Today we will be taking a deeper look at The Power of Habit, in the first of our nine-part series on the mammoth hit that spent over a year on the New York Times Bestseller list. The Power of Habit was written by Charles Duhigg. Duhigg was a staff writer of The Los Angeles Times, until 2006; since then he has been a reporter at The New York Times, and was one of a team of New York Times reporters who won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting for a series of 10 articles about the business practices of Apple.
The Power of Habit is his first book, premiering in 2012, and features storytelling similar to Freakonomics, blending anecdotal examples with vertical slices of the science backing it up. His methodology is unimpeachable, with over 70 pages of footnotes meticulously documenting every bit of proof.
Like Freakonomics, The Power of Habit opens with a test patient, Lisa*, who was an overweight compulsive shopper and smoker, who within a year was able to quit smoking, make weight and wrangle her finances, and take a trip across the Sahara desert in just a year. The rest of the book explains the method and science behind her brain that allowed her to make this startling turnaround in a matter of months. The hint Duhigg gives us is that it is based in visualization.
Eugene* made his way to a San Diego area hospital after suffering an incident of meningitis that left his basal ganglia damaged in a way that eradicated his short-term memory. For the last 15 years of his life, he would not remember things that happened minutes ago, though he was able to preform actions that would be impossible without that memory. How? Through building habits. As long as he was able to rotely work through the motions of the activity. The process is known as chunking, and is the same whether or not you still have ownership of your own basal ganglia. You have more likely called it auto-pilot, when you brain is not trying to, for instance, retrieve a jar of nuts from the cabinet, take it down, pour some in your hand, put the top on and replace the jar, then go back to your couch. You know the basic moves, and your brain just habitually does the rest.
Thus, the book’s thesis is reached. Habits form, at an almost subconscious level, in ways we like or don’t. For instance, McDonalds’ fries “for instance, are designed to begin disintegrating the moment they hit your tongue, in order to deliver a hit of salt and grease as fast as possible,” making your craving and the reward loop (discussed more next chapter) lock into place almost immediately. Duhigg gives us hope, though, by telling us that habit loops can be broken. Exactly how will have to wait, dear reader, for next week’s dive into chapter 2.
*all names changed