Monday, April 23, 2012

100 Books #33 - Charles Duhigg's THE POWER OF HABIT



I'm usually not so timely in taking up books that are in the news, am I? As a rule, I stubbornly withhold my attention from books that are getting talked up on TV or heavily plugged via SMDs and adds on sites I frequent. I still haven't read The Satanic Verses because I avoided doing so while everybody was, and just haven't gotten around to it yet.

That's a habit, but not one I'm too terribly concerned about, because I do not in any way consider it my responsibility to keep up with the latest reading trends. I'm generally more interested in digging up stuff folks might have missed, or at least in coming around to things in my own time. And anyway, no one is clamoring for me to become more timely.

But I have lots of other habits that do concern me. And I've been talking a lot with a good friend about them, and he pointed me to this book, half pop neuroscience and half corporate/organizational case study, and while I balked at the Kindle price (the agency model still irks me to my ears), I agreed to check out the sample.

What I found in that sample was intriguing as hell (Duhigg, if snagging readers like me was a priority, did it right in leading off with interesting neuroscientific case studies), and my friend was so persuasive about the book's worth, that I decided I'd pay the inflated Kindle price and get the whole book -- which I was then unable to put aside for others like I usually do -- just this once.

A habit I'm trying very, very hard to fight is that of being price insensitive to books, and buying them on impulse, which having a Kindle makes very, very hard to defeat. Um.

So just as, once upon a time, I decided I needed to learn more about insects to overcome my overwhelming phobia for them (my friends already know how well that took!), it seemed like it was time to learn about habits, how they develop, how they work, how they can, perhaps, be altered if not eliminated.

Enter Mr. Duhigg, a reporter for the New York Times and a wonderfully curious person as well as a fine distiller of stories and facts into useful narratives and arguments. His book is a lot lighter on neuroscience than I'd expected, but the anecdotes he has shared about how habit works and how it can be exploited, for good or ill, are fascinating in the same way Freakonomics is fascinating; that is, his examples and stories are very good at illuminating some of the secrets behind our behavior, which it is very good, in this world we've created, to know, because other people know, and are going to use that knowledge to guide and govern us (see the magnificent BBC series Century of the Self for more on that) whether we like it or not.

But we all, most of us anyway, know that already. What's really interesting about Duhigg's book is what it has to say about changing habits, about deliberately reprogramming yourself to divert bad habits into better ones (there is ample evidence that habits never go away, so one cannot hope to eradicate them, alas). It requires quite a bit of self-reflection, which may be an activity alien to some but is worth doing in its own right. One first must notice the cues, the triggers that cause one to engage in the habitual behavior, and then must identify the reward he or she enjoys as a result of indulging the habit (pleasure, relief, conformity, etc.). These are not going to change. What can change is what happens between cue and reward: the routine. An example in the book is nail biting, which a young woman managed, with effort, to replace with knocking her knuckles on a hard surface when the nervous cue to bite them occurred -- the reward, she had found, for biting her nails was the stimulation she felt in her fingers, which could be had in other ways.

This is not, though, a self-help book; it's more of an inquiry into how habits affect us on the individual level and on a larger scale. Lots of examples from Starbucks' corporate culture (which seems to have taken on the mission of making up for the lack of training in discipline and self-control on the part of parents and the public education system), from how Alcoa turned itself around by focusing on developing organizational habits that promoted the control of perfect safety records, and Olympic multi-medalist Michael Phelps' deeply ingrained preparation routines, which he has been working on since he was seven years old, illustrate how deliberate habit cultivation (again, identifying a desired habit and then finding the proper cue and reward to encourage it) can make a positive difference in a single human life or in a giant corporation or church.

Oh, and an early student of deliberate habit-forming and -changing? William James.

Whether you're seeking to make changes yourself (I've made some plans as I've read this book) or just interested in how other people do it, this is a good read for curious people. I'm glad I took my friend's advice about it!

But I'm still worried about the whole Kindle thing.

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