Book Review: The Power of Habit

Hey there!

So anybody who knows me knows that I love reading. I will read almost anything: fantasy to historical fiction, children’s books to biographies, cookbooks to graphic novels.  (Though I do try to stay away from things that 1. will give me nightmares or 2. are painstakingly dry.  I got enough of that reading college textbooks.) 

The most recent books I have read are:

  • And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer by Fredrik Backman
    • This one is a short  but tenderly sweet novella about Alzheimer’s, memory (and its loss), and aging.  A grandfather, his son, and his grandson are all searching for ways to explain, understand, and cope with the inevitable events to come as the grandfather ages.  I cried at moments and chuckled at others.  I was at times a bit confused and forced to reread passages.  But at the end, I felt a greater level of compassion for anyone with or caring for someone with Alzheimer’s.
  • A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
    • What a lovely book!  This novel not only caused me to realize I know very little about Russian history, but it also reminded me of how deeply I can fall in love with literary characters. The main character is sentenced to house arrest (in a Russian hotel) for the duration of his life and the reader follows him through his journey of exploring the world within a single building and learning to not only cope, but thrive.  It is not the most action-packed book you’ll ever read, but it is certainly interesting and beautiful.
  • Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
    • This book, on the other hand, is all about action!  A sci-fi best-seller, with some definite dystopian vibes, this book kept me on the edge of my seat until the end.  I flew through it, hardly putting it down in a span of three days.  The main character is a child (who is basically owned by the government) and it takes place in a time when the Earth has been attacked by aliens and is preparing for a counterattack.  I thought I would have been bogged down by the talk of strategy and platoons, but that wasn’t the case in the slightest!
  • The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg
    • Summary below!

All that being said, I would highly recommend any of them! Let me know in the comments if you have read or are planning to read any of them… Or if you have recommendations about what I should read next!

On to the Topic in the Title…

As you may have noticed, all three of the books I gave summaries for above were fiction.  And while fiction is always fun, and I definitely enjoy being immersed in a world of the author’s creation, I do also enjoy books that have practical applicability for my life.  These tend to vary drastically, however, in their readability.  Like I said, I don’t particularly like reading dry, textbook-like material if I don’t absolutely have to.  So when I find non-fiction books that I love, I just have to share them!  (Plus, I get to write more (and more freely) because I am not as afraid of giving too much away or spoiling them!) So, without further ado:

the power of habit

The Power of Habit Summary

You know those things in your life you do over and over again, to the point that you’re not entirely sure why you are doing them? Like trying to sit in the same seat every time you go to class, get on the train, or go to the library to type up a blog post… Or the fact that you buy the same brands of coffee and lunch meat every time you go to the grocery store? (that’s not just me, right?)  And half the time you don’t even notice that you’ve developed these routines until something disrupts them, bringing them to your conscious awareness (someone is in your seat, your usual brand is out of stock, the PRNDL is in a different place in your rental car…)  Well, these are all habits and they are the topic of this book (obviously. It’s in the title).  We are neurologically programmed to create them.  And they are defining our daily lives in ways we can barely fathom.

The basic concept presented in the book is that with every habit there is a cue, a routine, and a reward. This becomes a loop driven by a craving. The hack to changing habits is to identify the reward the you are craving and replace the routine with something better, that still fills the same craving.

There is so much more to the book than just this one concept, but this is the idea at its core. Also found within the pages of this book are a plethora of interesting and insightful examples, divided into personal, organizational, and societal categories. Ranging from Febreze marketing campaigns to Rosa Park’s impact on the civil right movement, from scientific studies to personal stories, from smokers to compulsive eaters, this book touches on so many aspects of human life that I genuinely found fascinating every step of the way.

Here’s a quick list of some of the specific topics and case studies included:

  • Small wins and keystone habits
  • Michael Phelps
  • Alcoa: creating new work cultures and safety standards
  • Starbucks training program – routines and willpower
  • Rhode island hospital and truces (doctors and nurses)
  • London Underground Fire and departmental truces
  • Radio Songs and Familiarity, stickiness, and “Hey Ya!”
  • Target and the new mom market
  • Rosa Parks and weak tie acquaintances
  • Gambling, murder, and free will

At the end of the book is an appendix, where the author briefly goes over the gist of what he explains in the book.  Basically a longer version of my one-paragraph summary above with a couple examples help to contextualize the abstract concept. Here’s a link to the author’s site with that information!  (So kind of him to provide that for public viewing.)

I am definitely happy I read the entire book and if you have the time, I recommend it. However, if you don’t have the time, I still think it’s possible to learn the core concept from this excerpt so check it out!

My Reflections

So overall, I obviously found this book to be both interesting and enlightening.  I honestly think that it should be taught in schools and that every literate adult should have access to a copy.

Because of this book, I have started to realize how many habits I have in my life and the different ways they impact my health, my happiness, and my productivity.  Some examples I have noticed are:

  • I snack when I babysit.  I almost never drink soda in my normal life, but for some reason when I am babysitting I will grab a soda out of the fridge without even really thinking about it!  And then, if the kids want a snack or a meal, I find myself eating a chicken nugget here, a handful of goldfish there. And a lot of the time it’s when I’m not even hungry!  That habit may have originated out of hunger, but more likely it had something to do with wanting a little energy boost to cope with the chaos that is childcare or because I suddenly found myself bored while they were napping.  And it continued because, well, craving energy when you’re with kids is something I am sure every parent, grandparent, nanny, or teacher can attest to! Since the new year, I have been able to reduce the amount I have snacked while babysitting, though I have had a couple slip ups. (One night I forgot to eat before I went and therefore was ravenous.  Whoops!)  In general, however, I have started making sure I eat before I go and bringing my water bottle with me (or a bag of tea).  Honestly, just being conscious of the habit has helped a lot so far!
  • I snack when I am working from home.  Which is almost always.  Moreso than in the example above, this situation was actually born partly out of hunger.  Instead of eating actual meals I had been in the habit of having about eight thousand small snacks throughout the day.  This somehow felt like dieting, but in reality meant that I was eating more calories and they were less nutritious. Plus, being home all day means that if I get up to go to the bathroom or check on the laundry, I will be passing by the cabinet where the snacks are.  To combat this one, I have started meal prepping for myself (I have meal prepped for my husband since we got married, but pretty much neglected my own food needs).  I have been making things I am actually excited to eat, that are healthy and tasty.  I have also tried doing my work at the library a couple of times, which definitely helped with the snacking, but probably won’t be a long-term daily solution.  I have found that drinking water has been a helpful replacement routine (and helped with my hydration).  And that sometimes I am just looking to take a break, so instead of snacking on that break I go for a walk or read a chapter.
  • I became a couch potato.  It happened slowly.  We all know the story.  After I graduated, I no longer had to walk to and from campus every day.  Once I stopped nannying, I was no longer out and about, playing with a child every day.  Once I started illustrating and working remotely for an architecture firm, I barely left my seat.  My husband and I used to go on walks occasionally, but then he was too busy or it was too cold or too rainy or too hot…  Suddenly I had gained 40lbs, hated my body, and felt like crap.  (Though side note: let me be honest here and say I have never really had a great relationship with my body image.  I have never liked running. I have always been pretty self-conscious going to the gym or group exercise classes.  I survived on pizza rolls and quesadillas in high school, coffee and ice cream in college. I have tried on and off over the years to lose weight or to start exercising, but it’s always been a bit of a yo-yo.)  Excercise, it turns out, seems to be a keystone habit in my life.  When I exercise, everything else seems to be just a little bit better. (UGH, I hate saying that.  It sounds so stereotypical… like I’m a health and wellness commercial or a motivational therapist… It’s just that, it’s true!)  But Duhigg does talk about this in the book.  For some people, it’s exercise.  For some, it’s smoking or food journaling. At an organizational level, it may have to do with safety standards.  But the point is, there are some habits that tend to impact a whole bunch of other habits. They are the best leverage point for real change.  For me, exercising has helped me to pay more attention to my body, my diet, my time usage during the day.  If I am working my butt off to burn 200 calories, I have found I definitely think twice about those gummy bears.  And if I am trying to spend 30-60 minutes a day doing something active, I have to be more intentional about how I am using my time.  It has only been about a month so far, so I can’t say for certain that this has been a life-changing alteration, but this month I have felt stronger and healthier than I have in years.  So that’s awesome. 🙂
  • Using my reusable grocery bags!  A positive habit that I have been able to instill over the past couple years.  Sometimes I still forget them, but more often than not I bring all of my groceries home with a little less of an environmental impact.  Part of why I have been able to make this one stick is the convenience.  Before, it was inconvenient to try to remember to bring the bags and then annoying/embarrassing to get eyerolls from the baggers at the checkout.  Now, however, I have gotten into the habit of using the Scan-Bag-Go system at Kroger (or just doing self check-out where I can avoid the eyesrolls) which is actually more convenient as the reusable bags are bigger than the plastic ones and don’t have to take as many trips into the house from the car.   Plus, I get the reward of feeling good about my little contribution to the planet.reusable grocery bags
  • New Habit: Bullet Journaling.  This has helped with remembering to exercise and generally increased my tendency to be thoughtful and intentional with my days.
  • My posture a.k.a. Slouching.  It’s horrible, I know.  I’m still trying to figure this one out! Yoga seems to be helping.
  • Watching YouTube/Netflix instead of reading or listening to podcasts. Sometimes I just want to zone out or laugh.  And sometimes that’s okay.  But when it because my go-to activity, I know that something needs to change.
  • Drinking beer. For a while last year I was in the habit of having a beer or two most evenings.  It was a way to relax and they tasted good.  Unfortunately, they also led to weight gain, higher grocery bills, additional snacking, and a general disengagement with my evenings.  Reading and tea have been a wonderful alternative.
  • Coffee every morning.  Nothing really wrong, in my mind, with this one.  Just definitely a habit of mine! I would like to start buying Fair Trade Organic coffee though… Any suggestions of brands that are reasonably priced?

And I’ll stop there for now!  If you are still reading, you are a champ!  (I also have a habit of skimming posts and articles if they are too long, which is a societal habit to some degree. Our attention spans are so much lower than they used to be.)

Do you have any habits that are similar to mine?  Have you identified any keystone habits in your life?  Are there any specific habits you are trying to change this year? Let me know in the comments!  Maybe by sharing things we have found to be helpful, we can help each other develop healthier habits!

As always, thanks for reading!

Megan

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