Book Review: The Power of Habit

In the past few weeks I’ve been thinking about what exactly it is that I want to write about on my blog. My thought process was as follows: it should interest me, it should be relevant to others, and it should be somehow related to post-graduate life (i.e. not a blog about my favourite football team/Netflix show).

I’ve decided to start off with a book review because I’ve always thought that this would be a good platform to review books. I tend to read books which maybe are not on the typical readers’ list so I hope to open up some people’s eyes to books which would otherwise remain unheard of and untouched.

I’ve just finished Charles Duhigg’s 2012 book The Power of Habit. It was on a list of Top 5 Books Anyone Looking To Go Into Advertising must read or something similar. It was very much an impulse buy (I think i bought all five books on that list) and I didn’t read any reviews before I purchased it. Funnily enough a few days after I started reading it I bumped into a friend who had just finished it and had enjoyed it massively. By then I had only read 30 pages but I was pretty confident I would enjoy it as well.

Duhigg’s book can be comfortably put in the pop-psychology genre of literature. That is, it synthesises some pretty complex psychological material into a very readable and digestible book of some 300 and something pages. It reads similar to a work of fiction in that there are characters which we follow at different moments in the narrative, however, it is also awash with statistics and reports of scientific experiments.

What is it about? Essentially the book sheds light on the relatively recent phenomena (academically speaking) of habits. He makes clear what habits are, how we form them, how we can detect them and how we can change them. There is a pretty clear recurring motif throughout the book that we can change our habits.

What makes his book both approachable and eye-opening is the wide array of examples he uses to support his points. The sports fan can relate because Duhigg explains how Michael Phelps, 23-time Olympic gold medallist, developed habits which made him become the most successful swimmer and Olympian of all time.

“Fun fact: Michael Phelps won the 200m butterfly gold in 2008 with water in his goggles from a leak.

The businessman can find the case study of Alcoa, the metal manufacturing company, fascinating. Paul O’Neill took over the company in 1987 and transformed it’s fortunes by focussing on worker safety, thus instilling new habits.

The smoker, drinker, gambler, unfit person (etc…) can find much solace in hearing all of the tales of people who managed to turn their life on its head. Who doesn’t enjoy a success story? I’m a firm believer that if one person can do something then it shows that anyone can.

We cannot all be Michael Phelps, we can though change our fortunes by changing some habits.

This book, as well as being a genuinely well-researched report on the psychology of habits, also serves as a self-help/morale-boosting/confidence-boosting book.

Near the end of the book he discuses William James’ fascination with habits in the late 19th and early 20th century. He summarises one of James’ ideas as being “The way we habitually think of our surroundings and ourselves create the worlds that each of us inhabit”. This idea struck me as particularly interesting. The connection between our surroundings and the habits we develop and cling onto sometimes doesn’t feel that clear. However, this book makes this connection particularly clear and suggests that habits are formed and broken depending on the environment we surround ourselves with.

I bought this book originally because I thought it would help me learn more about marketing/advertising. In truth I read the book with those two ideas firmly at the back of my head, not at the front. The book emphasises that, yes habits can be formed without our knowing, and yes we can analyse our habits to learn why we do what we do, but doing this is not enough. To form a habit or break a habit relies on the individual having the desire to change something. We cannot rely entirely on a psychological pattern to dictate our lives, we must take responsibility as well. (Cue free will arguments).

I would urge everyone to read this book. It isn’t a hugely scientific read (I don’t do science). It should appeal to everyone. It is about a key ingredient of what makes humans functions.

It is an eye-opening book and if it helps some people understand why they do what they do (and change what they do if that is what they want) then Duhigg has succeeded. “Once you understand how a habit operates – once you diagnose the cue, the routine and the reward – you gain power over it” he writes at the end of the book.

Like a lot of pop-psychology it maybe isn’t rocket-science. Someone though has to do the research, compile the data, find relevant example and write it into a comprehensible and absorbable book, Duhigg has done that.

I’m not sure how often I will write posts, be it book reviews or whatever else. I hope to do so quite regularly. I hope you enjoyed this review and it has inspired you to pick up Duhigg’s book.


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