Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit will make you realize that you need to get it together

Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

After the cranial battering ram of reading Gravity’s Rainbow it was nice to settle in with this clearly-written, eye-opening, and (most importantly) short book by Charles Duhigg of the New York Times

Until the book made me realize how my life is basically bad habits personified .

The Power of Habit is a powerful book where the author uses two sections- one focusing on how we develop and change habits, the other focusing on habits of management- to make a pretty good case that it is possible to change our worst habits into something positive. It will either be truly inspiring if you’re a go-getter CEO type, or overwhelming if you’re an “oh my God, I need to get my life together” type.

I am the latter.

Groundhog Day Bill Murray driving

From procrastinating, to sleeping too late, to promising myself I’ll get that thing done, sometimes my days feel like a Groundhog Day loop, minus the comedy, and Bill Murray (but God, what I would give…)

In one chapter, Duhigg uses the story of Alcoa, a huge aluminum conglomerate, to demonstrate how odd decisions by a leader can create unexpected changes. Paul O’Neill* took the reins of Alcoa as CEO in 1987, before serving as Secretary of the Treasury under the Bush II administration (and was fired for disagreeing with the Iraq invasion).

Duhigg describes O’Neill’s first speech as CEO, which confused the hell out of everyone in the room. At the time, Alcoa was floundering, as their stock and worker morale slumped to record lows. Employees expected to hear a bold plan to boost earnings or increase production.

Paul O'Neill Alcoa speech Treasury
Paul O’Neill revealing his bad habit of staring at his hands.

 

Instead O’Neill focused on safety, an issue that hadn’t been acknowledged as a problem. He set a goal of no accidents for a month. Once workers realized that management had their safety in mind, not only did no accidents occur, but their output also increased. This wasn’t the plan initially. But it showed how breaking a minor habit can lead to solving larger problems.

In the first section of the book, Duhigg discusses cues that trigger our habits, good and bad. This could be that stressed-out cigarette break or that midnight snack fest. He concentrates on the importance of feeling something as a cue, such as feeling clean after a shower or brushing your teeth. He says that we’re craving a psychological feeling when engaging in a habit. If we can create habits that make us feel good, then we’ll continue those habits.

bad habits

Mind-blowing stuff and I’m sure I didn’t do the book justice. It’s fascinating to envision yourself caving to these constant cravings that take up a bulk of our day (and even more if you’re addicted to sleeping, like many of us).

Do I still have bad habits? Absolutely, and I always will. But writing consistently is one habit that I’ve changed since completing the book. I’ve made sure to write for at least an hour a day, which has been easier than I thought. Since then, I’ve increased this time period to several hours a day and it even led to a few professional freelance gigs.

I’ve kept the writing regimen up for the same reasons Duhigg talks about in the book: It feels good. Each day when I look at that filled page (I write long-hand) I feel like I’ve accomplished something, even if it’s not very good. I’m more convinced than ever that writer’s block is a myth.

It’s not writer’s block, it’s the fear of writing badly, which happens. A lot. Then again, we’ll screw anything up if we do it enough. We just become more accustomed to screwing up.

*Not to be confused with former Yankees first-baseman Paul O’Neil, who I found out through researching this article, is endorsing Trump. The weirdest part isn’t that Trump asked O’Neil for his endorsement, but that it made the news.

 

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