At wits' end...
At wits' end...

My humble attempt at coming to terms with modern technology

An optimistic, happy-go lucky person who hails from Kerala, the 'Gods own Country'. As a passionate marketeer and an avid reader I enjoy sharing my views on Books, Social Issues, and Public Speaking.




At wits' end...

'The Power of Habit' by Charles Duhigg - Part I

Ramya VasudevanRamya Vasudevan

I think I'm going through mid-life crisis. Sitting in a cafe, re-evaluating my career options, I am suddenly overcome by a certain adulation for the art of story-telling. The only other reasonable explanation for this thought is that it could be a culmination of my love for the written word, the recollection of some of my favourite authors, and the latest addition to my book repertoire - The Power of Habit. For now, I'll go with the second option and park mid-life crisis for a deeper analysis later on.

Now that I think about it, some of my favourite authors like Malcolm Gladwell, Shashi Tharoor, are all masterful story tellers who know how to weave those seemingly divergent strands of ideas into a consistent story. After reading The Power of Habit, I think Charles Duhigg is no stranger to this art. In this book, Duhigg combines brilliant story telling and some life-changing ideas to create the perfect recipe for a successful book. 'The Power of Habit' is a simple concept - a neglected one, but so basic that its mastery can have a huge impact in our lives. Everyone should read it.

Now let me tell you why this book is so effective.

The general perception about bad habits is that they are really difficult to change, and even if they do, they are bound to be back if we are not careful. We've all spent endless days (and nights) trying to change our habits. Families have fallen apart because of a 'seemingly unchangeable' habit of one of the spouses. After a while, we take pride in our efforts, resign to our fates and go back to our routines, declaring with a heavy heart, I can't.

More often than not, when it comes to changing a bad habit or developing a new one, we fall back on our 'will power', or blame its lack thereof! Research suggests that 'will power' is a limited resource. For example, if you want to hit the gym in the evening after work, it could be a lot more difficult if you have already used up your will power resisting cookies or attending unnecessary meetings during the day. In fact, your will power may not be a perfectly reliable companion under all circumstances - especially when it comes to changing deep-rooted habits.

If 'will power' can't help us, then what can? Understanding the psychology of habits can!

Charles Duhigg is here to tell you that if you want to change your habits or develop new ones, you can, even if you have failed multiple times. The book lays down the foundations of habit formation and gives you practical advice on what do with that knowledge. Additionally, it not only focuses on the habits of individuals, but talks about organisational habits and the habits of societies.

The prologue to the book is quite intriguing; there are some brilliant examples meant to emphasise the importance of understanding the psychology of habits. Imagine this - an Army Major of Kufa (a small city ninety miles south of Iraq's capital Baghdad) was able to avert some major riots by just getting the food vendors out of the plazas where the crowd would gather. In an area that's notorious for frequent riots, the usual response would be to keep the forces on standby and wait till the riot breaks out, or to get the forces to break up any congregation before it becomes a riot. But by analysing the social habits of groups, the Major was able to hypothesise that one seemingly unrelated action of keeping the food vendors can create such a ripple effect. It worked; there hadn't been a riot since he arrived.

What's more? If done correctly, you no longer have to worry about the habit rearing it's dirty head again. In a research funded by the National Institutes of Health, the scientists noticed that as the subjects replaced their old habits with new ones, their brains got re-wired. One of the subjects from the study, Lisa Allen, who was at the time, thirty-four years old, had started smoking and drinking when she was sixteen and had struggled with obesity for most of her life. At one point, in her mid-twenties, collection agencies were hounding her to recover $10,000 in debts. An old resume listed her longest job as lasting less than a year. Interestingly, within a year, Lisa had completely turned her life around. She was now lean and vibrant, with the toned legs of a runner. She looked a decade younger than the photos in her chart. According to the most recent report, Lisa had no outstanding debts, didn't drink, and was in her thirty-ninth month at a graphic design firm. In her brain images, the researchers found something spectacular: one set of neurological patterns - her old habits - had been replaced by new patterns. They could still see the neural activity of her old behaviours, but those impulses were crowded out by new urges. As Lisa's habits changed, so had her brain!

Here's another anecdote on how the psychology of habit can be used in business. Marketers have been, from time immemorial, manipulating our habits against our wishes to make us do things we are not used to - like brushing our teeth. Once upon a time, when the US government was drafting men for the World War I, so many recruits had rotting teeth that officials said poor dental hygiene was a national security risk. Then comes the advertising wizard Claude Hopkins, who, within 5 years, turned Pepsodent into one of the best-known products on earth and, in the process, helped create a tooth brushing habit that moved across America with startling speed.

[Side note: I'm not adding fuel to the fire here, but did you know that Shampoo doesn't have to foam, but every shampoo company adds foaming chemicals because people expect it each time they wash their hair? Also that almost every toothpaste contains oils and chemicals that causes gums to tingle, because people crave it and if it wasn't there, their mouths didn't feel clean? When Savlon antiseptic was first launched in India, their campaign against rival Dettol was along the lines of, An antiseptic that doesn't sting. This whole premise in fact backfired because people expected antiseptics to sting - otherwise how would they know if they were effective or not! It took Johnson & Johnson, the company that came up with Savlon, a while to even fathom what had hit them. They eventually recovered, but had to take the bull by it's horn with a campaign that said, 'less sting but more effective'.]

Duhigg points out:

In the past decade, our understanding of neurology and psychology of habits and the way patterns work within our lives, societies and organisations has expanded in ways we couldn't have imagined 50 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.

To understand the psychology of habits, let's start with the most important diagram in this book called 'the habit loop' or 'cue-routine-reward cycle'. If you can understand how these three are linked, then you can effect habit changes.

The science behind Habits

All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits - William James, 1892

Habits can emerge without our permission

Cues can be anything, from a visual trigger such as a candy bar or a television commercial, to a certain place, a time of day, an emotion, a sequence of thoughts or the company of particular people. Routines can be incredibly complex or fantastically simple (some, such as those related to emotions, are measured in milliseconds). Rewards can range from food or drugs that cause physical sensation, to emotional pay offs, such as the feelings of pride that accompany praise or self-congratulation.

In short, habits, as much as memory and reason, are at the root of how we behave. We might not remember the experiences that create our habits, but once they are lodged within our brains, they influence how we act often without our realisation.

Now that we have looked at some of the important properties of habits, in the next blog post, we will explore how to create new habits and replace existing ones.


An optimistic, happy-go lucky person who hails from Kerala, the 'Gods own Country'. As a passionate marketeer and an avid reader I enjoy sharing my views on Books, Social Issues, and Public Speaking.