

This was the most complex one, and I nearly wrote the whole post on it, but that would have been boring! To boil it down: at the time of transformation, I realised I really needed to do something radical, and that the reward I expected from washing up wasn’t delivering, and I needed to find new ones. I also needed to find a better cue – one that happened when I had energy, not when I was exhausted. Not that I could have described it like that at the time! Meanwhile the weekly bathroom cleaning routine was always doomed to fail because it lacked both cue and reward.

And there were others, which I won’t bore you with the ins-and-outs! Things like:

  • The reason why I was able to write a couple of thousand words most days during NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), but have barely worked on my novel since then.
  • The reason why I have managed to completely change the way I shop and eat, since I stepped down from my stressful job in the NHS back in November 2013.
  • The reason why I’ve been through fads of knitting, bread baking etc. but none of them have become part of my every day life, whereas blogging has.

I feel like I’m going to be having “aha”s for months!

So, can I warmly recommend this book to you. Pop into the library like I did, or hop online and buy a copy if you’re feeling flush! I’ll be really interested to hear your thoughts.



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