The Power of Habit

"Habits can be changed, if we understand how they work."

- The Power of Habit, prologue XVII

When you woke this morning, what was the first thing you did? What habits helped or hindered you? Now think about what habits help or hinder your organization and your community.

Charles Duhigg investigates how habits form, how to build new habits and how to change old ones in his engaging book The Power of Habit. To address all areas of your life, he divides the book into 3 sections starting closest to home with ‘you’. He moves to the broader world of organizations and finally to societies.

Habits are not easy to understand but by drawing on hundreds of academic studies, interviews with over three hundred scientists and executives and research conducted at dozens of companies, Duhigg empowers us by illustrating why habits exist and how you can change them.

The Big Idea

The Big Idea: The biggest takeaway from the book

Small habits make or break you

"What Bowman could give Phelps, however – what would set him apart from other competitors- were habits that would make him the strongest mental swimmer in the pool."
- The Power of Habit, page 111

Don’t think you have it in you to change your bad habits? You will likely be thrilled to know that there is tremendous research that shows it is the small habits that fuel transformative changes. Each small habit creates a small advantage which sets in motion another small habit and advantage etc. The small habits create patterns that convince people that bigger achievements are within reach. Duhigg shares the story of how it was small habits that led to Michael Phelp’s Olympic gold medal victory. Michael’s small habits allowed him to wake up the morning of the meet and not really think at all. He stayed relaxed and simply followed his habits, one at a time, to victory.

Insight #1

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Identify the cost of craving and the rest will follow

"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."
- The Power of Habit, page 49

The key element is the craving. Marketers at Proctor & Gamble studied videos of people making their beds. Why? They were trying desperately to figure out how to sell Febreeze; a product which seemed to have such tremendous benefits but was on track to be the biggest flop in company history. Suddenly, one of the researchers detected a subtle yet important pattern.  People are rewarded by the smell of a clean room. They made some adjustments to their marketing and Febreeze went on to earn a billion dollars a year.

Why do you brush your teeth every day? Before Claude Hopkins created tooth brushing habits, no one brushed their teeth. In fact, so many recruits for WWI had rotting teeth, officials said poor dental hygiene was a national security risk! How did Hopkins change this? He created a craving. You know that tingling feeling your mouth gets right after you brush your teeth? When you wake in the morning, you can’t wait to get that feeling. Funny thing, that tingling feeling is not necessary to have clean teeth! But we associate it as the reward for clean teeth and thus are inspired to clean our teeth! His toothpaste, Pepsodent, changed oral hygiene.

What cravings can you create to change habits?

Insight #2

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Habits can be learned and unlearned in four steps

"Habits – even once they are rooted in our minds – aren’t destiny. We can choose our habits, once we know how."
- The Power of Habit, page 270

While Duhigg admits that change might not be fast and it certainly isn’t easy, he believes that with time and effort, almost any habit can be reshaped. Habits can not be eradicated but they can be replaced. His Golden Rule of Habit is to keep the same cue and same reward but replace the routine.

He offers 4 steps to do that:

1) Identify the routine. Is it for example going to Starbucks each afternoon for a tea and cookie?

2) Experiment with different rewards. Rewards satisfy cravings. But the tricky part is that we are often not conscious of the cravings that drive our behaviours. Interesting! So is the reward of the cookie and tea really the sugar burst or is it the energy of the location, the change of pace? How do you figure it out? Adjust the reward. For example, instead of the cookie and tea at Starbucks, try socializing for ten minutes, or go to Starbucks but eat an apple on the way and then just have the tea, or go for a brisk walk for ten minutes. That way you can figure out if you are really craving the cookie and tea at Starbucks or are just looking for an energy boost. Which new activity will satisfy the craving?

3) Isolate the cue. What are you thinking the moment you decide to go to Starbucks? If you keep track of this over a few days, you will identify what is triggering the urge.

4) Have a plan.  Decide exactly what you will do when the craving hits then follow your plan.


Habits create our destiny. Too often, people don’t live the way they want – or eat or sleep or exercise or parent or work – the way they know they should, because of habits. With The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg empowers us to know we can change those habits. And once we know habits can be changed, we have the freedom of choice again.

You have the ability and the responsibility to reshape your life and world. The only options remaining are to get to work, follow his advice, break down your habits and start new ones!

Rebuild your life one habit at a time!

Consultant or Coach? Take our Fit Assessment to find out if partnering with Actionable is right for you.
Jill Donahue

ABOUT Jill Donahue

Everything I do is focused on improving patient outcomes. I do that by being a student and teacher of ethical, effective influence. I teach pharma people and health care professionals how to improve their ability to influence others...
Read More
blog comments powered by Disqus

Back to summaries