The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg – My Book Notes

These are my personal notes on The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. I took them in 2014 when I read the book for the first time, and they are unedited.

If you’d like to read the whole thing, you can buy the book on Amazon (and I’ll get a small commission at no extra cost to you).

Chapter 1

  • Habit loop
    • cue, routine, reward
  • Habits are super-important – they let our brains save energy and size for other things
  • Eugene could function almost normally without a memory due to his habits
    • He could also build new habits over time
  • Habits are also delicate – if the cue isn’t there, they won’t trigger
  • Habits don’t leave us; once they’re ingrained, they stay under the surface waiting for cues to trigger them. It’s work to avoid running those routines if a cue happens.
  • McDonald’s fries are designed to melt immediately, in order to give the reward right away and tighten the habit loop
    • The store designs and everything else are as standardized as possible in order to keep cues consistent and trigger routines
  • Squire’s paper on Eugene’s habits was the spark that really ignited habit research
  • Habits are bound up in the basil ganglia, one of the most ancient and central parts of the brain
  • Brain activity is much lower when executing the routine part of the habit loop
  • “Chunking” – the brain’s process of converting a sequence of actions into an automatic routine

Chapter 2

  • Claude C. Hopkins – successful ad man who helped make Pepsodent successful
    • Turns out Pepsodent’s success was mainly due to the tingly feeling in the mouth due to the ingredients
  • Habit loops eventually form a craving – the anticipation of the reward
  • Hopkins thought it was the reward of clean teeth that drove the habit loop
    • It’s actually confirmation of the product “working”
  • Febreze is a similar story
    • The success is in the reward of a cleaning job well done
    • Febreze was originally odorless and marketed as a way to get rid of bad smells
    • Now it’s the fresh, clean smell that accompanies the end of a cleaning session
  • Julio the monkey
    • Got blackberry juice from pulling a lever when a shape showed up on a screen
    • Brain activity at first – level, but a spike when the reward showed up
    • “I got a reward!”
    • Eventually, as the habit loop solidified, the brain activity spiked right after the shape showed up
    • The anticipation of the reward caused the activity spike
    • Craving – it’s really powerful. Made the monkeys ignore distractions
  • Craving is why we find it so hard to ignore notifications – a craving for distraction
  • Exercisers crave the “good feeling” after a workout, or a specific reward, or are envisioning a result
  • Shampoo doesn’t have to foam and toothpaste doesn’t need to feel tingly to work – but those components fill the craving fr validation of effectiveness

Chapter 3

  • Claude Hopkins created a new habit with Pepsodent – but old habits can’t be destroyed. Rather, they must be replaced.
  • The Golden Rule of habit change:
    • Keep the same cues and rewards, but replace the routine.
    • Smokers have a cigarette cue and a rush reward – replacements for the routine can include nicotine gum, caffeine, or other things
    • This can be used for small behavioral tics – such as nail biting – as well as large problems like addiction
  • Replacing the routine is not effective on its own when stressful situations arise in people’s lives. Then, belief is the key addition.
    • AA uses a belief in God as one of its central tenants
    • Researchers find it’s not necessarily a belief in God, but rather a belief in something greater than one’s self
    • Having support groups is a huge boon to habit change
  • Coach Dungy found that drilling habits into his players – first on the Bucs, then the Colts, made them faster and less likely to hesitate by trying to think during plays
    • Most coaches at that time relied on hugely complex playbooks with feints and counterfeints
    • Dungy focused on a few plays, drilled into automatic habits
  • Dungy’s habit changes weren’t enough in high-pressure games (conference championship) because the pressure caused players to fall back into their old routines
    • Not until Dungy’s son committed suicide did the change happen
    • The players rallied around Dungy in his tragedy and started to believe in what he had taught them
    • They then won the Super Bowl

Chapter 4

  • Paul O’Neill used worker safety as a keystone habit at Alcoa in order to improve almost every aspect of the business
    • All parties involved – execs, employees, union – could get behind safety. Nobody would fight him on it.
    • Improving safety naturally improved efficiency
  • Organizations runs on habits more often than they run on logic
    • The VA would build hospitals even when they weren’t needed
    • The cue was budget money. Routine was to build a hospital. Reward was the politician being able to point and say “look what I did!” to climb the ladder of success
    • “Individuals have habits, organizations have routines”
  • O’Neill used habits to encourage change at all levels
    • Managers were required to report any and all safety issues. The only way to get promoted was to be a person that did this.
    • This created a success-driven habit loop that improved safety
  • Keystone habits work in weight loss as well
    • Old way was to try enacting radical change to help obese people lose weight – but it fails
    • What ended up working? Asking people to keep a food diary once a week
    • Some people kept daily journals, then started noticing patterns they didn’t know existed.
    • From there, they took steps to change the patterns, and that blossomed into even more good habits
  • Keystone habits create “small wins” which help other habits flourish by creating new structures.
    • They create culture where change is contagious
  • Michael Phelps keystone habit was “the videotape” – a visualization of every part of a race in his head, which helped keep him calm and focused
  • “Small wins are a steady application of a small advantage.” – Cornell professor in 1984
  • O’Neill helped to lower infant mortality rate before going to Alcoa
    • Mortality -> malnutrition of mothers -> malnutrition before becoming pregnant -> lack of biology knowledge -> teachers weren’t trained in biology and nutrition
    • Gov’t revamped teacher education in college to add in biology teaching. Infant mortality has gone down 68%

Chapter 5

  • Travis had parents who were functional drug addicts
    • Had trouble controlling  his anger and couldn’t hold down jobs
    • Got a job at Starbucks and completely turned life around
  • Starbucks has an education focused on increasing its employees’ willpower
    • 2005 study analyzed 164 8th-graders
    • students with high willpower got higher grades and better selection in colleges
    • Willpower more important than IQ or other factors
      • “Self-discipline predicted academic performance more robustly than did IQ. Self-discipline also predicted which students would improve their grades over the course of the school year, whereas IQ did not…”
    • Marshmallow study – children who could resist the marshmallow to get double treats later were more successful as adults
      • SAT scores 210 higher on average
      • More popular, did fewer drugs
  • Willpower can become an automatic habit
  • It’s also depletable
    • Muraven’s study of a bowl of cookies and bowl of radishes
    • Those who had to eat the radishes spent much less time on a puzzle that was actually impossible. They became irritated more easily.
    • “Willpower isn’t just a skill. It’s a muscle, like the muscles in your arms or legs, and it gets tired as it works harder, so there’s less power left over for other things.”
    • Australian 2006 study – building willpower in one area (working out or money management) spilled over into other areas
    • This is a more important reason for signing kids up for soccer or piano. The practice builds the willpower muscle for other things
  • 1992 – British psychologist worked with a group of lower-income elderly people who all had knee or hip replacements
    • The recovery from the surgery is very painful – moving hurts a lot, but exercise must be started almost immediately so flexibility can be retained
    • Study’s participants were given a document that included additional pages where they could write down specific action steps and goals for a certain week
      • People who wrote plans started walking almost twice as fast and getting out of chairs 3 times as fast
    • The patients who wrote plans would write out very mundane details – but this meant they were anticipating the moments of pain and planning for them in advance
      • Their plans were build around inflection points and how they would deal with them.
      • “The patients were telling themselves how they would make it over the hump.”
  • Starbucks eventually incorporated this idea into their training programs. Now they have employees write out plans for how to deal with stressful situations
    • LATTE – listen, acknowledge problem, take action to solve it, thank them, explain why it happened
  • This is how willpower becomes a habit – by choosing a certain behavior ahead of time and following a planned routine when an inflection point arrives
  • Another incredibly important aspect is autonomy. Much of willpower comes from the feeling that you are in control of your life.
    • Two groups were told to ignore cookies in Mark Muraven’s research.
      • 1 group was told very politely, and told they could suggest changes to make the study better
      • Other group was simply told “You must not eat the cookies.”
    • No one ate the cookies, but people who were told impolitely were much worse at hitting a space bar when a 6 flashed on a screen followed by a 4.
    • The group who was treated well felt they had a sense of control over the experience, so their willpower muscle wasn’t depleted as fast
      • 2010 study – manufacturing plant in Ohio let employees design their uniforms and control scheduling – 20% increase in productivity within 2 months. Nothing else was changed.

Chapter 6

  • Organizational habits need to form a truce between different parties to be effective
    • Rhode Island Hospital nurses had no power or equal footing with doctors
    • Doctor arrogance, and nurse inability to say anything or stop procedures, caused many surgeries where the wrong side was operated on. One 86-year-old man died.
    • The hospital’s habits were not organized around a keystone – they had just emerged naturally among the workforce
  • An Evolutionary Theory of Economic Change – published in 1982 by Nelson and Winter – was incredibly successful in the business world
    • “Much of firm behavior is best understood as a reflection of general habits and strategic orientations coming from the firm’s past rather than the result of a detailed survey of the remote twigs of the decision tree.”
      • Basically, it may seem like organizations make rational choices based on deliberate decision making, but that’s not true. Rather, organizational habits drive firms, and they emerge from thousands of independent employee decisions.
    • These organizational habits are called “routines” by N&W, and are vital to getting anything done
      • Workers don’t have to ask for permission on every single thing
  • Companies are battlefields of a civil war. Department heads, individual employees, etc all compete for prestige and power, and operate partly on fear. Self-interest plays into everything.
    • However, most companies operate peacefully due to truces. 
    • It’s basic game theory. Sacrifice a bit of your self-interest to keep things running smoothly.
      • Try to bolster your own department instead of sabotaging others. Otherwise everyone will gang up on you.
      • If every salesperson offered huge discounts, the company would tank. So they compromise to limit discounts, even though each individual salesperson would like to give tons of them to rack up sales for themselves.
    • Rhode Island Hospital didn’t have a good truce because nurses had no power.
  • King’s Cross station fire
    • Totally preventable, but so many habits had emerged to keep everyone focused only on their department and not “stepping on toes.”
    • Nobody was actually in charge of keeping people safe
    • The fire wasn’t reported until too late and 31 people died
  • A crisis (or perceived crisis) can be the event that gets previously stubborn people to change. A crisis can help people to see that certain things need a re-balancing of power in order for safety or other crucial things to be taken care of.
    • Rhode Island Hospital’s media frenzy was the crisis that the administration was able to use to enact change. Now, nurses are empowered and the hospital is very safe.
    • Desmond Fennel was assigned to investigate the King’s Cross fire. So many department heads wouldn’t budge on proposed changes, so he created a media frenzy out of it as well. It worked – the leadership was fired, new laws were passed, and now King’s Cross has much better safety procedures.
    • “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” – Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s chief of staff 2008

Chapter 7

  • Andrew Pole – data expert for Target
  • Target wanted to target soon-to-be moms
    • Pregnant women are a gold mine for retailers – they can sell baby things, but also everything else
    • Tired parents who buy baby stuff at Target would buy everything else there as well because it’s easy
    • That would breed loyalty as well
  • Target has massive data collection capabilities – they tie all data to a Guest ID so they know what people by, why, and what they can do with that data
  • Before using analytics, companies would use sorta-scientific psychology tactics designed to exploit subconscious mind when shopping
    • Produce is first in a store because you put it in your cart, feel good, and are then more likely to justify buying more profitable junk food
  • However, shoppers have individual habits – so those tricks only go so far. Hence the data collection and analysis
    • “Consumers sometimes act like creatures of habit, automatically repeating past behavior with little regard to current goals.” – USC 2009 psychologists
    • Each person’s habits are different though
  • 1984 – UCLA professor Alan Andreasen wanted to know why people suddenly change buying habits
    • Surveyed hundreds of consumers in LA
    • People changed buying habits when they went through a major life event
      • Married -> buy new type of coffee
      • Divorced -> buy new type of beer
      • New house -> new type of cereal
    • Having a baby is pretty much the biggest major life event, so habits are very malleable then
  • Target realized that revealing that they know a woman is pregnant would seem creepy, and they’d face backlash for it
    • Example: The dad who was furious about the baby item coupons his high school daughter received. Later, he apologized when he found out she really was pregnant
    • Target’s solution: Mixing the baby item ads in with completely unrelated ads to make the coupons seem random and not targeted
    • People don’t like the feeling that they’re being spied on. They also don’t like huge changes
  • When “Hey Ya” came out, record execs and computerized song analyzer programs like Hit Song Science predicted it would be a huge hit
    • However, radio listeners hated it according to the data. A lot of them tuned out within 30 seconds of the song coming on
  • Rich Meyer had analyzed thousands of songs that were “sticky” – that kept people tuned in
    • Many of them were very bland or featureless
    • However, they all had something in common – they were all “what you’d expect” of that genre
    • In other words, they were familiar
  • People didn’t like “Hey Ya” because it was so unfamiliar
    • To fix this, DJ’s would sandwich “Hey Ya” in between two familiar, sticky hits. It worked.
  • U.S. government did this too – because so much meat was going overseas in WWII, Americans needed to eat organ meats. But they didn’t want to
    • The government launched a campaign to educate housewives on how to disguise these meats as familiar dishes. By the 1950’s, offal food was a staple.
  • This is why Target made their ads look random. People were familiar with that type of advertising
  • YMCA learned the same thing – people were actually looking for things explained by familiar human drives, such as friendship. So instead of focusing too much on new gym equipment, they focused on group fitness and trained employees to learn customers’ names.

Chapter 8

  • Rosa Parks’ arrest on the Montgomery bus was a catalyst for making the civil rights movement successful. The subsequent bus boycott that happened was successful because movements are carried by three things
    • Strong ties – friendships between individuals – start the movement
    • Weak ties – casual relationships that cause social pressure – grow it
    • Habits are created that give participants a new sense of identity – which helps the movement endure
  • Most bus arrests caused no stir, but Rosa’s did because she had friendships across all social circles. She was involved in a ton of different clubs and activities
    • Most of us have friends that are similar to us – look similar, make a similar amount of money, etc.
      • Rosa’s relationships really spanned social circles of all types
  • The boycott didn’t die immediately because of weak ties.
    • If you’re an executive and are asked to recommend a good friend, it’s a no brainer. You do it. Same for someone you don’t know at all – it’s a no brainer that you shouldn’t
    • But if they’re a casual acquaintance, you probably will recommend them because you want to be seen as a team player and not lose social standing.
    • Mark Granovetter – Harvard PhD in the 60’s – studied how 282 men got their jobs. Many of them got their jobs through weak-tie recommendations
    • These ties are more important than strong ties in getting a job because they give us access to other social circles we normally couldn’t get into
      • Granovetter: “Individuals with few weak ties will be deprived of information from distant parts of the social system and will be confined to the provincial news and views of their close friends. This deprivation will not only insulate them from the latest ideas and fashions but may put them in a disadvantaged position in the labor market, where advancement can depend… on knowing about appropriate job openings at just the right time.
  • Weak ties help spread a movement beyond the initial clique. They help create peer pressure, which is very influential in getting people to do hard or inconvenient things. They’d rather do them than risk losing social standing
    • That’s why people who were religious and associated with a church group all participated in Summer of Freedom, even though they faced potential violence
    • People in social groups where that service expectation wasn’t part of the social fabric didn’t feel the pressure – so many dropped out after applying
    • “On the playground, peer pressure is dangerous. IN adult life, it’s how business gets done and communities self-organize.”
  • Rick Warren used habits to build Saddleback Church into the mega church it is today.
    • At first, he was working himself to death. His church was initially successful because it addressed problems people had with regular church – bad music, boredom, dressing up, etc – but he was expending far too much effort
    • He used the writings of Donald McGavran to build habits for his parishioners – who emphasized Christianizing people in a manner that didn’t take them out of their normal social relationships.
    • After Warren returned from his absence, he had people form small groups in living rooms to gather each week, taking work off his plate. He then educated people to create habits that would strengthen their faith and create a new sense of identity. This made his movement self-propelling, which ensured its lasting success.

Chapter 9

  • Angie Bachmann (not real name) was a bored housewife
    • Went to the casino one day to relieve the boredom, eventually turned it into a manageable habits once or twice a week
    • Soon it became more often as she became a “good gambler”
    • By 2001 she was at the casino every day
      • She wanted to feel good at something
      • The pain of losing passed so quickly
    • Summer of 2001 – gambling debt totaled over $20k
      • Even after the intervention, the gambling didn’t end
  • Brian Thomas strangled his wife to death while they camped in a van
    • There had been people racing around the parking lot where they parked
    • In his subconscious state, Brian thought an attacker was on his wife. He thought he was strangling the attacker.
    • In reality, he strangled his wife
  • Brian suffered a sleep terror – like sleepwalking, but much more powerful. Inconsolable
    • Sleepwalking happens when the brain doesn’t make “the switch” – putting the body into sleep paralysis before going into dream state
    • Sleep terror brain activity is different than awake, sleeping, or even sleepwalking
      • Brain shuts down except for most primitive neurological regions (“central pattern generators”), so base instincts take over
      • Automatic behaviors are acted upon with no control from higher regions of brain
        • Fight or flight response – the response will be carried out, even if it’s murder. The brain isn’t aware what’s even happening
        • It’s automatically following the habit loop
  • The jury and even prosecution decided that Brian was not a murderer. He had no idea of what he was doing, and wasn’t even aware that something of this nature might happen. Sleepwalking isn’t indicative of sleep terror
  • Angie Bachmann’s life took some bad turns – her parents died, her relationship with her family was deteriorating, etc
    • At the same time, Harrah’s Entertainment would pressure her to come gamble
    • Eventually, it became a habit. Even though she didn’t want to, she’d give in and go gamble to get that quick reward. Eventually, she lost $250,000 in one night
    • She eventually gambled away all the family’s money and their house
  • Habitual gamblers have different brain activity than normal gamblers
    • When a near miss happens, a normal gambler sees it for what it is: Still a loss
    • Habitual gamblers see it as a win, neurologically. They get the same excitement – and they keep gambling
    • Due to this, all slot machines are now programmed to show way more near misses
  • When Bachmann was sued, she used the same defense that Brian used. However, they ruled against her.
    • The difference was that she was aware of her habits, and didn’t take steps to mitigate them enough
  • To modify a habit, you must decide to change it. There must be a conscious decision
    • The point of the book: Once you understand that habits can change, you have the freedom and the responsibility to change them.
  • “Some thinkers hold that it is by nature that people become good, others that it is by habit, and other that it is by instruction.” – Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics – Aristotle believed habits were key
    • “Just as a piece of land has to be prepared beforehand if it is to nourish the seed, so the mind of the pupil has to be prepared in its habits if it is to enjoy and dislike the right things.”
  • “All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits – practical, emotional, and intellectual – systematically organized for our weal or woe, and bearing us irresistibly toward our destiny, whatever the latter may be.” – William James
    • James practiced affirming that he had control in his diary every day – and he went from a failure to massively successful. His “one year experiment” worked.
  • Habits are like water – to a fish, water isn’t noticed. To us, most of our habits aren’t either. We must deliberately notice them.
    • Water hollows out a channel and flows through it. If its flow is stopped, it’ll flow the same way when it starts again. Habits are similar
      • James – The Principles of Psychology – chapter on habits

Afterword

  • No matter how strong our willpower, we will occasionally fall back on bad habits. It’s important not to make the “second mistake” (as James Clear would say) or commit the “What the Hell” effect – leave these slip-ups as slip-ups. Outliers.
  • Smokers often fail 7 times or more before finally quitting for good
    • This isn’t really failure – it’s experimentation.
    • They learn more about themselves, where the cues actually lie, and what new habits provide good rewards
      • For Eric, that habit was meditation
      • “That’s why failure is so valuable. It forces us to learn, even if we don’t want to.”
  • Procrastination studies – people’s willpower often fails after a while, and then they’re back to Facebook
    • The key is to pay attention to how resolve eventually fades
      • Don’t ignore it
    • Learn when you feel the urge to check Facebook or another website
      • But limit that break to 10 minutes
    • You’re planning for pressure-released moments ahead of time – just like the knee-replacement patients planned for the painful points ahead of time
      • (You could use an extension to actually limit FB time to be more successful with this)

Appendix

  • Formulas do exist for changing habits – but doing so is still hard because habits and individuals are all different. However, change can be made with effort.
  • Framework for changing habits:
    • Identify the routine
      • Easiest part: What is it that you do?
      • Many days, I pack up, walk to Milo, and spend $13 on lunch and coffee I don’t need
      • Now, ask questions – what’s the cue, and what’s the reward?
    • Experiment with rewards
      • The reward might not be obvious. It might not just be satisfying hunger
      • What are you craving? To find out, experiment with different rewards
      • At first, think of yourself as a scientist collecting data. Don’t think of failures as true failures yet
      • After getting the reward, write down the first thing on your mind afterwards
        • Studies show this helps in remembering what you were thinking at the time later on
      • Also, set a 15-minute alarm after you get the new reward. When it goes off, ask yourself if you still feel the urge for the old routine
        • If you do, you know the new reward isn’t what you were craving
    • Isolate the cue
      • Researcher at University of Western Ontario wanted to find out why people sometimes misremember details from crimes
      • After carefully narrowing down what she paid attention to, she figured out it was when cops seemed friendly – this triggered a “desire to please” habit that caused people to remember what they thought the cop wanted to hear rather than true facts
      • Only by narrowing her observation could she find this
      • Isolating cues is the same
      • Experiments show that cues fall into 5 categories
        • Location
        • Time
        • Emotional State
        • Other people
        • Immediately preceding action
      • Try writing down the details for each category when the craving for a habit strikes. Then, after a while, look for patterns to isolate the cue
    • Have a plan
      • Re-engineer the habit loop so that you’re making choices again.
      • Take the data you have a write down a deliberate choice that you’ll make when the craving strikes