The Power of Habit | Intentional Travelers

29 Aug The Power of Habit: How to Reprogram a Better You

If you can’t read the book, watch this half-hour video where Jonathan Fields interviews the author.


This summer, I read a fantastic book by Charles Duhigg: The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. If I could create a list of books that would be compulsory reading for every human being, this book would be on it.

Habits are the cornerstone of intentional living.

I don’t think people realize just how much habits dictate what happens in our lives. According to the book, habits are so powerful that they can form unconsciously and over-ride our common sense! And further, people are typically pretty clueless when it comes to changing their habits.

This book unravels the research behind our brains, our behavior, and how we form habits so that we have a blueprint to essentially “reprogram” our bad habits. I learned so much reading this book, I wanted to share a few of those nuggets of wisdom. There are many more in the book, so I really do hope you read it!

Here are some key things I learned:

1. Changing one key habit (like replacing smoking with jogging) actually changes the neural activity in your brain and can help you reprogram other routines in your life, like how you eat, sleep, work, save money, schedule your workdays, plan for the future, etc.

Most of the choices we make each day may feel like the products of well-considered decision making, but they’re not. They’re habits. And though each habit means relatively little on its own, over time, the meals we order, what we say to our kids at night, whether we save or spend, how often we exercise, and the way we organize our thoughts and work routines have enormous impacts on our health, productivity, financial security, and happiness.

… At one point, we all consciously decided how much to eat and what to focus on when we go to the office, how often to have a drink or when to go for a jog. Then we stopped making a choice, and the behavior became automatic. It’s a natural consequence of our neurology. And by understanding how it happens, you can rebuild those patterns in whichever way you choose.

2. When we perform an action that has become a habit, our brains essentially go into auto-pilot. But the brain actually spends a lot of effort at the beginning of a habit, looking for what’s called “a cue.” Cues can be hunger, boredom, a time of day, an encounter with a particular person, etc. This is what triggers the brain to start a particular physical, mental, or emotional routine. Because the routine ends with some sort of reward, it teaches the brain that this routine is worth remembering and automating.

The cue and reward become intertwined until a powerful sense of anticipation and craving emerges.

… Only when our brain starts expecting the reward- craving the endorphins or sense of accomplishment- will it become automatic to lace up your jogging shoes each morning. The cue, in addition to triggering a routine, must also trigger a craving for the reward to come.

A personal note: I can really attest to how the book describes forming successful exercise habits. Looking back, I did all the proper habit-forming techniques without knowing it- lucky for me! When I was a freshman in college, I feared gaining the “freshman fifteen” so I resolved to run (or exercise) at least five days a week. I signed up for a work-out elective and found a running buddy, which held me accountable for that first semester when I was completely in charge of my own routines for the first time in my life. It also helped that my roommate knew about my goal and, though she would never fault me for it, I knew she would notice if I started slacking. I almost always ran first thing in the morning because I’d often get too tired or busy in the afternoons. When I finished my run, I could then shower and start my day. This turned out to be key because I developed what the book terms a “craving”- I needed a good sweat before I showered. I also felt like I earned my breakfast (another one of my rewards). I grew so accustomed to my routine, I could easily feel the difference in my body- a sort of sluggishness- if I didn’t exercise. Now, as soon as I wake up (my “cue”), I start putting on work out clothes without having to debate whether or not I feel like exercising. Even if I don’t do a particularly hard work out, I still find it important to at least do something every day, just to maintain the habit.

Cravings are what drive habits. And figuring out how to spark a craving makes creating a new habit easier.

3. Habits never really die– the neuropathways in your brain are already formed. For that reason, to break a bad habit, you actually have to use the same “cue” and the same “reward” but insert a new routine. This requires some very intentional work. The book describes how you can figure out what the cues and rewards for a particular habit are, because they are not always obvious.

4. Learning how to believe that you can change is another key ingredient. Changing habits is not easy and there are both internal and external forces working against you. Believing that you can cope make a difference. This is usually reinforced by the people you surround yourself with. It also means making a plan for overcoming potential obstacles and allowing yourself some grace so that you don’t give up at the first sign of defeat.

[Recovering] patients who didn’t write out any plans were at a significant disadvantage, because they never thought ahead about how to deal with painful inflection points [a specific moment of anticipated pain]. They never deliberately designed willpower habits. Even if they intended to walk around the block, their resolve abandoned them when they confronted the agony of the first few steps.

… This is how willpower becomes a habit: by choosing a certain behavior ahead of time, and then following that routine when an inflection point arrives.

I’ll stop there and hope that you have the chance to read the book (or at least watch the video at the top of the page). There are some really fascinating stories he includes to provide examples of people and organizations who have succumbed to unhealthy habits and those who have succeeded at forming new ones.

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2 Comments
  • asidiruth
    Posted at 01:36h, 05 September Reply

    Reblogged this on asidiruth and commented:
    I want this book!!! Your review is bang on!

  • LB
    Posted at 17:28h, 16 May Reply

    I’m actually reading this books now! Well, I have a handful of “currently reading” books on my Kindle. Another bad habit of mine. Oops, could use his advice then!

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