Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Review: The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

"The Power of Habit" by Charles Duhigg (2012)
[cover image courtesy of Random House]

The Power of Habit: Self-help journalism

Self-improvement disguised as journalism is a very hit-or-miss genre, but with a reporter like Charles Duhigg (2013 Pulitzer at the NYT) writing it, you're in good hands.

'The Power of Habit' is all about understanding how the brain works, and what the latest research says about how patterns of behavior are formed.

But you also get a look into the latest psychology and practice of behavior modification to learn that it is indeed possible to reprogram your brain to break bad habits and develop good ones to achieve whatever it is you want to change about how you live your life, if anything.

It's very well-written, with substantive case studies and plenty of interviews, context and background to attack the issue from a number of angles, which is very satisfying.

The discussion about how responsible a person is for the subconscious habits at work in their brains (murderer vs. gambler) is particularly interesting and an issue that we are already seeing come up in the news as crafty lawyers try to argue that their clients didn't have control over the things they may have done.

You will learn a lot from this book, and you may even be able to improve your life as a direct result. That's a pretty strong takeway from this one.

Oh and speaking of takeaways, here is the book's 4-step formula for changing a bad habit:

1. Identify the habit loop - trigger, behavior, reward - that you see at work in your life.

2. Identify the specific cue - Pay attention to when you get the craving and you will probably find that what triggers this sequence of events is one of five common cues: a specific time, a specific place, an emotional state, the presence/behavior of certain other people, or what you were doing immediately before you had the craving.

3. Experiment with rewards - For a week, test different rewards and gather some data. You may think that donut is what you crave, but it may turn out that it's the getting-up-from-your-desk-to-take-a-walk that you crave. So just try going for a walk instead of getting the donut next time. Some of the other rewards will satisfy the craving, some will not. The one that does is the one you want to preserve in your new behavior.

4. Have a plan - When you are undertaking the difficult task of rewiring a bad habit in your brain, have a plan for how you are going to deal with the trigger, and some obstacles you are likely to encounter. If you have a plan, you're less likely to fall off the wagon and give in to the craving.

There is a ton more insight in the book, such as the factors that influence the success of a new habit and the theory of small victories, but the main takeaway - that habits can be changed if one goes about it the right way - is a meaningful lesson that can apply to all sorts of situations we encounter in our own behavior.
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