The Power of Habit -- Book Review

All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits,— practical, emotional, and intellectual,— systematically organized for our weal or woe, and bearing us irresistibly toward our destiny, whatever the latter may be. -- William James

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

A few months ago I was roaming the library as I tend to do with a pile of books in my hand. One of them was The Power of Habit. A friend passing by saw this in the pile and told me I must read it and that she'd been the one who requested the library to get it in the first place. Today after an exam and a short walk I felt encouraged to read something inspiring and after browsing the shelves I saw the shiny yellow spine of this book and thought why not?

Why this book works as opposed to a vast number of self-help books out in the market is that it does not profess to change you. All it aims is to have you analyze your habits and find ways to replace them with better habits if you wish to. It does this through a mixture of science/cognitive behavioral techniques and extended case studies of habit formation in popular culture.

One of the central arguments uses the following case study to illustrate it. The book posits that Americans in the 60s simply didn't brush their teeth. For a company manufacturing tooth paste, this was an issue as no matter how carefully a recipe for tooth paste was made, it was not an item people bought regularly. An advertising executive soon realized that if he highlighted the 'film' that grows on teeth (plaque) a few minutes after eating something sugary, and used the flashy bright smiles of popular film stars as examples of people who had brushed their teeth with Pepsodent (the name of the toothpaste they were selling) then people would associate the glamour of the film stars with brushing their teeth with Pepsodent.

However, this too didn't work. After much deliberation over why even then the toothpaste wasn't selling, they realized that they needed to make the customers feel like a transformation was happening in their mouths. They added an ingredient to cause the mouth to tingle after using the toothpaste, a sensation which people immediately associated with clean teeth--film stars. Soon they began to crave the tingling refreshing feeling and would brush their teeth for that sensation. Brushing teeth became a habit, as people got addicted/habituated to the tingling sensation. Sales boomed, and tooth paste became a regular staple in every American house hold.

Identifying the process behind the beginning of a habit is central to this book as it can be applied to virtually every habit one has. Understanding every component of the habit loop is how people can successfully make and/or break habits. The highly successful Alcoholic's Anonymous also uses this technique--identifying what triggers drinking (the cue), discovering what exactly the craving is for (is it really for the drink? or the feelings of success or forgetfulness?) and finding new or alternative reward systems.

The strength of this book lies in the first two chapters, where these examples are laid out and the basic rubric and set up of a habit is explained. I think if one was short on time, reading the first two chapters is sufficient to getting the most out of the book. It's a simple cycle but crucial and freeing if used well.

What I liked most about this book was the final chapter--habit formation and free will. The book--rightly, in my opinion--implies that our daily actions are informed nearly 90% by habits, rather than by active choices on our part. As such, old cycles, old failures tend to repeat on loop. As for those with serious addictions (gambling, drinking, etc) it may even feel like they don't have free will if the brain (as the book illustrates through scientific experiments) goes on autopilot. The important point the chapter relays is that while one may not have a choice once the habit is formed one can create a new habit of one's own choosing to counter it.  So yes, maybe there is no free will once a particular habit is created, however, a person can consciously create habits (and create "determination") of their own choosing. This might not be the most intellectual or even complex point, but to me it was ground breaking because of its simplicity and its approach towards excuses or helplessness.

The book is clearly written, and uses engaging and convincing examples to explain its stance. It is, however, a bloated and repetitious book--so my advice for the optimal reading experience is to read the first two and last chapter, as well as the final epilogue which delves a little into how these principles can be applied to one's life. It's not a profound or even philosophical book, but it can be inspiring for those who need that little push to investigate and become more self aware of their habits and their ways of life. 


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