4 Key Takeaways From The Power of Habit

New York Times business reporter, Charles Duhigg examines what habits are, their importance and how to change them so anyone can change their life or business. He explains why some people and companies are able to change their habits, when others cannot. He marries science and storytelling to demonstrate how in every aspect of society around the world-from parenting, to product design, to leading successful social movements the ability to change everyday behaviors is the bedrock of success.

My key Takeaways from “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business" by Charles Duhigg

Takeaway #1 How Habits Are Formed

Our brain turns a sequence of actions into an automatic return through 'chunking' this allows our brain to save energy and perform common, reoccurring tasks easily and efficiently without having to think about it. It all happens in the basal ganglia, a small neurological structure that's embedded in our brain.

It's a 3 step process:

1. An external cue creates a spike of brain activity as it finds the appropriate action for the occasion.

2. When you're used to performing this habit when faced with the cue (I.e when your alarm goes off you jump up and brush your teeth or put the coffee on) you have a routine in place and do the task pretty much on autopilot.

3. Your brain acknowledges the successful completion of the task (connecting the cue with the habit) with a reward. You might not associate the task with a treat as such but your brain knows that the reward for brushing your teeth is the minty clean feeling.

Takeaway #2 Why do some habits stick but others don't?

Habits are so resilient that even if you have brain damage, so long as the basal ganglia is undamaged, your habits remain. However, the brain doesn't know the difference between good habits and bad habits which is why it can be so difficult to kick smoking or eating sugary food due to the brain kicking in with the cue and old behavior as it seeks that reward.

The trick to changing a bad habit to a good one is not just to change or remove the cue and the action that follows but to manipulate the craving - Don't ignore it or resist it, change it. If you're trying to lose weight but got into the habit of stopping off at the bakery on the way home from work you might alter your behavior by going to the gym straight after instead. Your brain will still get the feel-good reward of endorphins but it'll be through exercise rather than a sweet treat.

Takeaway #3 Creating Keystone Habits

Keystone habits are the ones that are most important as they create a positive knock-on effect in other areas of your life and must be instilled if you want to make a broad change in your lifestyle. Basic keystone habits such as always walking up stairs rather than taking the elevator or keeping a food diary both create small habits which lead on to big life-changing habits of being fit and eating healthily.

How do you make sure you stick to the keystone habits? Willpower. But willpower comes and goes as we all know... Some days you'll be all fired up to get to the gym, other days you can't get enough energy or motivation to get up off the sofa and say 'I'll go tomorrow and workout longer and harder'.

Work on your willpower and you'll be able to successfully create all the other habits you want to have.

Being told or forced to do something will weaken your willpower so make it a choice, can you do the action before being asked? Or bend it to suit your needs? If you know you have a trying situation coming up when your willpower will be low, plan for it – Go to the birthday party having eaten a healthy meal before and take along healthy snacks to add to the buffet. Take responsibility for your willpower and habits, don't slip back to old ways because you blame the host for only provided unhealthy options at the party!

Takeaway #4 The Power To Change

Surround yourself with people who are trying to form the same habit you are, get a friend or work colleague plus a family member to join you in losing weight so that you have support at work and at home and make friends at the gym who already have those healthy habits happening automatically. Finally, take responsibility – Don't blame your actions on the habit saying it's not your fault.

Key Points From The Power of Habit

  • Generally, habits can be broken down into a 3 part loop: First, you sense an external cue. Next comes the routine. Finally, you get a reward.
  • The habit formation framework is: Identify the routine, Experiment with rewards, Isolate the cue, Have a plan.
  • Stopping an unhealthy habit can be difficult because of the craving you get, this craving leading you through the habit loop to the reward. The good news is that we can use cravings and rewards in order to form healthy habits.
  • The Golden Rule of Habit Change: You can't extinguish a bad habit, you can only change it. Therefore, the key for quitting a strong habit or an addiction is not to resist the craving but to redirect it, meaning substitute it for another.
  • To change an unhealthy habit, you must keep the old cue, and deliver the old reward, but insert a new routine.
  • You first have to believe you can break a habit. If you believe you can change, then the change becomes real.
  • Not all habits are equal. Keystone habits are more important than others as when you stick to them, their positive effects spill over into other areas of your life.
  • Once willpower became stronger, it touched everything. When you actively engage in habits that demand resolution, you can strengthen your willpower. Willpower is like a muscle and therefore must be rested before it becomes totally overworked and exhausted
  • Crises offer the chance to reform habits. Good leaders sense crises before they happen.
  • Your habits are what you choose them to be. Change might not be fast and easy, but with time and effort, almost any habit can be reshaped. The key is ongoing small wins.

In-Depth Insight

The Most Important Keystone Habit Is Willpower

Stanford researchers discovered in the 1960’s that if 4 year old’s were asked whether they would like to eat 1 marshmallow now, this being placed in front of them, or wait a little while so as to be able to have 2 marshmallows, only 30% of the kids managed not to eat the marshmallow in front of them before the researcher came back to give them 2 marshmallows.

Years later the research participants, now adults, were located. It was discovered that the kids who had the most willpower, those who had managed to wait 15 minutes without devouring the first marshmallow that had been placed in front of them, had received better grades, were more popular, and had fewer drug addictions compared with those who had lacked willpower and gobbled up the one marshmallow unable to hold out for two.

Similar studies have been done more recently on different age groups showing that willpower is a keystone habit that can be applied to many areas of life however, as you’ve probably noticed, willpower isn’t always consistent. Some days it’s easy to write that report, go to the gym, or eat healthily, other days it’s a struggle and all you want to do is lay on the sofa and eat snacks!

This is because willpower is like a muscle and therefore must be rested before it becomes totally overworked and exhausted. If you use up all your willpower to get you through a hard day at work, it’s likely that you won’t have enough willpower left at the end of the day to go to the gym and eat a healthy supper. You also have less willpower when you are ordered to do something you don’t want to do and when faced with stressful situations such as an angry client - unless you’re mentally prepared your willpower will be zapped and you’ll likely snap back, or binge eat your way through all the cookies! The good news is that there’s something called a willpower workout whereby when you actively engage in habits that demand resolution i.e sticking to a strict calorie controlled diet, you can strengthen your willpower.

The Power of Habit Chapters

Chapter One - The Habit Loop - How Habits Work
Chapter Two - The Craving Brain - How to Create New Habits
Chapter Three - The Golden Rule of Habit Change - Why Transformation Occurs
Chapter Four - Keystone Habits, or The Ballad of Paul O'Neill - Which Habits Matter Most
Chapter Five - Starbucks and the Habit of Success - When Willpower Becomes Automatic
Chapter Six - The Power of a Crisis - How Leaders Create Habits Through Accident and Design
Chapter Seven - How Target Knows What you want Before you do - When Companies Predict (and Manipulate) Habits
Chapter Eight - Saddleback Church and the Montgomery Bus Boycott - How Movements Happen
Chapter Nine - The Neurology of Free Will - Are We Responsible for Our Habits?



On average, 90% of what we read is forgotten within the first hours after reading... Which is why it’s so important to apply what you read.

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Best Quotes from The Power of Habit

“Change might not be fast and it isn't always easy. But with time and effort, almost any habit can be reshaped.”

“Typically, people who exercise, start eating better, and becoming more productive at work. They smoke less and show more patience with colleagues and family. They use their credit cards less frequently and say they feel less stressed. Exercise is a keystone habit that triggers widespread change.”

“The Golden Rule of Habit Change: You can't extinguish a bad habit, you can only change it.”

“Champions don’t do extraordinary things. They do ordinary things, but they do them without thinking, too fast for the other team to react. They follow the habits they’ve learned.”

“Willpower isn’t just a skill. It’s a muscle, like the muscles in your arms or legs, and it gets tired as it works harder, so there’s less power left over for other things.”

“Rather, to change a habit, you must keep the old cue, and deliver the old reward, but insert a new routine.”

“If you believe you can change - if you make it a habit - the change becomes real.”

“This process within our brains is a three-step loop. First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future: THE HABIT LOOP”

“This is the real power of habit: the insight that your habits are what you choose them to be.”

“THE FRAMEWORK: • Identify the routine • Experiment with rewards • Isolate the cue • Have a plan”

“As people strengthened their willpower muscles in one part of their lives—in the gym, or a money management program—that strength spilled over into what they ate or how hard they worked. Once willpower became stronger, it touched everything.”

“Small wins are a steady application of a small advantage.”

― Charles Duhigg: The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business


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Editor and Founder

Tal Gur is a location independent entrepreneur, author, and impact investor. After trading his daily grind for a life of his own daring design, he spent a decade pursuing 100 major life goals around the globe. His most recent book and bestseller, The Art of Fully Living - 1 Man, 10 Years, 100 Life Goals Around the World, has set the stage for his new mission: elevating the next generation of leaders to their true potential.

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