To paraphrase the quote, the secret to happiness and success lies in developing good habits and then letting them be your master. But the question that has come after that for millennia continues to avoid an easy answer: How do you create those good habits in the first place? And what if you have bad habits? How do you get rid of those?
The Power of Habit provides an interesting overview of what research has shown us so far. It peels back some of the layers in the human decision-making process, and while it doesn’t have as many answers as the title might imply, it’s a useful guide along the path.
“Habits can be changed, if we understand how they work.” (pg xvii)
Implications, Ideas, and Questions
- The most powerful “nugget” to take from the book is the very simple, and very powerful, cycle of Cue—>Routine—>Reward. Our habits are entrenched mental systems, and if we can understand the way the work, we can start to adjust them. In the end, they are relatively simple. When you map out this cycle for your current habits, you have a simple lens that can be used to explore the habits that are working and the ones that aren’t. Charles points out that habits can’t be expunged, but that they can be altered. It’s a matter of changing the Routine when the Cue gets triggered.
- I was reading Do One Thing Different by Bill O’Hanlon at the same time I was re-reading The Power of Habit, and it was interesting to juxtapose this habit cycle with “solution-oriented” therapy. It seems that we can move past many of our personal obstacles by simply changing the trigger and habits that construct them.
- It makes me nervous that much of the research in this area is supported (directly and indirectly) by large companies looking to sell us stuff. Whether it’s Target mining our data to learn our preferences, Proctor & Gamble trying to uncover the trigger that will make people buy Febreze, or Pepsodent fabricating issues to make us brush our teeth, there’s a lot of attention being put on learning how humans think and react, so that we can be manipulated. Sure, we still have our own free will, but advertisers are spending a lot of money on this area…because they know it works.
- So does this habit cycle provide the magic key? Of course not. As Charles writes, “It’s not that formulas don’t exist. The problem is that there isn’t one formula for changing habits. There are thousands.” (pg 275)
- One process that he walks through that appealed to the scientist side of me is quite simple (pg 276). I’ve actually used it to help me write more, to eat less junk food, and not dive into a video games as a distraction:
- Identify the routine
- Experiment with rewards
- Isolate the cue
- Have a plan
- When Charles writes about the role group habits played in the civil rights movement, I think he oversteps his range. That seems to happen a lot in these kinds of books where the author tries to extrapolate their idea beyond the original concept. He highlights the community habits in Montgomery as a key element in the adoption of the bus strike (pg 214). But other research on this subject shows that there was much more going on than just that.
- I was intrigued when he was discussing the habits of organizations because it seemed that he was writing about what other people want to call culture. Isn’t culture just a collection of baseline habits? He writes, “it may seem like most organizations make rational choices based on deliberate decision making, but that’s not really how companies operate at all. Instead firms are guided by long-held organizational habits that often emerge from thousands of employees’ independent decisions.” (pg 161). They are part of the “organizational memory” and they are necessary because these habits are routines that allow things to get done. What this points out: companies aren’t going to fix their cultures with a weekend executive retreat.
Should you read this book? Who Should Read this Book?
I think that there are a lot of great ideas in this book, and it takes a lot of the current research and makes it digestible for the lay audience. It’s definitely worth reading if you are:
- A coach in any capacity. Whether you are a business coach, vocal coach, or sports coach, the book supplies a great framework for talking about how to build and improve skills.
- In marketing. Any time you can understand more about what makes people tick, you will improve your marketing skills. But please, use this information for good and not evil!
- A therapist or counselor. A lot of what makes us unhappy are repeated actions, behaviors, and thoughts that don’t serve us…i.e., habits. This could be an interesting way to approach some of the challenges that you work with.