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

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January 8, 2018

One of the jobs of a practicing internist is to help patients improving health through lifestyle changes such as diet, exercise and sleep. This can be quite challenging for me, so the fact that fascinating book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business delves into the neuroscience behind our daily routines, was very helpful for me to understand some of the biological basis for our behaviors. Knowing the research behind behavior may help all of us improve our lives.

The book is divided into three sections: Habits of Individuals, Habits of Successful Organizations and Habits of Societies. The author skillfully writes about the neurological basis and pathophysiology for our habits. He specifically relates how strongly behaviors can be embedded in the part of the brain called the basal ganglia. Even if someone cannot remember or consciously decide on a behavior, habits can be formed. A whole chapter told the story of Eugene, an elderly man who completely lost all capability to form new memories as viral encephalitis had destroyed the hippocampus region of the brain responsible for making new memories. However, he was able to actually find his way home after a while, feed himself and form new daily habits. The power of the unconscious brain was a surprise to many scientists. Through the author’s research, we learn about the habit loop: cue, habit and reward that are important for maintaining behaviors. Knowing the process of forming behaviors can help us change them. We read the stories of people who can lose weight, quite drinking alcohol and improve job performance and team performance (such as the Indianapolis Colts under the direction of Tony Dungy). 

All of these stories support the fact that small details can affect behavior which can affect a person’s whole life. Mr. Duhigg related stories of success about companies such as Alcoa, Starbucks and Target. He recounts the development and marketing of Febreze, and how changing habits of shoppers’ cleaning habits led to the success of the household spray. Very inspiring is the story of how the habits of social friendship underpinned the civil rights movement which started with the arrest of Rosa Parks. Since Ms. Parks was so well connected socially to many different groups in her hometown, the habits of social relationships led to the integration of the Montgomery, Alabama bus system after the very successful bus boycott.

Are you looking to change a habit or even overhaul your whole routine? As many of us made New Year’s resolutions that we are trying to keep, the method described in this book: cue, habit and reward can support our willpower and show us the power of learning new habits.