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Book of the Week: The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

Summary:
My resolution this year is to read (and review) more books, so I thought I might start with a book that promises to help me form better habits: (@CDuhigg) Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit. The book, which is a Gladwell-influenced science-plus-stories-plus-practical-advice offering, was a big hit about a decade ago, but not something I’d settled down to read before. I was impressed: although the style is occasionally breathless, Duhigg spins a good yarn and has found a good selection of unfamiliar tales to tell. It’s a pleasure to read. As for the topics, Duhigg begins with the invididual psychology of the habit loop: a trigger, followed by an automatic pattern of behaviour, followed by a reward. Lots of examples here of pathological and less pathological habits.

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My resolution this year is to read (and review) more books, so I thought I might start with a book that promises to help me form better habits: (@CDuhigg) Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit.

The book, which is a Gladwell-influenced science-plus-stories-plus-practical-advice offering, was a big hit about a decade ago, but not something I’d settled down to read before. I was impressed: although the style is occasionally breathless, Duhigg spins a good yarn and has found a good selection of unfamiliar tales to tell. It’s a pleasure to read.

As for the topics, Duhigg begins with the invididual psychology of the habit loop: a trigger, followed by an automatic pattern of behaviour, followed by a reward. Lots of examples here of pathological and less pathological habits. The most interesting idea (which seems plausible but I’ve not checked) is that it’s much easier to change a habit than eliminate it. In other words, you can start with the same cue but then try to plug in a different reward.

Duhigg perhaps influenced Cal Newport’s excellent Digital Minimalism, a book which argues (among other things) that rather than trying to simply get off social media (for example) you should try to replace unsatisfying social media activity with something you value more highly and which may tap into similar values. Instead of Twitter, read a book. Instead of following friends on Facebook, arrange to hang out with friends in person.

Later chapters broaden (and loosen) the argument to discuss the “habits” of organisations and societies. Very interesting case studies – for example, when Alcoa decided to obsess about safety, safety, safety, it also became a better-run, more profitable business. The “keystone habit” of thinking about safety fostered a habit of open communication, collaboration, sharing ideas, streamlining processes and investing in new equipment. Fascinating. Does it generalise? I’d love to know. But food for thought.

The paperback of The Data Detective is out on 1 February in the US and Canada. Title elsewhere: How To Make The World Add Up.

I’ve set up a storefront on Bookshop in the United States and the United Kingdom. Links to Bookshop and Amazon may generate referral fees.

Tim Harford
Tim is an economist, journalist and broadcaster. He is author of “Messy” and the million-selling “The Undercover Economist”, a senior columnist at the Financial Times, and the presenter of Radio 4’s “More or Less” and the iTunes-topping series “Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy”. Tim has spoken at TED, PopTech and the Sydney Opera House and is a visiting fellow of Nuffield College, Oxford.

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