top of page

Power of Habit : - Charles Duhigg

It is an excellent book with surprising insights on how habits are akin to involuntary reflexes and how they differ from memory. This book is also a great example of a simple but powerful narrative and writing. The author gives scientific examples and reasoning rather than cool vibes and hazy self-help advice on how good and bad habits are formed and maintained. In my opinion, a must-read with the added advantage of a fun read!

Hi! Welcome to my book blog post and especially to my first one. I commenced on this journey for a purely selfish purpose rather than a charitable one. Quite recently, I had a rude awakening when I saw my screen time consistently tick up with no desirable gains in knowledge, skill or progress in life's trajectory. Hence, I decided to make a minor amendment, locked my phone away during the evenings, and started reading again, which I previously loved doing. That's before my stint as a keyboard warrior.

This book, among others, was the first one to make me fall in love again with the habit of reading and assimilating knowledge. In the course of this discovery, I figured out that many lessons are lost when you pick up the next book and hence the best way to retain that wisdom is to write it down and understand the lessons learned in words. Further, in the 21st century, you can learn, write and share using social mediums simultaneously. So here to hoping you like my first attempt at it!

"In Power of Habit, investigative business journalist Charles Duhigg describes the mechanism of habit formation elegantly and fascinatingly. It's a book with scientific nuance rather than a book offering quixotic self-help advice. Most noteworthy is the brilliant description of differences between memory formation/retention (medial temporal lobe) and habit formation(basal ganglia) and how new this discovery is."

About the Author:

Charles Duhigg is an investigative business journalist who has written extensively for the New York Times. One of his most famous and recognizable works is a series of articles about Apple factories in china published in the New York times under the title "iEconomy", coauthored with Keith Bradsher and David Barboza others. The series won a Pulitzer prize in 2013, few notable links related to the article below.

(Link to the series article : iEconomy)

About the book

Even if the name suggests another self-help book, this book is, in reality, a study of human psychology and cognition. It provides insights into how human form habits simply and engagingly whilst giving ample scientific evidence to back up those statements. The most significant epiphany I had while still reading the early chapters is that "habits and memories are two separate phenomena of the human brain, even if memory is lost habits remain".

Memory can be lost, but yet habits can be retained!"

To illustrate this point, Duhigg gives a fascinating example of patient zero, "Eugene Pauly" and Larry Squire's research. Squire's research at MIT led to the discovery that habits are retained in a entirely different human brain area (basal ganglia). It's a fascinating story about how Eugene, after losing his medial temporal lobe to encephalitis, which holds all short- and medium-term memory, can form new habits and got his life back.

If you wish to learn more about Eugene Pauly's research (Squire 1992), follow this link.

An event in Iraq when Duhigg was reporting on the war was the inspiration for this book. He came across a noble idea implemented by a USA army to prevent the occurrence of riots. The US army major asked the local mayor to remove the food vendor out of the plaza. Now you may think, how does removing food vendors will prevent riots? Right! The theory goes well if there is no food, then rioters would have to go home to feed, and the crowd will disperse and hence less likelihood of riots.

There is a fascinating illustration of consumer behaviour/habits around Freebeeze. Freebeeze initially created to absorb odour and not as a fabric freshener. Changing and re-branding product and introducing scent as a marketing point led to a successful, profitable creation after the initial product launch was a flop. At first, it fills me with amusement as it all appears so common sense but then, backed with scientific fact and the mechanism of habit, it dawns on us how little we know about our inner working and psyche.

"Humans always believe that its' hard to manipulate them, but once you read this book, you realize how unconsciously most of the time a human being behaviour is influenced".


Take, for example, how many of you will gravitate to toothpaste which has a more pleasant menthol minty flavour Vs. Something which feels like brushing your teeth with charcoal?

Given that the minty and refreshing feeling you have after brushing is not a sign of clean teeth, it's a reward mechanism designed by the product designer to make you feel good. The idea is that without the feel, there is no recognition that anything is different. That cool breathe is a sign that something has changed for the better and a sense of achievement. The above example from experiments of scientists at Pepsodent (brand of toothpaste) in the USA figured out it was not enough to clean teeth. Still, the pleasant minty freshness in your mouth was the real reward for consumers.

If you repeat an action often enough, it will become automatic and, therefore, effortless.

Think of your daily routine how many things you do without thinking about swimming, walking, even wearing clothes; these tasks were once taught to you by your parents. The process of repetition has made them an involuntary job for you where you don't have to spend much mental effort whilst performing this mundane task.


Duhigg describes the habit mechanism in three steps:

1) Cue

2) Routine

3) Reward

In brushing your teeth, the steps are viewing the toothbrush as the cue, brushing is the routine, and the refreshing feeling in your mouth (cool minty feel) is the reward.

Regarding my social media /smartphone addiction, it's as follows: boredom is the cue, browsing and commenting is the routine, and finally, the false feeling of accomplishing something by retorting or replying to someone or the sense of gaining pseudo-wisdom is the reward. Oh yes, and not feeling bored until the next cue is also a false reward!!

You can form new habits by putting these three-ingredient together Cue, Routine and Reward. The most interchangeable element in this habit loop is routine. Let's take the simplest example, at 3:00 pm every afternoon (Cue); I need to have something warm such as coffee(routine) which gets rid of the boredom and gives me a bonus of interacting with people(Reward). Since drinking coffee at 3:00 pm keeps me awake past midnight, I need to break this habit loop. As you can see, the "Cue" is hard to change as you cannot alter time as yet...Back to the Future! The reward of stretching my legs and talking to people is harmful and will require a waste of my willpower. I know what you are thinking. Have a tea with a dash of milk or Chai latte, which has less caffeine. Craving in this instance is a relief, being away from my desk and not the coffee itself.

This is how bad habits or good habits are formed. That's the golden rule of creating or changing habits.

Golden rule: One can change a habit by keeping the same cue and the same reward but change the intermediate routine, which leads to the prize. The most famous organization which uses this golden rule is Alcoholics Anonymous.

Tony Dungy and Indianapolis Colts: This example is worth mentioning as the idea of changing and forming a habit is great, but the belief that those habits work is different. People sometimes transform when an adverse event happens, but another scenario is when their social groups encourage this change. Hence the example of Alcoholics Anonymous is a example of social groups that facilitate change of a habit coupled with altering habit loop. So Kenneth G Ortiz was on to something when he said, "Beware of the company you keep for they are a reflection of who you are, or who you want to be .."

Keystone habits and the case study of Alcoa Aluminium: The idea behind a keystone habit is to anchor other good practices. These habits lead to a cascading effect and lead to the formation of more good habits; the concept is similar to the compounding nature of habits mentioned in James clear book "Atomic habits".

In the case of Alcoa Aluminium, the newly appointed CEO Paul O'Neill transformed the whole organization by making an organizational habit of giving workplace safety precedence over corporate profit. Eventually, it led to improved product quality, better and efficient production method, staff satisfaction, and ultimately improved yield and bottom-line figures.

So how do keystone habits work?? According to Duhigg, it's the concept of small wins and a sense of victory which these habits reward us. Every small win creates a chain reaction that gives oneself the confidence that bigger things are achievable. Well, who is the most prominent example of it, Michael Phelps! Please read the book for more illustration, but Phelps coach used the concept of keystone habit and a small win to make him the champion he is.

The concept of willpower is discussed in this chapter as a finite source. Will power is a teachable skill, but it's like a muscle. It uses energy, and when you use it too much, you get tired. I like the idea over here to ration your willpower for the critical tasks. Why go to the coffee shop next to the bakery, which will tempt my sweet tooth? Instead, I avoid it and go to another coffee shop with no sweets or savoury. In this way, I can use the reservoir of my willpower to finish this blog!

There is another important note on how to cultivate willpower or, more so, motivation. The answer to that is giving people autonomy or a sense of control over the situation. Starbucks does this by giving it staff the training which allows them to control unpleasant condition such as a complaining customer. When a person has a mental model on dealing with adversity, it gives them control and the motivation to go through the experience.

If you give yourselves or employees the sense of agency, a handle on the situation and the reservoir of motivation and willpower is replenished. Duhigg puts forth a similar note in his follow up book "Smarter Faster Better" about how you can generate motivation. Also, this is useful, and I will discuss this in upcoming book summaries; it's good to have mental models to deal with adversity. Read my recap of "Smarter Faster better" to learn how a flight captain averted an aviation disaster due to his habit of creating multiple mental models.

Power of Crisis and how Target knew before their target customer knew:

These chapters are primarily dedicated to organizational habits. We can use the power of crisis to transform organizational habits. Duhigg explains this through an example of a dysfunctional hospital where the organization had a routine that the surgeon was supreme and nurses asked no questions. After a series of mishap and patient death, administrators put a new system habitual system that allowed anyone to raise an issue or be skeptic before a surgery. It led to fewer errors and a better outcome for the patient.

Next is the example of Target, and anyone working in the data science stream will know how to predict customer behaviour. One can do a market basket analysis or categorize customer using logistics regression into multiple buckets using their shopping basket. Target was able to identify female customers who might be pregnant. Sometimes this was even before the customer knew, and hence it posed a dilemma how to market maternity line products. The answer to this was by sandwiching maternity linked products in between products which the customer regularly bought hence not offending the customer.

Finally take responsibility!

The final chapter is a call to arms by drawing contrast between two stories where habits were precursor to adverse outcomes and how the judgement meted out to them differed. The first one was that of Brian Thomas who had a history of night walking and accidentally strangulated his wife mistaking her for a intruder while out camping. The court adjudicated it as a case of "night terror" due to automatism. The second being case was of Angie Bachmann's who suffered from recurring gambling addiction and ended up loosing all her inheritance and family home.

While in the first case Brian Thomas was deemed not guilty of his wife's murder on account of automatism induced night terror. Brian's actions were unknown to him and were unconscious behavior and were a involuntary reaction similar to why I scream high pitch when scared by a rat. It's a habit loop which was triggered when Brian was asleep.

On the other hand Angie having previously escaped a tryst with bankruptcy was aware of her habits and the malady afflicting her. After recovering from gambling addiction she reverts back and looses even more including her inheritance and family house. The judge took a more punitive view of Angie's predicament than what Brian faced. One may ask why even when there were mitigating factors such as the Casino repeatedly enticing and cajoling Angie with intensive.

The answer lies in the fact that while Brian was unaware of his night terror and the extent of tragic consequence it may cause , Angie was fully aware of her susceptibility and bad habit and did little to as corrective action to change that habit.

The gist of the chapter being once you are cognizant of your bad habits its your responsibility to change them.


bottom of page