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1-Page Book Summary of The Power of Habit

What are Habits?

You think you’re making decisions all day, but more than 40% of the actions you take each day are actually habits.

Habits are choices that you continue doing repeatedly without actually thinking about them. At one point, they started with a decision, but they eventually became automatic.

They’re very powerful, and sometimes destructive. You can probably think about things you do everyday that you wish you did less of (binging Netflix shows; habitually opening Facebook; snacking when you're not hungry).

But if you can understand how habits are triggered, you can overcome them.

Components of a Habit

A habit has 3 steps:

  1. cue, a trigger that tells your brain which habit to use and puts it into automatic mode.
  2. routine, which acts out the habit. This can be physical, mental, or emotional.
  3. reward, which is the result of the routine and reinforces the habit.

Habits start as a conscious decision, but ultimately the loop can reinforce itself. Over time, you may end up losing full control over your behavior – with a cue, your brain goes into autopilot and executes the routine.

The good news is that by consciously recognizing your cues and rewards, you can combat your habits.

Cravings

The final essential component of a habit is craving. A craving is the anticipation of the reward when you get the cue, even before you actually get the reward. This craving pushes you through the routine so that you get the reward at the end of the habit. And if you don’t push through the routine, you don’t get the reward, and the craving is unsatisfied – making you unhappy.

Let’s make this concrete with a few more real-life examples.

Checking your phone:

  • Cue: hear your phone buzz
  • Craving: who’s contacting me? What’s going on in the world?
  • Routine: stop everything you’re doing and check your phone
  • Reward: get pleasure from the momentary distraction from a text, email, Tweet, etc.

Changing Your Habits

Over time, habits become deeply ingrained. Over many iterations of the habit loop, the transition between cue, craving, routine, and reward become automatic. Think about any personal habits that you want to break, and how hard they seem to change. Once you get a cue and craving, it can seem almost as though you lose control and act on auto-pilot.

Luckily, research into successful methods of behavior change have revealed the best practices of changing your habits.

Step 1: Identify the Cues and Rewards

First and foremost is understanding your own habits. First, identify the cues or triggers that kick off your habit. Every time you feel tempted with a craving, make a note to yourself on paper. Then think about what happened recently, or what you felt recently, that kicked off the craving.

Next, understand the reward you get after the routine. This could be a physical one, like food, or an emotional one, like relief of boredom or feeling socially connected. Think deep, and ask yourself “why?” five times. Often, the real root cues and rewards are not the superficial ones that first come to mind.

Step 2: Change the Routine

Once you identify your cues and rewards, you want to work on actually changing the habit.

It turns out that it’s incredibly hard to completely eliminate old habits. For some reason, even after a long time, experiencing a cue can trigger old habits despite your best intentions. This is why alcoholics and smokers can fall off the wagon after just smelling cigarette smoke or having one taste of alcohol.

Luckily, there is one Golden Rule: to change a habit, keep the same cue and the same reward, but change the routine.

Because your brain’s already wired in...

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The Power of Habit Summary Part 1: Individual Habits | Chapter 1: The Habit Loop

The Power of Habit starts with the most important section: what habits are, and how habits exist in individuals. This is the core of the book and really worth paying attention to.

What are Habits?

You think you’re making decisions all day, but more than 40% of the actions you take each day are actually habits.

Habits are choices that you continue doing repeatedly without actually thinking about them. At one point, they started with a decision, but they eventually became automatic.

They’re very powerful, and sometimes destructive. You can probably think about things you do everyday that you wish you did less of (binging Netflix shows; habitually opening Facebook; snacking when you're not hungry).

But if you can understand how habits are triggered, you can overcome them. This Power of Habit summary will teach you the main strategies to recognize and overcome your habits.

Components of a Habit

A habit has 3 steps:

  1. cue, a trigger that tells your brain which habit to use and puts it into automatic mode.
  2. routine, which acts out the habit. This can be physical, mental, or emotional.
  3. reward, which is the result of the routine and reinforces the habit.

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Experiments with rats in mazes show this in a simple form. Let’s say you place a rat in a maze, with a chocolate reward at the end of it. When you release the rat in the maze, you play a click sound. The first time, the rat explores randomly and eventually finds the chocolate. You repeat this multiple times, with the same click at the same time, and the chocolate in the same place.

Over time, the rat will build a habit and ace the maze, every single time. The click is the cue that activates the routine, or the specific route through the maze that gets to the chocolate reward.

You can even train the rat to activate different routines based on different cues. You can put the chocolate in a different place and associate it with a...

The Power of Habit Summary Chapter 2: Starting New Habits

You now know that the habit consists of a cue, a routine, and a reward. But this is only part of the story. By themselves, the cue and reward would just be considered learning. For example, consider fixing a flat tire on your car. You hear the cue of the flat tire sound, and you feel the cue of the bumpiness of the ride. You have a routine to fix the tire. Then you have the reward of being able to continue on your ride, and the self-satisfaction of handiwork.

But you don’t have a habit of fixing your tire. It’s not something you look do on auto-pilot, daily or weekly.

The final essential component of a habit is craving. A craving is the anticipation of the reward when you get the cue, even before you actually get the reward. This craving pushes you through the routine so that you get the reward at the end of the habit. And if you don’t push through the routine, you don’t get the reward, and the craving is unsatisfied – making you unhappy.

Imagine the habit of ordering fast food from McDonald’s. You get the cue of delicious French fry smell. Before actually going through the routine, you crave the reward – the Big Mac with Diet Coke at the end. This craving pushes you through the completion of the habit’s routine. And if you don’t satisfy this craving by completing the habit, you end up pretty dejected as you instead eat your baby carrots.

This craving makes the cue-routine-reward loop a true habit, rather than just simple learning.

Monkey Brains and Cravings

The seminal work in understanding cravings was done in monkeys. The monkey was set in front of a blank computer screen. Periodically, a colored shape would appear on the screen. The monkey’s job was to press a lever when this shape appeared, and it’d get a drop of grape juice (which the monkey loved).

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When measuring activity in the monkey’s dopamine neurons, a predictable pattern appeared – when the monkey got a reward (R), its brain activity spiked, indicating...

Shortform Exercise: Identify Your Habit

Apply what you learned to figuring out a habit you don’t like.


What is a bad habit that you want to stop? How often do you do it?

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The Power of Habit Summary Chapter 3: Stopping Bad Habits

Up until now, we’ve focused on building new habits – Pepsodent causing a new tingle, Febreze adding a new smell. But you likely want to stop your bad habits too – eating without control, procrastinating, or getting distracted at work.

Over time, habits become deeply ingrained. Over many iterations of the habit loop, the transition between cue, craving, routine, and reward become automatic. Think about any personal habits that you want to break, and how hard they seem to change. Once you get a cue and craving, it can seem almost as though you lose control and act on auto-pilot.

Luckily, research into successful methods of behavior change have revealed the best practices of changing your habits.

Step 1: Identify the Cues and Rewards

First and foremost is understanding your own habits. First, identify the cues or triggers that kick off your habit. Every time you feel tempted with a craving, make a note to yourself on paper. Then think about what happened recently, or what you felt recently, that kicked off the craving.

Next, understand the reward you get after the routine. This could be a physical one, like food, or an emotional one, like relief of boredom or feeling socially connected. Think deep, and ask yourself “why?” five times. Often, the real root cues and rewards are not the superficial ones that first come to mind.

Example: say you want to stop snacking at work. Periodically, you feel the urge to get up from your desk, go to the kitchen, and find something to eat. Superficially, you think that you snack to satisfy your hunger. But you might find that you do this even when you’re not hungry.Instead, after introspection, you find that your real cue is that you get up when you feel lonely. Getting a snack gives you an excuse to go to the kitchen, where someone’s usually hanging out. You then strike up a conversation, while coincidentally eating chips. The real reward is the social connection with another person.

Step 2: Change the Routine

Once you identify your cues and rewards, you want to work on actually changing...

Shortform Exercise: Rewire Your Habit

Now that you understand your habit loop well, try to rewire it.


To review, write down your cue, routine, and reward for a habit you want to change.

The Power of Habit Summary Part 2: Organizational Habits | Chapter 4: Keystone Habits

Next, we’ll cover habits adopted by multiple people - companies, organizations, teams. (Shortform note: this section of the book seems less rigorous and research-backed than the first part, but has some interesting ideas.)

Keystone Habits

Certain habits can have a domino effect – get one habit right, and many other good habits fall into place naturally. These keystone habits act as massive levers.

A 2009 study on weight loss tried to get obese people to follow a simple habit – write down everything they ate, at least one day a week. While difficult at first, it became a habit for many. Unexpectedly, this small habit rippled throughout their diet. When forced to study what they ate, the study participants couldn’t help noticing when they snacked absentmindedly, or when they had unhealthy dinners. They then proactively started to plan future meals so that when they wanted a snack, they reached for an apple instead of a candy bar.

The keystone habit of keeping a food journal created an environment for more healthy habits to thrive. Eventually, participants who kept a journal lost twice as much weight as the control group.

How do you find a keystone habit? Find an area where you can have small wins. By achieving small wins, you create forces that favor another small win, and that in turn encourages the next small win, and so on, creating a virtuous cycle. These wins create a culture of change, and create new structures that help new habits grow and thrive.

(Shortform note: this chapter contain as much scientific rigor as in the first 3 chapters, so the keystone habit concept feels anecdotal. It can make sense intuitively, though. When you’re stuck in a rut, it’s often easy to resign yourself to thinking you’re incapable of change, that you’re a lazy good-for-nothing. By achieving small wins, you can reverse this resignation – you can convince yourself that you ARE capable of change. This courage can empower you to take bigger and bigger steps.)

Example: Transforming a Corporate Culture

In 1987, the Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa)...

The Power of Habit Summary Chapter 5: Building Willpower

Willpower can be defined in a number of ways: as self-discipline, determination, self-control. More technically, it has also been defined as the ability to delay short-term gratification to reach long-term goals, the ability to override an unwanted impulse, and regulation of the self.

Willpower has a number of interesting properties:

Willpower is critical to personal success. 

A famous study in the 1960s, nicknamed the “Marshmallow Test,” studied the willpower of 4-year-olds. Kids were put into a room and presented with a marshmallow on a plate. They were presented with a deal: you can eat this marshmallow right away, or you can wait a few minutes and we’ll give you two marshmallows. The researcher left the room and watched the kids. Most kids (70%) twisted and squirmed before snatching the marshmallow and eating it joyfully. About 30% ignored their urges and got the longer-term reward of 2 marshmallows.

Decades later, they tracked the kids’ performance in high school. The minority of kids who delayed gratification ended up with the best grades and SAT scores that were 210 points higher on average. They were less likely to do drugs and were more socially popular. It seemed that being able to resist short-term temptations had rippling effects for academics and resisting peer pressure. This ideas has since been replicated across dozens of experiments. Willpower even predicts academic performance more robustly than IQ.

Willpower is trainable. 

The same 4-year-old kids can be taught techniques to resist the marshmallow, like distracting themselves by doodling, or picturing a frame around a marshmallow so it looks like a picture.

Willpower is less a skill and more like a resource, like muscle power. 

This means willpower is depletable. In a study, college students were presented with a bowl of cookies and a bowl of radishes. They were split into two groups – one was instructed to eat only the cookies and leave the radishes, and the other to eat only the radishes and leave the cookies. The radish group should be using more...

Shortform Exercise: Getting Past Your Pain Point

To build willpower, fill in specific plans about how to deal with pain points you expect.


What is a habit you feel you lack willpower for?

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The Power of Habit Summary Chapter 6: Habits in Organizations

One would think that a company’s behavior, and their employees’ behavior, is defined by rational, deliberate choices at each step.

In reality, much of employee behavior comes from habits grandfathered in from the past. Employees rely on routines to guide their behavior – for instance, many companies have a standard bonus and promotion track. In the typical environment, employees know that if they keep their head down, work hard, and don’t cause trouble, they’ll be rewarded with bonuses and promotions at a predetermined schedule.

The utility of habits here is the same as personal individual habits - it saves energy when you don’t have to question why you behave every day. Routines help stuff get done without falling into paralysis. They allow employees to make progress without having to reinvent things all the time or ask for permission at each step.

Organizational habits can be constructive or destructive. Often destructive habits are created without deliberate planning, instead growing organically from rivalries, fear, or ego.

The book argues that the natural state of a company is of conflict. Executives compete for influence and credit from achievements. Different teams compete for resources and attention. Employees compete against each other to gain favor with managers and snag a promotion.

Habits are actually useful in brokering peace. Conflicting parties come together and agree on a set of behaviors that everyone will follow, so that the company overall benefits and everyone gets paid.

For example, salespeople are often tempted to give big discounts to clients to land a sale. But if everyone did this, the company would go bankrupt. So the sales team decides internally to limit the discounts each person can give so that the entire team can succeed.

Similarly, departments want to maintain control over their jurisdiction and prevent power grabs by other departments. So different departments agree on habits to avoid turf battles – don’t intrude on our space, and we won’t intrude on yours. This leads to the natural pushing away of...

The Power of Habit Summary Chapter 7: How Companies Exploit Your Habits

When you consume commercial products like groceries and music, you have habits, and those habits are predictable. (What a surprise.) People have favorite types of food and genres of music and regularly consume them. Again, the value of habits is conservation of mental energy – you don’t have to think hard about what what groceries to buy every trip or which radio station to listen to everyday.

Supermarkets are well designed to play psychological tricks based on your habits:

  • Healthy, fresh food is put near the entrance of the store. The theory is that if you buy healthy food at the beginning of your shopping trip, you’ll be able to justify buying Oreos placed at the end (additionally, you’ve likely already depleted your willpower by this point after passing by loads of delicious looking food). This makes you spend more overall, and over time you develop a habit of loading up your cart with a full range of goods.
  • Most people turn to the right after entering a store, so higher margin items are placed to the right.

People’s habits do suddenly change, and most often after major life events. Even though your personal habits have changed, they change in a predictable way. For example, if you’re expecting a baby, you’re likely to suddenly start buying vitamins and unscented lotion.

Retailers track all your buying behavior through your credit cards and rewards cards. They can then detect your buying patterns and send you customized newsletters with deals unique to you, to get you back into the store. For instance, if Target thinks you’re likely to be in your third trimester of pregnancy, it’ll send you discounts on diapers and baby clothes. This will get you into the store and you’re likely to buy food and housewares along the way.

However, this can’t be done too obviously. Because buying pregnancy items is new to you, it contradicts your previous habits, and pointing it out is especially salient. It’d be creepy to get a coupon book full of baby formula coupons when you haven’t even announced that you’re pregnant.

So retailers have figured out...

The Power of Habit Summary Part 3: Societal Habits | Chapter 8: How Movements are Started

Finally, The Power of Habit summary concludes with habits in society. (Shortform note: this is the least practical section of the book for your everyday life, and a bit of a stretch into fuzzy sociological theory.)

Successful social movements are said to have three parts:

1) the movement begins with the social habits of close friendship – someone is afflicted, and the people close to them immediately help

2) the movement grows from the habits of a community and the weak ties that combine loosely affiliated people. There is increasing social pressure to join to maintain your social status

3) the movement endures because the leaders give participants new habits, a new identity, and a feeling of ownership over the movement

We’ll unpack each of these parts and use the example of Rosa Parks and the Civil Rights Movement in 1950’s America.

1) Movements Start with a Victim

Social movements often begin with a victim who suffered an injustice, like being injured or discriminated against. Immediately, the victim’s close friends band together to help, as the habits of friendship would dictate. (Cue: friend is in trouble; Routine: help the friend; Reward: happiness from helping friend). To have a broad social movement, it helps if the victim is well connected in the community.

Civil Rights Movement

In 1955, Rosa Parks was ordered to give up her bus seat in the colored section for a white passenger. She refused. She was arrested. Actually, Rosa Parks wasn’t the first one to get arrested for sitting on a bus, even in the same city (Montgomery, Alabama) in the same year. But she became a symbol of the civil rights movement.

Part of the reason was timing – Brown v Board had just ruled that segregation was illegal in public schools. Part of the reason was Rosa’s pleasant demeanor and relative middle-aged normality – earlier in the year, a teenager Claudette Colvin was arrested for resisting bus segregation, but civil rights leaders were afraid of championing her given that she was a teenager pregnant by a married man.

The book argues...

The Power of Habit Summary Chapter 9: Are We Liable for Our Habits?

In the final chapter, we confront an interesting moral question – if habits are so strongly wired within us, and we act automatically when confronted with a cue, are we legally and morally responsible for our actions?

We’ll examine two relevant cases – a murder, and gambling debt.

Example 1: Sleepwalking and Murder

In 2008, Brian Thomas woke up to find a man on top of his wife. He choked the man until he felt the man stop moving – only to realize he had actually killed his wife.From an early age, Thomas had started sleepwalking. When doing so, the part of his brain that usually consciously processes behavior is asleep, but the parts governing routine habits are still awake. When he killed his wife, Thomas had experienced a sleep terror, unconsciously imagining a situation that led to profound anxiety and a primitive defense reaction.

There has been thorough studying of people suffering sleep terrors, and the consensus is that the behavior is automatic – that the person does not consciously process the situation and has no control over behavior. This has led some night terror sufferers to jump off roofs when believing they were being chased, or killing their babies when believing they were fighting wild animals.

After examining Thomas’s healthy marriage and hearing expert testimony that Thomas was asleep when he killed his wife, the jury acquitted him. They believed Thomas had not consciously committed a crime, and thus was not responsible for it.

So here we’ve had a sympathetic case – someone unknowingly committed a terrible act, had no control over his behavior, and was acquitted.

Example 2: Gambling

Angie Bachmann didn’t plan to get addicted to gambling. A housewife, she started visiting a local casino once a week after getting bored when her family was out of the house. Over time, she started visiting more frequently and playing with bigger stakes. While she started with just $50 for an entire day, eventually she was going up and down by $5,000 within hours.

Before she could recognize what was happening, she was uncontrollably...

The Power of Habit Summary Quick Guide: Changing Your Habits

You probably want to change your bad habits, or adopt good new ones. This last section is a condensed guide on how to achieve this, with a realistic habit example.

A habit consists of Cue -> Routine -> Reward. The insight here is that the superficial routine (e.g. shopping for dessert and eating it) may not be the actual underlying craving (e.g. wanting a break away from the office).

Step 1: Identify the Routine

The routine is the automatic behavior you want to change. Unpack the entire routine into every single step from beginning to finish, even the steps you think aren’t important.

Example: Let's say I have a habit of going downstairs during work, visiting a nearby supermarket, and buying a dessert. I want to change this because I've gained 5 pounds. My entire routine: I get up from my desk, walk to the elevator, take the elevator down, walk outside for 3 minutes to the supermarket, browse the dessert selection, pick one, go to the checkout line, chat briefly with the checkout clerk, walk back to work, go up the elevator, and go back to my desk and eat the dessert.

Step 2: Experiment with Rewards

Next, we need to figure out which part of the routine is most important to your craving. This will be a science experiment – change your routine to focus on a specific portion, and see if that fulfills your craving.

After you finish, write down the first three words that come to mind. They can be emotions or random thoughts.

Then, set an alarm for 15 minutes. When it rings, ask yourself – do you still feel that craving?

On four different days, I try modifications to the routines depending on my hypothesis for what the craving actually is:

Hypothesis: I actually want a sweet dessert.

  • New routine: Instead of going to Whole Foods, I eat a candy bar in the office.
  • Three notes: saccharine, tired, guilty Craving still exist? not hungry, but still feel something's missing

Hypothesis: I actually want some fresh air and walk outside.

  • New routine: I walk for 10 minutes outside instead of going to the supermarket. -...