A Duke University researcher published a paper in 2006 stating that more than 40 percent of the actions people perform daily aren’t actual decisions, but habits.

The Power of Habit is probably one of the best books about willpower and habits published. The truths about habits and the techniques used to create or replace habits presented by Charles Duhigg in the book are backed up by a series of experiments, scientific research, and case studies about famous neuroscience patients.

This book is extremely valuable in terms of actionable takeaways as it can help people replace toxic habits in their personal lives but it can also help them combat habits that create friction between your recently launched product and your customers. This book can also inspire you to come up with strategies based on habits that improve customer retention.

According to William James most of the choices people make seem to be the outcome of a well-considered decision-making process but they are actually habits. One habit doesn’t have a big influence over us on its own, but over time, the food we order, what we say to our kids before bedtime or if we save or spend money have enormous impacts on our health, career happiness or financial security.

The Power of Habit has three main sections:

Part One: The Habits of Individuals

The book starts with the story of Lisa who managed who turned her life around by overridden old toxic habits with healthy new ones. Neuroscientists observed something remarkable: as her habits changed so did her brain.  The neural activity of her old behaviors, those impulses were crowded by new urges. At first, Lisa focused on changing just one habit, smoking, but she soon started to adopt other healthy habits.

Chapter 1: The Habit Loop: How Habits Work

In the first chapter, we find out about Eugene Pauly, a 71-year-old man who suffered from viral encephalitis. He suffered from total short-term memory loss and he was unable to retain information for more than one minute. While on a walk with his wife Eugene got lost but somehow managed to get home on his own without remembering how. Further tests concluded what scientists have long suspected but it was never proved: habits are formed in another section (basal ganglia) of the brain than the one responsible for memory.

Charles Duhigg describes habits as a circular process with three main components:


  1.  Cue – a trigger that puts your brain into automatic mode and tells you what routine to use
  2. Routine – the physical, mental or emotional behavior that follows the cue
  3. Reward – the satisfaction that you seek and tells your brain that the routine was successful

Habits emerge because the brain is constantly looking for ways to minimize its effort. They stop us from constantly thinking about basic behaviors such as walking so we can concentrate our mental energy to inventing spears, irrigation systems, airplanes or achieve other milestones in human history.

Chapter 2: The Craving Brain: How to Create New Habits

Eugene Pauly showed us a couple or two things about the habit cue loop but it is Claude Hopkins that taught us how new habits can be cultivated and grown.

The psychology behind all the is based on two rules: First, find a simple and obvious cue. Second, clearly define the rewards. Hopkins created a craving that made cues and rewards work. Cravings are what powers the habit loop.

The health of the Americans was in decline because as the nation had become wealthier people started to consume a lot of sugary products. When soldiers were drafted for WWI many of the recruits had rotten teeth so everybody was in the search of a solution to shift the attention of the nation on the dental hygiene and make people start using toothpaste.

Hopkins created a simple cue, causing people to run their tongue across their teeth in order to feel the tooth film. Moreover, he added citric acid as well as doses of mint oil and other chemicals in Pepsodent. These are all irritants that create a cool, tingling sensation on the tongue and gums. This trick enhanced the newly discovered cue.

Hopkins established a daily activity. Toothbrushing had become a ritual for more than half of the Americans.

Procter and Gable tried marketing a scentless product that removed bad odors. It was a total failure. They soon discovered that they had to create a habit in order to sell the product.  You can’t sell a product that provides scentlessness because there is no cue available for the brain to anticipate. The sales went through the roof after P&G began marketing the product instead as an air freshener

Chapter 3: The Golden Rule of Habit Change: Why Transformation Occurs

To change a habit, you must keep the old cue, and deliver the old reward, but insert a new routine.

Tony Dungy is an American football coach that achieved success with underdog teams. How he managed to do that? He didn’t outsmart or outplay his competition. He reduced the number of schemes and tactical plays by keeping just a few of them. He wanted his players to think less and act on habits so that the response time was so quick that the opponents could not cope with their plays.

The solution was to link the cues they players already knew to different routines and rewards.

Alcoholics Anonymous provides a similar, though less invasive, system for inserting new routines into old habit loops. AA staff tries to find the reward alcoholics are looking for (relaxation, escape, anxiety relief etc) and replace the drinking routine with a different routine.

The Golden Rule of habit change: If we keep the same cue and reward then a new routine can be inserted. But that’s not sufficient. In order to keep new habits, we must believe change is possible. And most often, this belief only emerges with the help of a group. For the AA the belief might come from the personal example of the group members or from religion. Dungy achieved success after he lost his son and the team believed in him more than ever.

Part Two: The Habits of Successful Organizations


Chapter 4: Keystone Habits, or The Ballad of Paul O’Neill: Which Habits Matter Most

Some habits are more important than others. These are called keystone habits and they set in motion other habits. Running or going to the gym is a keystone habit that influences people to be more productive, eat healthier or save money. Keystone habits start a process that, over time, transforms everything.

Paul O’Neill managed to transform one of the largest, stodgiest, and most potentially dangerous companies, ALCOA into a profit machine by attacking one habit and then watching the changes ripple through the organization. He was obsessed with employee safety and managed to make this company a bastion of safety.

Cue: an employee injury

Routine: report to O’Neill the injury within 24 hours and come up with a plan

Reward: Only those who embraced the system got promoted

Chapter 5: Starbucks and the Habit of Success: When Willpower Becomes Automatic

When Starbucks began plotting its growth strategy the executives quickly realized that success required cultivating an environment that justified paying four dollars for a cup of coffee. The company needed to deliver a smile alongside lattes and scones. Unless baristas were trained to put aside their personal problems, the way they handled customers would have to suffer.

At the core of this education was a focus on the most important keystone habit: willpower.

Chapter 6: The Power of a Crisis: How Leaders Create Habits Through Accident and Design

Rhode Island Hospital suffered a crisis in the early 2000s because of the frequent medical mistakes that occurred there. Several suggestions were made in order to stop the mistakes but only after the crisis hit the tipping point changes were embraced.

An anonymous reporting system was created that encouraged nurses to send feedback regarding doctors. A new habit was cultivated that made Rhode Island one of the safest hospitals in the US.

“You never want a serious crisis to go to waste,” Rahm Emanuel – President Obama’s chief of staff.

Chapter 7: How Target Knows What You Want Before You Do: When Companies Predict (and Manipulate) Habits

Besides regular habits, humans have buying habits and they change when they go through a major life event. “When someone gets married, they’re more likely to start buying a new type of coffee. When they move into a new house, they’re more apt to purchase a different kind of cereal. When they get divorced, there’s a higher chance they’ll start buying different brands of beer.”

Pregnant women and new parents are the holy grail of retail. They are the most profitable segment of customers. Target, a US department store, found out a way to figure out when someone was pregnant and send them targeted ads. They used the sandwich technique in order not to scare the potential customers. They started sandwiching the diaper coupons between nonpregnancy products that made the advertisements seem anonymous, familiar, comfortable. They didn’t what them to know they were targeted.

During WW2 the meat supply was mostly sent to the troops outside the US and there was a meat shortage back home. So the government tried to make households consume organs but husbands hated it. The Committee on Food Habits concluded that this was because of the lack of familiarity. Soon, housewives started serving steak and kidney pie. After the war ended organ meats had been fully integrated into the American diet. Offal consumption rose by 50% during the war. Kidney and liver consumption rose as well.

When Outkast released “Hey ya!” everybody changed the radio station even if record companies considered the song to be a hit. The record didn’t sound like existing records that were played on the radio. In order to make “Hey ya!” a hit, radio stations it had to be slightly camouflaged at first, the same way housewives camouflaged kidney by slipping it into meatloaf. It was sandwiched between songs that were already popular. Sometimes it was sandwiched between the same song.

Part Three: The Habits of Societies


Chapter 8: Saddleback Church and the Montgomery Bus Boycott: How Movements Happen

This chapter tells the story of the Mongomery Bus Boycott following Rosa Parks arrest. This chapter has little to do with the rest of the book and it seems as it would fit a lot better in Malcom Gladwell’s Tipping Point.

The secret to the success of this boycott was the fact that Rosa Parks had friends spanned in various social and economic hierarchy. She had what sociologists call “strong ties”—firsthand relationships—with dozens of groups throughout Montgomery that didn’t usually come into contact with one another. People who hardly knew Rosa Parks decided to participate because of a social peer pressure—an influence known as “the power of weak ties”—that made it difficult to avoid joining in.

Chapter 9: The Neurology of Free Will: Are We Responsible for Our Habits?

In this chapter Charles tries to make an analogy between gambling addicts that have to pay their debt and people who escaped criminal prosecution after murdering people while sleepwalking.

During sleep terrors, the prefrontal cortex, and other high cognition areas are deactivated, and there is no possibility of conscious intervention. In the case of gambling addicts that gamble not by choice, but out of habit, it is harder to establish just how much responsibility they actually bear.