Remarkable Book: The Power of Habit

I recently read the inspiring and eye-opening book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg that I felt deserved to be recognized as part of my Remarkable Book series.

The main premise of the book is that many of the actions and decisions we make throughout the day are driven by habits: understanding how habits work and more importantly how to develop and change them is a powerful tool for personal improvement, organizational change, and consumer product uptake.

Charles starts by talking about the habit loop: the brain receives a cue for which it has a defined routine - the habit - and after performing that routine perceives a reward. Strong habits form when the brain develops an anticipatory craving for the reward. To develop a new habit, therefore, requires putting together a cue, a routine, and a reward, and then cultivating a craving.

For personal or organizational improvement some habits are more impacting than others. In particular, adopting what Charles calls keystone habits can start a chain reaction of change to other habits.

For individual success, "dozens of studies show that willpower is the single most important keystone habit" (page 131). While these studies show that willpower can be trained and developed into a habit, they also show that willpower is essentially a muscle that is drained by use throughout the day rather than a constant skill. More relevant for organizations, how people are treated impacts how much willpower they need to use. "When people are asked to do something that takes self-control, if they think they are doing it for personal reasons - if they feel likes it's a choice ... - it's much less taxing. If they feel like they have no autonomy, if they're just following orders, their willpower muscles get tired much faster. ... Giving employees a sense of agency - a feeling that they are in control, that they have genuine decision-making authority - can radically increase how much energy and focus they bring to their jobs." (page 151). At one company, granting assembly-line workers the ability to design their own uniforms and choose shifts led to a 20% increase in productivity over only 2 months. It is not a coincidence that two of the principles behind the Agile Manifesto are "The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams." and "Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done."

While the book does provide a great example of highly successful organizational change due to focusing on a single keystone habit, the author fails to provide much concrete guidance in how to identify a keystone habit for an organization. The advice provided is to look for habits that "help other habits to flourish by creating new structures, and they establish cultures where change becomes contagious." (page 109). One piece of interesting advice backed up by multiple examples in the book is that "good leaders seize crises to remake organizational habits" (page 178). This matches my personal experience: organizational change is much easier (or more accurately, less hard) in the presence of a crisis.

Exercising is another keystone habit for individuals. "When people start habitually exercising, even as infrequently as once a week, they start changing other, unrelated patterns in their lives, often unknowingly. Typically, people who exercise start eating better and becoming more productive at work. They smoke less and show more patience with colleagues and family." (page 109). A keystone habit for weight loss is keeping a food journal and writing down everything eaten at least one day a week. (page 120). Keystone habits also apply to families. "... families who habitually eat dinner together seem to raise children with better homework skills, higher grades, greater emotional control, and more confidence" (page 109).

One of the more useful sections of the book and a fitting conclusion is the appendix titled "A Reader's Guide to Using These Ideas" which provides a concrete framework for changing habits based on the habit loop.

Overall, I found the book very well written and a pleasure to read, as well as being impeccably researched.

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