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The Power of Habit- Why we do what we do in life and business - Book Review

1 May 2015
Dr. Moria Levy
book cover

The book "The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business" was written in 2012 by Charles Duhigg, a Pulitzer-prize awarded journalist. It is a best-seller and has been translated into more than 40 languages.

The book describes changing habits on the individual level (me, you and she), the organizational level (Change Management) and the level of overall social changes. The book's motto is: although habits are embedded in our brains (i.e. create a nervous desire in our brain), they can be changed. The key to this is will power, a detailed understanding of the habit in its context, creating an alternative plan of action (hereby explained) and implementing it:


Although the book summary is mainly written from an organizational point of view, it is worthwhile to read it through the eyes of an individual as well through an overall social perception. I sure benefitted from it, and therefore highly recommend it.

Changing personal habits 

According to researches, more than 40% of the actions we do on a daily basis are not a result of a conscious decision. They are the result of a habit. Let's not confuse the issue: this not necessarily bad. Our brain conserves much time and effort by allowing us to act according to habits rather than considering every action and consciously deciding about it (this subject is elaborated on in the summary of Israeli Nobel laureate Professor Daniel Kahneman's "Thinking, Fast and Slow"). Nevertheless, this astounding number is more than what we would've expected. More importantly, we are probably dissatisfied with many of these actions derived from habits. We are addicted to out habits and they dictate our conduct.

So, what is the correct balance? There is obviously no single answer to this question. Each and every one of us can consider which habits he/she is content with and which he/she would prefer eliminating or altering (e.g. overeating/smoking/rage etc.). The latter should and can be changed.

Of course, changing many habits at once is unwise. Even if we are dissatisfied with many aspects of our conduct, we should choose a keystone habit we would like to change and deal with it only. The good news is that changing the second and third habit becomes simpler once you took care of the keynote habit. Furthermore, sometimes one change naturally leads to another (for example, increased physical exercise may lead to a healthier diet). As stated, the key to any change is to understand our behavior, plan the change and implement it accordingly.

 The process of individual change is comprised of three stages:

  1. Cue-something to get our brain to perform the habit automatically.

  2. Routine-the unwanted action is performed as part of a routine following this cue.

  3. Reward-a good feeling/satisfaction we get from performing this habit.

Example: if every time I get a mail at work I don't know how to handle I eat something sweet, then my cue is "receiving an annoying email", the routine is unmonitored food consumption and the reward is a distraction or feeling of empowerment (thus assisting in approaching the email).

How do we change an existing habit? There is no actually no need to do so. Instead, we can simply create an alternative habit:

  1. We decide we want to make a change. Without our willpower, no change can occur.

  2. Identifying the routine. This is the simple part in most cases and thus doesn't need any explaining.

  3. Comprehending what reward we gain from performing this habit. A recommended way to implement this step is to write down, immediately after the habit was performed, what you felt. This documentation must be done associatively. After a week, reviewing these notes can reveal the nature of this feeling. We must then review alternative actions that can produce a similar feeling.

  4. Isolating the cue. A recommended way to implement this step is for a week, every time you perform the habit document the following 5 parameters:

    • Location-where were we?

    • People-Who did we talk to/work with/contact.

    • Time-when did the activity take place?

    • Emotion-what did we feel?

    • Last action performed before initiating the routine.

  5. Planning the change: deciding that each time the cue will appear, we will consciously perform the alternative, beneficial action that can provide us with the same emotional reward. For example, if when we're tired during the afternoon we become easily annoyed with our children, every day when the designated hour nears and our child indeed begins to make more noise than we'd wish we should dedicate 10 minutes to ourselves: talk to a friend on the phone or take a nice shower. These will provide us with the same feeling of relief we would achieve by becoming angry without actually becoming angry. So what did we achieve? Same cue, same reward-but in between them was performed a beneficial action instead of the harmful habit.

  6. Implementation: proactively searching for the cues and replacing them with the alternative action. There is no guarantee for immediate success. On the contrary: I can assure you failures and mishaps. Yet the chances for success are high. It requires willpower, perseverance and brain work (comprehension, planning and implementation). It is possible.

Managing organizational change 

Organizations are not essentially different from individuals. An individual has habits; an organization has its routine. These are just different names given to two essentially identical phenomena. Similarly to the conduct of the individual, most actions performed by/within the organization are a product of various routine templates and are not derived from an intelligent decision making process. Another similarity is the fact that people perform these habits as a reaction to some sort of cue. Also, on an organizational level, a reward will be granted as a result of performing this habit.      

As we learned, an individual cannot (and therefore should not attempt to) change several existing habits simultaneously. This is true regarding organizations as well; organizations should indentify their keystone routines they wish to change and if chosen wisely. This change will later lead to many other positive changes. Duhigg presents the following case study: O'Neill, CEO of the American company Alco'a, decided to improve the attitude towards safety, and by improving the safety routines lead the company to a substantial growth in profitability. Wise management of a key stone routine change affects the organization transversely. In the words of one company worker, "excellence is just spilling all over".

Obviously, correctly identifying the keystone routine is not an easy task. It requires investing thought and conducting research, understanding the organization's needs in this specific context. It is nevertheless safe to say that quick wins are an assisting factor (yet not a singular factor) in identifying the keynote routine that must be changed. Quick wins are powerful factors when motivating employees towards the new routines. Sometimes there is even a snowballing effect that affects the organization transversely. In any case, these quick wins are affective in instilling the new culture.

Another critical similarity between the individual and organization(s) is that in both cases changing the habit in its entirety is nearly impossible. Instead, we must opt with replacing only the action itself by identifying, isolating and analyzing the habit's cue and reward.

An example (M.L):  A project manager begins a project enthusiastically > quickly approaches the project's execution > feels satisfied from the substantial ignition.

Instead (as a result of the change):

A project manager begins a project enthusiastically > makes an appointment with an associate manager who has managed a project with similar characteristics and learns lessons from his colleague's conduct > feels satisfied from the substantial ignition.

Duhigg recommends that if possible the organization should simultaneously clarify authority yet create work routines that balance this authority in order to distribute power wisely. Based on Kotter's approach (M.L) Duhigg explains that a perquisite for successfully initiating an organizational change is the workers understanding that a change is needed.

Managing an overall social change  

Succeeding to affect an entire society towards a change is not trivial. Nevertheless, it is possible if we only comprehend its three components:

  1. Affecting those closest to you-based on strong relations.

  2. Affecting your community-based on weaker relations.

  3. Evolvement to social affect and creating new routines of identity and ownership.


During the first stage, people will respond and feel a need to get involved due to their close relationship with the initiator. Those with weaker relations will more easily ignore this attempt. Friendship will be the reason for success in this case.

During the second stage, weaker relations are actually important due to the ability to expand. According to the linking theory, people to which I have a strong relation usually have a strong relation to one another. It's therefore difficult to expand relying solely on this small group. If the change is promoted within the second, there is a chance for the change to expand. During this stage, peer pressure (literally caused by their peers, who are in this case members of the first group) will cause other to join the change (if there is indeed a critical initial mass). People generally tend to conform to society's expectations in regard to behavioral norms.

In order to develop as an overall social change, it must escape the boundaries of the wide community. At this point, the idea should already be able to sell itself, since there is no direct channel through which the change initiators can affect it. The best way to reach and maintain this stage is by creating new habits (as we explained numerous times above, the template cannot change-only its contents, i.e. the action itself).

Duhigg elaborately describes the social change towards the African-Americans in the middle of the previous century. He describes how these three stages were utilized in this change, and why arrests prior to the famous case of Rose Parks (even those that occurred during the same year!), did not result in a social change. It wasn't only the timing, but the following three stages that were implemented.



As we all know, change is not easy even when following a detailed method. Therefore, hereby are some tips that can be of assistance when attempting to change a habit:

  1. Remember that willpower is a key component in successfully promoting changes (especially individual ones). Nevertheless, willpower needs enhancement (e.g. conserving willpower for important issues and not waste its "energy" on trivial ones). Furthermore, it is vital to acknowledge that when our willpower "muscles" strengthened and our willpower skills are created it will be a general skill (which is why other habits will change more easily or even automatically).

  2. Choose a keynote habit. This will affect other habits and behavioral patterns.

  3. Gain Quick Wins on the path to success. These Quick Wins should be celebrated.

  4. Write down our plans. Even if only we read them, this still increases our chances for successful implementation. This is true regarding daily routines (not only general plans). Writing gives us a sense of organization and more importantly a sense of control over events. Organizations can benefit from this tip as well, since providing workers a sense of control can improve performances.

  5. Take advantage of substantial external changes (management replacement, organizational structure, getting married etc.) as an opportunity to change your habits. The external changes enable us to perform internal changes more easily.

  6. Always create a new action as an alternative for the current habit. The pattern is eternal, the action is not.

  7. Repetitively practice the new action we chose as an alternative for the habit we are trying to change. Practice will make these actions into automatic responses, which will bring us closer to complete change.

  8. Consider the mistakes and shortcomings that are an integral part of this process. Make sure that these shortcomings do not become a permanent habit. These mistakes should be viewed as a learning tool and should be used to improve the process. They should be utilized as leverage.

  9. Have faith: before initiating the process and during the hard times.

  10. View other cases of others going through similar processes. Knowing you are not the only person to ever to embark on this journey can be comforting and encouraging.



Change is possible. It takes faith, understanding and appropriate actions. In his essay on habit changing, William James likens our habits to water: they create their own current, widening it as time goes by. These currents can be bended and changed. We can swim in a new current.

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