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Book Review- The Power of Habit

As researchers and scientists learn more about the functioning of our brains, an increasing number of articles and publications are developed to help us understand how are brain works, and particularly how to be aware of the shortcuts the brain tends to take that aren’t always appropriate and how certain brain functions happen incredibly quickly without conscious thought.  I’m going to recap some of those to set up Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit.

The autonomous brain functions were explored brilliantly by Daniel Goleman in Emotional Intelligence.  As an example, if we accidentally touch something hot, we’ll jerk our hand back almost instantly, as the super-fast reptilian brain reacts.  James Surowiecki, in The Wisdom of Crowds, explored subconscious biases, and logic shortcuts that we frequently take, that lead to poor choices and bad decisions – but how, in many circumstances, groups and markets are more likely to make the correct choice, or come up with closer estimates.
Thinking Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman, which I previously reviewed here, is a must read.   Professor Kahneman is a scientist, and takes a researcher’s approach.  The professor gives us a very thorough and thoughtful presentation of the many shortcuts and logic flaws that the human brain is capable of, and gives us advice on how to recognize situations where our more logical, analytical reasoning must be brought to bear (e.g. investing decisions) rather than let our more spontaneous brain capability generate answers and make decisions.  As we age, we are even more susceptible to clever offers and sales pitches, and aren’t as aware of situations as we should be – making the effort to reason even more critical.  I strongly recommend this book, particularly to those of us over 50.  It turns out that there aren’t that many Warren Buffets….  Having said that, some parts of this book are challenging.  Kahneman uses several mathematic and statistical examples.  I like to think of myself as reasonably math-literate, but there were occasions that I not only didn’t get the same answers to math problems that the book presented, I couldn’t figure out how to get those answers.

That brings us to The Power of Habit, subtitled Why We What We Do in Life and Business.   Mr. Duhigg covers some of the same material that the previously mentioned authors have, but with concentration on how habits form, how the brain uses habits to permit multi-functioning (e.g. - how easy is it for you to sing along with your car radio/cd/IPOD while driving your daily commute?) and what is required to change a habit once formed.  However, in  contrast to Professor Kahneman, Mr. Duhigg is a story-teller.  And a good one.   The book then is less rigorous but more approachable.   His begins with a touching story of a man whose brain was damaged by an infection, but whose habits were so ingrained that he could function at a reasonably high level.  He explores how AA successfully rehabilitates so many alcoholics by habit change and how disciplined training habits helps produce Olympic athletes like Michael Phelps.  He has numerous business examples of how habits of workers can be changed for the better (including Alcoa and Starbucks) and also how businesses can exploit our habits (Fabreze; Target). 
There are inspirational stories about Rosa Parks and the civil rights movement and Rick Warren and the creation of the Saddleback Church.  There is also a cringe-worthy tale of a gambling addict unable to shake her gambling addiction and the destruction of her life as a result.

The book concludes with a very practical explanation of how habits can be changed.  Note: the author is upfront that changing habits is hard work – no miracle cure.

Highly recommended.

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