Duhigg’s The Power of Habit became an instant international hit after its publication in 2012 and went on to reach bestseller status on New York Times, Amazon, and USA Today lists. The author is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has spent years studying why we do what we do in life and business (which, incidentally, is the book’s extended title), developing a universally applicable framework that can help anyone both obtain new, positive habits, as well as get rid the bad ones.

Apart from being useful on a personal level, The Power of Habit can help you make more sense of other people’s actions, impulses, and decisions – an invaluable skill for any marketer, product designer, entrepreneur or manager.

A habit can be viewed as an antithesis of a conscious decision or action – something we do without much thinking, be it parking our cars, brushing our teeth or reaching for a smartphone in moments of idleness. Our brains are very good at forming habits because it saves cognitive resources and therefore expends energy – and given the predictable nature of many aspects of our lives, some estimates suggest that almost half of our daily actions are based purely on habits of some kind – both good and bad.

In this summary, we are going to look at Duhigg’s framework of habit formation and the essential steps for understanding and controlling habitual actions.

The Habit Loop: How Habits Form and Persist

The model presented in the book is based on MIT research which regards habits as self-reinforcing loops with three key components: cue, routine, and reward. The cue is typically an external event that acts as a trigger for the brain to go into auto-mode, for example a traffic light or a stressful situation.

In response to the cue, you perform a routine – certain physical or mental action, without involving your conscious memory or decision-making capabilities – e.g. stepping on a brake when you see a red light or lighting a cigarette when faced with stress.

Finally, the action is followed by a reward – a positive feedback stimulus like not receiving a fine or feeling less stressed out. The reward hints to your brain that the routine is working well and thus serves to strengthen the loop, becoming more reactive to the next similar cue.

The self-reinforcing nature of the cue-reward-routine loop, coupled with the brain’s evolution-programmed desire to save as much energy as possible, makes habits remarkably resilient. Medical observations have shown that even patients with extensive brain damage who could not remember the faces of their relatives or the layouts of their homes could still perform routine tasks for which they formed strong habits during their lifetimes.

Changing an existing habit is hard because of the third component – the reward: once your brain has developed a craving, it starts anticipating the positive outcome associated with the particular loop; in other words, it expects a reward already when presented with a cue, which also means that if the reward is not received, feelings of frustration or irritation ensue.

Taking this into account, how do we attack the cue-routine-reward loop to alter or form habits?

The Golden Rule of Habit Modification

There are two stages to a successful change: first, you need to clearly identify all stages of the cue – routine – reward loop by experimenting with each part, and then you can go on to modifying the loop by substituting the existing routine with a more suitable one. Let’s look at each of the stages in more detail:

  1. Isolating each part of the habit loop is important because without this knowledge you will not be able to adequately modify the habitual behaviour. The easiest blank to fill is the routine, since this is the part of the loop that usually triggers the motivation to change the entire habit in the first place. This means you’re often already aware of what the routine is, such as snoozing your alarm, smoking a cigarette, or eating that extra doughnut.

    The next step is to experiment with rewards in order to pin down what exactly creates the craving that reinforces the loop. For example, if you’re used to smoking in the afternoon, you might ask yourself which of the effects is the most desirable one – is it the emotional uplift (try a nicotine patch to find out if it’s purely chemical), physical relaxation (get a massage instead to test this), a time off (take a break and see if the craving persists) or something as simple as human interaction (try smoking apart from the group of colleagues whom you always meet in the yard).

    Finally, we’re left with identifying the cue, which generally falls into one of the following categories: a specific location, time of day, your physical and emotional state, other people’s actions, or repeating external events. Take mental notes of the conditions immediately preceding the habitual action, and you should be able to find the pattern and fill in the last piece of the puzzle.

  2. Switching to a better routine will help you obtain a comparable reward from the same cue – so instead of trying to break the cycle (which is notoriously hard thanks to the self-reinforcing nature of craving) you are going to modify it in order to produce better behavioural outcome.

    This is why knowing your cues and rewards is so important: without this information, you will not be able to measure the success of your routine-substitution efforts and adjust them accordingly. Since the reward and the routine are very often very different things, once the true reward is understood you can pick a less harmful routine that satisfies it, without fighting the craving head-on.

    For example, the real reason for endlessly scrolling your social feed might be lack of real social interaction or human warmth – something that can be alleviated by calling or meeting a friend. Or it could be the desire for being entertained, which can be substituted with higher-quality items or other, more engaging activities.

The primary takeaway from the book is that success in business and personal life is often more about shaping habits in a smart way than it is about sheer willpower or dedication. Instead of battling personal and organizational habits head-on, a better way is often to dissect the cue – routine – reward loop first and pick a more productive routine that does not break the cycle.

Read The Full Summary in Blinkist

You can find a more in-depth summary of The Power of Habit by following the link below to Blinkist – an online service which presents condensed contents of popular non-fiction books in easy-to-digest 15-minute summaries called blinks. An audio version is also available for Blinkist Premium subscribers. In the blink of The Power of Habit, you will learn:

  • How companies use existing habits and nudge the public to form new ones, in order to better sell their products
  • How aluminum giant Alcoa increased its revenue five-fold by focusing on employee safety instead of money
  • Why Alcoholics Anonymous is one of the most effective habit-changing organizations on the planet, and how they pull it off
  • Which habits are more important than others and how they can help break vicious cycles and create better behaviour

Click the button below to visit The Power of Habit summary by Blinkist, complete with 9 structured sections and a final short summary for maximum convenience:

The Power of Habit on Blinkist ›

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