Book summary of THE POWER OF HABIT Why we do what we do and how to change – by Charles Duhigg.

The power of habit



We live in unconscious habits. These most of the time are beneficial and help us short circuit complexity in decision-making. However, sometimes we get caught into negative habits. The book suggests a simple model to help us understand the forming and breaking of habits: Cue -> Routine -> Reward.  The best way to switch a habit is to stick with the same cue and reward but substitute the routine.


General principles about habits

We live in patterns of behaviour – Research by Duke university has found that over 40% of our behaviours are driven by habits. Habits saves us energy. It creates effortless behaviour.

Habits make for easier decision making – Habits help remove unnecessary decision-making as it takes standard activities and creates short-cuts. Habits reduce the amount of cognitive activity the brain needs (as shown through brain activity scans), allowing the brain to be more engaged in other areas.

Unconscious behaviour – The reality is very little of our behaviours are controlled by our conscious state of thinking. Even if we are aware of the behaviour, we find it very difficult to stop it (as the conscious brain does not have control over that ‘department’.)

Behaviours become self-perpetuating –  Once you have done something one way, then it is more likely you will do it the same way next time. So to build a habit, keep doing it.

Small rewards can create big habits – Only if a behaviour gets rewarded will we use that behaviour pattern again. if it keeps rewarding us then we keep on using it, until it becomes engrained as a habit.

Easy come/hard to go – Habits are fairly easy to develop but devilishly hard to stop. Sometimes it’s easier to develop a new habit than change an older, less healthy one.

The habit cycle – There are good habits and bad habits. Each of these live in a simple cycle: Cue -> Ritual -> Reward. If we can understand what these three  components are in any situation, we  can change behaviours.


Habit cycle

Making new feel like old – Habits take time to develop and you need to support it to ensure it grows. So how do you get people to stay with something unfamiliar? You need to clothe it in familiar stuff long enough for it to become familiar.

Making new feel like old – During the second world war, quality meat for the masses was scarce. So, the US government had to think of ways of getting people to eat organs (liver, kidney, heart etc). The key was to dress the unfamiliar in familiar clothing. Thus, they developed old recipes with these new meats such as steak AND KIDNEY pie.

Sandwiching new in the middle of old – ‘Hey Ya! ‘by Outkast became a massive hit in the summer of 2003. But it took time for the record label Arista to master its success. Radio stations use algorithms to forecast listener’s habits to create their play lists to keep listeners tuned in. Hit song science has deconstructed a new song to predict its likelihood of success. ‘Hey Ya!’ was one of the best performers ever. However, when played out, listeners hated it so much, 1/3rd of people tuned to a different station! That was because it was too different from the stuff that was being played. Thus, they needed to get people used to its difference by sandwiching it between two sticky songs such as ‘Breathe’ by Blu Cantrell (a ‘sticky’ song is one where there is no station change during its playing). That way, people were ‘softened up’ to the song, allowing it to grow on them.

Identity – We become what we constantly do: Identity drives behaviour and behaviour drives identity. Habits create consistent behaviour. And consistent behaviour starts to influence identity (cf the occasional runner who then runs more frequently until they redefine themselves as an athlete). Likewise, negative behaviours also get locked-in through identity. When in groups we identify with, we are very likely to follow the behaviour of that group.

Cultural derived habits – Culture can create the unconscious rules of a society that guides behaviour. This therefore creates habits often through rituals (cf the Church or Alcoholics Anonymous). So, shifting the culture can influence behaviour and instil new habits.

The power of weak ties – Research has shown that we tend to do more for weak ties (i.e. 1-2 people removed – friends of friends) as we want to remain bonded to the stronger ties who are connected to those weaker ties. It’s to do with a sense of social obligation.

The power of weak ties – Rosa Parks protest on the bus in Alabama in December 1955 was not the first of such insurrections. The reason it took off and helped prick a nation’s conscience was the power of her connections across multiple groups. This meant her support rapidly spread. She had what sociologists call ‘weak ties’. They deeply cared for her so were prepared to get involved. People who jump from one network to another are actually more powerful than those at the heart of one group.

The power of weak ties – Rick Warren created one of the largest Christian communities in the world (in Saddleback). He built it from nothing but its success was from encouraging people to take part in small groups. Every new member was assigned to a small group that met every week (they have over 5000 groups). It’s the social pressure of weak ties in these small groups that created the obligation to attend. This transformed people’s behaviour into habits.

Life stages shift behaviours –  The most common reason that creates a habit switch is a change in life stages – e.g. going to college, marriage, losing weight, pregnancy etc. Thus, if you catch people at these life changing stages, offering them enticing promotions, you can potentially install new habits to shop with you for their changing needs.

Life stages triggers new habits – A father was incensed that his daughter was sent special offers on maternity products. Later-on it became clear that she was indeed pregnant. The offers were based on her past purchase habits and web-site searches. Target identify a person based on buyer data (credit card, loyalty card, voucher redemption etc.) and then track their purchases, building up a unique picture of them (they claim to have identified c50% of all in-store sales to specific identified people). They were then able to serve them more relevant offers (and also avoid annoying them with irrelevant offers). For example, if they saw you regularly bought a breakfast cereal from Target, it would mail a special offer for milk (hoping to shift the habit of buying milk elsewhere to buying it alongside your cereal purchases). Target are able to track changes in buyer behaviour to assess changes in life, based on certain key patterns based on historic tracking of other people. Hence, when a person starts buying vitamins (esp. magnesium and zinc), it’s a strong indicator they are pregnant. Target were able to identify 25 different products that suggested a high likelihood of early pregnancy. Furthermore, they worked out what trimester they were in. In the end, they had to disguise the fact they knew so much about a person and surround the pregnancy product offering with more innocuous offerings as well.


Cue – To create a habit, you need to first identify a very specific cue (The cue can be any sensory medium – sight, sound, touch, feeling or smell), then create a powerful reward that can be delivered by the routine inbetween. Research has shown that people are more likely to stick to habits if there is a very clear, specific cue (such as going straight into their bedroom and getting into running gear).

Identifying the cues – Alcoholics Anonymous have helped millions of people. Their 12-step process does not work at a psychological level but at a behavioural level. One of the things they do is list all the cues that trigger them to drink. Then they get them to list all the rewards and benefits they get from the drink. Only then can they develop revised routines to create new habits (such as attending sessions).

 Cue that triggers unconscious routine – Tony Dungy finally got his break to be the head coach of The Buccaneers Football team. His philosophy was simple: Install an unconscious pattern of play, so that the play is fast, effortless and unconscious (and so does not get knocked-off by the stresses of the occasion). He recognised it was very difficult to destroy a habit but easy to modify it. In this case he kept the cue and reward the same, but worked on changing the routine.  This led to endless drills to install the new behaviours.  He locked set routines against set cues. He became the only coach to reach the play-offs in ten consecutive years.

 Cue that triggers unconscious routine – The army drums into people unconscious habits that will be automatically executed without questioning when cued.

Cue that triggers unconscious routine – Michael Phelps, the Olympic swimmer dealt with his anxiety and nerves by locking himself into tight routines that allowed no room for emotion or thoughts to enter. He drilled himself to become a swimming automaton. In his training, he has even practiced for the unexpected (e.g. swimming in the dark).


Keystone habits – A keystone habit is one that triggers other behaviours/habits. For example, for dieters, food journaling created a structure that helped other habits to flourish. Six months into the study, people who kept daily food records had lost twice as much weight as everyone else.

Keystone habits – Paul O’Neil was appointed the CEO of The Aluminium Company of America (i.e. Alcoa). He set out a controversial vision of making it the safest company in America (a tall order for a company that deals in molten metals everyday). He knew that to change a lot of things he had to have a laser focus on just one thing (and that would ‘sweep up’ the other changes required – as to deliver zero injuries would mean a root and branch restructure of the whole organisation). He knew he had to unite a fractured management and workforce, so chose an area they could all align on. He instilled a culture (i.e. a habit) of continuous and never-ending improvements and he set clear metrics on safety for the organisation and the individual: He allowed any person to shut down a line; He ‘celebrated’ failure (as a way to learn);  He focused on the root cause of failure; He promoted people who fully supported the vision and symbolically fired a senior executive who failed to report a fairly minor incident.

Organisational routines – Sadly in organisations, we often need a disaster to force a change in routines (e.g. The Challenger disaster in 1986).

Identifying habits from failure and breakdown – An arrogant surgeon would not tolerate criticism from ‘lesser’ staff. One day, he operated on the wrong side of a patient’s brain resulting in his death. This (amongst others) led to a change in procedure that allowed anyone in the operating theatre to openly challenge.

When An evolutionary theory of economic change was published in 1982 it was largely ignored, but it contained the essence of why change is so difficult in organisations. Nelson & Winter had trudged through thousands of pages documenting change programmes in organisations and discovered an insight: “Much of a firm’s behaviour is best understood as a reflection of general habits and strategic orientations coming from the firm’s past.”  It may appear an organisation is making rational decisions, but often it is asleep to the patterns of decision making from a past (that has now metamorphosed). It holds onto long term beliefs, values, habits, prejudices, processes and behaviours that lock them out of seeing the new future. This then drives unconsciously the many micro decisions made across an organisation but all its staff. This leads to the organisation seeing only the angle of ‘truth’ the organisation wants to see (and people who suggest alternate truths get mocked, put down or rejected from the organisation). The departmental structures, the processes, the reward systems are all infected by this ‘organisational memory’. Thus, we see that habits help fast track decision-making but they can also become traps.

The book also blows out the myth that organisations are ‘happy families’ with shared common goals. In fact, most organisations are full of fiefdoms and power struggles, where departments focus on their own agendas (and in some cases, try to put other departments down as a way to secure access to the limited resources available). Furthermore, they create peer rivalry to prevent a coup and so reduce the threat to their own position. People ‘learn’ the behaviours of the organisation and when they get to become department heads, further continuing these dynastic behaviours. All this tension is kept at a manageable level (so company civil war does not break out) by other processes and habits. If you were to join an organisation and ask ‘How to get on in this organisation?’, you would not hear what is printed in the joining manual. You would hear of personalities, informal power structures, relational affiliations and conflicts. It would paint a different organisational structure and show the real path of how to get things done. Unless you can make the right connections (and truces) through an organisation (or the stakeholders outside) then you will fail.

Fiefdom’s – One of the reasons behind the Kings Cross Tube disaster in November 1987 was the silo’d attitude the different departments had. It was run by four ‘Barons’. They tolerated each other as long as they did not stray into each other’s territory. There were a lot of ‘unwritten rules’ (such as the fire department would only be contacted in extremis). No-one inside the station knew how the fire sprinkler system worked or was allowed to use the fire extinguishers. The Fire service were not allowed to use the water hydrants underground as no-one had permission to use them. Furthermore, no-one on site had a blueprint of all the tunnels that would have helped the firemen rescue some of the 31 people killed that day. Out of this disaster it created a radical restructuring of the organisation. Likewise, in hospitals and airlines, public disclosure of mistakes is helping to lock-out institutional failure.

Corporate habits – Starbucks prides itself in helping to develop life-skills in its people. In their first year of employment, its new recruits spend at least 50 hours in training. The key skill they develop is self-discipline (Research has shown that self-discipline is a greater predictor of grades than IQ). The key area of discipline was emotional self-control – they want to put a shot of joy (not anger) into every cup – including those stressed-out customers. They taught them how to ‘park’ their own issues & emotions and instead focus solely on their customers. Starbucks identified the key cues, developed alternate routines, and then encouraged the Managers to reward staff who had successfully dealt with a challenging situation. One technique they developed was the LATTE approach: Listen to your customer; Acknowledge their complaint; Take action, before finally Explaining why it happened.

Corporate habits – Deloitte Consulting are taught about how to deal with critical  moments that matter with their clients and colleagues: ‘Get curious -> Say what no-one else will -> Apply the 5/5/5 rule in how to respond’.


Reward – If you want to develop a habit, the reward must significantly outweigh the costs for you to keep on doing it (committed runners talk about the real sense of personal achievement they get from running).

Identifying the reward – In Iraq, a commanding officer noticed the pattern of behaviours around violence. The longer the crowd stayed together the more likely it would eventually escalate to violence. He noticed that what held people there was the food and drink vendors that would appear. He therefore stopped these sellers coming, which led to a rapid dispersement of the rioters.

Cue Vs Reward – When Fabreze was first launched it flopped. They discovered that people in smelly homes do not notice the smell (thus the cue of poor odour did not trigger use of the product). They identified people instead used Fabreze as a reward (the cue being the tidied house rather than bad smells).

Identifying the rewards – A women suffering from severe nail biting was invited to record the number of times she was cued to bite her nails. This helped bring her attention to something which most times was unconscious. Then the therapist asked her to identify the rewards she got from biting them. She then gave her a ‘competing routine’ – i.e. every time she felt bored, she was to put her hands under her legs (thus creating a physical stimulation/reward similar to biting).

Discovering the right reward – The YMCA commissioned data analysts to help them improve the habit of training in their gyms. They found it was the human connection that was the real reward that made them come back.

Create craving through anticipation – To lock people in a habit you need to make the reward random in delivery. Research has shown brain activity lifts up before the reward – i.e. they anticipate the reward. When that reward is then NOT received it creates a CRAVING that amplifies the desire of the reward. That sense of disappointment becomes even more powerful than the pleasure of the reward – so they keep doing the activity to remove that pain of disappointment. This can lead to obsessive compulsive behaviour – where the rat keeps pressing the lever, the gambler keeps playing, or the golfer keeps swinging. Scientists have found that habits create similar craving reactions addicts have to their drug.

Anticipation/Craving – Claude Hopkins is one of the key admen who first started using these principles in his advertising. In the 1930’s he revolutionised the health habits with Pepsodent by recognising an unexploited cue (the film on your teeth) and linked it to a powerful reward (cool tingling sensation). The key was to create an ANTICIPATION of the reward as that builds the power of the reward. They created a craving for that cool tongue tingling sensation.

Reward: Creating anticipation – Ads create habits: The music, the imagery etc. (i.e. cues) gets linked to a routine (e.g. buying/consuming their product) with the promised reward bought to life in a dramatic, enticing way. You only need to cue the MacDonald’s arches to start salivating over the thought of their French Fries. You see an ad (say of Marlboro cigarettes) and it makes you think of the future rewards it offers you.

Almost wins – Reza Habib, a cognitive neuroscientist asked twenty-two people to lie inside an fMRI  machine and watch a slot machine spin round. Half of the participants were pathological gamblers while the other half were people who gambled socially but didn’t exhibit any problematic behaviours. The slot machine was programmed to deliver three outcomes: a win, a loss, and a ‘near miss’ (in which the slots almost matched up but failed to align). To pathological gamblers, near misses looked like wins. People without a gambling problem were better at recognising that a near miss means you still lose. This is why gambling organisations often set-up machines to give you an ‘almost win’ (as that encourages them to keep on playing).

Changing habits

The difficulty in breaking habits – The issue with habit is they become so ingrained, so powerful that even if we have a conscious awareness that they are not good for us, we cannot seem to stop doing them. Once the cue has been fired we are slaves to the habit. You can’t extinguish a habit, you can only change it.

Breaking bad habits – Angie Bachmann (pseudonym) was getting bored at home. So, she started visiting the local casino, initially gambling small amounts that she could afford to lose. After a while she got good, making a fair return ($6K one time, $2K another time). This led her to start gambling more frequently with bigger bets. However, after a while she started losing. She gambled harder, borrowing money to try to re-win her loses. The first time round she clocked up debts of $20K. She stopped, rebuilt her life but at one point the cue was so strong she was re-triggered back into her bad habits again. One day alone she lost $250K. She had inherited her parent’s estate, but lost it all to gambling. She calculated she lost in total $900K.

Belief – Belief is critical to change a habit (if you think you can’t change, you won’t). So, to change a habit you must believe you can change. Part of the 12-step Alcoholics Anonymous programme is a belief in a higher order to help. It helps recovering alcoholics deal with the inevitable glitches along the way.

Willpower – Changing habits is hard and takes time. Therefore, you need to persist and not give-up at the first failure.

Developing willpower – Willpower is learnable. Students were split into two teams to test their willpower.  They were both given two plates: a plate of cookies and a plate of radishes. One group was told to eat the cookies but resist the radishes. The other team told the opposite. They were then told to wait 15 minutes for next stage of the test. in the meantime, there was a simple puzzle they had to solve (in reality it was very difficult). Those who had eaten the cookies and ‘resisted’ the cookies tended to stay with the puzzle for 60% longer, suggesting our willpower gets weakened (e.g. when tired, drunk or emotional). This led the scientist to conclude that willpower is like a muscle. It can easily get exhausted but with exercise it can develop. They also found willpower developed in one area does spill over into others. Thus, sports or taking up a musical instrument teaches you self-discipline that is transferrable into other areas of life.

How to change habits – The book suggests four stages:

  • Raising the habit to consciousness – identify the routine – When in a habit, we are often unconscious of the behaviours. Hence to change a habit we need to raise our conscious awareness of exactly what we are doing. The first stage is to recognise the habit loop we are caught in (Cue -> Behaviour -> Reward). The easiest part of the pattern to change is the behaviour – as long as you keep the other two elements the same.
  • Isolate the cue – All routines are triggered by a cue. Cancel the cue and you stop the routine. Take for example, emails. If you switch off the inbox ‘ping’ cue, you take away the compulsive routine of constantly checking your system. The issue is the cue is often clouded by many other elements happening at the same time. There are five categories cues typically fall into: Location, Time, Emotional state, Other people, Immediate preceding action. Every time you feel the urge (or catch yourself in the act), write down what the cue might be in each of the five areas.
  • Experiment with some rewards – To overcome a habit we must understand which craving is driving the habit. The key is to identify the real need/benefit – e.g. is hitting the biscuits to do with boredom or low sugar level? You will need to try different behaviours to see what fits into your life and critically to see if it gives you a similar/better level of reward. If it does not, then it is unlikely to be a satisfactory replacement. Clearly you can ‘supplement’ a reward (e.g. you give yourself an additional treat). The author suggests writing down how you think/feel immediately after the activity. They suggest leaving it for fifteen minutes before doing any other activity that might trigger the reward. This helps let you know if the behaviour you are testing really did deliver the reward you needed.
  • Have a plan – Develop a clear strategy in advance of the cue. If/When…(Cue)…Then…(Behaviour) -> Reward. Then try it out. Sometimes it may work better than other days. But the more you try it, the more likely you will ‘scratch’ out the old behaviour and replace it with a more empowering habit.


This is an optimistic book. “Once you understand that habits can change, you have the freedom — and the responsibility — to remake them”.

It is full of interesting anecdotes and scientific evidence that keeps you turning the pages. That said, the book does meander a bit (making things into ‘habit’ when we would not normally describe them as such – e.g. socialised behaviour).

However, the key issue is the book’s overly simplistic model to habit change. The problem is that there isn’t one formula for changing habits. Unfortunately, there is no magic bullet (though intensive treatments and support can work). We assume that by ‘plugging-in’ the co-ordinates of the model that we can then control behaviour. So, the key question we need to ask ourselves: If you follow this will you get change? Behaviour change is usually much more complex than that. Take eating too much. In theory when we get the cue (e.g. an emotion) we then switch eating chocolate for a banana (as both release a sugar hit), but we know it does not work as simply as that. Foresight’s obesity system map suggests otherwise:


Also, there are other ways to change habits (E.g. laws – cf seat belt wearing in cars). Furthermore, all the summaries of behavioural economics demonstrate the power of often unconscious’s influences on our behaviour.

That said, The Power of Habit is an enjoyable book, and readers will find it useful – even if only to understand why they do some of those ‘cookie’ things they do.








About slooowdown

Consultant in the fields of Relationships and Change
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