Reflections on the power of habit likely precede even Aristotle’s “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Wordsworth noted “Habit rules the unreflecting herd.” Most of the axioms you have ever heard about habit are true. Often times we hear these ‘self-evident’ truths and proceed with our days. It is not until we are trying to change a lifestyle or habit that we shake our heads, thinking that all of these parables are nice but wonder how can we take that information to make it work for us. This is where Charles Duhigg’s book enters the stage.
As he points out in the preface, “Each chapter revolves around a central argument : Habits can be changed, if we understand how they work.”(xvii)
As Daniel Pink notes, this book is not “a magic pill but a thoroughly intriguing exploration of how habits function.” The long and the short of it is that on a very basic level, our actions run along our neural pathways in much the same way as a river courses through the land, following the path of least resistance, winnowing away earth so that the river becomes more embedded along it’s path. However unlike a river (philosophers, your objection is noted) we have the ability to reflect on our choices, put a dam up, and choose a different path.
Unless this is your field of interest you will likely be astounded at how many levels our habits affect our day to day actions.
The military is “one of the biggest habit-formation experiments in history” (xvii) and when Duhigg was in Baghdad he heard of a major who was conducting ‘an impromptu habit modification program’. (xviii) The major had “analyzed videotapes of recent riots and had identified a pattern : Violence was usually preceded by a crowd of Iraqis gathering in a plaza or other open space and over the course of several hours, growing in size. Food vendors would show up, as well as spectators. Then, someone would throw a rock or a bottle and all hell would break loose.” The major met with Kufa’s mayor and asked if they could keep food vendors out of the plazas. A few weeks later a gathering began, chanting, angry slogans, but when the crowd became hungry and there were no food sellers, they went home. (xviii)
The major noted that he “had spent his entire career getting drilled in the psychology of habit formation.” (xviii) Everything from maintaining focus amid the chaos of battle to exercise to working along side people he couldn’t normally stand. (xix)
“Understanding habits is the most important thing I’ve learned in the army,” the major told me. “It’s changed everything about how I see the world. You want to fall asleep fast and wake up feeling good? Pay attention to your nighttime patterns and what you automatically do when you get up. You want to make running easy? Create triggers to make it a routine. I drill my kids on this stuff. My wife and I write out habit plans for our marriage. This is all we talk about in command meetings. Not one person in Kufa would have told me that we could influence crowds by taking away the kebab stands, but once you see everything as a bunch of habits, it’s like someone gave you a flashlight and a crowbar and you can get to work.” (xix)
Since I’m pretty sure that the major doesn’t want to be my life coach and I’m not going to join the armed forces at this stage in my life, I’m very glad to have The Power of Habit to help understand why I do things and how to change.
If you would like to buy The Power of Habit you may do so on Amazon or at your favorite local book store.