• Saniya

The Power of Habit

Updated: Jul 1, 2018

Hello Readers, I hope you guys are doing well and enjoying the summer.

I was recently suggested an amazing book by one of my most beloved friends. The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. It is written by Charles Duhigg and explores the science behind habit creation and reformation.

I found the book highly useful especially as I am trying to create new habits around healthy eating and working out (remember my #THEPLAN) and also to be more productive at work. I’m sharing my notes from the book, so you guys can be super informed about these great concepts.

Topic 1: Habit Loop – How Habits Work

Habit Loop consists of three key parts:

  1. Cue: A trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode, and which routine to use

  2. Routine: Physical, mental, or emotional behavior that follows the cue

  3. Reward: A positive stimulus that tells your brain that the routine works well, and is worth remembering

  • Simply understanding how habits work make them much easier to control. By learning to observe the cues and rewards, we can change the routines

Topic 2: Can Habits be Changed?
Habit Loop

Habits can be changed / modified:

  1. Cue

  2. New Routine

  3. Reward

  • Habits can’t usually be overcome; instead, a habit can only be changed if a new routine is successfully inserted into the process with the same cue and the same reward

  • Enablers of this Change:

  1. Belief: You need to believe that change is possible. Belief is an ingredient and a skill that makes habit change possible, and even begins to spill into other areas of life

  2. Group Support: A group that believes that change can happen. “Change occurs among other people. It seems real when we can see it in other people’s eyes.” - Todd Heatherton

Topic 3: Key Stone Habit

Key Stone Habit: a habit that causes a chain reaction of habit disruption and leads to more habits, examples include:

  • People who begin an Exercise Habit typically find that they naturally start Eating Better, being more Productive at work, and feeling less Stressed

  • Making bed in the morning leads to More Discipline, Living within Means and More Productivity

Identification of Key Stone Habits:

  • Identification of a relevant keystone habit requires a trial-and-error approach, with the goal of finding what the authors call a “small win”: a minor advantage that sets into motion patterns that have a much larger impact

  • These are small wins – that establish the culture where change becomes contagious. For example: Food Journaling => lets you keep a track of what you eat and lets you change your eating habits => gives you a system to think about food and planning ahead for the meals which in turn leads to healthier food


  • Tendency to work endlessly towards challenges and maintaining effort and interest over years despite failures and adversity

  • Emerges due to Keystone activities

Topic 4: Key Stone Habit – Alcoa Corporation Example

Alcoa Corporation – Largest Producer of Aluminum:

  • When O’Neill (new president) took the job, Alcoa was criticized for poor quality and a slow workforce. His predecessor tried to mandate quality improvements, and the result was a 15,000-employee strike. Looking back, O’Neill explained, “I knew I had to transform Alcoa, but you can’t order people to change. That’s not how the brain works. So I decided I was going to start by focusing on one thing. If I could start disrupting the habits around one thing, it would spread throughout the entire company.” He used what the authors call a “keystone habit

  • Keystone Habit at Alcoa = Workers Safety

  • O'Neill instituted a better habit loop at Alcoa. Whenever there was an injury (cue), the unit president was required to provide O'Neill with an injury report, as well as an action plan to ensure that type of injury never happened again, within 24 hours (routine). Promotion was dependent on compliance with this requirement (reward)

  • This Key Stone Habit lead to better workforce safety, better coordination and improved communication between the various groups and open dialogue and discussions between workers leading to a more friendly, cohesive and efficient place to work

Topic 5: Willpower – The Marshmallow Test

Willpower Test:

  • Experiment: Few 4-year-old kids were brought into a classroom with some marshmallows. They were asked that they could either eat the marshmallow immediately or they could wait for 15 minutes till the researcher comes back. They were promised that if they wait they would be rewarded with twice the number of marshmallows

  • Observation: Some kids were able to exercise Will Power and wait despite the temptation

  • Results: Researchers later tracked down the kids when they went to school and found that the kids who delayed instant gratification and temptation for marshmallows by waiting long enough to earn two marshmallows => later were observed to resist peer pressure, were able to make friends easily, had better grades, went to school on time and finished homework on time

  • Conclusion: Will Power training increases Self-Regulatory Skills

  • How to reduce Temptation: Draw a frame around marshmallow so it looks like a photo and not real & hence its temptation can be reduced (nice trick but I don't think 4 years old could have figured it out :D)

Topic 6: Limited Supply of Willpower – Cookies vs. Radishes Test

Limited Supply of Willpower Test:

  • Experiment: Few undergraduate students were asked to skip a meal and were gathered in a room, each one in front of two bowls. One bowl contained fresh and appetizing chocolate chip cookies, while the other bowl contained less appetizing radishes. Half were told to eat the cookies and other half was told to eat the radishes. Later the group was asked to solve an impossible to solve puzzle

  • Results: Students who had chocolate chip cookies spent almost twice the amount of time trying to solve the puzzle. However, the part of the group asked to eat radishes gave up on the puzzle too quickly. On average, Radish eaters gave up 60% sooner than the Cookie eaters.

  • This difference was due to the depletion of the Radish eater’s Willpower as they had to use it to resist the cookies.

  • Conclusion: Willpower is a limited resource and should not be consumed too soon in a day on boring tedious tasks like replying to emails, but rather should be preserved for the more important tasks. Willpower is like a muscle that gets worked up after a lot of focus. You have to preserve you Willpower strength

Topic 7: Willpower & Habit Training – Starbucks Example


  • Various studies have shown that by exercising willpower in one area, like physical exercise or academics, you increase your reserve of willpower and are able to apply it to other areas of life. However, none of these things are enough to consistently exercise sufficient willpower

  • The key is something that has been integral to the success of coffee chain Starbucks: methodical planning of a routine for those inflection points (cues) where pain and temptation are the strongest

  • Keystone Habit = Willpower => is more than an intellectual curiosity = company wanted employees to deliver some joy / hip with every serving => therefore, they needed to know how to remain focused and disciplined in order to deliver high quality of service

  • Starbucks delivered training and schooled its employees on Will Power and Habit Training

  • Starbucks’ training systems guide employees through the identification of inflection points – Cues (such as when an angry customer is yelling because they got the wrong drink) and matching of the inflection point to one of the company’s dozens of routines. By choosing a certain behavior ahead of time, willpower becomes a habit, and employees are able to provide the high level of service that makes customers keep coming back for expensive lattes

  • Starbucks is very clear that it is:

Not in the coffee business serving people - but in the people business serving coffee

Topic 8: Sense of Authority/ Autonomy linked to Willpower
  • Experiment: Students were put in front of a tray of cookies. Researchers politely asked half the students not to eat the cookies, explained to them the purpose of the experiment, and thanked them for their time. However, the other half was ordered by the researchers that they should not eat the cookies without explaining the experiment’s purpose or thanking them

  • Results: In an unrelated standard computerized focus test afterward, the first group significantly outperformed the second

  • Conclusion: Although scientifically it is not entirely explainable, but it is clear that people perform much better and have greater willpower when they feel that their actions are due to personal choices and when they understand the purpose. On the contrary, when people are just following the orders, willpower becomes much more difficult

  • Giving employees a sense of control, improves the discipline they bring to their work

  • When you’re assigned tasks by someone else, which you must do, your willpower muscle tires much quicker

Topic 9: Habits of Societies: Montgomery Bus Boycott - How Movements happen
  • Situation: Rosa Parks, a black American woman, sparked the civil rights movement when she decided to not give up her seat for a white passenger. During those early days, buses were segregated between “white section” and the “black section”. She was arrested for this

  • Background on Rosa Parks: She was deeply involved in her community and was part of various religious groups, social charities and hobbyist groups. These groups generally didn’t come into contact with each other until Rosa needed help with her movement

Social Movements – 3 parts processes:

  1. Movement Starts – because of Social habits of friendship or close ties of acquaintances

  2. Movement Grows – because of the habits of a community & the weak ties that hold the clans and communities together. These ties are powerful because they create peer pressure. You risk losing face and social standing in the community if you don’t participate in the cause that majority cares about – just like you would lose face if you refuse to help a friend in need when all your friends know about it

  3. Movement Endures – because a movement’s leader gives participants a new habit that creates a fresh sense of identity and a feeling of ownership. The bus boycott became a new social habit that spilled into larger social habits of peaceful protests, kick-starting the civil rights movement and leading to the Civil Rights Act of 1964

Topic 10: Neurology of Free Will

Habits are amendable - Examples include:

  • College dropouts can become successful

  • Failing companies can prosper

To modify a habit:

  • Must decide to change it

  • Must accept the hard work to identify the Cue and Rewards that derive the habit’s Routine

  • Find alternatives

  • You must know that you have control and be self-conscious enough to use it

Comparison of Pathological Gambler who lost her family’s wealth & Sleep Walker who killed his wife:

  • Situation # 1: A man, with a tendency to sleep walk, had a dream that someone broke into his house and was trying to hurt his wife. During his sleep walking, he confused his wife for the thief and killed her. He later woke up and felt miserable for killing the love of his life

  • Court Case: Should the man be punished for his wife’s murder?

  • Court’s Ruling: He was not aware that this habit existed and that he could kill somebody. Thus, he had no control over it and as a result should not be punished for it

  • Situation # 2: A bored housewife became an addicted gambler and lost a lot of money over the years. She was aware that this habit existed and tried to control herself, but every time the casino called and offered her free flights and hotel stays she couldn’t say no. She had declared bankruptcy once, but her parent’s inheritance helped her reestablish herself and her family. However, she later gave into the urge of gambling again and lost all her money and took credit from the casino by putting her house as collateral

  • Court’s Case: Woman vs. Casino: Woman accused Casino of luring her in with all these tempting offers to a point that she couldn’t say no

  • Court’s Ruling: Woman was aware that she had the habit of gambling away money. Once you know that a bad habit exists, it’s your responsibility to control it. She needed to try harder

  • Conclusion: Once you know you have a bad habit and how the habit loop works, you have the freedom and responsibility to change it for the better. Once you know habits can be rebuilt, power of habit is easier to grasp and only option left is to get to work

Guide to Changing Habits for Better:

Part A – Importance of Habits:

  • Habit allows us to:

  1. Do a thing with difficulty the 1st time

  2. Do it more easily with time

  3. Finally, with sufficient practice do it semi-mechanically or hardly with any consciousness at all

  • Once people choose who they want to be, they grow to be the way in which they have been exercised just as the sheet of paper or coat once creased and folded tends to fall forever afterwards into this same identical fold

  • If you believe you can change and you make it a habit to change => the change becomes real. This is the real power of habit = the insight that your habits are what you choose them to be

Part B – Framework:

Identify the Routine:

  • It is the behavior you want to change. For example: You eat a cookie every afternoon while chatting with coworkers

  • Some less obvious question: what’s the Cue that causes this Routine? Hunger? Boredom? Low blood sugar? Need for a break? Need to Socialize?

Experiment with Rewards:

  • Rewards are powerful because they satisfy cravings, but we are often not aware of the exact cravings that derive our behavior. To figure out, you have to experiment with different rewards for days/weeks. Think of yourself as a scientist in a data collection experiment

  • When you get up to get the cookie – adjust your routine so it delivers a different reward – e. g. instead of going to the cafeteria – go outside instead for a walk and go back to your desk without eating anything. Next day go to the cafeteria and get a donut or candy bar instead. Next day go to cafeteria and buy an apple and eat it while talking to your friends. Next day go to cafeteria and get a coffee. Next day instead of cafe, go to friend’s office and gossip for a few mins and then go back to your desk

  • Each day set a 15 mins timer, and when it goes off ask yourself if you are still feeling the same urge. If you are, you haven’t yet identified the cue. Keep experimenting and eventually you will figure it out

If you were hungry – Apple should have worked

If you were tired – Coffee should have helped

If you just needed a break – Going to Friend’s Office for Gossip should have worked

Isolate the Cue:

  • Once you have discovered the reward that satisfies the cue, there is more work to be done to understand exactly what the cue is. Most habitual cues fall into the following five categories:

  1. Location

  2. Time

  3. Emotional state

  4. Other people

  5. An immediately preceding action

  • If you have a habit that you are seriously considering to change, keep a log of the above mentioned 5 categories. After a few attempts, you will probably be able to see a pattern

  • Example: Urge to get cookie – Day 1:

  1. Office

  2. 3 pm

  3. Bored

  4. No one is around

  5. Answered the email

  • Example: Urge to get cookie – Day 2:

  1. Walking back from the copier

  2. 3:18 pm

  3. Happy

  4. Coworker

  5. Made a photocopy

  • Example: Urge to get cookie – Day 3:

  1. Conference room

  2. 3:40 pm

  3. Tired but also excited about the project

  4. Editors who came for the meeting

  5. Sat down because meeting is about to start

  • Conclusion: Felt an urge to get a snack at a certain time of the day. I figured in step 2 that it wasn’t hunger (as apples or other foods didn’t satisfy it) that was deriving my behavior. The reward I was seeking was temporarily distraction from work – the kind that comes by gossiping with a friend. The habit triggered between 3:00 – 4:00 pm

Have a Plan:

  • Once you’ve recognized the precise routine, reward, and cue, it should be easy to design a different routine that provides the same reward after the same cue. Stay alert for the cue (or set an automatic alert if it’s time-based) and act out your pre-planned routine. If it works, you’ve confirmed that you found the right cue and reward, and your habit will then be easily mold-able

Results from the Experiment:

  • Cue (3:30 in the afternoon) => Routine (go to cafe and consume a cookie and chat with friends) => Reward (thru experimentation – discovered that it wasn’t the cookie I craved but rather the break and the moment of socialization with friends)

The Plan:

At 3:30 pm every day, I walked over to a friend’s desk and talked for 10 mins. I kept an alarm on my phone for this. Some days I was too busy to leave my desk as per the alarm, some days it seemed like a lot of work to go find a friend to talk to and getting a cookie seemed easier so I gave in, but in general as I practiced this new Routine (getting up at 3:30 pm to talk to a friend), it soon became a Habit :)