Thursday, December 29, 2016

Book review: The Power of Habit Duhigg, a New York Times reporter, collects stories of building and breaking habits, supporting the thesis that habits form an important part of our lives and that they can make a big difference for better or worse. Both in the case of positive training or learning habits, or in the case of addictions, repeated behavior influences our energy levels, our free time and in the end many of our long-term results at work and in life (we will all go the gym in the new year, right?)

The storytelling style of the book may smell like anecdotal evidence, but it keeps the reader intruigued and entertained long enough the get its message across, without delving into fictional stories. Take the science expressed here with a grain of salt (like you would with Malcom Gladwell): all experiments are real but they may have been cherry-picked to prove a point.

The key take away for me was to think about our habits, try to influence them to stop or reinforce them depending on our second-order desires; for example with the cue-routine-reward framework proposed in the book but ultimately with whatever works for you as habit building and destroying must be very context-specific. Another concept that we find reasonable is ego depletion (willpower as a finite resource that must be renewed), but the jury is still out on whether it is a confirmed and sizable effect, as meta-analysis of hundreds of studies do not agree yet (for good reasons).

From exercising to learning, or from quitting smoking to a Facebook addiction, this self-reflection can have a large impact over our lives. Maybe it should be an habit?

Selected quotes from the book follow:
This 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 a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future [...] Every McDonald’s, for instance, looks the same—the company deliberately tries to standardize stores’ architecture and what employees say to customers, so everything is a consistent cue to trigger eating routines.
“Even if you give people better habits, it doesn’t repair why they started drinking in the first place. Eventually they’ll have a bad day, and no new routine is going to make everything seem okay. What can make a difference is believing that they can cope with that stress without alcohol.”
Where should a would-be habit master start? Understanding keystone habits holds the answer to that question: The habits that matter most are the ones that, when they start to shift, dislodge and remake other patterns.
“Small wins are a steady application of a small advantage,” one Cornell professor wrote in 1984. “Once a small win has been accomplished, forces are set in motion that favor another small win.” Small wins fuel transformative changes by leveraging tiny advantages into patterns that convince people that bigger achievements are within reach.
“Sometimes it looks like people with great self-control aren’t working hard—but that’s because they’ve made it automatic”
“By making people use a little bit of their willpower to ignore cookies, we had put them into a state where they were willing to quit much faster,” Muraven told me. “There’s been more than two hundred studies on this idea since then, and they’ve all found the same thing. Willpower isn’t just a skill. It’s a muscle, like the muscles in your arms or legs, and it gets tired as it works harder, so there’s less power left over for other things.”
As people strengthened their willpower muscles in one part of their lives—in the gym, or a money management program—that strength spilled over into what they ate or how hard they worked. Once willpower became stronger, it touched everything.

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