I don’t know author Charles Duhigg, but he sure knows a lot about me. Or rather, he knows so much from studying people’s habits that I feel like my privacy has been invaded. Duhigg’s new book, The Power of Habit (Random House, $28) is one of those compulsively readable nonfiction titles that is both educational and entertaining. I really loved this book, and handing out high praise isn’t exactly a habit of mine.
As explained by Duhigg, a simple “habit loop” emerges from any triggered cue followed by routine behavior (whether “physical or mental or emotional”). Of course, receiving some kind of reward is what prompts your brain to remember and repeat the routine behavior until it becomes automatic. What makes Duhigg’s research particularly fascinating is that Duhigg isn’t satisfied discussing rats in mazes; Duhigg sees and understands the big picture. With eloquence and insight, he explains how Starbucks instills self-discipline in their employees, how Target knowingly mails the coupons that will generate the biggest sales and how football coach Tony Dungy used basic habits to engineer a Super Bowl victory.
The Power of Habit is divided into three parts: the habits of individuals, the habits of successful organizations and the habits of societies. In the first part, Duhigg examines the neurology behind habit formation and sheds some light on how the basal ganglia, located in the center of our skulls, stores complex routines (like backing a car out of the garage). Duhigg also spends time explaining the science behind our cravings, and how one advertising wizard inspired the entire nation to brush their teeth.
The second part of The Power of Habit begins with the amazing success of Paul O’Neill at Alcoa (Aluminum Company of America). As the new CEO, O’Neill stunned investors by vowing to focus on safety issues. Over time, increased safety measures resulted in greater productivity, lower production costs, higher quality and—ultimately—greater profits. Duhigg also turns his attention to the tragic fire at London’s King’s Cross subway station, and explains how deficits within the organizational structure contributed to more than 30 fatalities.
Duhigg raises an excellent question in the final third of his book: Are we responsible for our habits? He gives two examples: a gambling-addicted housewife who loses more than $1 million and a husband with a history of sleepwalking who murdered his wife in his sleep, completely unaware of his actions (no, they weren’t married to each other).
Make no mistake: The Power of Habit is not a self-help book designed to help you quit smoking or shed 20 pounds; it’s really much more than that. But don’t be surprised if Duhigg’s carefully researched, well-written book doesn’t make you think twice about why you do the things you do, and possibly change some of your bad habits in the process. ★★★★☆