I originally decided to read this book because I thought my Mom was reading it. Turns out she was reading a different book about habits. I've been reading about energies, chakras, neuroscience and general wellness books lately so The Power of Habit was a slight departure from that. I still picked up some useful bits of information that may help me along my journey one day. This book is about habits, why they exist, what their main components are, how to form new ones and break old ones. The book also talks about social and organizational habits.
These are some of my notes, personal thoughts and experiences on the book The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg(2012). This is not a book review or a synopsis. These are literally the things that I bookmarked when I was reading along. Some of the things I book marked because I found it interesting / valuable for navigating through life.
Your Brain is an Efficient Machine Can you imagine if you had to relearn how to make your bed every morning? Imagine that every time you made a cup of coffee you had to devote as much mental energy as if it was your first time EVER making coffee. This would get mentally exhausting rather quickly. When you do something for the first time it requires an elevated amount of brain activity. If you do that same thing over and over, the amount of brain activity required to perform that task reduces. Through repetition, your brain remembers the sequence of actions and it becomes automatic. Your brain recognizes a pattern and optimizes it for you.
A large portion of all the things you do in your day are habitual...approximately 40 percent! I started to look at my own life to see if it was true. Over the past few months I've shaken things up a bit but if I were to reflect on my prior days...it is true that a large portion of my day is habitual.
The first 15 minutes of my day used to be completely habitual:
Wake up at the same time.
Get out of bed on the same side everyday.
Make the bed.
Set up the coffee machine.
...and this is only the first 15 minutes!! Imagine what things are like if you extrapolate this for the rest of the day. My brain optimized the whole morning routine....the whole thing happens in a relatively brainless manner to be honest with you. It's good to be cognizant of the habits you're "running" because they can either enrich your life or they can slowly chop away at it. I say "running" because it's pretty much like running a computer program. Sometimes we run programs that are good for our wellbeing and other times not so much. Components of a Habit: Cue, Routine, Reward
There are three components of a habit. This is repeated extensively throughout the book with a lot of really solid examples. The three components of a habit are: Cue - A trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use.
Routine - Can be physical or mental or emotional.
Reward - Helps your brain figure out if this loop is worth remembering for the future.
Here is what this looks like in my life:
Lets look at my morning coffee routine:
Cue - Alarm rings at 7:00AM. My brain activity increases as it brain finds the appropriate routine.
Routine - Make coffee
Reward - I like the comfort of a hot drink...its hydrating, caffeinated and its peaceful to sit down and sip my coffee. My brain activity increases slightly to process these feelings which reinforces this loop. According to my brain...this is a loop worth remembering.
Honestly, I think this was the one main takeaway from this book. Just because a significant portion of your day is run by habits doesn't mean that it is your destiny.
You can ignore, change, or replace a habit. It is important to be cognizant of the habit loop because it reveals a basic truth: when a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision making. It stops working so hard and it diverts focus to other tasks. So unless you make a deliberate effort to fight a habit—unless you find new routines—the pattern will unfold automatically.
Understanding how habits work (the structure of the habit loop) makes them easier to control. Once you break a habit into its components you can start changing things up.
Creating a New Habit
Creating a craving works for forming good habits. For example , I have a couple health positive habits...one of which is getting at least 10k steps per day. It not just the exercise that keeps me consistent. I crave other things from the exercise; the endorphin rush in the brain, a sense of accomplishment, and adding one more day to my streak of consistency. This craving is what solidifies the habit; cues and rewards alone are not enough. In order for a habit to be effective you need to crave the reward. The craving drives the habit loop.
The cue need to be simple and obvious. Consider this cue and routine: I get home from work I will go for a 30 minute walk.
If I have the type of job where I get home from work really late some nights then this is probably not a good cue because you won't feel safe going for a walk when it's dark out. Instead of "when I get home from work" I could use a time based cue... at noon I will go for a 30 minute walk. It's simple and obvious. A real life example for me is: Cue and routine: When I am done all my shit for the day I will do yoga. Sometimes when I am done all my shit for the day it's really late and I end up doing a shorter yoga routine than I am capable of. Or I won't give my complete effort to the yoga. "When I am done all my shit for the day" is a weak cue. The reward needs to be clearly defined. When I was reading the book Healthy as F*ck by Oonagh Duncan (2019) she mentions that
the reward must be health positive and fairly immediate. If you go for a morning run and tell yourself that your reward is an afternoon nap your brain wont make that connection and create that habit loop. Her book also states that the reward that we seek is not always very obvious and can take some time to look inwards and figure it out. For somethings like brushing your teeth the reward is clear...clean teeth and a minty cool feeling. For other things the reward is not clear...like spending time with toxic people. What is the reward here? Are you satisfying loneliness? looking for affection? You see...things of this nature do take some time and introspection to figure out.
Here is a quote I liked:
“Champions don’t do extraordinary things, they do ordinary things, but they do them without thinking, too fast for the other team to react. They follow the habits they’ve learned.”
Eventually through repetition, you will run these habits with very little thought.
Another personal example:
Cue: 8pm rolls around. My brain activity increases as it brain finds the appropriate routine.
Routine: Do Yoga.
Reward: I feel balanced, grounded, calm, and refreshed.
Once I complete the yoga my brain is processing these feelings(balanced, grounded, calm, and refreshed) which causes it to increase brain activity again. It also strengthens the link between your cue and the subsequent routine.
Here is another real life example of one of my habit loops:
Cue: Complete my evening walk (which is a habit in itself)
Routine: Do the dishes
Reward: Feeling happy that the dishes are done and that I can wind down and relax. Basal Ganglia Deep inside your brain, close to where the brain meets the spinal column (the brain stem) is where the older and more primitive structures of the brain are. These structures control our automatic behaviors such breathing and swallowing. Toward the center of the skull is a golf ball sized lump of tissue. This is the basal ganglia. Researchers believe that the basal ganglia is integral to habits.
In research experiments with rats the basal ganglia seemed to take over as the rat recalled its way through a maze with a reward at the end and the other parts of the brain worked less and less. The basal ganglia was central to recalling patterns and acting on them. The basal ganglia stored habits even while the rest of the brain went to sleep. There is a really interesting example in the book of a guy(Eugene) who experienced severe brain damage. A neuroscientist asked Eugene to sketch a layout of his house. Eugene couldn’t draw a map showing where the kitchen or bedroom was located. The scientist asked Eugene “When you get out of bed in the morning, how do you leave your room?” Eugene said that he really sure.
As the scientist was taking his notes on his laptop Eugene got distracted. He looked around...got up, walked into a hallway and went to the bathroom. A few minutes later, when he was done using the bathroom, Eugene returned and waited for the next question.
How come he wasn't able to dray a basic map of his house but was able to find his way to the bathroom and back? Learning and maintaining habits happens in the basal ganglia. Even though his medial temporal lobe was destroyed, the basal ganglia was still functioning normally. The medial temporal lobe is thought to be responsible for all sorts of cognitive tasks such as recall of the past and the regulation of some emotions. Though he couldn't recall and draw the map he was still carapace of finding his way to the bathroom due to habit. Instances like this are what lead researchers to study how habits influence our lives.
Change a Habit
To change a habit, you have to keep the old cue and also deliver the old reward, but insert a new routine. Here's the rule:
"If you use the same cue, and provide the same reward, you can shift the routine and change the habit."
Most behaviors can be transformed if the cue and reward stay the same. This rule has influenced treatments for alcoholism, obesity, obsessive-compulsive disorders, and hundreds of other destructive behaviors, and understanding it can help anyone change their own habits.
For example: If you're trying to stop snacking, it will often fail unless there’s a new routine to satisfy old cues and reward urges. Someone who is trying to stop vaping usually can’t quit unless she finds some activity to replace vaping when her nicotine craving is triggered.
So the key is to change the routine.
The only way to adopt a new behavior is that if there is something familiar at the beginning and end. Keep the old cue, and reward. And shift the routine.
Belief is Critical Belief is critical. You need the capacity to believe that things will get better. If you give people new habits...it doesn't repair WHY they had a bad habit in the first place. Eventually, they will have a bad day and no new routine is going to make everything seem okay. They need to believe that they can cope under trying situations without giving into the bad habit.
Belief itself is what makes a difference. Once people learned how to believe in something, that skill started spilling over to other parts of their lives, until they started believing they could change. Belief was the ingredient that made a reworked habit loop into a permanent behavior.
Keystone Habit If you trying to change...focus on one thing(a keystone habit) and just develop that. Other positive habits start to take root as well. For example: I wanted to fix my health...there's a bajilion different aspects to that but I picked one thing: get 10,000 steps a day. No compromises. The will power gained from this one small decision has launched me into yoga and meditation. All these new habits work synergistically and you start to evolve.
One thing can trigger a cascade of positive change which can also effect other people as well.
Power of Groups
Change seems real when we can see it in other people. When people join groups where change seems possible...that protentional for the change to occur becomes more real to them. Change has to feel believable.
How Movements Happen Why did Rosa Parks arrest in 1955 spark a movement? Rosa Parks wasn’t the first black passenger arrested for breaking Montgomery’s bus segregation laws. Rosa Parks was deeply respected and involved within her community. When she was arrested, it triggered a series of social habits—the habits of friendship—that ignited an initial protest. Parks was in dozens of social networks across Montgomery. She was deeply woven small groups that created the city’s social fabric. She was well known and well liked.
Parks had "strong ties”. Firsthand relationships with many groups throughout Montgomery that didn’t usually come into contact with one another. A natural part of friendship is sympathy that makes us willing to fight for someone we like when they are treated unjustly.
Friendship alone was not enough to sustain the boycott. There was another form of influence which caused people who hardly knew Rosa Parks to participate. It is known as “the power of weak ties” which is basically social peer pressure. It made it difficult to not join in. Even when if you don't feel like joining in, you feel compelled to because literally everyone around you is participating. Neither strong friendship ties or weaker peer pressure ties on their own can sustain a movement. When combined though, they create incredible momentum and widespread social change can begin.