In The Power of Habit, journalist Charles Duhigg explores how people’s habits—their automatic patterns of behavior—shape their lives, accomplishments, and identities. By making ordinary decisions automatic, habits save people time and energy. But, for this very reason, they’re also easy to overlook. Every day, people make hundreds of habitual decisions about ordinary issues like what to eat, how to get to work, what to do during their free time, and how to handle stress. While some people thrive by building positive habits like meditation, exercise, and willpower, others get addicted to more destructive habits like smoking, gambling, and overeating. Regardless, habits set the tone for everyone’s daily life. And because habits tend to reinforce themselves over time, they also transform the people who practice them. Thus, by bringing the latest scientific research on habits together with case studies from business, sports, and social movements, Duhigg shows that people’s success and failure depends more on their habits than their abilities, motivation, or conscious decisions.
Duhigg illustrates the difference between habits and normal decisions by examining how they work in the human brain. Neuroscientists know that complex thought depends on the cerebral cortex—the wrinkly layer on the brain’s surface—while habits depend on more primitive structures like the basal ganglia, which are located deep inside the brain. MIT studies have shown that, as people and animals learn certain behaviors, their cortex stops working so hard and their basal ganglia take over. In other words, once they’ve worked out a pattern, they use the basal ganglia to automate it. Therefore, while habits might start out as conscious decisions, they become unconscious behaviors over time. The famous brain injury patient Eugene Pauly clearly illustrates the difference between conscious decisions and unconscious habits. After a brain infection, Pauly lost the ability to form and retain new memories. But his basal ganglia were still intact, so he could still perform habits. For instance, he couldn’t say which house on the block was his, but he managed to take a walk around the neighborhood every morning and find his way home. Pauly’s experience shows how habits and decisions rely on two completely different circuits in the brain.
Furthermore, by automating routine activities, habits allow the human brain to use energy more efficiently and perform more complex tasks. When the brain notices a pattern, it forms a habit loop: it looks for cue, then performs a predetermined routine, and then finally enjoys (or gives itself) a reward. For instance, a feeling of boredom (cue) might lead someone to smoke (routine), which leaves them feeling relaxed (reward). While the brain perks up during the cue and reward, it gets to power down during the routine, freeing up space to focus on other activities. Just like a computer can run many programs at once, the human brain can perform many tasks at the same time because of this habit loop—despite its limited capacity for attention. This is why habits are so useful and powerful.
In fact, Duhigg argues that habits are so important that they tend to determine people’s most important life outcomes: who they become, what they choose to do with their lives, and whether they’re able to achieve their goals. This is first and foremost because most of people’s actions are based on habits, whether they realize it or not. If this weren’t the case, people would get bogged down deciding what to eat, figuring out what emotions they feel, and remembering how to do their jobs. Instead, habits automate all of these processes—and countless others, which make up the bulk of everyday decisions. This is why the famous psychologist William James argued that life is nothing more than “a mass of habits.” The idea here is that the kind and quality of people’s habits determines how effective those people are. For instance, two people might learn to cope with fear in very different ways—one might learn to face, overcome, and learn from their fears, while the other learns to run away from them. Over time, the person who learns from their fears is likely to achieve their goals more than the one who doesn’t. This is why Duhigg believes that developing good habits is the best way for people to become who they truly want to be.
Duhigg even sees habits as the root of many highly accomplished people’s success. For instance, he notes that habits are the cornerstone of U.S. military training, and he points out how Starbucks makes its employees more mature and responsible by teaching them to make willpower an unconscious habit. Similarly, Duhigg argues that organizations are also effective because of the habits they teach their members— for instance, Starbucks provides excellent customer service because it teaches its employees to develop willpower. On an even larger scale, effective corporate structures build norms and routines that balance power (or create “truces”) among rival executives. Meanwhile, poor habits can lead to catastrophic failure. Individuals can develop harmful addictions like alcoholism or compulsive gambling, while organizations can fall into dysfunctional patterns—like the Rhode Island Hospital, which repeatedly killed patients during botched surgeries because doctors ignored nurses who pointed out their errors. These examples again show why the stakes of developing good habits are so high: they can mean the difference between life and death.
Ultimately, Duhigg concludes that habits are a uniquely powerful tool. Controlling one’s habits, he suggests, is the key to living well. When used correctly, habits make people more efficient and effective. But when they go awry, habits can ruin lives and make people think (incorrectly) that they have no power to improve. Either way, the first step to developing strong habits is understanding them in the first place—which is why Duhigg wrote The Power of Habit.
Habits, Human Behavior, and Success ThemeTracker
Habits, Human Behavior, and Success Quotes in The Power of Habit
She needed a goal in her life, she thought. Something to work toward.
So she decided, sitting in the taxi, that she would come back to Egypt and trek through the desert.
It was a crazy idea, Lisa knew. She was out of shape, overweight, with no money in the bank. She didn’t know the name of the desert she was looking at or if such a trip was possible. None of that mattered, though. She needed something to focus on. Lisa decided that she would give herself one year to prepare. And to survive such an expedition, she was certain she would have to make sacrifices.
In particular, she would need to quit smoking.
When researchers began examining images of Lisa’s brain, they saw something remarkable: One set of neurological patterns—her old habits—had been overridden by new patterns. They could still see the neural activity of her old behaviors, but those impulses were crowded out by new urges. As Lisa’s habits changed, so had her brain.
“All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits,” William James wrote in 1892. Most of the choices we make each day may feel like the products of well-considered decision making, but they’re not. They’re habits. And though each habit means relatively little on its own, over time, the meals we order, what we say to our kids each night, whether we save or spend, how often we exercise, and the way we organize our thoughts and work routines have enormous impacts on our health, productivity, financial security, and happiness.
As they rounded the corner near his house, the visitor asked Eugene where he lived. “I don’t know, exactly,” he said. Then he walked up his sidewalk, opened his front door, went into the living room, and turned on the television.
Habits, scientists say, emerge because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort. Left to its own devices, the brain will try to make almost any routine into a habit, because habits allow our minds to ramp down more often. This effort-saving instinct is a huge advantage. An efficient brain requires less room, which makes for a smaller head, which makes childbirth easier and therefore causes fewer infant and mother deaths. An efficient brain also allows us to stop thinking constantly about basic behaviors, such as walking and choosing what to eat, so we can devote mental energy to inventing spears, irrigation systems, and, eventually, airplanes and video games.
Over time, this loop—cue, routine, reward; cue, routine, reward—becomes more and more automatic. The cue and reward become intertwined until a powerful sense of anticipation and craving emerges. Eventually, whether in a chilly MIT laboratory or your driveway, a habit is born.
And in almost every experiment, researchers have seen echoes of Squire’s discoveries with Eugene: Habits are powerful, but delicate. They can emerge outside our consciousness, or can be deliberately designed. They often occur without our permission, but can be reshaped by fiddling with their parts. They shape our lives far more than we realize—they are so strong, in fact, that they cause our brains to cling to them at the exclusion of all else, including common sense.
Each change was designed to appeal to a specific, daily cue: Cleaning a room. Making a bed. Vacuuming a rug. In each one, Febreze was positioned as the reward: the nice smell that occurs at the end of a cleaning routine. Most important, each ad was calibrated to elicit a craving: that things will smell as nice as they look when the cleaning ritual is done. The irony is that a product manufactured to destroy odors was transformed into the opposite. Instead of eliminating scents on dirty fabrics, it became an air freshener used as the finishing touch, once things are already clean.
Dabbing a bit of sunscreen on your face each morning significantly lowers the odds of skin cancer. Yet, while everyone brushes their teeth, fewer than 10 percent of Americans apply sunscreen each day. Why?
Because there’s no craving that has made sunscreen into a daily habit. Some companies are trying to fix that by giving sunscreens a tingling sensation or something that lets people know they’ve applied it to their skin. They’re hoping it will cue an expectation the same way the craving for a tingling mouth reminds us to brush our teeth.
Where should a would-be habit master start? Understanding keystone habits holds the answer to that question: The habits that matter most are the ones that, when they start to shift, dislodge and remake other patterns.
Starbucks has taught him how to live, how to focus, how to get to work on time, and how to master his emotions. Most crucially, it has taught him willpower.
“Starbucks is the most important thing that has ever happened to me,” he told me. “I owe everything to this company.”
“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.”
What employees really needed were clear instructions about how to deal with inflection points—something similar to the Scottish patients’ booklets: a routine for employees to follow when their willpower muscles went limp. So the company developed new training materials that spelled out routines for employees to use when they hit rough patches. The manuals taught workers how to respond to specific cues, such as a screaming customer or a long line at a cash register. Managers drilled employees, role-playing with them until the responses became automatic. The company identified specific rewards—a grateful customer, praise from a manager—that employees could look to as evidence of a job well done.
Starbucks taught their employees how to handle moments of adversity by giving them willpower habit loops.
As Pole’s computer program crawled through the data, he was able to identify about twenty-five different products that, when analyzed together, allowed him to, in a sense, peer inside a woman’s womb. Most important, he could guess what trimester she was in—and estimate her due date—so Target could send her coupons when she was on the brink of making new purchases. By the time Pole was done, his program could assign almost any regular shopper a “pregnancy prediction” score.
This insight helped explain why “Hey Ya!” was failing on the radio, despite the fact that Hit Song Science and music executives were sure it would be a hit. The problem wasn’t that “Hey Ya!” was bad. The problem was that “Hey Ya!” wasn’t familiar. Radio listeners didn’t want to make a conscious decision each time they were presented with a new song. Instead, their brains wanted to follow a habit. Much of the time, we don’t actually choose if we like or dislike a song. It would take too much mental effort. Instead, we react to the cues (“This sounds like all the other songs I’ve ever liked”) and rewards (“It’s fun to hum along!”) and without thinking, we either start singing, or reach over and change the station.
Later, [William James] would famously write that the will to believe is the most important ingredient in creating belief in change. And that one of the most important methods for creating that belief was habits.
If you believe you can change—if you make it a habit—the change becomes real. This is the real power of habit: the insight that your habits are what you choose them to be.