Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Power of Habit (a book review with reflections)

I recently finished listening to a book entitled "The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life and In Business," written by Charles Duhigg. This book attempts to link a large number of research studies, practical experiences, and corporate research into a readable summary of how habits are formed and how we can change them.

The book is very readable and uses clear language and powerful examples. Below I will highlight some of the key concepts presented in the book. My intent is to highlight some of the key principles with a focus on knowledge that is useful to people who want to create change in their lives.

The Habit Loop
Duhigg describes what he calls "The Habit Loop." I've adapted his image below. The habit loop is a process that shows how habits take place. Habits are basically a sequence of events that include a few components: Craving, a Cue, a Routine, and a Reward. The loop starts with a cue, which can be seen as some kind of a stimulus that the individual responds to by executing or doing some kind of a routine. The routine usually results in a reward. If this loop happens enough times, then craving occurs and the individual expects the reward based for completing the routine. Without the craving, the habit does not necessarily fully form. But if the loop is reinforced enough, and the craving becomes engrained, it becomes a habit. 

A simple example: whenever I arrive home after a hard day of work, my lovely wife creates a delicious meal for me. I am in the habit of coming home (the cue) having the lovely dinner (routine) and feeling satisfied by the meal and my enjoyable conversation with my family (reward). After doing this hundreds of times, it has really become a habit. Even if I have already eaten dinner, when I come home and park the truck in the garage, I find myself craving something delicious to eat.

One might notice that this is a nice way of rewording the basic principles of behaviorism - stimulus, response, reward. The addition of craving is somewhat new to me, but it is still fits with the assumptions behind behaviorism.

The Keystone Habit
One very powerful concept within the book is what the author calls the Keystone Habit. Duhigg asserts that when an individual can make a change to one key habit, change seems to cascade into many other habits and other areas of life. He shares an example of one woman who decides to eliminate her habit of smoking, and how making that one change also facilitated her own improved weight management, her relationships, her health, and her finances. One outstanding habit can disrupt a pattern of living and have a lasting positive influence on an individual.

My Own Recent Keystone Habit
I recently had an experience in which I adopted one habit that cascaded into change in other areas of my life. For me, the keystone habit was teaching a seminary bible study class for youth in my church at 6:30 in the morning. This new habit invited several changes:
  • It encouraged (forced) me to go to bed on time. (I used to stay up ultra-late wasting my time watching TV or surfing the internet).
  • This allowed me to sleep enough to be healthy.
  • I had more time in the mornnig, so I began to exercise each morning directly after the seminary class. 
  • Along with that, I decided to begin watching my caloric consumption and begin to eat healthier foods. 
Since starting to teach seminary in the morning, I have lost 45 pounds and have exercised nearly every day for the last 4 months. Just like the woman who stopped smoking and subsequently changed many other habits, my keystone habit of going to bed early and teaching seminary has provided me with the ability to incorporate many other healthy, empowering habits in my life.

The keystone habit change is what I would call a macro-level change strategy. It is something that alters and disrupts the overall patterns of a person's life so that new patterns can be formed. There are micro-level change strategies described below that can be used to alter specific habits.

Short-circuit the Habit Loop
In addition to incorporating a keystone habit, we can also short-circuit and change our current habits. In describing the habit loop, Duhigg writes that eliminating the cues that stimulate craving and that prompt a routine might not be possible, so we need to figure out how to use these cues in meaningful ways. Undesirable habits can be reformed into desirable habits. He notes that the routine that a person goes through can be changed, as long as some kind of a reward is received. Let's look at some examples.

Example of short-circuiting the habit loop: I have noticed that when I see a delicious piece of food - a lovely cookie, for example - it acts as a cue. This cue prompts my craving for the yummy feeling that comes from eating the cookie, and my mind immediately (and without my permission!) imagines me eating the cookie (the routine) and enjoying the delicious rush of sugar (the reward).

I have found that I have little control over this cue - it is always there. However, I have recently experimented with short-circuiting this habit loop. Whenever I see a tempting cookie or treat, I replace the routine by imagining myself pushing the plate away and then smiling to myself and engendering a sense of pride that I am taking care of my body. I have found over time that the cue becomes weaker and the new routine is becoming stronger.

I must admit that I have not fully replaced the habit, yet. I am still working on revising this habit loop, and I have faltered a few times over the past several months. But I can see that my patterns are slowly and surely changing. I have to constantly apply self-control, but the new habit is slowly emerging.

A few additional notes on habit change:
  •  Belief and Habit Change- Research seems to indicate that to have lasting change, you must  believe that you can change your habits. You have to believe in yourself and believe that you have the capacity to accomplish. Duhigg shares the example of Alcoholics Anonymous and shows how this self-belief often stems directly from a belief in a higher power. I have found that a great deal of my own personal power to create positive changes in my life stems directly from my faith in God.
  • Willpower and Habit Change - I have found that we can increase our ability (willpower) to overcome the impulses that we have developed in our minds and bodies. An increase in self-mastery and willpower in one area enables an increase in another area.Change does not come without effort, but an understanding of the fundamentals of habit change can help us leverage our natural tendencies so that we can most effectively make change in our lives.
  • Social Aspects of Habit Change - The people you spend time with influence the kind of person you become. Religious organizations, classes in school, volunteer organizations, workout partners, mentors, and coaches are all examples of this. I find that surrounding myself people that can help me succeed is one of the most crucial factors for success.
I would highly recommend Duhigg's "The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life and In Business." It is a clear, well-written guide to understanding habits and provides a good foundational knowledge of the fundamental principles of habit change. I would not necessarily call it a how-to book for changing habits. But it provides knowledge that is meaningful and insightful and provides some powerful examples of change and success that can be built upon. Great work, Duhigg.

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