Tag Archives: books

The Power Of Habit

5 March, 2013


I recently finished a book called The Power Of Habit by Charles Duhigg. I’d never heard of it before I saw it in Foyles and took to the staff recommendation posted next to it. You can read one of the numerous reviews here. The book is a mix of popular science, lengthy anecdotes, and self-help, and is extremely readable.

At its core, Duhigg’s book presents habits as a simple process with three elements: a cue, a routine and a reward. Over time, these routines can become so habitual that the person anticipates the reward and receives almost as much pleasure from the anticipation as from the reward itself (“craving”). Some habits, such as tying your shoelaces, become so automatic that the conscious brain no longer has to do any work to complete them. In fact, life would be impossible without deeply-ingrained habits, otherwise you would have to (in his example) relearn how to drive every time you came back off holiday. The much simplfied premise is that habits are habits if we let them become so – the brain doesn’t distinguish between good and bad ones. There’s a ales pitch; this book can help you change them. As the LAT said:


The key to changing habits is not to avoid the cues or to change the rewards, most research shows. Rather, it involves changing the routine that leads from cue to habit. Duhigg notes that he was gaining weight, at least in part, because every afternoon at 3:30 he would break and go get a chocolate chip cookie. A series of experiments, such as having tea instead, chatting with colleagues or taking a brisk walk, indicated that what he really wanted was a break from work and interaction with colleagues. Instead of getting a cookie, he started taking 10 minutes to chat and found that he got the same reward from the activity. The cue stayed the same and the reward was similar, but the routine was markedly different.

The book really gets going with the lengthy and wide-ranging anecdotes about habits; how early 20th century admen created the market for toothpaste (and why toothpaste tingles in your mouth when it doesn’t have to), how Febreze came about, why thirty-three people died in a terrible fire on the tube in London in 1987, how shops and radio DJs sell you things, and how Rosa Parks’ bus protest snowballed into an entire movement. The sporting sections are perhaps the most interesting of all: how Michael Phelps’ coach instilled habits that made him into a multiple Olympic champion, and how Tony Dungy turned the Indianapolis Colts into a Super Bowl-winning team.

So why am I writing about his book here? There’s a few reaons. Habits and routines are, of course, at the the core of target archery. The shot cycle is actually a collection of routines; some conscious and some unconscious. Simplified: the more you can habituate or ‘automate’ the core procedures, the more you can maintain the single focus (on back tension, or possibly the release hand). This is accomplished by massive amounts of conscious repetition, i.e. ‘good’ repetition. If you want to improve, there is little point in shooting hundreds of ‘bad’ arrows with poor form, however enjoyable. The body follows the path of least resistance. The new grooves have to be carved into your brain and muscles with intense focus. This isn’t always a fun and enjoyable process.

When Michael Phelps goes out to race in the Olympics, he gets up at the same time as he always does, eats the same huge breakfast, does exactly the same warm-up laps at the same speed, puts on the same bodysuit, listens to the same hiphop tapes, steps up and down off the blocks for luck, swings his arms three times etc. Every ‘small win’ contributes to the overall pattern. In Phelps’s case, he even set a world record in the 200m butterfly in Beijing despite his goggles being filled with water. Of course he, had mentally rehearsed what would happen in case of a goggle failure in his head hundreds of times. So it just ‘felt like it imagined he would’. Phelps has, of course, the extraordinary frame and musculature and cardio-vascular system to be a champion swimmer – but so do many other people who make it to the start line for an Olympic final. The coaching that makes him unbeatable focuses pretty much entirely on his mind. Can you think of another sport where this might pay medal dividends?

The section of the book dealing with Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement aims to explain why large groups of people sustain an interest with ‘strong and weak ties’ –  the twin drivers of self-identity with a cause and peer-pressure. I was briefly reminded, reading that, of how archery is organised in the UK; the vast, interacting circles of non-professional interests, the clubs that succeed on many levels and the clubs that fall into disarray and apathy, friendliness and cliquiness at the same time. It’s a curious world.

As for how to change your bad habits to good; as the author acknowledges, some are more difficult to change than others – and as some reviewers have noted, much of the book could be accused of oversimplification. Anyway, if any of this sounds like it might interest you, pick up or order a copy at your friendly local bookstore.