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September 18, 2023

The Power of Habit: Book Review

By Bernie Pilarski

The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, by Charles Duhigg.

The older I get, the more I am aware of how deeply ingrained the patterns of my life have become. Change does not come easily anymore. For the most part, that suits me just fine. I am a reasonably decent individual and have no desire or need to make wholesale changes in who I am, yet there is always room for improvement. For example, before I retired, I had no discernible pattern of prayer in life other than participation in Mass each Sunday. I had lots of seemingly valid excuses for that, but the bottom line was that I had never made the effort to establish a habit of prayer. Retirement removed the bulk of those excuses, and today daily prayer is a significant part of my day, entrenched enough that on those days when I can't get to it, and on those days when I just don't, I feel the absence. Indeed, the lack that comes when I don't get to my prayers allows me to identify with all those joggers who say that they just don't feel right if they haven't run, or the people who have a bad day because they didn't have time to stop at Starbuck's on the way to work. Having been at one time a five-pack-a-day smoker, I know first hand how incredibly difficult it is to break habits you don't want.

In The Power of Habit, author Charles Duhigg explores recent research into the physiology of habits and the power they have in our lives.

In the past decade, our understanding of the neurology and psychology of habits and the way patterns work within our lives, societies, and organizations has expanded in ways we couldn't have imagined fifty years ago. We now know why habits emerge, how they change, and the science behind their mechanics. We know how to break them into parts and rebuild them to our specifications. We understand how to make people eat less, exercise more, work more efficiently, and live healthier lives. Transforming a habit isn't necessarily easy or quick. It isn't always simple. But it is possible. And now we understand how. -- from The Power of Habit

Duhigg is an investigative report for the New York Times, and in a sharp and concise journalistic style leads the reader through an exploration of recent scientific research in the area of habits and then demonstrates the relevance of the data by citing dramatic, real life instances of how habits impact our lives. Duhigg deftly presents the science in accessible language, so that while mice and MRI's lead ultimately into the most primitive areas of the human brain, the reader is able to follow closely along and gain a clear picture of why habits are a unique, powerful and necessary mental function. How important? Ask Tony Dungy who was able to take two NFL teams and turn them from perennial losers to Super Bowl contenders. Or ask an Army major in Iraq who was able to stop the rioting in the city of Kufa not by force, but by carefully modifying some seemingly innocuous behaviors to break the cycle of violence.

From the subways of London to the corporate offices of large American companies, from why we choose the toothpaste that we do to which church we attend, the power of habit exerts an enormous influence on our individual and communal lives, and that information can be very lucrative to those who know how to use it. Target Corporation collects an enormous amount of information about the buying habits of its customers, and through sophisticated analysis, it can predict what kinds of things you might want, and even when you might want them. They can, for example, reasonably accurately tell when a woman is pregnant and how far along she is simply by watching register receipts, something they track in surprising detail by individual.

The underlying premise that the author presents is that habits rule our lives. This is not a new concept. Aristotle thought so, saying that "By acting as we do with other men we make ourselves just or unjust. It makes no small difference whether we form habits of one kind or another from early youth; it makes, rather, all the difference." In Christian spirituality the Heavenly Virtues (Prudence, Justice, Temperance, Fortitude, Faith, Hope and Love) and the Deadly Sins (Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Anger, Envy and Pride) are often referred to as habits. It's easy to see the sins as the result of habit, but less often (or at least less fashionable) are the virtues seen as habit, something that is gained from practice.

The value of The Power of Habit is that it succeeds admirably in stripping away some of the mystery of habit formation and provides a language and framework for analyzing the process. And here is the key issue for Duhigg: knowledge is power.

Hundreds of habits influence our days -- they guide how we get dressed in the morning, talk to our kids, and fall asleep at night; they impact what we eat for lunch, how we do business, and whether we exercise or have a beer after work. Each of them has a different cue and offers a unique reward. Some are simple and others complex, drawing upon emotional triggers and offering subtle neurochemical prizes. But every habit, no matter its complexity, is malleable. The most addicted alcoholics can become sober. The most dysfunctional companies can transform themselves. A high school dropout can become a successful manager. -- from The Power of Habit

This is a solidly written, well-researched book that presents its material in a clear and thoughtful manner. The stories picked to support the work are real, relevant, and interesting. Where information is presented that may cast a party in a bad light, the author provides that party an opportunity to present its side. There are sixty pages of notes that provide information on the "hundreds of interviews and thousands more papers and studies" used as the source material for the book, as well as guides to additional resources that may be of interest to the reader.

This is not a self-help book (although there is some practical advice on how to approach changing habits), a motivational book, nor a textbook. It is a good piece of journalism intended to inform and educate, and to those ends, it succeeds admirably.

Article © Bernie Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2013-07-29
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