Summary on “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg – Part 3

This is the last par (part 3) of the summary about the book “The Power of Habit” by Charless Duhigg. In this last part I will summarise the third act of the book, including an overall summary of the steps involved to get to. Please refer to the first part or the second part if you want to find out what this is all about.

Part 3:

Habits can be changed pro-actively, so there is always the choice to do something about them. The most important thing is that you create the will to believe in something, from where change will automatically follow. One of the most important methods to come to that belief is by changing your habits. If you want to do something for the first time it will require a lot of effort on your part. When you repeat the process on a consistent basis it will slowly become a habit, which in turn will be requiring less effort every time it is done until the point it will be done on autopilot. It will even come to a point where it can be done without consciousness.

From the moment we choose who we want to be, we will start growing to that path. A really nice analogy to illustrate this example is a paper which is folded a certain way. From that point on every time you try to fold that paper again it will most of the time fold back to the old fold lines. The real power of habit for me was seeing that: habits are what you choose them to be. So just start with believing in what you want to be, and the change will follow in the form of a new habit.

William James:

In the past there was a psychiatrist who was not feeling well himself. He was not sure about (his) life, and was contemplating committing suicide. The good psychiatrist he was though, he first wanted to see for a year if he really wanted to end his life. This was done by writing down every day in his diary how he was always in control of his own actions. By writing this down, he was starting to change his own beliefs and so he started to see how free will is a choice for everyone to make. This way he could not blame anyone for not being happy, but himself.

Read: The principles of psychology – William James

The framework to change habits:

  1. Identify the habit
  2. Experiment with the rewards
  3. Isolate the cue
  4. Come up with a plan

1 – Identify the habit

The base of the habit loop consists of a cue, routine and reward. To discover your own habits and to dissect them into the above steps first of all identify all components of the habit loop. In most of the cases you seek to change the routine of the loop. For example the writer of the book at one specific moment every day went to the cafeteria and bought a cookie. This made him gain weight so he decided to break this habit.

He wanted to stop this bad habit, but it was difficult. On willpower alone he could not do it, so he analysed all the steps involved. So he asked himself a couple of questions: What is the cue: was I hungry, was it boredom or was it because of low blood-sugar? After that he tried finding out what the reward was: the change of scenery, the cookie itself or maybe the distraction from work? To find this out he had to do some experiments:

2 – Experimenting with rewards
It is difficult to find out what is really the thing the habit loops reward. In an earlier example Febreze added a parfum to his up until then scentless cleaning spray. But by adding the scent to the product, people were actually believing they cleaned something and got a sort of reward when smelling the nice scent after cleaning. But the reward can be anything of course, so you have to try a lot of things to make sure you find out what the real reward is for you. This can be done by changing the reward of a certain habit loop every day for a couple of days. You want to find out the underlying cause, so in the cookie example the author tried the following: getting away from his desk, eat something else like an apple and so on.

A useful thing to do is to write down everything that pops into your mind after getting a specific reward. So just dot down everything that comes to mind, this could be emotions, random thoughts or even reflection on your feelings. Then set an alarm for 15 minutes and when the buzzer goes off just think to yourself if you would still like a cookie for example. This way you know if the chosen reward was satisfying. The capturing of your thoughts is a moment of attention. And of course it can be used to recapture the moment, if you later want to see how you felt.

3 –  Isolate the cue
The next step is one of the most difficult things to find out, because the cue is hard to identify. What you can do is every time you feel the need to do something, write down a couple of things:
Emotional state
Other people
Action before
If you write down those things you find it more easy to identify a pattern. This pattern will become visible automatically if above steps are done correctly. In the cookie example it became clear to the author that he always did want a cookie at a certain time. In step 2 it became already clear he was not hungry, so by writing down the things a couple of days he found out it was the need for a temporary distraction. So having a chat with someone in the office between 3 and 4 was the solution.

4 – Come up with a plan
The last step is to have a plan ready for the habit, so you can change the routine and still get the reward you seem to be looking for. To change this we have to make choices instead of doing everything automatically (as this is how it works when having a habit).

So in the cookie example the author set an alarm at 3:30 and when reminded he walked to a friend and chatted a bit. In the beginning this was hard, and costed a lot of effort for him. After a while it started to become more of a habit to do this instead of going to the cafeteria. The good feeling he got whenever it worked out and he didn’t bought a cookie was priceless. However it still did go wrong sometimes, but those times were getting less frequent. After a month or so, the alarm was not needed anymore and he started to go all by himself to talk to someone. This was the plan for him.

Habits cannot be changed easily, but whenever you use the above framework it will be possible to change them! Sometimes you will have to do something different and try small changes, but in the end it will always be the above steps to guide you.

The above summary of the framework is also found on the official website of the book.

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