Saturday, September 2, 2017

Book Review: 'The Power of Habit' by Charles Duhigg

"For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice." -- Romans 7:19 (NKJV)

This book could have been more aptly titled, "How Can I Stop ________ ?"

The author's purpose seems to be making you more aware of your habitual behaviors, especially the ones that you probably wish you hadn't done just a short time later. Will this book help you to live without regret? No. But it will make you feel better equipped to try.

If you have read anything about neuroscience and habits, you are probably already more knowledgeable than you will be after reading The Power of Habit, which seems to be intended for those new to the subject who would like the simplest possible explanation. And it is a very clear and simple explanation. I admire people who can do that. It's beyond my personal skills.

So what will you learn? In many diagrams, you will see expressed the concept that when we act on cues (a "routine") that give us a reward, we form habits of doing the things that got us the reward the last time we acted on the cue. In other words, Pavlov rang the bell when he fed the dogs. After awhile, he could just ring the bell and the dogs would salivate because they associated the bell with food to soon come. Animal training is often based on the same approach, by providing food when a desired behavior occurs.

You'll also learn a little about how you can overcome such habits in a brief (too brief, to my taste) appendix:

(1)Identify the routine you habitually do.
(2)Experiment with different rewards to replace the one you don't want to seek any more.
(3)Isolate the cue that triggers the routine.
(4)Have a plan to act differently.

As a simple example, if you stuff yourself full of ice cream at night, you would need to find a reward that you like better than ice cream (That will be a challenge, but you'll eventually find one.). If a trip to the refrigerator normally triggers the ice cream eating, you might have a plan that kept you out of the kitchen at night while you were occupied with something you really love doing in a different part of your home (such as painting with water colors in a workroom).

You'll learn a bit of the neurology behind these observations in Part One about individual habits. Keep in mind that the old habit is still in your brain and nervous system. You can only overcome it with a new, stronger habit. Key examples involve how people became consistent at brushing their teeth and how Febreze found a way to attract customers by building on observations of a little ritual people do while cleaning.

Part Two explores organizational change with an example from Alcoa of using safety to lead people to rethink their work habits, a training example from Starbucks, how horrible medical results led Rhode Island Hospital to improve protocols, and ways that Target uses data-mined information about its customers to entice them to spend more money.

Part Three looks at social habits and makes an unusual argument for why the Montgomery bus boycott worked. I wasn't sure that I completely agreed with the analysis, but it's the best example in the book. There's also a brief look at how Saddleback Church uses small groups to encourage its congregants.

The final chapter of this part looks at when we can operate with free will and when we probably can't. The argument is that if we are awake we are able to make choices. Now, there's a big surprise! The chapter distinguishes between compulsive gambling and sleepwalking. Hmmm.

What's the book's biggest weakness? Mr. Duhigg has tunnel vision. Everything fits neatly into his nonfiction thesis. Not! So take what you read with at least a few grains of salt.

The book's biggest potential strength is in providing you with encouragement that you may be able to get rid of some pesky habits that you've struggled with for some time. Good luck!

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of Donald Mitchell. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.

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