Insights from “The power of habit by Charles Duhigg”

I came across this book in various book lists. It was defined as a must read for people who seek success in their careers and life.
I shall start this post with a quote that can frame the idea behind the book. Aristotle said “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”. But how can we define a habit ? How do habits emerge ? What can we learn from them ? and how understanding the mechanism behind habits formation can help us achieve success in our personal and professional life, and as a society ?

There are several daily tasks we do without being fully conscious. For example, when we tight our laces, we can’t properly remember if we started with the right or the left foot ?  However when we perform the task, it is almost mechanical. Our body moves spontaneously. Recently, It has been proven that repeatedly performed tasks are not directly performed by our conscience brain, but are handled within the basal ganglia, an older sub layer of the brain that is responsible for more instinctive tasks. It is an evolutionary mechanism that saves brain conscious resources for handling the unusual tasks as they need more attention and concentration.

In his research, Charles Duhigg came to the conclusion that every habit follows a framework. Each part of this framework contributes in a specific way to the habit formation.

A Cue : Each habit responds to a well-defined Cue. The Cue can be sensory, kinetic, olfactory or sometimes emotional. We can take as an example the case of a smoker who lights a cigarette each time he feels angry. The Cue for lighting a cigarette is then, the feelings of being angry.
A Routine : It defines the actions that we perform directly when we have been exposed to a Cue. To follow the example I gave previously, in the case of a smoker, the act of lighting a cigarette is the routine of responding to a Cue that is, being angry.
A Reward : It represents the satisfaction experienced after completing a routine when being exposed to a Cue. In the case of the smoker, it is the feeling of relief and relaxation after finishing a cigarette.
Craving : After performing a habit for several times, there is an association that is created by the brain between the Cue and the Reward. This association has been perfectly demonstrated in the Pavlov’s Dog experiment, in which he associated the sound of a bell with presenting food to the dog that led him to salivate as preparatory reaction before eating. After several iterations, Pavlov experiment showed that the ring of the bell automatically triggered salivation for the dog despite the fact that no food was presented to the dog. By the same token, in the case of a smoker, the anger is then associated with the need for relaxation, therefore craving to smoke a cigarette.

Habits can not only helps us understand and comprehend addiction issues for individuals, they can also help us understand a larger phenomena like Corporate culture and business success stories. Charles Duhigg related the example of how Starbucks used the power of habit to build a corporate culture around tremendous customer service by implementing extensive training to their employees to acquire the necessary skills to deliver high quality service to their customers. In fact, Starbucks seems to give more credit for its success to their service than to the quality of their products. In achieving that, Starbucks had only to focus on one keystone habit “Impressive Customer Service”. Driven by a clearly defined goal with a shared vision across the organization, this habit served as a domino effect to foster excellence across all the company.

In the case of Starbucks, we can use the framework to comprehend how they used the habit framework.
A Cue : Customer arrival at a Starbucks CoffeeHouse
A Routine : High quality service delivery, High quality coffee
A Reward : Customer satisfaction, Building trust with customer, Increasing Sales,  Reinforcing the customer – corporate connection
Craving : The need to deliver high quality service to every customer at a Starbucks CoffeeHouse.

The power of habit can also be witnessed across societies. A perfect example are the several non-violent movements that have been led across the globe by several leaders, like Gandhi in India, Nelson Mandela in South-Africa, or the black community in the USA.
All these movements have in common that they developed on central principles of passive activism with consistency over an extended time period.

Habit framework in the case of social activism.
A Cue :
Oppression, Segregation, Abusive laws
A Routine : Non-violent acts including (boycott, protests, civil disobedience,..)
A Reward : Bringing political and social change, promoting equality, eradicating racism
Craving : The need to act in face off injustice and abusive laws.

Each habit is acquired through the steps defined in the habit framework. 1 – Being exposed to a Cue. 2 – That leads to perform a certain Routine. 3 – Getting the Reward in form of psychological or physiological satisfaction.  4 – After several iterations, it creates a craving feelings for the Reward each time exposed to the Cue.
But the framework can also be used backwards to analyze and unlearn bad habits we have.

Charles Duhigg related his personal experience with a bad habit he got that led him to gain few pounds. Each day at 3 pm he took a break and went to the cafeteria, he then ordered a cookie and chatted for few minutes with colleagues.

He took the following steps in order to understand how he gained this new habit.

Identify the habit, In order to change our habits, we need first to be conscious of them. In the case of Charles Duhigg, he has noticed that he had gained few pounds thanks to the additional cookies he ate during his 3 pm break. After taking consciousness regarding this habit. He monitored himself in order to isolate what was the real reason for his break at 3 pm. Was he hungry ? Was he craving for sugar ? Was it only the need to have a break or to chat with colleagues ?
To have the answers he needs, he followed with the second step, Experimenting with reward, Charles Duhigg used different rewards, in order to understand what truly made him take his 3 pm break. He replaced his cookie with an apple / Coffee and monitored himself. He came to the conclusion that his 3 pm break wasn’t due to hunger but it was something else. He, then, followed by experiencing other things.
Isolating the Cue, After experiencing with several rewards, he came to the conclusion that, what triggered his habit was the fact that he needed to take a break at 3 pm to free his mind and chat for a few minutes with someone.
Having a planNow that he understood his habit, he designed a plan that will avoid him those extra pounds he gained from eating those cookies in the cafeteria. Instead, he now goes to a colleague to have a chat for few minutes then came back to his desk.

Understanding and applying the framework of habit can be of great advantage. Whether on the personal level, on a corporate context or as a society, the framework offers a pattern to describe habits, but also a way to implement them. The four steps to change bad habits is a tool of equal importance. It represents a pragmatic step by step procedure that can also be used to our advantage.

The power of habit is an excellent book with a lot of vivid examples and extensive clarifications. With this post I tried to give a taste of what the book is all about and what I have learned from it. I hope you enjoyed this post.

Please let me know if you have any remarks regarding the lenght, content, format or subject of the post. I will be delighted to take them into account in my future posts.


Bibliography : “The power of habit” – Charles Duhigg



  1. Excellence is, also, a reflection of character. Those who do not feel it is in their best interest to deliver excellence will not deliver it — habit or otherwise. Those who believe it is worthwhile to give their best will benefit most from your post. Happy Holidays!


    1. Thank you Anna for you feedback, I also feel that going for the best of what we can do, not settling for less than an outstanding results and pushing as hard as we could is a trait of character. Let me share with you a quote I heard john wooden cite one time while talking about the meaning of success, he is a successful basketball coach and poetry lover. it goes like this “We win or lose within ourselves, the shining trophies on our shelves can never win tomorrow’s game. You and I know deeper down, there is always a chance to win the crown but when we fail to give our best, we simply haven’t met the test. Of giving all and saving none until the game is really won, of showing what is meant by grit, of playing through when others quit of playing through not giving up, its bearing down that wins the cup , of dreaming there is a goal ahead, of praying when our dreams have fled, yet loosing not afraid to fall if bravely we have giving all. For whom asks more of a man than giving all within his span, giving all it seems to me, is not so far from victory”


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