The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business
by Charles Duhigg
After being completely devastated by We Are Not Ourselves, I needed a break from drama for a while, so I picked up Supportive Husband’s copy of The Power of Habit. Even though it’s something he’s been reading for work (and much of it focuses on how business uses information about human habits), I figured this book would be self-helpy enough to feed all those aspirational cravings that tend to pop up around the first of the year. (Note: the following turned out to be more of a summary than anything else, but you may still find it interesting)
According to Charles Duhigg, our brains create habits (and many of them!) in the form of a habit loop that satisfies a particular need. A good example is snacking. Perhaps you get peckish around 3pm everyday. With little conscious thought, you may get up from your desk around this time each afternoon and wander down to the cafeteria for an afternoon nosh. If you want to stop this habit loop, Duhigg says that first you have to figure out if it is really hunger cueing you to snack or if it’s something else. Often people discover it’s actually boredom, in which case, wandering over to a co-worker’s desk for a quick 10-minute chat may carry the same reward as that doughnut (I know, hard to believe).
And so we arrive at the discussion of willpower, a trait most of us probably consider a skill. Some people have a lot of willpower, others just don’t – right? Well, it turns out that willpower is actually more like a muscle, so when we exercise it, it grows stronger.
Duhigg points to a research study that put two dozen self-professed couch potatoes on an exercise program that increased in intensity each week. As the program wore on, the researchers found that the participants were pushing themselves harder and harder at the gym, using increased willpower each time they worked out. But what’s particularly interesting is how this increased level of willpower impacted other parts of their lives: their cigarette, alcohol, caffeine and junk food consumption all went down, they did more homework and less TV watching. Great outcomes, though as you can imagine, the researchers wanted to make sure that the effects they were seeing correlated with overall willpower, not just physical activity.
So they enrolled a different group of people in a second study involving money management. They gave participants savings goals and instructed them to avoid luxury spending, including dining out and entertainment. They also had to keep a log of their expenses. This is pretty fascinating: as the participants became more disciplined about enacting these habits, they also experienced the same benefits as the exercise group, which included healthier living and better work habits. “As people strengthened their willpower muscles in one part of their lives … that strength spilled over into what they ate or how hard they worked.”
That said, like our body’s muscles, our willpower muscle gets fatigued and needs recovery time. If we have a particularly challenging day at work, it’s going to be harder to go on that run when we get home. On a broader scale is the issue of autonomy, which is crucial for willpower. For when people don’t feel they have control over their lives, their willpower isn’t as strong, no matter what they are trying to do.
Now that my own willpower has been renewed (kind of, this post wasn’t very creative), I’ll be back with a fiction selection soon, courtesy of this blog’s original patron, my dad.