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Using examples of how habits impact daily life and business, The Power of Habit explains why people do the things they do. With an understanding of how and why habits have so much influence, it's possible to change behaviors. The book explains how habits are formed, how they become a part of the subconscious, and how they often go unnoticed. It's the lack of awareness that makes some habits so damaging and understanding how habits are built is the first step in recognizing them.

Full of practical advice and guidelines, the book provides ways to create and change habits. Free will, cravings, willpower, and other ingredients of habits are broken down into easy-to-understand concepts. Once current habits are dissected, they become more manageable and are easier to change. Using the tools outlined in the book, it's possible to create new, more desirable habits.


How habits work

The brain likes to automate things as much as possible. This constant effort to turn routines into subconscious behaviors can be productive, but the brain doesn't distinguish between good and bad habits. Unchecked, these routines and habits just keep working themselves into the subconscious and often go unnoticed.

"Habits, scientists say, emerge because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort."

Driving to the store requires dozens of actions, but because it's the same store each time, getting there is like being on auto-pilot because it's a habit. The route doesn't have to be mapped out; there are no decisions to make. The subconscious does all the work behind the scenes without any real thinking.

The habit process consists of a three-step loop:

  1. Cue: Cues are what triggers the brain to access habits. Cues are usually related to specific emotions, people, locations, and times. To identify the cue, the associated rewards must be examined to see what reward the mind is after.
  2. Routine: The cue leads the brain to those automatic behaviors that make up the routine. By identifying the cue and the reward, the routine can be changed.
  3. Reward: The routine results in a consistent reward that strengthens the habit. Identifying the reward allows the routine to be changed, and achieve the same result.

"Rather, to change a habit, you must keep the old cue, and deliver the old reward, but insert a new routine."

Just knowing how habits are built and strengthened makes them easier to control. By learning to be aware of the cues and the rewards that follow, it's possible to change the routines. Simply understanding how habits work makes them much easier to deal with. By learning to observe the cues and rewards, we can change the routines.

How to create new habits

Here's a good example of how cravings build habits. Pepsodent toothpaste added citric acid and mint oil to their recipe, creating the tingling feeling that eventually became synonymous with most toothpaste. At a time when teeth brushing was not that common, Pepsodent unknowingly created a taste that just made people want to brush. That minty-fresh feeling became a powerful cue because people missed the sensation when they didn't brush. The result was a new habit that has become a part of daily life. It didn't make any difference that the minty taste and tingling did nothing for teeth; the sensation was enough to create a powerful cue.

"It is facile to imply that smoking, alcoholism, overeating, or other ingrained patterns can be upended without real effort. Genuine change requires work and self-understanding of the cravings driving behaviors."

When willpower becomes automatic

Willpower can become a habit just like anything else when it is consistently exercised. Studies have shown that when willpower is used in one area, it affects the ability to use it in other areas as well. The more it's used, the stronger and more automatic it becomes. Starbucks, the popular coffee retailer, uses this concept of turning willpower into a habit to their advantage.

Starbucks' employee development structure teaches employees to identify "pain points," like a vocal, angry customer, and choose predetermined actions that match the company's culture. By knowing how to respond ahead of time, employees will develop willpower into a habit and provide better service in a variety of situations.

When companies predict (and manipulate) habits

Target puts a lot of effort into collecting shopping data by using credit cards, frequent shopper cards, and their loyalty programs. The data they collect from these sources is combined with other data such as age, location, ethnicity, etc. This collective data creates a detailed and accurate portrait of customers. This portrait lets Target take advantage of habits.

"Someday soon, say predictive analytic experts, it will be possible for companies to know our tastes and predict our habits better than we know ourselves."

When someone buys diapers weekly, Target knows that the customer probably has young children. If that same customer doesn't buy formula, then the data will determine that the customer doesn't use formula or they are buying it somewhere else. Target takes the information about one habit, buying diapers, and tries to create a new habit, buying formula.

The result is that the customer will start receiving coupons for formula. As the retailer builds more and more associations with a customer's buying habits, they can pinpoint ways to create new habits and more sales.

The neurology of free will

Gambling can be a fun and exciting activity, or it can be a destructive habit. The difference lies in a subtle difference discovered by researchers using an MRI machine. The study monitored responses from casual gamblers and compulsive gamblers to discover why such a destructive habit becomes so ingrained. Both types got excited when they watched a slot machine land on a winning match. But while the casual gamblers registered near misses as losses, the compulsive gamblers registered near misses as wins. This different view of near misses creates a habit loop of more gambling and destructive behavior.


Understanding how habits are created and how they can be changed leads to more control over behaviors. Whether it's the desire to stop smoking or target customers, habits can be created and manipulated by identifying cues, routines, and rewards that drive behaviors. By changing the routines of a bad habit, the loop breaks down and creates a spot for new and better habits.