The Power of Habit

Why read this

  • To learn to change or introduce a habit in your life;
  • To understand better why habits are formed and how they are formed.

Why listen to the author

  • He is a Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter at The New York Times;
  • He claims to have changed several of his own habits, including exercising which led him to lose 14kg.



The Power of Habit – Book Notes

Reading time: 13min.

Habits Are Our Brain’s Power Saving Mode

Experiments done on rats showed how habits are a way of the brain to save energy. In these experiments scientists put the rats through mazes while measuring their brainpower. The first few times the rats run through the maze, their brain uses a lot of power, working furiously. After getting some practice, their brains just have 2 high spikes of power — at the start and at the end when they receive the chocolate. The brain is always trying to save power, to economize energy, and habits require less energy than new actions.

Take for example driving. When you first started you had to be very concentrated. Now many times you’re like on autopilot. Once your brain is in habit mode it also reduces decision making spending. Habits are so effective that research has shown that over 40% of our daily actions are habits.

(Note: Having just read another book about the human brain, in “The Brain Rules”, it seems like this author calls “habits” a lot of things… Not sure if I agree or not. For now I’ll keep an open mind and adopt his perspective but still trying to find flaws. That previous book was about learning, written by a neuro-scientist and he never mentioned the word habit… So I’m suspicious, but open minded.)

Forming New Habits

A habit is composed of 3 phases: Trigger > Routine > Reward (1). Researchers trained monkeys to pull a lever when they saw a certain shape and in response they would be given a treat. The researchers then measured the monkey’s neurological activity. At first they only responded to the reward when receiving it. After a while they started responding as soon as the cue presented it self — they salivated as soon as they saw the shape (cue), anticipating the receiving of the treat (reward). This is like when people look at a box of donuts and start salivating anticipating the flavor in their mouth. Or smokers who start anticipating the nicotine rush as soon as they see a box of cigarettes. Or when you hear the phone alert and the little symbol of a new message and feel compiled to check it because you’re anticipating the good feeling and curiosity of reading it.

trig routine reward

Monkeys that did that experiment for a while would have a greater focus in getting the reward as soon as the cue presented itself. Opening the door (allowing them to leave) or putting some food near the exit wouldn’t affect them. Monkeys that had been doing the experiment for less time would much more easily get distracted by external factors. Monkeys that pulled the lever correctly but sometimes didn’t receive the treat became angry or frustrated. It would be better to remove the cues altogether.

How to Form a Habit

  1. Think of a trigger for the habit. Something that from now on will be linked to the routine. One way to develop consistency in your habit is to connect it to an event that you know will always happen at the same time or place. Examples:
    • Waking up;
    • Arriving from work;
    • After another habit — for example if every time after you wake up you brush your teeth, then brushing your teeth can be the trigger for another habit. This way you can create a chain of habits.
  2. Think of a reward if the routine itself doesn’t present one. For the trigger to work your brain needs to start craving for the reward as soon as the trigger fires.
    • If going to the gym itself and feeling good isn’t enough to make you consistently going there, try to buy some sweet food on the way back everytime you go. After a while, just looking at the bag you use to go to the gym should start making you feel salivating.
    • The reward should happen quickly after the routine (a few minutes), should be small enough that you can have it everytime you do the routine (a cheap chocolate bar may be ok, a new car might not), should be connected to the routine (for example you buy something cheap that only exists on the shop that you pass on the way back from the gym).
    • Here are some more reward ideas to consider:
      • Allow yourself to eat a small piece of chocolate (no guilt though);
      • Fix a delicious post-workout shake (it can be healthy! Fruit tastes good…);
      • Play a bit of your favorite game;
      • Socialize;
      • Watch a TV show that you enjoy or go see a movie;
      • Relax (meditating, taking a nap, or just chilling casually thinking about whatever comes to mind);
      • Read an “escape” book;
      • Go out to eat;
      • [Insert here anything you enjoy doing immensely];
      • A reward that takes you deeper into the habit. Doing lots of swimming? Splurge on a new swimming suit. Going to the gym a lot lately? Buy those hand gloves.  “One company had a smart policy: any employee who exercised at least 75 times in one year in the company gym was rewarded with…the next year’s gym membership free. The reward for exercise was more exercise.”
  3. Make it as easy as possible to do the routine and as hard as possible not to. Pre-pack the gym clothes the day before, pre-cut healthy food, commit with a friend to be everyday at X for a run, …
  4. Allow the cycle to repeat a few times. The habit is only formed when your brain expects the reward as soon as the cue gets triggered.

Habits Depend on Very Specific Cues

There was a man that lost part of his brain. He lost all of his short term memory and all the memories of the last 20 years but he still had all his habits even if he couldn’t explain how he did the things he did out of habit. For example he didn’t know how to explain where is the bathroom but out of habit he would go there when he needed to. This man revealed that the cues our habits depend on to survive are very specific. If something was different on the way to the bathroom like a different carpet on the ground the man would get lost no matter how close to the bathroom he was.

Using Habits in Products

Here’s the story about how by using habits product managers were able to turn a failed product into a success. An odor removal spray worked well but didn’t have much success. They went to people’s homes to see what was going on. They saw that most of the ones that used the spray was as a final touch after cleaning. So they redesigned the label and marketing campaigns, and added perfume. Now people used it and when everything was clean they would spray and feel the reward of the nice scent. Habits formed.

Cue: Finished cleaning;
Routine: Spray;
Reward: Feel the nice smell and the room clean.

After this the product was a success. People started craving for the nice finishing smell after cleaning the house.

How to Change a Habit

Habits are hard to delete but can be changed. Reversal Habit Therapy consists of trying to change the routine. This is used in cases such as with alcoholics, smokers, and other hard to change habits. Let’s see a summary of the therapy using the case of a nail bitter as an example:

1) Identify the triggers of the routine you want to change. For example use a card and make a mark every time you feel the need to do the routine. Understand those cues, and see if there’s a pattern. For example in the nail bitter’s case it was when she was bored.

2) Identify the reward. In her case she felt a sense of completeness and physical relief from having “done” all nails. It may not be as obvious as it seems. For example you may think that the reason you like to go out to eat every Wednesday is because you crave the food but it may be because every time you do it you’re with friends.

3) Come up with another healthier routine that provides a similar reward. For physical sensations it could be to do push ups, to relax, to go for a walk,…

4) Every time the trigger happens, do the new routine. Even though habits can’t be easily deleted they can be replaced.

However, several studies done on alcoholics that went to Alcoholics Anonyms, show that the routine replacement therapy works until a stressful event appears, in which case most fall off to the old habits no matter how many routines they had to replace the drinking. The only thing that seemed to prevent this from happening was unquestionable belief in the new routine. There’s no magic formula for this. In AA that unquestionable belief may be the belief in a higher power or that if it worked for that guy then it must work for me. Duhigg gives an example of someone that cured shyness by practicing in a group, until not only be had the habit of not being shy but believing he wasn’t shy.

5) Believe unquestionably in your own capacity, or in some higher power, that the new habit is now part of who you are.

He then tackles then question: where should we start? Which bad habits to tackle? He says that the habits that matter most, are those that can trigger a chain reaction of changing habits. For example exercising spills over other areas of your life.
3) Identify what triggers the urge. Time of day where you’ve been lonely for a while? Stomach empty? …
4) Change the routine in order to get the same reward. E.g., you feel addicted to a game. What is the reward(s) you take from it? Can similar rewards be taken from a less addicting game? Here the routine is the game.

Use Habits to Your Advantage

Michael Phelps’ coach, Bob Bowman, knew Phelps had the right body. Phelps just needed the right mindset. So he knew he had to instill on him some routines that would make him calm in race day and help him winning since Phelps was a very emotional person. He asked Phelps that every day before going to sleep and after waking up to imagine how a perfect race would go. His stretches before the start, the music (Phelps had a very specific routine that for him was automated) then him jumping to the water, feeling the water flowing etc. Every detail and every sensation. When he would actually race it would be like he had already imagined a thousand times. Everything up to the start would be pre-programmed in his mind. He would do the warming up like he imagined, the stretches like he imagined, put the same hip hop music, and so on. When his name was called he would step forward rise his right arm and go back. Swing his arm 3 times. And winning the following race was just the continuation of the routine. He had developed a habit that included several sequential routines one of which in the middle was swimming in the race and winning. The imagined part Bowman called the videotape. Which included also situations where things didn’t go right, like the goggles filling with water. For cases like this he would imagine counting the number of arm swings to estimate where the wall was. When Bowman wanted Phelps to practice at race speed he would tell him to put the videotape and Phelps would swim as fast as he could, like he imagined doing in the perfect race. This was one of the habits that made others like diet and sleep fall into place. It also enabled Phelps to get faster and faster.

Have Small Wins to Keep Motivation High

Small wins fuel transformative changes by convincing you that bigger achievements are within reach. For example if you want to be an entrepreneur your first small win could be to make a single sell. Or if that’s too big of a goal, to make a website ready with a product. Keep having smaller goals until you get goals clearly within reach. By being able to achieve these small goals, you’ll feel more motivated and slowly but surely build momentum towards the destination.

Paul O’Neil is a very successful CEO. By putting the “worker safety” as the primary goal in the company he was able to motivate workers, managers, executives etc. because it was a goal that motivated everyone even if for different reasons. Duhigg also gave an example I found interesting which is that when a new CEO took over the company, he removed all the predetermined parking spots according to the person’s position within the company. For him, all people were equally important, and that way whoever got to the company earlier got the best parking spot.

Form Key Habits 1st

Key habits, or as Duhigg calls them, keystone habits, are those that have a greater than average impact in your life. This is because key habits trigger a chain reaction of other good habits or because they affect several or important areas of your life. For example, making your bed right in the morning makes your environment more cleaner looking which can unconsciously improve your performance. It also gives you a small sense of accomplishment which gives a tiny self-confidence boost. Both these results can improve other areas of your life, which in turn, because they have been improved, will make something else better. So what key habits do is create a chain reaction that results in much bigger results than the initial conditions would predict, just like a domino can knock over another 1.5x bigger than itself.

Photo by Ben Earwicker
Key habits are like a domino in the right place, knocking over other dominoes-habits — Photo by Ben Earwicker

Other examples of key habits

Exercise: it’s one of the most important key habits for developing a success-oriented mindset. If you can’t put yourself through a little pain and discomfort to better your own health now, how can you be trusted with any important task that requires you any discomfort? Exercise teaches you to understand your body, how to find and push your limits, and it shows you how we grow through suffering.

Meditation & Relaxed Thinking: Acquanting yourself with yourself. Think over your relationships, tackle the issues you faced that day that you haven’t had the chance to calmly analyze. Where are you going with your life? What’s your plan? Face your inner critic. Confront the issues you’ve put off for too long. Build self-awareness. At the same time let the water of your inner self become still with peace again, from the stirring of the day.

Planning & Journalling: The daily act of documenting what you’ve done and what you’re planning to do. It builds upon the relaxted thinking habit by putting into written and organized form the thoughts that popped up. People who have a plan are more focused on their goals, much more likely to accomplish them and have a greater sense of success and accomplishment in their lives.

Less Stress Means More Willpower

According to a study, people that have to control themselves, that is exert willpower, not to eat something, are 60% less patient in trying to do a puzzle. This study introduced the idea that willpower is a finite resource.

In Starbucks, employees are trained to become better people by overcoming their urges of reacting angrily  to customers by instilling on them plans of actions and habits on how to deal with specific situations called inflections points. Inflection points, for Starbucks, are situations where the stress is especially hard and their self control or willpower vanishes. Kinda like when you’re making an effort to study but then comes a especially hard or boring subject and you go browse the Web. Starbucks adopted the technique of planing for when inflection points occur and practice the correct responses until they become automatic. For example for dealing with angry customers Starbucks gave employees a book with some blank pages and told them to write their plan/routine for when a angry customer appeared based on the LATTE method:

Listen to the customer,
Acknowledge their complaint,
Take action by solving their problem,
Thank them,
Explain why the situation occurred.

They have many other routines for several other inflections points. This is how you remove willpower from the equation — by turning actions into habits. And you form these habits by choosing a certain behavior ahead of time, practicing it until it becomes 2nd nature, and then following that routine when an inflection point arrives.

Some people do form habits more quickly and easily than others. Trying to find out why, some researchers did an experiment and concluded that feeling that you control a situation helps to create habits related to that situation. Some participants were given more power. Having more power means, being more in control, which, in turn, means less stress. This more relaxed state allowed those participants more easily engage in their new habit which, at the start, before requires willpower. From this they concluded that stress exhausts willpower. To summarize then: Willpower is a finite resource, it’s exhausted by stress and you need it to engrave new habits. And from this we can extract the conclusion that when creating a new habit it’s important that you feel relaxed concerning that situation, to which it helps to have some sense of control over it. That is why Starbucks now let’s their employees decide some stuff like their breaks, where to display things, where to put certain machines,…

Another way to create new habits is by sandwiching the new habit between existing habits. In WWII they managed to have people eat more animal organs by having it taste and presented like regular meat. An established way to introduce a new song is to put it between two popular hits.

Blame the Habit or Blame Yourself

Gamblers, too, have habits. How many of them should be responsible for their actions? Casinos use programs to track all customers to predict their lifetime value for the casino. They have people there that try to be friendly to discover how much they can make someone spend. For example if some worker discovers a person is rich they may send him discounts and credits to bait him into going there more often. Almost all of slot machines give many near wins, because they act as a reward for gamblers whose brain feels as if they had won.

He gives the example of how a man that usually had sleepwalking murdered his wife because he heard someone outside the house and thought it was a burglar. He was found not guilty because he didn’t chose to kill his wife. He gave another case of a normal married with kids woman that lost a fortune, house and other belongings to gambling. By the same logic shouldn’t also she not be guilty? She may have had a choice the first day when she went to the casino and the following weeks or months occasionally. But years later, by the time she was losing $250.000 a night after she was so desperate to fight the urges that she moved to another state where casinos are illegal, she was no longer making conscious decisions. Historically in neuroscience we’ve said that brain damaged people lose some of their free will. But when a pathological gambler is on a casino it’s very similar. It seems like they’re acting without choice.

Aristotle once said that the actions that we do unthinkingly reveal our truest selves. Once you understand that habits can change, and you become conscious of your habits you have the power to change them.

Act and Believe “As If”

Until the end the author talks about a great philosopher James William that before being great was a no one, the least accomplished of his family by far. One day when hitting rock bottom and contemplating suicide he decided he would pretend, believe, for a year, that he had control over himself and his destiny, that he could become better, that he had the free will to change. There was no proof that it was true, but he would free himself to believe that it was possible, like a test. I will assume for the present – until next year that it is no illusion. It was from then on that he started his path to be a great philosopher. Later he would famously wrote that the will to believe is the moorland ingredient in belief in change. And that one of the most important methods for creating beliefs is “as ifs”. Habits, he noted, are what allow us to do a thing with difficulty the first time, gradually with less effort, and finally with sufficient practice do it with hardly any conscious thought at all. Plus brain cells can only grow to the way they have been exercised just like a sheet of paper once folded tends to fold forever in the same identical folds. If you believe you can change, if you make it an habit, the change becomes real. This is the real power of habit — the insight that your habits are what you chose them to be. Once that choice occurs and becomes automatic it’s not only real, it starts to feel inevitable.

Habits are like water: the unthinking invisible decisions and choices we do everyday that become visible if we look at them. They hollow for themselves channels that grow larger and deeper.


Whether you currently have motivation for doing something or not, the reward of a habit needs to be a dirty quick way of getting you to move. Then you may ditch the habit altogether as you become motivated by something else. If you can’t feel motivated to exercise, create an habit. If you won’t do it for the health benefits, at least you’ll do it for the reward and get those benefits anyway.

(1) In my experience habits don’t need a reward to be formed. But those kinds of habits are formed due to other circumstances. I can form a habit of working hard every morning as soon as I wake up, but it will be formed out of pure will strength. Habits are also formed when circumstances are right. Having to go to the same place every day, may elicit you to execute actions in the same sequence so many times they become a habit. The reward only needs to be introduced into the equation when you’re purposely creating a habit without internal motivation or external obligation.

Have these techniques been successful to you? Why (not)? Have you encountered any useful modifications that helped you create/change a habit?

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