"The Power of Habit" by Charles Duhigg

The Power of Habit. Just imagine if you could harness the power of habit. It sounds like using the Force, like channeling some super-guru to unlock new levels of selfhood. This is the allure of New York Times investigative journalist Charles Duhigg’s 2012 book that promises to unveil why we do what we do in life and business.

If you’re like me, you’re already interested in habits of the most productive and successful among us. I want to know what time Oprah wakes up, what Ann Patchett eats for breakfast, how many hours a day Amal Clooney reads. (I’m a sucker for this type of Twitter click-bait.) I suppose it’s the human instinct to take for one’s own; it’s about embodiment. If I have the habits of Oprah, Ann, and Amal, I surely will reap a life of success… right?

Or, for the techies reading this: the hope that Elon Musk’s plan making habits, Tim Cook’s habits in management, and Jessica Livingston’s habits for unicorn builders will make you a disruption whiz through, you guessed it, the power of habit

Well, this remains to be seen.

To be clear, Duhigg’s book is not a self-help manual. Rather, it is a scientific discussion about what it means to acquire habits and what it takes to reprogram an undesirable behavior, told amid carefully selected anecdotes that give a human touch to a decidedly clinical rendering of the human mind.*

The one tangible thing I walked away from this book with was a great sense of inspiration to cultivate positive habits, as well as actionable ways to turn this inspiration into real results. But I also left the text with an eerie, unsettled feeling. Despite all the great feats of human consciousness—reasoning, the wonderful capacity for reflection, rumination, and choice—we are not as complex as we might like to believe. The basal ganglia, one of the brain’s most primitive structures, governs our habits and, as Duhigg illustrates, the majority of our actions. What hand will I pick up my toothbrush with today? Which shoe will I tie first? What route will I take to the office? These are not conscious decisions we make; they are, in a way, preprogrammed.

It’s difficult to acknowledge that I am programmed, not unlike the way a robot is, through the deeply entrenched habits I’ve built over time, doomed to iteration. I run most of my best-learned skills on auto-pilot. Afterall, what’s the great difference between my habitual, unthinking righthand turn out of my driveway and a driverless, Elon-Musk-dreamed Frankencar making that same turn? Mastery, in fact, is unthinking effortlessness, as the book reveals through the story of Michael Phelps’ Olympic success.

Find the robot within. 

Harness its powers of optimization and precision. 

Unleash the power of habit

(But really, go read this book.)


*Due in part to its anecdotal precision, I cannot for the life of me write something earnest-sounding about this book. But trust me, it really is a good read. I’ve been telling absolutely everybody about it and retelling the anecdotes to anyone who will listen.