The Power of Habit - Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business
Charles Duhigg

by

Nina Calhoun

Context

Abstract

Habits are developed from what people do regularly. For example, a couple may decide to go on a nature walk once in a month, then once a week, and later on find free time every evening for the nature walk. Going for nature walk every evening, therefore, becomes a habit for such a couple. This example also illustrates that a habit can be developed individually, or as a group. The habits emerge because the brain is constantly looking for opportunities to reduce efforts, especially those required to make decisions. Therefore, once a habit has been made, the brain stops to be actively involved in decision making, thus the brain gets the opportunity to rest. Without the development of habits, the brain would not be able to rest, and thus it would be overworked to the extent that it would simply shut down. It is therefore important for one to develop habits such that the brain is afforded the opportunity to rest.

One disadvantage of habits is that they develop without our permissions. One does not decide to develop the habit of spending on beer every evening, but only develops it gradually from repeated visits to bars. If a negative habit is developed by an individual, for example overspending money, and time in pubs taking beer, they may lack time for their spouses, and children thus leading to family conflicts. Once the negative habits have been developed by an individual it becomes difficult to shed of the habits, though it is possible. One has to consciously develop new positive habits to fight the old negative habits. For example, to stop the habit of overspending time, and money in the bars, one may consciously start developing the habit of going for coffee dates in the evening with their spouse. The habits are therefore not destiny in themselves but can change over time.

Historical Context

The Power of Habit: Why we do what we do in Life, and Business; is a book written by Charles Duhigg, who is a prominent New York reporter, and was published in February 2012. The author tries to explore in-depth the science concerned with habit creation as well as reformation. Not only are habits crucial in people’s personal lives but they are also important to companies. The tenets of the book are derived from findings made by Larry Squire, who is a memory specialist while dealing with Eugene, a client who had viral encephalitis. While studying Eugene, Larry discovered that even with a severe brain injury, he was able to pick some new behaviors. His brain was in a position to form a habit loop, that is, a cue-routine-reward loop.

Larry Squire was a 52-year-old professor who had spent three decades studying people’s neuroanatomy of memory. He specialized in exploring how the brain is able to store events. However, it was his work with Eugene which made him make profound discoveries of how habits function. His works showed that even individuals who were not able to remember their age, and other information about them can still be in a position to develop habits which are inconceivably complex. He also discovered that the subconscious mechanisms, which have significant impacts on the countless choices which appear to be a product “well-reasoned thought”, (Duhigg, 2012), are mainly influenced by urges which people hardly understand, or even recognize.

Current Context

This book is divided into three main parts. Part one is concerned with the habits of individuals, while the second part deals with the habits of successful organizations. The last part is mainly concerned with the habits of societies. A research was conducted by a team constituting of neurologists, psychologists, and a sociologist, with funding from the National Institutes of Health. They prodded more than two dozen people, who were all former smokers, had drinking problems, were chronic overeaters, as well as possessing other destructive behaviors. However, what was common with all the participants is the fact that they had been able to model their behaviours, and adopt better ones within a short period of time. Thus, the main goal of the researchers was to understand how these people had managed to transform their lives within a short period of time. This team measured vital signs and installed surveillance videos in the homes of the subjects to watch how they went about their daily routine. They also had technologies which allowed them to peer inside their subject’s skulls in real time, and they were able to watch as electrical impulses, and blood flowed through the brains of these individuals while they were exposed to the temptations they had conquered.

Inspiration

This book is written to help people understand the manner in which habits work on neurological levels as well as what it takes to make some of the behaviors change. According to the author, people create, and maintain habits for the purpose of maintaining mental energy, and as such spend more time thinking about other difficult, and complex issues. The habits that people develop are either, neutral, bad, or good. However, once developed, these behaviors hardly leave; rather they lark within waiting for the individual to discover them. He also noted that the creation of these behaviors is rather straightforward, nonetheless, choosing which habit is to be created is not straightforward. The habits that people form have three major components which form a ‘habit loop’ (Duhigg, 2012). To begin with, there is a cue, which is the main trigger for a particular behavior to start forming. It tells the brain to go to automatic mode, and select a specific behavior. There is also a routine, which is the main habit formed and is either emotional, or mental. Lastly, there is a reward, and its main responsibility is to help the brain to identify if a specific loop should be remembered, or not.

Charles states that neuroscientists have traced the behavior of forming habits to a part of the brain which is referred to as the basal ganglia. This part of the brain also plays a vital role in the development of memories, emotions as well as pattern recognition. Nevertheless, decisions are formed in a different pattern of the brain which is referred to as the prefrontal cortex. As soon as one’s behavior becomes automatic, the part responsible for decision goes into a sleeping mode. This is what enables people to engage in complex behaviors without any mental awareness that they are engaging in it. Essentially, this is necessitated by the capacity of the basal ganglia which transforms behaviors into automatic routines. By large, this is advantageous as it allows the brain to concentrate on other complex issues.

Knowing how habits work is important in determining a company’s success. According to Duhigg, individuals are able to have keystone habits which refer to individual patterns which are unintentionally capable of triggering specific habits in other people’s lives. He presented the case of Alcoa Company, whereby a new CEO, Paul H. O’Neil, transformed the company by raising its market capitalization by twenty-seven billion dollars (Duhigg, 2012). This, he was able to achieve by targeting work safety within the company. By focusing on this, people’s habits were disrupted, and they began adopting new, and better ones. In order for the company to be successful, it has to choose the right keystone habit. However, it is difficult to select the right keystone habits as some habits can bring a transformative change in a company, and some can make no difference in the company.

Essentially, at its core, this book has an exhilarating argument. That is, the key to losing weight, becoming more productive, exercising regularly, raising children appropriately as well as coming up with revolutionary companies, achieving success, and building life-changing social movements, is being able to understand how habits work. When people learn how to harness this new science, they are in a position to transform their lives, the communities, and their businesses. The author tries to show people that habits are not necessary for their destiny, as they can be changed.

Author’s Bibliography

Charles Duhigg has worked as a reporter at the New York Times, for at least a decade, whereby he wrote series such as “The iEconomy” which specialized on Apple. In 2013, he won the Pulitzers prize for his explanatory reporting. He is also accredited with a contribution to other series such as ‘The Reckoning’, Golden Opportunities” as well as “Toxic Waters”. In addition to being one of the Pulitzer winners he has also won National Journalism, National Academies of Sciences, and George Polk awards.

Not only has he written “The Power of Habits’ but he also wrote Smarter Faster Better, a book which is concerned with the ‘science of productivity’. From being a reporter, Charles now writes magazines, books, and articles for The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, and The Atlantic. Charles studied history at Yale University, and upon graduation, he preceded to get his MBA from Harvard School of Business. Before becoming a journalist, he worked in private equity, and had once been hired as a bike messenger.

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