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3 Takeaways from The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg - Book summary

By Christian Lan Pin Wing

It is estimated that more than 40% of our daily actions are governed by habits. We may not be aware of it but habits control a big part of our lives.

The Power of Habit - Book Cover

First of all, what are habits?

To put it in simple terms, habits are actions we do repeatedly or chain of thoughts we have or decisions we take without really thinking about them. For example, when we wake up, we get out of bed, go to the bathroom, check our phone ... Or the route we drive to go to work. Or when we stop by the bakery after work to have that cookie. Or what kind of food we choose at the restaurant. Or every time we have a cigarette when we feel stressed. Or each time we drink excessively when we are depressed. Or our way of thinking and the choices we make when faced with a particular event or circumstance. And so on.

As you can see, there are many things that we do everyday just from habit.

Habits function like being on autopilot. It's a way for us to save energy.

So, habits have a profound effect on our personal and professional life. While some habits have a positive effect, other habits have a negative effect.

The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, dives into all aspects of habits at the individual, organization and society levels and gives us many stories to really understand how habits come into play in all these levels and their impact. And how we can change bad habits and create new positive habits in our life.

So let's see the main takeaways of the book and how we can use the power of habit to work for us in the best way.

1- Habits have a powerful effect on our lives. Identify the positive ones and the negative ones.

"We are what we repeatedly do" - Aristotle

"Failure comes from small errors repeated every day, success comes from small disciplines practiced every day." - Jim Rohn

Habits have both a compound and ripple effect. Charles Duhigg gives the example of Lisa Allen who was overweight, in debt and could not keep a job for more than a year at the time and who took the decision to stop smoking because she wanted to trek in the desert in Egypt. 4 years after she quit, she lost 60 pounds, ran a marathon, bought a home, started a master's degree and had a job in graphic design for almost 4 years.

In this story, we can easily see both the compound effect and ripple effect.

Compound effect : the longer you keep the habit of smoking, the more health problems you are going to have over time. Inversely the less time you smoke, the less health problems you're going to have in the future.

Ripple effect : Setting up a new habit or changing an existing habit can create a chain of new habits in other areas.

The decision to quit smoking impacted many aspects of Lisa's life. It led her to replace smoking with jogging which in turn caused changes in how she ate, slept, saved money and organized her life.

So, take some time to reflect and realize the power of habits in your life. What are the good habits that are contributing to a healthy or happy life? What are the habits that are negatively impacting your health? What are the habits that are preventing you from making progress?

2 - Habits can be ignored, changed or replaced - New habits can be installed

Habit Loop mechanism :

This process within our brains is a three-step loop. First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future:

Habit Loop Mechanism

Over time, this loop—cue, routine, reward; cue, routine, reward—becomes more and more automatic. The cue and reward become intertwined until a powerful sense of anticipation and craving emerges.

Let's see some examples of the different components :

  • The cue can be a time of the day, a specific location, other people's action, your physical or emotional state or repeating external events.

  • The routine is what we do like lightning a cigarette, doing a specific workout.

  • The reward is the benefit we get, like reducing stress after smoking, not getting an accident if we stop at a red light.

How to change a habit?

We have the ability to change a bad habit into a more positive one.

The Golden rule of habit change is based on two steps. For changing a habit, we first identify the components of the habit loop which are the cue, routine and reward. And then we change only one part in the loop, the easiest to change being the routine.

For example, you have a habit of getting a coffee late in the afternoon and you want to change this because you realize that it prevents you from sleeping well.

Now, let's see the different components :

The cue: End of afternoon, 5 pm, feeling a bit tired

Routine: Propose to some colleagues to meetup and have a coffee break

Reward: It could be the physical coffee boost that you are looking for. Or you just need a break. Or it's the social aspect to meet and chat with some colleagues

In this case, if you find out that it is the social aspect that you are looking for rather than the coffee boost, you could just change the routine of having a coffee for having another drink like a glass of water or juice at 5 pm. And you would still meet your colleagues and experience the reward. This would make the habit change quite natural as you are not fighting against something or getting frustrated.

How to install a new habit?

So here, let's imagine that you want to start a new habit like doing daily exercise each morning. Here, what you could do is to have a simple cue, routine and create a craving for exercising every day.

  • Have a simple cue, this could be a poster of your favourite sportsman training you see when waking up or have your sports clothes ready next to your bed from the previous night. It could also be by playing a motivating song (Eye of the tiger, from Rocky's soundtrack is a popular one :))

  • Have a routine - 10 minutes stretching and press ups

  • Have a reward - It could be the endorphin rush or to have a treat or one of your favourite drinks to reward yourself after the exercise

Tip: Make the new routine easy to achieve when starting and commit to a number of tries. According to several studies it takes an average 66 days for a new habit to become automatic. Keep it simple, you could just start with 21 days and if effects are positive, renew for another 21 days and so one till the habit is well anchored.

3 - Not all habits are created equal - There are keystone habits

Some habits once started have a ripple effect and produce much greater effects. They start like a chain reaction that leads to many more changes over time.

In the example of Lisa Allen, we can see how changing the habit of smoking and replacing it exercise impacted many other aspects of Lisa's life. It changed the way she slept, what she ate, how she saved money and so on.

In the business world, Charles Duhigg gives another interesting story. Paul O'neill was just appointed CEO of Alcoa, an aluminium manufacturer, and unlike any other CEO before, he stated that the only metric he would look at would be Safety. The company would become the safest company to work for.

Working in an aluminium factory means the risk of being injured by accident is much higher than working in an office. So, changing the company culture and putting the habit of safety first had surprising effects on the company results. Accidents diminished as it could have been expected but then productivity and profitability of the company increased dramatically. It turned out that the processes put in place to increase safety also led to better processes in manufacturing, thus increasing productivity.

Another example from an article I was reading the other day is Richard Branson's morning routine. In a nutshell, he explained that his habit of exercising everyday early in the morning before working on his business was what made him productive. Once he exercised, he felt good and energized and that set him up for a more productive day.

So, just take some time to think about a habit you could change or install in your life that would help improve your life in the way you want it to. Think of habits that could have a multiplier effect or could lead to other changes in your life.

This could be to stop smoking and start jogging regularly to be more healthy, meditating for 10 mins every day to be more calm and relaxed, have a meetup with a potential customer or partner every week to expand your business network, join a debate club for better public speaking skills ...

Which keystone habit to start depends on where you are at and what are the goals that you want to achieve. But if you don't really know where to start, then start with willpower.

Willpower is definitely one of the most important habits because it translates to all other areas in life. And Charles Duhigg points out that willpower is the single most important keystone habit for individual success based on many studies.

As people strengthened their willpower muscles in one part of their lives—in the gym, or a money management program—that strength spilled over into what they ate or how hard they worked. Once willpower became stronger, it touched everything.

How do you cultivate willpower?

First of all, we need to understand that we have a limited supply of willpower each day. And using your willpower in one area of your life diminishes your reserve of willpower for other areas. That's why it's so hard to motivate yourself to go to the gym after a hard day's work.

But, willpower also functions like a muscle. And like a muscle, you can strengthen your willpower and get a higher supply of it.

"When you learn to force yourself to go to the gym or start your homework or eat a salad instead of a hamburger, part of what’s happening is that you’re changing how you think,”

Let's look at some ways to strengthen your willpower.

- Start an activity that challenges you and allows you to practice delayed gratification

If you were to start tennis as a beginner for example, it will take you quite some time to learn all the techniques to play well in a tennis match. Of course you will get the small rewards after each training session, like a good endorphin rush, being happy learning a new technique, which is important also to motivate you to keep going. But, the bigger reward of using all the techniques fluidly in a tennis match will take some time. And before you get to that point, you will need to go through the pain of mastering the individual technique through repetition and fight setbacks like not progressing as fast as you wish. Hence, going on despite the difficulties will strengthen your willpower.

- Practice regularly

Going to the gym once every month will probably not bring you much progress, but twice a week will definitely be a better frequency. Find the minimum effective dose that will allow you to make progress. And don't overdo either.

- Plan for moments of adversity where your willpower may be weakened.

Inflection points are moments of stress and uncertainties where we can lose our self discipline.

For example, for Starbucks employees, one of these moments is dealing with an angry customer. And in this situation, they follow a specific routine in which they have been trained, to provide the best service to the customer even when the pressure is on. They have created a habit loop for self discipline, by planning ahead on what they're going to do to get over the bump.

So, create willpower habit loops for when your willpower may be weakened.


The power of habit is definitely a very good read and you will find useful advice that can be applied both on the personal and business side. You will also find many other interesting stories in the book like :

  • How Alcoholics anonymous help fight addictions using the habit mechanism

  • How a football coach turned one of the worst NFL teams into a winning team with habits

  • How companies install habits in customers to sell more products

  • How organizations like Starbucks cultivate willpower in their employees

"The difference between who you want to be and who you are is what you do." - Charles Duhigg


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