Book Report: The Power of Habit

If motivation is responsible for what we do intentionally, then habit is its partner.  Charles Duhigg explores the science of habit in The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business.  Habit is responsible for what we do without thinking or making a conscious choice.  The first time we do something, like maybe starting the coffee pot first thing in the morning, we do it on purpose.  And if we do it again the next day, it’s a tiny bit easier.  Eventually, we don’t really think about it or choose it, it’s just what we do.  That’s a habit: we respond to a cue (getting out of bed) with a craving (caffeine!), followed by a routine (making coffee) that delivers the reward we crave (caffeine!).  You might not even know what the cue is, or what the reward is.  If you figure out what reward is delivered, you might not even understand why it’s a reward.  (What is so rewarding about biting one’s nails?)  But that’s the habit loop, responsible for many of the actions we take.

I thoroughly enjoyed that stories from various people and organizations, especially the chapters about Febreze, Starbucks, and Saddleback Church.  There are lessons for every area of my life, from career to housework to exercise to spirituality.

A very relevant lesson for most readers involves turning something that feels hard to do into something easy by exploiting how habits work.  Creating a new habit is all about identifying a cue and following it with a routine that delivers a reward.  This is pretty basic common sense.  But the key, Duhigg says, is the craving.  While you’re building a new habit, think about the reward often.  You can make your brain crave something that the routine will deliver.  For example, in order to turn running into a habit, I think about the reward delivered by running: I feel happy, pleasantly warm, and full of energy for several hours after a run.  If I crave that feeling, it’s easier to go for a run before it becomes a nearly unconscious habit.

Duhigg’s second lesson for the reader was how to change an unwanted habit.  He lays out advice for identifying the routine you want to eliminate, the cue that signals your brain to do it, and most importantly and most difficult to figure out, the reward that you are craving.  Once those three factors are identified, he suggests inserting a new routine that will satisfy the same reward.

What I would have liked to see is advice for what to do if another part of the habit loop, not just the routine, is unacceptable to you.  A smoker who craves nicotine and wants to quit smoking, for example, doesn’t usually want to rely on patches or gum for the rest of their lives.  They want to eliminate the craving for nicotine.  But smoking is surely too complex an example, addiction plus habit working together.  So I put this to the test in my own life, with my ridiculously powerful habit of eating dinner — and overeating — while watching TV.  So I followed Duhigg’s advice, and I experimented with other routines to decipher the true reward.  I expected it to be that I just like to overeat.  (People just like to overeat, right?  Some evolution-related drive that humans no longer need?)  And the desire to overeat as a reward is not acceptable to me.  It turns out…I don’t like to overeat.  If I’m paying attention, I find it almost impossible to eat past fullness.  The reward I was getting was mental rest.  The very state of NOT paying attention is what I crave!  I spend many hours of my day in a high-stimulation, high-interaction, high-decision-making environment, which I love, but when I get home I want to “zone out” for a bit.  Finding a routine to deliver that reward is acceptable to me.  Overeating is not necessary, at all, to deliver that reward.  Most days, I find that a few minutes of playing a game on my phone is perfectly satisfying.  Then I can go on with my evening.  I’m still experimenting with other routines that might satisfy the craving.  In this situation, Duhigg’s theory holds.

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