The Power of Habit

Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business


  • On Amazon
  • ISBN: 978-1400069286
  • My Rating: 6/10

In The Power of Habit shows the author, with the help of habit loops, how habits are created and how they can be modified.

My impression of The Power of Habit is mixed. On the one hand I enjoyed the stories and found them interesting, but on the other hand there is a lot of repetition and it feels like the author had to fill a certain amount of pages.

My notes

Prologue: The Habit Cure

Most of the choices we make each day may feel like the products of well-considered decision making, but they're not. They're habits. And though each habit means relatively little on its own, over time, the meals we order, what we say to our kids each night, whether we save or spend, how often we exercise, and the way we organize our thoughts and work routines have enormous impacts on our health, productivity, financial security, and happiness.

The Habits of Individuals

The Habit Loop: How Habits Work

Habits, scientists say, emerge because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort.

This process within our brains is a three-step loop. First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future.

Habits aren't destiny, they can be ignored, changed, or replaced. But the reason the discovery of the habit loop is so important is that it reveals a basic truth: When a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision making. It stops working so hard, or diverts focus to other tasks. So unless you deliberately fight a habit – unless you find new routines – the pattern will unfold automatically.

Habits, as much as memory and reason, are at the root of how we behave. We might not remember the experiences that create our habits, but once they are lodged within our brains they influence how we act – often without our realization.

The Craving Brain: How to Create New Habits

This explains why habits are so powerful: They create neurological cravings. Most of the time, these cravings emerge so gradually that we're not really aware they exist, so we're often blind to their influence. But as we associate cues with certain rewards, a subconscious craving emerges in our brains that starts the habit loop spinning.

This is how new habits are created: by putting together a cue, a routine, and a reward, and then cultivating a craving that drives the loop.

Countless studies have shown that a cue and a reward, on their own, aren't enough for a new habit to last. Only when your brain starts expecting the reward – craving the endorphins or sense of accomplishment – will it become automatic to lace up your jogging shoes each morning. The cue, in addition to triggering a routine, must also trigger a craving for the reward to come.

Cravings are what drive habits. And figuring out how to spark a craving makes creating a new habit easier.

The Golden Rule of Habit Change: Why Transformation Occurs

That's the rule: If you use the same cue, and provide the same reward, you can shift the routine and change the habit. Almost any behavior can be transformed if the cue and reward stay the same.

You can't extinguish a bad habit, you can only change it.

Often, we don't really understand the cravings driving our behaviors until we look for them.

For a habit to stay changed, people must believe change is possible. And most often, that belief only emerges with the help of a group.

Belief is essential, and it grows out of a communal experience, even if that community is only as large as two people.

It is important to note that though the process of habit change is easily described, it does not necessarily follow that it is easily accomplished. [...] Genuine change requires work and self-understanding of the cravings driving behaviors. Changing any habit requires determination.

The Habits of Successful Organizations

Keystone Habits, or the Ballad of Paul O'Neill: Which Habits Matter Most

Some habits matter more than others in remaking businesses and lives. These are "keystone habits", and they can influence how people work, eat, play, live, spend, and communicate. Keystone habits start a process that, over time, transforms everything. Keystone habits say that success doesn't depend on getting every single thing right, but instead relies on identifying a few key priorities and fashioning them into powerful levers.

The habits that matter most are the ones that, when they start to shift, dislodge and remake other patterns.

Small wins are exactly what they sound like, and are part of how keystone habits create widespread changes. [...] Small wins fuel transformative changes by leveraging tiny advantages into patterns that convince people that bigger achievements are within reach.

Small wins do not combine in a neat, linear, serial form, with each step being a demonstrable step closer to some predetermined goal. More common is the circumstance where small wins are scattered... like miniature experiments that test implicit theories about resistance and opportunity and uncover both resources and barriers that were invisible before the situation was stirred.

Karl Weick

The second way that keystone habits encourage change: by creating structures that help other habits to flourish.

The final way that keystone habits encourage widespread change: by creating cultures where new values become ingrained. Keystone habits make tough choices – such as firing a top executive – easier, because when that person violates the culture, it's clear they have to go. Sometimes these cultures manifest themselves in special vocabularies, the use of which becomes, itself, a habit that defines an organization.

Not sharing an opportunity to learn is a cardinal sin.

Pauk O'Neill

Starbucks and the Habit of Success: When Willpower Becomes Automatic

This is how willpower becomes a habit: by choosing a certain behavior ahead of time, and then following that routine when an inflection point arrives.

I've been really lucky. And I really, genuinely believe that if you tell people that they have what it takes to succeed, they'll prove you right.

Howard Schultz

Simply giving employees a sense of agency – a feeling that they are in control, that they have genuine decision-making authority – can radically increase how much energy and focus they bring to their jobs.

The Power of a Crisis: How Leaders Create Habits Through Accident and Design

Just as choosing the right keystone habits can create amazing change, the wrong ones can create disasters.

Almost always, destructive organizational habits are the products of thoughtlessness, of leaders who avoid thinking about the culture and so let it develop without guidance. There are no organizations without institutional habits. There are only places where they are deliberately designed, and places where they are created without forethought, so they often grow from rivalries or fear.

Companies aren't families. They're battlefields in a civil war.

During turmoil, organizational habits become malleable enough to both assign responsibility and create a more equitable balance of power. Crises are so valuable, in fact, that sometimes it's worth stirring up a sense of looming catastrophe rather than letting it die down.

Good leaders seize crises to remake organizational habits.

A company with dysfunctional habits can't turn around simply because a leader orders it. Rather, wise executives seek out moments of crisis – or create the perception of crisis – and cultivate the sense that something must change, until everyone is finally ready to overhaul the patterns they live with each day.

How Target Knows What You Want Before You Do: When Companies Predict (and Manipulate) Habits

People's buying habits are more likely to change when they go through a major life event. When someone gets married, for example, they're more likely to start buying a new type of coffee.

There's almost no greater upheaval for most customers than the arrival of a child. As a result, new parent's habits are more flexible at that moment than at almost any other period in an adult's life.

If you dress a new something in old habits, it's easier for the public to accept it.

To sell a new habit, wrap it in something that people already know and like.

The Habits of Societies

Saddleback Church and the Montgomery Bus Boycott: How Movements Happen

Social habits are what fill streets with protesters who may not know one another, who might be marching for different reasons, but who are all moving in the same direction. Social habits are why some initiatives become world-changing movements, while others fail to ignite. And the reason why social habits have such influence is because at the root of many movements – be they large-scale revolutions or simple fluctuations in the churches people attend – is a three-part process that historians and sociologists say shows up again and again:

  • A movement starts because of the social habits of friendship and the strong ties between close acquaintances.
  • It grows because of the habits of a community, and the weak ties that hold neighborhoods and clans together.
  • And it endures because a movement's leaders give participants new habits that create a fresh sense of identity and a feeling of ownership.
Usually, only when all three parts of this process are fulfilled can a movement become self-propelling and reach a critical mass.

Peer pressure – and the social habits that encourage people to conform to group expectations – is difficult to describe, because it often differs in form and expression from person to person. These social habits aren't so much one consistent pattern as dozens of individual habits that ultimately cause everyone to move in the same direction. The habits of peer pressure, however, have something in common. They often spread through weak ties. And they gain their authority through communal expectations. If you ignore the social obligations of your neighborhood, if you shrug off the expected patterns of your community, you risk losing your social standing. You endanger your access to many of the social benefits that come from joining the country club, the alumni association, or the church in the first place.

For an idea to grow beyond a community, it must become self-propelling. And the surest way to achieve that is to give people new habits that help them figure out where to go on their own.

The Neurology of Free Will: Are We Responsible for Our Habits?

Habits – even once they are rooted in our minds – aren't destiny. We can choose our habits, once we know how. Everything we know about habits is that any of them can be changed, if you understand how they function.

Every habit, no matter its complexity, is malleable.

To modify a habit, you must decide to change it. You must consciously accept the hard work of identifying the cues and rewards that drive the habits' routines, and find alternatives. You must know you have control and be self-conscious enough to use it.

If you believe you can change – if you make it a habit – the change becomes real. This is the real power of habit: the insight that your habits are what you choose them to be. Once that choice occurs – and becomes automatic – it's not only real, it starts to seem inevitable.