Recent Reads – The Power of Habit

So this isn’t really too recent of a read, since I read it when it first got to our library about 5 months ago. But, when I was writing tomorrow’s post on double counting, I had to include some thoughts on this book. Don’t berate me for the short post – there will be a meatier one up tomorrow!


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

Charles Duhigg, the author, is a business reporter for the NYTimes, and manages to take current research and theories on habits, make them interesting and pertinent, and then apply them on an individual and group level. But the best part of the book, in my humble opinion, are his descriptions of how our habits are understood, and perhaps, even manipulated by others (including corporations).

Duhigg starts out by defining a habit as a Cue-Routine-Reward circuit.

  • The Cue is a trigger that allows our brain to determine that it is going into an automatic mode. (Ex. getting in to car to drive to work.)
  • The Routine is the action that make the habit. (Ex. driving your normal route to work.)
  • The Reward is the pleasure your brain derives from successful completion of the automated behavior. (Ex. arriving at work without noticing the time spent during the commute.)

Makes sense, right? Habits are basically just repeated behaviors that we get to do so many times that we end up not thinking about the process of completing them. How many times do you remember the exact details of backing out of the driveway? How about every step of your nightly walk around your neighborhood? How about a mid-afternoon snack that you find yourself grabbing every afternoon?


Duhigg’s Cookie Problem

One of Duhigg’s more personal examples in the book came when he applied the principles behind the Cue-Routine-Reward circuit to try and understand why he found himself getting up from his desk at work every afternoon at 3pm to go down to the cafeteria at his office building and purchase a cookie. In looking at the reward, he tried to figure out if it was a sweet snack he was after by gradually changing what he reached for at 3pm. For Duhigg, it turned out that what he was looking for in that habit was not a sweet snack, but a quick distraction and social interaction so he could return to his desk focused. He claims he’s lost 30lbs after diagnosing this little habit.

So if Duhigg could identify and change his own habit, what happens when others can identify and change habits for us?


Target Is An Evil Marketing Genius

While I’m sure other companies use customer data analysis to adapt their marketing schemes (*cough* Amazon), Duhigg got an unprecedented level of access to one of the data analysts in Target’s marketing department. He was able to learn that Target has developed prediction algorithms that are able to predict with 90%+ accuracy when a woman is pregnant. And the products that are triggering the prediction aren’t things that you would expect, like diapers or copies of the book “What to Expect When You’re Expecting”. The products are things like a bulk purchase of unscented body lotion that don’t scream “pregnancy” at all (at least to someone like me who has never been pregnant).

Why does Target care when you’re pregnant? Because having a baby is one of the times in your life (like getting married or buying a house) when your habits are easily susceptible to change. So that means if they can get you in their store when you’re pregnant, and keep you there when you’re buying infant onesies and diapers, you’re likely to stick around for a long time, and buy a lot more than just baby supplies.

Target got so good a this they actually started creeping customers out – sending out mailers full of baby supplies to people who hadn’t told Target they were expecting. Duhigg even includes an anecdote about one father of a teenager berating a Target manager for the company sending his teenage daughter advertisements for baby supplies when she wasn’t pregnant. The father apologized a week later when the daughter admitted she was, in fact, pregnant.

Target got so good at their predictions, they had to hide their pregnancy coupons in with coupons for products like lawn mowers so the customers wouldn’t get excessively creeped out by Target’s knowledge of their personal life. Awesome, huh? Totally makes you want to sign up for that Target card now, right?


While the Target story was by far my favorite part of the book, The Power of Habit has some more great information on examples where habits are used for the success of various groups such as:

  • Tony Dungee’s football teams – Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Indianapolis Colts and how ingrained habits made average players Superbowl stars
  • Montgomery Bus Boycott – How changes in habit aided in one of the most famous civil rights protests in US History

All in all, The Power of Habit is definitely worth a trip to the library, though I wish it would have had more tips and specifics on habit modification as I’m always looking for more ways to making living healthy and spending wisely automatic behaviors.


Questions? Comments? Other book recommendations to share?


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