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The Power of Habit

“The brain has this amazing ability to find happiness even when the memories of it are gone” (28).

Eugene Pauly was an elderly man in his early sixties when he started having memory issues. It started with him forgetting who his son was, and his health decreased from there. E.P. as the “medical literature” (3) would call him, had cloudy fluid surrounding his spinal nerves that was later found to be encephalitis. “In rare cases, however, the virus can make it’s way to the brain, inflicting catastrophic damage as it chews through the delicate folds of tissue where our thoughts, dreams -- and according to some, souls -- reside” (4).  Doctors could not undo the damage that had been done, and they told his wife that he might not be the same man that she married after he came out of a coma that lasted ten days. To their surprise, E.P. came back very quickly and seemed to be doing very well considering his condition. However his wife noticed that something was off. “Eugene didn’t seem to remember his friends. He had trouble following conversations. Some mornings he would get out of bed, walk to the kitchen, cook himself bacon and eggs, then climb back under the covers and turn on the radio. -- Forty minutes later -- he would do it again” (5) Eugene couldn’t remember anything short term, “he was suffering from amnesia” (9).

“The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg focuses on “Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.” The beginning focuses on the aspect of life and as I continued reading, it switched over to the business aspect. As you start reading you learn about Eugene Pauly and his condition that leads to amnesia. What you don’t know yet, is that the power of habit really starts to shine though as he goes through his everyday life from that moment on. He isn’t consciously aware of the habits that he forms, but somehow his brain works with him to use them effectively. Duhigg talks about how consciously, E.P. wouldn’t be able to tell you where he lived if you were on a walk with him, but if you continued walking he would walk right back to his house and go inside to sit down and watch TV. This became a habit of his after walking every day with his wife and then eventually leaving on his own and making it back each time.

We all have what we would call habits. These would be the things that you do everyday that you once had to learn, but now it has become second nature to you. An example that Duhigg used was learning to drive. “It involves opening the garage, unlocking the car door, adjusting the seat, inserting the key in the ignition, turning it clockwise, moving the rear view and side mirrors and checking for obstacles, putting your foot on the break, moving the gearshift into reverse, removing your foot from the break, mentally estimating the distance between the garage and the street while keeping the wheels aligned and monitoring for oncoming traffic--” (17). The list goes on and all of this that you once had to take the time to learn has become a habit and an automatic routine. The part of our brain that kicks in when we do this is known as our “Basal Ganglia.” “Once that habit starts unfolding, our gray matter is free to quiet itself or chase other thoughts, which is why we have enough mental capacity to realize that Jimmy forgot his lunch box inside” (17). Everyone has some kind of habits whether they are good or bad. It is up to the person to recognize the cues, find a way to change the routine why keeping the reward that satisfies the needs.

“The process within our brains is a three-step loop. First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future” (19). This is “The Habit Loop.”  Which is the main topic in part one of Duhigg’s book.  Duhigg’s idea of “Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business,” shares a common thread that connects many different aspects of habit together.

E.P. was living his life in the moment. He couldn’t remember why he knew where he lived when he went for a walk or how many times he had eaten the same meal in the morning or what shows he had already watched on tv. He was oblivious that his life was the same every day. “The brain's dependence on automatic routines can be dangerous. Habits are often as much a curse as a benefit. Take Eugene, for instance. Habits gave him his life back after he lost his memory. Then they took everything away again” (21). His wife started working with Eugene to correct some of his unhealthy habits by taking his bacon and eggs out of the fridge and setting healthier selection like a salad in front of him that he would eventually pick at. Eventually the new cue would alter his previous habit and his diet would eventually improve. Eugene lived by his habits until the day that he died. For memories that he wasn’t able to retrieve out of his habits, he was reminded by the time spent with his family. Relearning the details with notes and pictures. “It was as if part of his brain knew there were some things he would never understand and was okay with that” (29). After he passes away, his wife Beverly tells Duhigg this, “I know he would have been really proud to know how much he contributed to science. He told me once, pretty soon after we got married, that he wanted to do something important with his life, something that mattered. And he did. He just never remembered any of it” (30).

The craving brain is another topic that relates back to the habit loop, however this is the aspect of business rather than life. Duhigg talks about product advertising and figuring out how to get consumers interested in different products using the habit loop. When a man by the name of Claude Hopkins comes up with this new type of toothpaste called pepsodent, he uses the loop idea to draw in the consumers. He learns about the film that people have on their teeth and how brushing your teeth with his product removes the film with a daily usage of pepsodent. However, he has his cue, which is the film, this has been used before by others with toothpaste products. He has his routine of the idea of brushing your teeth everyday with pepsodent, but what other producers didn’t have that Hopkins did is the third part of the habit loop that is the reward. The pepsodent gave consumers a beautiful smile. Hopkins believed that he had “learned the right human psychology” (Hopkins 36). “That psychology was grounded in two basic rules: First, find a simple and obvious cue. Second, clearly define the rewards. --However, it turns out that Hopkins two rules aren’t enough” (36). It was the tingling sensation that really drew people in and made them want to keep using it. It made them feel like the product was really working.

There was another product that P&G Chemists put together that eliminated odors from almost any fabric that was handed over to the advertising team headed by Drake Stimson. They would call this spray, Febreze. Stimson's team didn’t know how to get people to buy the product, so they had to find the ways people could use it to the best of it’s ability. All they needed to do was figure out how to make this product into an everyday habit that consumers would be able to use. When they gave samples of the product to people to test, one person said that they used it to mask the odors of a skunk smell that overwhelmed her home. Others is was dogs or cigarettes. This is where a campaign idea sprang up. The Febreze could be used to eliminate the unwanted odors in your home that you don’t want others to smell. “The cue: the smell of cigarettes. The reward: Odor eliminated from clothes” (41). This sold for a while, but eventually sales stopped again. People forgot about the febreze that they had in their cupboards. “The products cue -- the thing that was suppose to trigger daily use -- was hidden from the people who needed it most. Bad scents simply weren’t noticed frequently enough to trigger a habit” (43). The P&G team later found the solution to the incorrect cue was actually how febreze was a reward rather, and cleaning a room was a cue. An example would be making the bed, this would be the initial cue that would then lead to the routine of making the bed how you normally do and finishing by spraying febreze. The reward is the fresh scent that is left after the cleaning is done. “But only once they created a sense of craving -- the desire to make everything smell as nice as it looked -- did the febreze become a hit. That craving is an essential part of the formula for creating new habits that Claude Hopkins, the pepsodent ad man, never recognized” (55). That is where the tingling sensation came into play.

Have you heard of the football team, the Tampa bay Buccaneers? They weren’t known for their wins, but that would soon change. Tony Dungy the head coach in 1996 had a plan to better the team by adjusting the routine of their habits as a team. They would have the same cues and rewards, but learn a different routine that they may have been used to. Dungy was going to shape the team to make them better athletes and overall a better team with practice and effort.  “Champions don’t do extraordinary things. They do ordinary things, but they do them without thinking, too fast for the other team to react. They follow the habits they’ve learned” (Dungy 61). If you look at the cues that you know you can follow through with the routine, that you have practiced a solution to every cue that could possibly happen, and as long as you do it out of habit and don’t think about it too much, you can be rewarded by making a good play or even scoring. “You can’t extinguish a bag habit, you can only change it” (63). When they started using these new obtained habits, they started winning, and they when worked towards correcting the habits they performed better in their games as long as they didn’t start thinking about the plays. Soon Dungy would be offered a coaching position by the Colts, and he would work through the same process with the team. Changing their routine to make them better and to help them perform better on the field. The colts were doing better, but when they were to the point of making it to playoffs, they would choke and would stop believing in their habits and routine. It took seeing Dungy losing his son for the team to really come together and believe that what they were doing was going to work. “Belief is easier when it occurs within a community” (89). The Colts started doing a lot better and trusted in what they have made a habit when it came to the playoffs. “For a habit to stay changed, people must believe change is possible” (92). For the Colts they did just that, and they went on to win the Superbowl in 2003.

“Keystone habits offer what is known within academic literature as ‘small wins’” (109). “Small wins do not combine in neat, linear, serial form, with each step being a demonstrable step closer to some predetermined goal. More common is the circumstance where small wins are scattered...” (Weick 113).  Duhigg used Michael Phelps as an example of how small wins are scattered and how they benefit the loop of habits. Michaels small wins would be the things that he does before the race like eating a good breakfast, stretching, and getting warm up laps in. And relaxing. Phelps was taught to visualize the perfect tape of him swimming a race. Imagining every possible thing that could happen and how he would overcome it. All of these simple things were Phelps small wins that helped him stay calm in his habits and complete his race when his goggles filled up with water. His cue was to put in his tape and his routine was his small wins that led him to his rewards. Phelps had ran through his tape of what he would do if his goggles would ever fail him, and this is what kept him calm and he still kept going and won his race.

Linked habits are where small issues occur that can later benefit the larger issues. When Paul O’Neill became the CEO of Alcoa, his main focus was on the safety of the workplace and employees. When he started people thought he was crazy for focusing on such a small issue when there was other things that needed to be worked on. They shifted their routines and embraced the new ways that were going to improve things. The cue was all of the people who were getting injured and missing days due to lack of safety. Then the routine was to report the safety issues and they would be looked at and fixed. Ideas were welcomed in how to make things safer and more efficient and the new set up made it easy to share ideas. This was out of craving for the reward that would be promotions. After the aspect of safety was taken care of and constantly improving, all of the other issues seemed to be improving as well. Duhigg talks about how when “new routines moved through the organization, costs came down, quality went up, and productivity skyrocketed” (108). When a reward is worth working towards, the routine improves and business gets better. Jeff Shockey, the plant manager at Alcoa, asked maintenance to remove the titles of the people higher up in the company, on the parking spaces outside of the plant. He said, “I wanted whoever got to work earliest to get the best spot. Everyone understood the message: Every person matters. It was an extension of what Paul was doing around worker safety. It electrified the plant. Pretty soon, everyone was getting to work earlier each day” (126).

“Habits -- they create neurological cravings. Most of the time, these cravings emerge so gradually that we’re not really aware they exist, so we’re often blind to their influence” (48).

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  • “At the core of that education is an intense focus on an intense focus on all-important habit: willpower” (131).

    There are all kinds of habits that you can encounter in your lifetime and see them even in the lives of others, but what does it mean to be able to overcome those and learn from others habits? There are a lot of bad habits in this world that people obtain that are harmful to not only them, but also the people around them. People can learn from each other's habits or work towards getting rid of their own. Habits like smoking is just as bad for the person doing it as for the person standing near them, breathing in the smoke. So, as habits are so influential, do we live with them or avoid them? It tends to go both ways. How we do this is something that we are able to have control over, and that is our willpower.

    When it comes to our habits and willpower, our life skills are what creates those characteristics inside of us. Willpower is the an important keystone habit in working towards success. When we are in control of our willpower and habits, we tend to have more control of our lives, and can grasp certain ideas that we may not have been able to before. Willpower is suppose to be a skill, but not everyone is good at obtaining it everyday. It takes time and patience to accomplish such a skill. However, these habits that are later rewarding tend to spill over in different aspects of life.

    As I continue reading, “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg, I really start to consider the different aspects of habits and the temptations within them all. When you are able to identify a temptation that needs to be avoided, you have the choice to make changes to avoid those temptations all together. Duhigg quoted Angela Duckworth, a University of Pennsylvania researcher who said this, “Sometimes it looks like people with great self-control aren’t working hard -- but that’s because they’ve made it automatic.Their willpower occurs without them having to think about it” (131).

    “Willpower isn’t just a skill. It’s a muscle, like the muscles in your arms and legs, and it gets tired as it works harder, so there’s less power left over for other things” (137). This is when we are sometimes overcome by temptations that we can normally control. We often are overcome and end up making the wrong decisions and later living through the consequences. Not all temptations are serious that come with consequences, but they still have a sense guilt that comes over you when you know that you have worked towards the willpower that is then lost.
    In the business world the willpower habit loop plays a role in many ways that offers a cue, a routine and an award. When these things are altered, you may gain greater power over your habits and learn to control yourself. Customer service also plays a role in this. As I read through the second half, Duhigg relates back to the company Starbucks, and talks about how they strive to teach life skills as a business for employees and also give customers the best service possible. When Duhigg talked to a Starbucks manager, he said that they used an acronym for responding to “unpleasant situations.” He said, “One of the systems we use is called the LATTE method. We Listen to the customer, Acknowledge their complaint, Take Action by solving the problem, Thank them, and then Explain why the problem occurred” (145). This became a part of their habit loop when they replaced the routine with LATTE. This made the services far more enjoyable for the customers and a lot easier on the employees when they worked with upset customers.

    When looking at willpower, a change in routine is often needed. When you work towards breaking or creating a habit, changing your routine can be beneficial to not only yourself, but also the people around you. For example if you were wanting to start eating healthier and you started to buy foods that are better for you and having those around your house, you will become more apt to eating a healthy snack compared to junk food when you become hungry. This can benefit others by giving them the opportunity to turn away or cut back from junk foods and they too start to take part in your healthy habits. The habit loop is what our brain craves with every decision we make and every time we can obtain our willpower. When we learn how it works and how we can change them, it is more beneficial to our lives.

    As far as education goes, habits and willpower are much need aspects when it comes to learning. If teachers would be able to recreate students routines when it comes to learning and doing homework, they could start looking at the bigger aspects of learning rather than the content that students are asked to look at as of now. After Duhigg interviewed Howard Schultz, the man behind Starbucks, Schultz said this, “I’ve been really lucky, and I really, genuinely believe that if you tell people that they have what it takes to succeed, they’ll prove you right” (149). What if this statement and the routines of the the habit loop was taken into serious consideration? Would students strive to do better? If students weren’t labeled by their grades, but given the opportunity to succeed without limitations, the education system would be much different. Education should be about working with our thoughts and ideas and putting them into action, not reading through content, memorizing it, and later being tested over it. Education seems to be in a standstill, and fails to move in the right direction, if the habit loops of students minds were taken into consideration, the education system would have a better understanding about what a student is capable of and from that point on students can strive to do better.

    Another aspect that Duhigg focused on was a consumers buying habits. People tend to have the same routines when the shop, and this creates a sense of predictability. When your buying habits change, chances are something in your life has changed as well, and stores, like target can tell. Duhigg talks about how Alan Anderson wanted to look into a customer's buying habits and why they suddenly change. He said, “People’s buying habits are more likely to change when they go through a major life event. -- Changing residence, getting married or divorced, losing or changing a job, having someone enter or leave the household” (191-192). The most obvious reasoning for changing shopping patterns is when a woman is pregnant or recently had a child, and stores can just about guess whether a regular customer is pregnant, at which point they are able to send coupons for things that they are going to need to buy. This is known as the “pregnancy prediction” (195). They can predict pregnancy in many ways. Some being by what you start to buy that you didn’t normally before. Like vitamins and then eventually diapers and clothes. When things like this occur, the habit loop is broke and routines in a customer's life changes. It’s a part of the buying habits that almost everyone will go through someday, whether it’s getting married or having a kid, or even purchasing your first home.

    When looking at the power of habits and how they have an affect on our everyday lives, it starts to become clearer as to why we do the things we do. It also creates the opportunity to look at the habits in our own personal lives and determine if a change in routine is necessary. Willpower is a major aspect to how habits are overcome or even created. It all depends on the person and the amount of determination and decisions on what to do with what you have been given in each opportunity. It’s a constant challenge to become aware of our habits and learning how to determine the extent of them and overcoming them as they cross your path. “You now know how to redirect that path. You now have the power to swim” (274). Be aware of what you are capable of and gain the willpower to overcome temptations of habits.
  • The longer I teach, the more I believe schools should focus more on habits (of mind and of action) and less on content. Given what Duhigg says about habits, how might schools do this?
  • How might changing your routine benefit you along with others around you by breaking the habit loop?
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