The Power of Habit

A book review by Jennifer Foster, MSW

I recently read a book called The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg. It is about why we have habits and how they can be changed. I was interested in this book because I have some habits I want to break and I was curious to learn about why they exist in the first place and how to change from having bad habits to good ones.

The author, Charles Duhigg, describes habits as “the choices that all of us deliberately make, at some point, and then stop thinking about but continue doing”. The idea is that at one point we all make decisions that help us get through the day and once we decide we stop thinking about it and proceed with the behaviour automatically. Scientific studies have found that habits happen to prevent us from becoming overwhelmed by all the decisions we would otherwise have to make each day. They are a way for our brain to save effort.

While habits help us conserve mental energy, a key point is that our brains do not always test out and choose habits that would be in our best interest, but rather habits are borne out of urges or cravings. Sometimes we may not recognize or understand an urge and why we respond to it in the way we do, which can make habits difficult to control.

These two points – that we develop habits based on urges and that once we develop a habit we behave without thinking, are important, because it means that if we want to change a habit, we have to be deliberate about it.

Duhigg describes how habits work as a loop that is made up of three things – cue – routine – reward. When we associate cues with certain rewards a subconscious craving emerges that starts the habit loop. Let me tell you about one of my habits – at the end of my work day, I walk down the street to a coffee shop and buy a coffee and a cookie to eat on my way home. The craving that drives this habit is a desire for comfort to end my work day. While I do derive comfort from this habit I also experience guilt because I know it is causing me to gain weight. So this is one of the habits I want to change. Duhigg lays out four steps for changing a habit:

  • Identify the routine (in my case this is walking down the street to a coffee shop)
  • Experiment with rewards (listening to music also brings me comfort)
  • Isolate the cure (in my case this is the end of my work day)
  • Have a plan (I have decided that when my work day ends, I will walk directly to my car and put on music that makes me feel comforted).

One additional point that I want to highlight is that willpower and belief are important in changing habits. Duhigg describes willpower as a skill and muscle. He says that when you learn to force yourself to make a healthy choice, part of what is happening is you are changing how you think. He said the more we use willpower the more our brain is practiced at helping to focus on a goal. He also says habit replacement works pretty well for people until the stresses of life get too high. He says replacement habits only become lasting new behaviours when they are accompanied by an individual’s belief that they can change or belief that they can cope without needing to satisfy a craving in a particular way.

In summary, habits are something we all have and many of them serve a useful purpose but most of us have some that are unhealthy. The good news is that wile change may be neither fast nor easy, by understanding your habit loop and with willpower and belief, almost any habit can be changed.

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Jennifer is a registered social worker who works with individuals and couples. Her primary areas of interest include adjustment to disability, personal growth and adaptation to change, anxiety and stress. Jennifer has practiced social work for 12 years working in the non-profit sector for Spinal Cord BC and the Parkinson Society; and in the health sector as an in-patient social worker at GF Strong Rehabilitation Centre and at Mary Park Arthritis Centre.

Jennifer uses a strengths based approach to counselling and is studying primarily the following counselling approaches: brief solutions focused, systems, mindfulness and cognitive/behavioural.

Jennifer is married and has two young children.

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