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The Power of Habit Book Summary – Charles Duhigg

What you will learn from reading The Power of Habit:

– The roles of the cue, routine, and reward in building and changing habits. 

– The vital role of habits on an individual, organisational, and societal level. 

– How to deconstruct habits and substitute bad routines/ actions with ideal ones. 

The Power of Habit Book Summary

The Power of Habit is a great book that looks at the process of habit change by analysing its effect on an individual, organisational, and societal level. Charles Duhigg uses real-world examples that perfectly illustrate how each of the components that make up habits (cue, routine, and reward) plays a part in the habit-changing process.


Part One: The Habits of Individuals

The Habit Loop: How Habits Work

More than 40% of the actions people performed each day weren’t actual decisions, but habits.

As habits start to unfold, the grey matter allocated to it is free to chase other thoughts.

Our brains like to conserve energy, however, too much energy conservation would make us victims of our own laziness. To overcome this issue, the basal ganglia have devised a system where they decide when to let habits take over. 

To use habits as a default, the brain must first be sure they are reliable to fall back on. By mapping the context (cue) of the habit, they can extract a pattern that can be used to perform it. 

This process within our brains is a three-step loop

  1. First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. 

  2. Then there is the routine, which can be physical, mental, or emotional. 

  3. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future.

The cue and reward become intertwined until a powerful sense of anticipation and craving emerges.

Our decision-making can be guided by our habits. So unless you deliberately fight a habit, the pattern will unfold automatically. 

Habits never really disappear. They’re encoded into the structures of our brains, which is great as you don’t need to relearn things, however, the problem is that your brain can’t tell the difference between bad and good habits, so the bad ones remain.

The areas of our brain that control our automatic behaviours such as breathing and swallowing are found close to our brain stem. The basal ganglia are one of them and are central to recalling patterns and acting on them.

  • Example: A study using rats found that as they learned to navigate a maze, their mental activity decreased. As the route became more and more automatic, each rat started thinking less and less. They found that this repeated activity relied upon the basal ganglia. 

The brain converts a sequence of actions into an automatic routine— this is known as “chunking,” and it’s at the root of how habits form.

A patient who contracted viral encephalitis and incurred severe brain damage to multiple areas of his brain except the basal ganglia showed that memory and reason are at the root of how we behave. 

Due to his basal ganglia remaining intact, the patient was able to show that although we may not remember the experiences that create our habits, once they are lodged within our brains they influence how we act – often without realisation. 

Although cues can be almost anything, from a visual trigger, a time of day, an emotion, a sequence of thoughts, or the company of particular people, when presented outside of the context of the habit loop, they can make no sense at all. 

Habits are surprisingly delicate, the slightest change in a cue can lead to a habit falling apart, however, the more they are used the stronger they become, to the point where sometimes they can override our common sense.  

“Even small shifts can end the pattern. But since we often don’t recognize these habit loops as they grow, we are blind to our ability to control them. By learning to observe the cues and rewards, though, we can change the routines.”


The Craving Brain: How to Create New Habits

Cravings are what make cues and rewards work. It is what power the habit loop. 

The more a habit is practised, the stronger it becomes, leading to an anticipation of a reward. In other words, the cue that was once responsible for just the performance of an action becomes associated with the reward, thus leading to a craving. 

When the cue binds with certain rewards, a subconscious craving emerges in the brain which starts the habit loop spinning. 

Essentially a habit acquires momentum when the cue, routine, and reward cultivate a craving. A cue and a reward are not enough to make a new habit automatic, there must be an expected reward – a craving for endorphins or a sense of accomplishment.

If the expected reward does not arrive, the craving will grow until we either experience frustration at the fact we didn’t actualise our craving, or we follow through with the habit. 

We have to feel like we are performing an action for a reason, a reward does this by acting as a means of completing the loop. Whether the reward has a logical connection to the action doesn’t matter, just as long as it provides a positive success/ completion. 

  • E.g. Febreeze – “No one craves scentlessness. On the other hand, lots of people crave a nice smell after they’ve spent thirty minutes cleaning.”

  • E.g. Toothpaste – the fresh taste and cool tingling sensation doesn’t make the toothpaste work any better. It just convinces people it’s doing the job.

“Consumers need some kind of signal that a product is working,”

Cravings are what drive habits, and figuring out how to spark a craving makes creating a new habit easier.


The Gold Rule of Habit Change: Why Transformation Occurs

“Champions don’t do extraordinary things, they do ordinary things, but they do them without thinking, too fast for the other team to react.”- Tony Dungy 

Dungy believed it was easier to convince someone to adopt a new behaviour if there was something familiar at the beginning and end. By keeping the old cue and the old reward, you can shift the routine and change the habit.

  • Vaping – A smoker usually can’t quit unless she finds some activity to replace cigarettes when her nicotine craving is triggered.

This is the golden rule of habit change: If we keep the same cue and the same reward, a new routine can be inserted.

Alcoholics Anonymous does this by helping alcoholics identify the cues and rewards that encourage their alcoholic habits, and then helping them find new behaviours they can use instead.

Awareness training – is a method of asking patients to describe what triggers their habitual behaviour so they can recognise their cues. 

The idea is to choose new routines that provide similar payoffs. It is not the routine you crave, it is the reward. The routine is just something you have resorted to getting the reward.

Although habit replacement has been shown to be very effective, it tends to fail when stressful life events occur. Academics have found that belief in one’s ability to change plays a major role in overcoming this hurdle. 

Belief is the ingredient that makes a reworked habit loop into a permanent behaviour.

People might be sceptical about their ability to change if they’re by themselves, but a group will convince them to suspend disbelief. A community, such as AA, creates belief.

When people join groups where change seems possible, the potential for that change to occur becomes more real and believable. 

Summary: The Golden Rule of habit change is that by keeping the same cue and the same reward, a new routine can be inserted. However, for a habit to stay changed, people must believe change is possible, which is dramatically improved when commitment to change occurs as part of a group.


Part Two: The Habits of Successful Organisations

Keystone Habits: Which Habits Matter Most

Some habits have the power to start a chain reaction, changing other habits in their path. When these habits shift they dislodge and remake other patterns. 

Keystone habits start a process that, over time, transforms everything. The idea is that success is not dependent on getting one single thing right, but instead relies on identifying a few key priorities and fashioning them into powerful levers. 

When tackling things, try to get to the bottom of the issue and find out what new habit/ routine could make all the difference. Like ripples that end up affecting the whole system.

Example of the keystone rippling effect within an organisation:

  • Unit presidents were busy people. To contact O’Neill within twenty-four hours of an injury, they needed to hear about an accident from their vice presidents as soon as it happened. So vice presidents needed to be in constant communication with floor managers. And floor managers needed to get workers to raise warnings as soon as they saw a problem and keep a list of suggestions nearby so that when the vice president asked for a plan, there was an idea box already full of possibilities. To make all of that happen, each unit had to build new communication systems that made it easier for the lowliest worker to get an idea to the loftiest executive, as fast as possible. Almost everything about the company’s rigid hierarchy had to change to accommodate O’Neill’s safety program. He was building new corporate habits.

Detecting keystone habits means looking for certain characteristics. Keystone habits offer what is known within academic literature as “small wins.” They help other habits to flourish by creating new structures, and they establish cultures where change becomes contagious.

“Small wins do not combine in a neat, linear, serial form, with each step being a demonstrable step closer to some predetermined goal. More common is the circumstance where small wins are scattered … like miniature experiments that test implicit theories about resistance and opportunity and uncover both resources and barriers that were invisible before the situation was stirred up.”

Keystone habits encourage change in three ways:

  1. By offering small wins

  2. By creating structures that help other habits flourish

  3. By creating cultures where new values become ingrained.

Keystone habits transform us by creating cultures that make clear the values that, in the heat of a difficult decision or a moment of uncertainty, we might otherwise forget.


Willpower Becomes Automatic

Dozens of studies show that willpower is the single most important keystone habit for individual success. However, willpower isn’t just a skill, it is a muscle like any other, and it tires if it is worked too hard.

If you want to do something that requires willpower—like going for a run after work—you need to conserve your willpower rather than use it up on tedious tasks throughout the day. 

Self-discipline predicted academic performance more robustly than did IQ. Self-discipline also predicted which students would improve their grades over the course of the school year, whereas IQ did not …. Self-discipline has a bigger effect on academic performance than does intellectual talent.”

As people strengthen their willpower muscles in one part of their lives, the strength tends to spill over into other areas. 

“People get better at regulating their impulses. They learn how to distract themselves from temptations. And once you’ve gotten into that willpower groove, your brain is practised at helping you focus on a goal.”

Willpower becomes a habit by anticipating the painful moments in a behaviour’s routine and then coming up with ways to overcome that hurdle. 


How Leaders Create Habits Through Accidents and Design

Just as choosing the right keystone habits can create amazing change, the wrong ones can create disasters.

Destructive organizational habits can be found within hundreds of industries and at thousands of firms. And almost always, they are the products of thoughtlessness, of leaders who avoid thinking about the culture and so let it develop without guidance.

Every organisation has institutional habits, but only some of them are deliberately designed while a majority are created without forethought.

A lot of the time these habits grow from individual employees’ rivalries and fears. 

“It may seem like most organizations make rational choices based on deliberate decision-making, but that’s not really how companies operate at all. Instead, firms are guided by long-held organizational habits – routines – that often emerge from thousands of employees’ independent decisions.”

If thousands of employees are all acting in response to their own habits, then there is bound to be conflict. An organisation can design routines that act as a means of bringing all employees in line with the same habits. This can reduce conflict as well as create a truce between potentially warring groups or individuals within an organization.

“Creating successful organizations isn’t just a matter of balancing authority. For an organization to work, leaders must cultivate habits that both create real and balanced peace and, paradoxically, make it absolutely clear who’s in charge.”

During a crisis people are much more open to change, meaning organizational habits become malleable enough to both assign responsibility and create a more equitable balance of power.

“A company with dysfunctional habits can’t turn around simply because a leader orders it. Rather, wise executives seek out moments of crisis—or create the perception of crisis—and cultivate the sense that something must change, until everyone is finally ready to overhaul the patterns they live with each day.”


When Companies Predict (and Manipulate) Habits

Humans like comfort and to conserve energy, however, they also desire novelty and variability. Dressing something new, like a new habit, in old clothes, can make it seem more attractive. 

By stacking a new behaviour/ habit between two familiar habits, a sense of both comfort and novelty can be derived.

Public example:

  • So how do DJs convince listeners to stick with songs such as “Hey Ya!” long enough for them to become familiar? How does Target convince pregnant women to use diaper coupons without creeping them out? By dressing something new in old clothes, and making the unfamiliar seem familiar. DJs started making sure that whenever “Hey Ya!” was played, it was sandwiched between songs that were already popular.

To market a new habit—be it groceries or aerobics—you must understand how to make the novel seem familiar.


Part Three: The Habits of Societies

How Movement Happens

Social habits are why some initiatives become world-changing movements, while others fail to ignite. 

The reason why social habits have such influence is that at the root of many movements is a three-part process:

  1. A movement starts because of the social habits of friendship and the strong ties between close acquaintances

  2. It grows because of the habits of a community, and the weak ties that hold neighbourhoods and clans together. 

  3. And it endures because a movement’s leaders give participants new habits that create a fresh sense of identity and a feeling of ownership. 

Usually, only when all three parts of this process are fulfilled can a movement become self-propelling and reach a critical mass.

Strong tiesStrong ties exist between close-knit members with frequent interactions, such as family and close friends.

Weak ties – the links that connect people who have acquaintances in common, who share membership in social networks, but aren’t directly connected by the strong ties of friendship themselves.

“When sociologists have examined how opinions move through communities, how gossip spreads or political movements start, they’ve discovered a common pattern: Our weak-tie acquaintances are often as influential—if not more—than our close-tie friends.”

Most people don’t care enough to protest against something unless one of their strong ties has been negatively affected, however, peer pressure is often used by activists as a tool to compel people to protest by encouraging them to conform to group expectations. 

Peer pressure habits often differ in form and expression from person to person, and aren’t so much one consistent pattern as dozens of individual habits that ultimately cause everyone to move in the same direction.

However, they have been observed to spread in a similar fashion, through weak ties. And they gain their authority through communal expectations.

The third aspect of how social habits drive movements works by getting an idea to grow beyond a community. It must become self-propelling by giving people new habits that help them figure out where to go on their own.

Give people an identity to embody and with it, they will start acting and participating in habits that reflect that identity.


The Neurology of Free Will: Are We Responsible for Our Habits

Habits are so neurologically engrained that studies show they can occur with almost no input from the higher regions of the brain. 

“Some thinkers,” Aristotle wrote in Nicomachean Ethics, “hold that it is by nature that people become good, others that it is by habit and others that it is by instruction.” For Aristotle, habits reigned supreme.

William James (father of psychology) famously wrote that the will to believe is the most important ingredient in creating belief in change. And one of the most important methods for creating that belief was habits.


A Readers Guide to Using These Ideas



Once you have diagnosed the habit loop of a particular behaviour, you can look for ways to supplant old vices with new routines.

The routine is the most obvious aspect: It’s the behaviour you want to change.

You then need to identify the cue and reward for this routine.


To figure out which cravings are driving particular habits, experiment with different rewards.

The point is to test different hypotheses to determine which craving is driving your routine. 

  • Example: Are you craving the cookie itself, or a break from work? If it’s the cookie, is it because you’re hungry? (In which case the apple should work just as well.)

As you test four or five different rewards, look for patterns by jotting down the first three things that come to mind.

  • Example: They can be emotions, random thoughts, reflections on how you’re feeling, or just the first three words that pop into your head.

Then, set an alarm on your watch or computer for fifteen minutes. When it goes off, ask yourself: Do you still feel the urge?

  • The reason why it’s important to write down three things is that it forces a momentary awareness of what you are thinking or feeling.

If fifteen minutes after receiving a reward you still feel the urge to seek out a different reward, then your habit isn’t motivated by the reward you think it is.

Once you’ve figured out the routine and the reward, what remains is identifying the cue.


The reason why it is so hard to identify the cues that trigger our habits is that there is too much information bombarding us as our behaviours unfold.

Identify categories of behaviours ahead of time to scrutinize in order to see patterns.

Almost all habitual cues fit into one of five categories:

  1. Location

  2. Time

  3. Emotional state

  4. Other people

  5. Immediately preceding action

Example: So if you’re trying to figure out the cue for the “going to the cafeteria and buying a chocolate chip cookie” habit, you write down five things the moment the urge hits.

  1. Where are you? (sitting at my desk)

  2. What time is it? (3:36 P.M.)

  3. What’s your emotional state? (bored)

  4. Who else is around? (no one)

  5. What action preceded the urge? (answered an email)

Continue this day after day to identify the patterns.


A habit is a formula our brain automatically follows: When I see CUE, I will do ROUTINE in order to get a REWARD. The easiest way to re-engineer the formula is to have a plan.

Within psychology, these plans are known as “implementation intentions.”

State when and where you will perform this habit.