The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

I’m going to try and write summaries and reviews of the books that I read as a way to become a closer and more thoughtful reader. First: The Power of Habit.

The book was insightful and infuriating in equal measure. It has many interesting case studies of how the understanding of habits have been used in the business world to create successful products:

  • How Febreeze was tweaked to create a craving and so create a new habit in consumers

  • How Starbucks trains staff to deal with angry customers or a long line at the register

  • How Target tracks every customer and analyzes that data to improve marketing such as send customized coupon fliers to each customer. The book also explores the famous case of how they know a customer is pregnant before she does

  • How a record label overcame the difficulties of making the song “Hey Ya” a hit

There are four things that form a habit:

  1. Cue
  2. Routine
  3. Reward
  4. Craving

It’s the craving that is the most important part here that creates a habit. As the makers of Febreeze found out, with a scentless product there was no craving so people weren’t habitually using Febreeze. However once they added a smell to the product then people started to crave that scent so they would spray some Febreeze after cleaning a room to get the reward of a “clean” smell.

To change a habit (where the routine is the part of the habit you want to change) the idea is to keep the cue and the reward the same but insert a new routine. An example is perhaps why Alcoholics Anonymous is so successful; the cue is feeling anxious or depressed and the reward is socializing and belongs to a group and being able to discuss your problems but AA swaps out the routine. Instead of spending an evening drinking in a bar, you go to an AA meeting. This is a very simplified version but you get the idea.

The part of the book that could be useful to you - where you learn about how to apply the ideas of the book to your life - is hidden away in a 10-page appendix after the afterword. To summarize: use the idea of inserting a new routine when you try and change your habits. To understand what the cue is for your habit and understand what reward you get from it, it could be helpful to keep a record when you want to do the habit you want to change - note the time, how your feeling, what you do, and how you feel afterwards. Its one of those things that is simple to describe but not easy to do.

The style of writing in the book is infuriating. It’s almost as if someone had told the author that these case studies needed to be made more ‘relatable’ so every single chapter opens with a story about someone that is then tangentially linked to case study. Here are the opening sentences of a few sections:

“In the fall of 1993 , a man who would upend much of what we know about habits walked into a laboratory…”

“One day in the the early 1900’s, a prominent American executive named….”

“It’s late on a Sunday afternoon, November 17, 1996…”

“In the Summer of 2006, a twenty-four year old graduate student named…”

“On a blustery October day in 1987…”

“When Micheal Phelps’ alarm clock went off at 6:30AM on the morning of August 13, 2006”

“The first time Travis Leach saw his father overdose, he was nine years old.”

“The Patient was already unconscious when he was wheeled into the operating room at Rhode Island Hospital.”

“In the summer of 2003, a promotion exec at Arista Records named…”

This happens on nearly every section inside a chapter - to the point where I was dreading coming to the end of a section because then I would have to endure some relatable anecdote about another person. I understand that this isn’t a textbook and it needs to be written in a way that entertains but once you’ve noticed the formula (new chapter, new person does something, then we find out how they are related to a corporation and then we get the case study) just became really distracting.

I wanted to like the book but I would rewrite it and cut the page count by about 50%.