The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg Summary

Reading Time: 5 minutes


The power of habit is a digestible and informed examination of why habits exist, how they work, and how you can change them. This book will give you the foundational understanding required to create new habits that will drive your success and break old habits that are limiting your life.

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Key Takeaways

Habits exist to save our brains effort

“Habits, scientists say, emerge because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort. Left to its own devices, the brain will try to make almost any routine into a habit, because habits allow our minds to ramp down more often.”

Biologically, we form habits to save energy, so anything we do regularly will become a habit.

Cue, routine, reward

“This is how new habits are created: by putting together a cue, a routine, and a reward, and then cultivating a craving that drives the loop.”

“Cravings are what drive habits. And figuring out how to spark a craving makes creating a new habit easier.”

Habits are a simple action loop that consists of a cue, a routine, and a reward. For example, waking up in the morning might be the cue that drives the routine of brushing our teeth, which yields the reward of having a clean and refreshed feeling in our mouth. The habit loop is driven by cravings. For instance, we might crave the feeling a clean and refreshed mouth, which will lead us to go through the routine of brushing our teeth when we get the cue of waking up. To understand and change our existing habits, in addition to creating new ones, it’s essential we understand the cue, routine, reward habit loop.

The Golden Rule

“The Golden Rule of Habit Change: You can’t extinguish a bad habit, you can only change it.”

Habits are hard-wired into our brains. So while it would be nice to be able to erase this hard-wiring, it’s not possible. So we have to be intentional about changing our bad habits into good ones, rather than focusing on eliminating the bad ones from our system.

How to change habits

“Rather, to change a habit, you must keep the old cue, and deliver the old reward, but insert a new routine. That’s the rule: If you use the same cue, and provide the same reward, you can shift the routine and change the habit. Almost any behavior can be transformed if the cue and reward stay the same.”

“However, to modify a habit, you must decide to change it. You must consciously accept the hard work of identifying the cues and rewards that drive the habits’ routines, and find alternatives. You must know you have control and be self-conscious enough to use it”

If we want to change our habits, we should keep the cue and reward the same, but change the routine. For example, imagine that we smoke a cigarette every time we drink coffee in the morning. The coffee is the cue, smoking a cigarette is the routine, and the high we get from the cigarette is the reward.

To change this behavior, we need to first consciously choose to do so and then identify the cues and rewards around the routine we would like to change. For instance, we can replace the smoking a cigarette routine with something else when we drink our morning coffee. We might, for example, do a short exercise routine after we drink our coffee that releases endorphins and gives us a high that feels as good as the high from cigarettes.

Keystone habits

“…some habits have the power to start a chain reaction, changing other habits as they move through an organization. Some habits, in other words, matter more than others in remaking businesses and lives.”

“Keystone habits transform us by creating cultures that make clear the values that, in the heat of a difficult decision or a moment of uncertainty, we might otherwise forget.”

Keystone habits are habits that have the power to change habits in other areas of our lives. For instance, exercise is a keystone habit. When we start exercising regularly, we often start doing other healthy behaviors naturally. If you get done with a good workout, instead of grabbing the usual cheeseburger and french fries, we’re more likely to grab a healthier snack, such as a protein shake.

We also are more likely to get better sleep and feel happier due to the endorphins that are released from exercise. Collectively, these changes will likely make us more successful in our personal and professional lives. If you want to improve your life, identifying keystone habits that move you in the direction you want to go is a great way to do so.

The importance of agency

“When people are asked to do something that takes self-control, if they think they are doing it for personal reasons—if they feel like it’s a choice or something they enjoy because it helps someone else—it’s much less taxing. If they feel like they have no autonomy, if they’re just following orders, their willpower muscles get tired much faster.”

“Simply giving employees a sense of agency—a feeling that they are in control, that they have genuine decision-making authority—can radically increase how much energy and focus they bring to their jobs.”

If we need to do something that requires self-control, our sense of agency has an important role in how taxing that activity is on our brains. For activities we feel that we have chosen, it requires less willpower to accomplish the activity. On the other hand, if we have to do something due to something outside of our control, it will deplete our willpower significantly more. This principle is important when we think about how to motivate people to do things in a professional context.

Dress the new in the old

“Whether selling a new song, a new food, or a new crib, the lesson is the same: If you dress a new something in old habits, it’s easier for the public to accept it.”

If we introduce a new product or idea to a group, a person’s ability to understand and embrace that idea increases if we wrap the idea in something familiar to them. Many startups use this principle when they call their product the “Uber or Airbnb of [x].” We know what Uber and Airbnb are, so we can better understand what the vision for the new, unfamiliar startup product when it’s put in the context of businesses we understand and are comfortable with.

Habits are the water

“The water is habits, the unthinking choices and invisible decisions that surround us every day—and which, just by looking at them, become visible again.”

“And once you understand that habits can change, you have the freedom—and the responsibility—to remake them. Once you understand that habits can be rebuilt, the power of habit becomes easier to grasp, and the only option left is to get to work.”

If you ask a fish what water is, he will have no idea even though he is swimming in it each day. Habits are the water in our daily lives – they are the unconscious behavioral patterns that drive how we spend most of our time. If we want to reshape our lives, we need to consciously recognize the habits that drive our lives and do the hard work required to change the ones that are no longer serving us.

Great quotes

“Change might not be fast and it isn’t always easy. But with time and effort, almost any habit can be reshaped.”

“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. Exercise is a keystone habit that triggers widespread change.”

“Champions don’t do extraordinary things. They do ordinary things, but they do them without thinking, too fast for the other team to react. They follow the habits they’ve learned.”

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