The Five Star Friday recommendation this week, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg, is perfect for anyone who gave up their New Year’s Resolution by mid-January.  Sadly, I’ve failed at resolutions so often that I stopped making them decades ago!  So when I came across an article about Duhigg’s book, I was intrigued and wanted to learn more.

Publisher SummHabitary: In The Power of Habitaward-winning New York Times business reporter Charles Duhigg takes us to the thrilling edge of scientific discoveries that explain why habits exist and how they can be changed. With penetrating intelligence and an ability to distill vast amounts of information into engrossing narratives, Duhigg brings to life a whole new understanding of human nature and its potential for transformation.

Along the way we learn why some people and companies struggle to change, despite years of trying, while others seem to remake themselves overnight. We visit laboratories where neuroscientists explore how habits work and where, exactly, they reside in our brains. We discover how the right habits were crucial to the success of Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, and civil-rights hero Martin Luther King, Jr. We go inside Procter & Gamble, Target superstores, Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church, NFL locker rooms, and the nation’s largest hospitals and see how implementing so-called keystone habits can earn billions and mean the difference between failure and success, life and death.

At its core, The Power of Habit contains an exhilarating argument: The key to exercising regularly, losing weight, raising exceptional children, becoming more productive, building revolutionary companies and social movements, and achieving success is understanding how habits work.

Out of curiosity, I’ve been staying casually abreast of brain research as it pertains to learning and well-being.   Not thinking that I had the will-power or even the goal to lose weight or stop my Grey’s Anatomy habit, I was most interested in the science behind it.

Blame it on the Basal Ganglia

Near the base of the skull, the primitive part of the brain (evolutionarily speaking) control automatic behaviors such as breathing and swallowing.   Toward the center of the skull is the basal ganglia that until the 1990’s scientists knew little about.  Tests with rats and mazes led researchers to discover that as the rats wandered through the maze in search of chocolate after hearing a click and a partition lifting, the rats’ basal ganglia activity lit up.  As the experiment was repeated and the rats began to learn their way through the maze with fewer errors, the mental activity decreased.  This led to the realization that the brain was converting sequences of actions into automatic routine. Over time, after hearing the click (the cue), the rats could routinely find the chocolate (reward) because the basal ganglia stored the habits. This allowed rest of the brain to watch for a predator or could relax and consider the vastness of the universe.

This also explains why experienced drivers travel miles without thinking specifically about the route or destination until some action brings their attention back to the road and back the fast moving machine that was previously under control of those automated routines the basal ganglia helped create.

And we do need this automatic routine or we would have a very difficult time just getting out of the house – let alone drive a car – if many of our behaviors and tasks had to be consciously thought out.  Imagine having to consider every move taken in brushing your teeth or getting that first cup of caffeine into your mouth. This is why habits are so difficult to break.  They’ve been stored so that your brain can concentrate on the really important things such as remembering to feed your children or appreciate a clever joke.

But in The Power of Habit Duhigg offers science-based strategies to help us alter our habits and replace rewards (chocolate) with more productive ones in Chapter 3, “The Golden Rule of Habit Change.”

Still it’s the section on Habits of Successful Organizations and the third section The Habits of Societies that includes the chapter titled, “Are We Responsible for Our Habits?”  In the Appendix, Duhigg provides “a framework of understanding how habits work and a guide to experimenting with how they might change.”  He cautions that some are easy to break, but other behaviors are more complex and require much more study and effort.

New York Times reviewer Timothy Wilson wrote that Charles Duhigg “has written an entertaining book…..and relays interesting findings on habit formation and change from the fields of social psychology, clinical psychology and neuroscience. This is not a self-help book conveying one author’s homespun remedies, but a serious look at the science of habit formation and change.”

Goodness knows I have many habits that I’d be glad to be rid of and Duhigg has written an enjoyable and encouraging path to develop a post-New Year or Spring resolution beginning with one habit at a time.

Happy reading! Susan C.

Also by Duhigg:Better Faster

Smarter, Faster, Better  Redefining productivity as a discipline involving how one thinks, identifies goals, constructs teams, and makes decisions, explains how to transform thinking behaviors to increase self-motivation and shares illustrative examples.


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