Review: The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business

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

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read lots of what I call “popular psychology” books, the way I used to devour “popular science” magazines when younger. I find the intricate and contradictory patterns of the mind even more interesting than the latest scientific or technological breakthroughs. Having numerous habits that I wish I could change, and, as importantly, having numerous colleagues, and perhaps most importantly, patients who have habits I wish I could influence positively, I was eager for the anticipated advice.

Duhigg writes clearly and compellingly. He stocks the chapters with story after dissected story of how habits can change at an individual, small group, or large corporate or even national level.

This main tenet is the sequence of links between CUE-BEHAVIOR-REWARD, and how even our best conscious intentions are overwhelmed with the subtle, insistent, irresistable patterns in this habit-sequence. Want fries and a drink with that burger? That TV remote and barcalounger calling to you at the end of a long day? The gym too far away AGAIN?

He finds fault with those (like me) who believe that IT’S JUST WILLPOWER. No, it’s not. Habit will win every time (in the long run). His idea, at the individual level, is that it’s worth taking stock of the habit you’re interested in changing (say, getting enough sleep at night), and determining, really what the cue (it’s 11pm and quiet in the house) and the reward (now I can finally think, and read!) are. Then, it’s a matter of retaining the reward and figuring out what other behavior can sustainably be substituted: audible books to listen in the car? turning off your screens in the evening and reading for 2 hours? carving out 2 hours some other time in the day?

Furthermore, his insights on strong ties, weak ties, sense of community, obligation, make this more than just a self-help book.

CMIO’s take? This one clearly demands a re-reading. I’m going to use this to analyze my own habits, and see which of my behaviors I can hack. Furthermore, I’m wondering if, as a physician, I can create concrete new habits and rewards for my patients, whether’s there’s a simple formula, or whether that work is so much more self-driven, so much harder, as it seems to be.

It’s no longer adequate to tell patients “just go get some exercise”. Now its time to discuss: what is the cue-behavior-reward of exercise? Cue: get home from work. Behavior: sit down, turn on TV, Reward: relax and enjoy the evening. However, there are those who, once started on an exercise habit, find the behavior: exercise leading to its own reward: feeling better about yourself.

But, how to get over the hump of change? Some other mini-reward for 30 days to establish the new habit and start feeling the new reward? Using a calendar and marker? Perhaps a prescription from the doctor taped to the fridge with checkboxes to complete? A doctors fake-pill bottle of minty tic tacs that you can take daily AFTER exercise, and then we count the pills together at the end of 30 days? There’s something powerful here for all of us.

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Author: CT Lin

CMIO, UCHealth (Colorado); Professor, University of Colorado School of Medicine

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