Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Book Review: The Power of Habit

Although this book, "The Power of Habit," by Charles Duhigg was published over a year ago, and although I received a pre-publication copy even before it came out, I am only now getting around to reviewing it. The reason is not that I have a terrible habit of procrastinating (well, okay, I do) and it's also not that I never get around to writing blog posts (well, okay, that's true, too).

Charles Duhigg (c) Elizabeth Alter
The reason I am only now reviewing this book is simple: I started reading it and was so inspired by what I was learning, that I stopped reading and started putting its lessons to the test in my own life. The book got laid aside, except for occasional dips in to remind me how it is that people change old habits and start new ones, and I only recently picked it up again and read through to the end.

I know it's a horrible cliche to say this, but it's true: this book changed my life. For the better. With the insight provided by this book, I was able to break some old habits I didn't want anymore and also to start some new good habits that are now firmly established as part of my day-to-day life.

This is not a small thing. I'm a person who has always been very good at establishing good habits and sticking with a new program of activity I want to add to my life. I believe I inherently understood the habit loop of "Routine/Reward/Cue" that Duhigg so clearly describes in this book. And, yet, having his explanation, in both language and diagrams, for what I already knew how to do helped me refine my own process and understand myself better. It also helped me see why it was that I was a pro at establishing good habits, but not very good at breaking bad ones, even ones I wanted to change.

When this book came out last year along with great media coverage and dozens of reviews in prominent places, I wondered if I was reading the same book everybody else was talking about. The angle taken in almost all these publicity pitches was almost exclusively about marketing and understanding how business has exploited the new scientific understanding of habit formation to persuade (some might say manipulate) us to buy their stuff.

Since Duhigg is a business reporter for the New York Times, I suppose this explains the bias in the coverage. The business world knows his work and his "platform," as they call it in the publishing biz, is squarely in this area.

While the coverage by the media may have done its job for the publisher and pushed up sales of the book, it seems to me that it's done the book, and its author, a disservice. Although "The Power of Habit" includes plenty of stories and examples taken from the business world, it is primarily a book about the science behind habit formation and change. I don't know where bookstores shelve it, but it ought to be in the "popular science" section.

This book is a good, excellent even, piece of science writing. I am no expert on the neuroscience that Duhigg so deftly explains, but he has clearly done his homework in this area. The book is filled with extensive notes and references to the original literature and the explanations within the chapters themselves are clear and informative. He's visited the labs, met with the scientists and their patients, and explained all this work in an entertaining way. The book also has a valuable appendix with a detailed explanation of how an empirical approach can be used to figure out the roots of one's own bad habits.

I highly recommend this book to anybody struggling to break some bad habits or wishing to establish new good habits. But beware: it might very well change your life.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013