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20150109 The Power of Habit


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The main idea is that human behavior is defined by habits to much higher degree than it is usually thought. Moreover not only habits define our behavior they do it in such way that we are often completely missing reason for doing something because we are driven by habits not by reason. On the bright side it is possible to recognize habits and either enforce them or consciously change them depending on habit’s usefulness for our wellbeing. There are quite a few methods provided to do just that leading to final statement that we are responsible for our habits and should consciously analyze and control them.


PART ONE: The Habits of Individuals

  1. The HABIT LOOP: How Habits Work

The initial point is made that habits are quite powerful and not directly depend on memory. To illustrate this point 2 cases of amnesiacs are presented one of which is famous H.M. It follows by description of experiments with mouse and labyrinth. The analysis of mouse’s brain activity demonstrated that with development of habit moving within specific path the brain activity decreased. The habit process has 3 steps: cue – routine – reward. The key points are the cues the slightest variation of which could prevent routine from execution, leading to change in habits. All this research demonstrated that habits are very powerful and saturate our activities without us consciously tracing them. At the same time they are delicate and could be manipulated and intentionally designed.

  1. THE CRAVING BRAIN: How to Create New Habits

The first story in this chapter is about marketing success of promoting Pepsodent back in early 1900. The way it was done included creating a craving in this case craving for removal of film from teeth in the morning with reward of good smile and healthy teeth. However cue and reward were not enough so the next part presents another successful marketing story of smell removing spray Febreze. Ad campaign based on product ability to remove bad smell failed as well as attempt to create new habit. Success occurred when they managed to include the product as finishing step in existing routine of home cleaning to add good smell. The Pepsodent story also included an additional trick. It was not necessary abstract wish to remove film that caused people to use paste, but rather tinkling taste of freshness added to it. The point is confirmation signal that person receives during activity that it is working and prompting continuation of routine.

 3. THE GOLDEN RULE OF HABIT CHANGE: Why Transformation Occurs

This is about changing habits. The chapter starts with the case of behavior change of players in football team and then jumps to the story of AA. This analysis brings idea that change is possible when sequence of habit is modified by different routine. The person starts using different routine when usual cue occurs and uses the same reward when routine completed. In example with AA the cue: need to remove restriction used to start new routing of AA meeting instead of old of getting drank to achieve reward in form of relaxation.

PART TWO The Habits of Successful Organizations


This chapter is about identifying specific habits on which one should concentrate in order to achieve positive change. This discussion is based on the case of Paul O’Neill- Alcoa CEO who used concentration on safety to turn company around. It is also discusses process of habit’s routine substitution using incremental method of small wins.

 5. STARBUCKS AND THE HABIT OF SUCCESS: When Willpower Becomes Automatic

This is discussion of willpower as success factor. Obviously it could not possibly go without marshmallow test. More interesting is that it provides some methods of increasing it, specifically need for planning as stimulant. The experiment described people who underwent orthopedic surgery and needed regular exercise to recover. People who wrote down their detailed goals for a week recovered materially better then people who did not. As confirmation business case for Starbucks is provided to demonstrate how organization can achieve results by using extensive training program to instill good habits. 

  1. THE POWER OF A CRISIS: How Leaders Create Habits Through Accident and Design

This chapter uses examples of hospital and London underground fire to demonstrate power of habit in relationship between groups within organization with conflicting interest. Hospital case is about switching from suppressing input from nurses into making them valid participants of medical process. London case is about ignoring emergency signal with tragic consequences because it came from unexpected source. Both cases show how people developed habits necessary to maintain truce between groups within organization at the expense of individual freedom of action for its members and how these habits led to catastrophic consequences that could have been prevented. The outcome was change of habits to provide more freedom at the expense of subordination. 

  1. HOW TARGET KNOWS WHAT YOU WANT BEFORE YOU DO When Companies Predict (and Manipulate) Habits

This is discussion of habit manipulation successfully used by private companies and government organizations. One of cases involves big data analysis of purchases to identify individuals with specific condition for example pregnant women. Another one is successful operation of American government to convince people use organ meat during WWII. 

PART THREE The Habits of Societies


This is about link between power of habit and movements. Two examples are provided Rosa Parks and movement for bus boycott and Saddleback church. The point here is that movements can change social habits and it starts at the local level when individuals not satisfied with whatever status quo is begin resonate with each other exchanging their views until it becomes intolerable for them to refrain from actions. At this point some accidental or planned event can jump start movement of people who resonate with each other. The wider is cycle of friend and acquaintances for individual in the center of this incident, the faster and more powerful waves are moving out from the center causing change sometimes rapid in existing social habits. An interesting analysis provided for Summer of Freedom when students from North went down South to demonstrate for civil rights. The question asked was why some students went on this dangerous journey and some did not. The answer was unexpected. It was not personal qualities or even circumstances that made difference, but rather level of involvement in networks with other people who expected one to South.

  1. THE NEUROLOGY OF FREE WILL: Are We Responsible for Our Habits?

The final chapter discusses level of control that individual has over his/her own habits. The case reviewed of a woman who developed gambling habit. Then analysis proceeds to include cases of sleepwalking. Author contrasts these two cases as one of a gambler as a case of being under conscious control, while another one – sleepwalker killer as a case of lack of control. The main point here is that as long as conscious control present the habit could be changed per individual’s decision to make this change.


I found it quite interesting and useful especially parts of the book related to control of habits and their modification to fit person’s objectives. I believe that I used quite a few of technics discussed in this book to establish habits that I wanted and it served me quite well so far. Nevertheless it is always nice to have some more or less scientific research supporting things that one is doing in his life in addition to multiple examples of how this staff works.

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