11 Lessons from The Power of Habit

I like people, but sometimes I prefer books.

Specifically, I reached this state at 01.30 two Sunday mornings ago at a house party in Ostia, near Rome. Great folks, good time, but I’d waved off the last train home and was now waiting for my car-driving friends to be equally ready as I was to get moving.

A blessing in disguise. As the remaining guests tucked into some late-night aglio e olio pasta, I slumped into a chair and skimmed the nearby bookshelf under droopy eyelids. The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do and How to Change by Charles Duhigg took my attention and I started to read. My friend kindly lent it to me, and 11 days later, it had been devoured.

the power of habit

As I’ve done with several other books (list at the end of this post), I find it most useful to harvest a good read for lessons applicable to teaching, learning and beyond. The Power of Habit is important, as I believe you need to build any cognitive or physical skill consistently into daily routines if you want to progress, so including positive habits and discarding useless ones are key in order to move towards a valued objective.


Here’s what I took from the book:

1. Make your habit choices

‘Habits aren’t destiny. Habits can be ignored, changed, or replaced…Once you break a habit into its components [see point 3], you can fiddle with the gears’.

2. Neurologically, we are creatures of habit

‘Without habit loops, our brains would shut down, overwhelmed by the minutiae of daily life. People whose basal ganglia [the part of the brain responsible for habit loops] are damaged by injury or disease often become mentally paralyzed’.

3. The habit loop


4. How to remove a habit

‘An axiom, a Golden Rule of Habit Change that study after study has shown is the most powerful tool for creating change…To change a habit, you must keep the old cue [trigger], and deliver the old reward, but insert a new routine [action]…Almost any behaviour can be transformed if the cue and reward stay the same’.

5. How to encourage a habit

Away from the book for a moment, onto a podcast on the same topic which I listened to about halfway through the book once my attention was absorbed. Sam Harris’ Making Sense podcast #179 ‘The Unquiet Mind’ with Jud Brewer eloquently echoed the same idea as Duhigg: ‘The effectiveness of the reward, not the behaviour itself, drives future behaviour’. So set up rewards that you really want to motivate yourself into repeating habits.

6. Without belief, you’ll get nowhere… 

Back to the book: ‘For habits to permanently change, people must believe that change is feasible’.

7. …so look for a group seeking the same habit

‘Belief is easier when it occurs within a community’.

8. Focus on ‘keystone habits’ to create momentum and influence other habits

Examples of keystone habits: exercise; sleep; empathy; mindset (many articles on mindset here).

‘Exercise is a keystone habit that triggers widespread change…People who exercise start eating better and being more productive at work. They smoke less and show more patience with colleagues and family. They use their credit cards less frequently and say they feel less stressed’.


9. Without willpower, you’ll get nowhere.

You have a daily limit, so use it wisely.

‘Dozens of studies show that willpower is the single most important keystone habit for individual success’.

There is a psychology willpower ‘muscle’ which fatigues as the day wears on, and putting this knowledge into practice has enormous implications for teaching and learning: “When people are asked to do something which takes self-control, if they think they are doing it for personal reasons…it’s much less taxing. If they feel they have no autonomy, if they’re just following orders, their willpower muscles get tired much faster…When the students were treated like cogs, rather than people, it took a lot more willpower” (Professor Mark Muravan, University of Albany).

How can we put this into practice and give our learners more autonomy? Read the main ideas of a conference talk I gave in Budapest in 2017 entitled ‘You Don’t Ask, They Don’t Get’ here.

10. Habits for individuals; habits for organisations

‘For an organisation to work, leaders must cultivate habits that create a real and balanced peace and, paradoxically, make it absolutely clear who’s in charge…During turmoil, organizational habits become malleable enough to both assign responsibility and create a more equitable balance of power’.

11. Habits are like water. Look and you’ll see them everywhere.

The way we habitually think about our surroundings and ourselves create the worlds that each of us inhabit. “There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says ‘Morning boys, how’s the water?'” the writer David Foster Wallace told a class of graduating college students in 2005. “And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one looks over at the other and goes ‘What the hell is water?'” The water is habits, the unthinking choices and invisible decisions that surround us every day – and just by looking at them, they become visible again’.

‘William James [writer of The Principles of Psychology] wrote about habits and their central role in creating happiness and success…Water, he said, is the most apt analogy for how a habit works. Water “hollows for itself out a channel, which grows broader and deeper and, after having ceased to flow, it resumes, when it flows again, the path traced by itself before”.

You now have the power to redirect that path. You now have the power to swim’.

Other books harvested for knowledge:

Ego is the Enemy

21 Lessons for the 21st Century

Blindness (Part 1)

Blindness (Part 2)

Pour Me: A Life





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