The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

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


Duhigg draws from many industries in explaining the influence of habits. The author relates real-life stories of individuals, organizations, and society groups to illustrate habit loops. A habit loop consists of a cue, routine, and reward. Basically, something triggers us to start a behavior that we have connected to a specific reward. It all seems very Pavlovian to me. Cue: Hear bell. Routine: Salivate. Reward: Get meat.

Habits are formed over time and can evolve into cravings. (like mine for ice cream) “The cue and reward become intertwined until a powerful sense of anticipation and craving emerges.” Duhigg covers the neuroscience behind it all, but focuses more on how habits can be changed. “Habits can be ignored, changed, or replaced.” Of course, the none of those are done easily because, as Duhigg writes,“When a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision making.”So, when you find me sitting on the couch with a half-gallon of ice cream and a large serving spoon, don’t ask me, “What were you thinking?!” cause, as it turns out, I wasn’t. Organizational habits are deeply entrenched in the culture. Duhigg describes a hospital where the cultural habits actually made mistakes more possible.

Organizational habits are deeply entrenched in the culture. Duhigg describes a hospital where the cultural habits actually made mistakes more possible. “The most talented surgeons can make catastrophic mistakes when . . . organizational habits go awry” Keystone habits are the habits that, when disrupted, can change many other habits down the line. Duhigg suggests leaders seek to discover the root cause of a given habit because it those keystone habits that, when changed, help adjust other behaviors.“Cultures grow out of keystone habits . . . whether leaders are aware of them or not.” Understanding the keystone habits of your organization help leaders define the culture.

The culture mediates difficult decisions because actions must align with the engrained habits. Social movements, or habits of community groups, start because of personal relationships, grow due to “weak ties” (friend of a friend) that generate positive peer pressure, and last when followers own the new habits. To gain control over the habit loop at any level, The Golden Rule of habit change must be respected: “If we keep the same cue and the same reward, a new routine can be inserted.” For the new habit to remain, the individual, organization, or societal group, must believe the change is possible and be provided with communal support.

So What?

So how can all this stuff about habits inform our practices as educators? Being aware of how habits are formed and influenced can help educators anticipate the needs of new students, teachers, or colleagues. Engage in this Habit Examination Process to examine your team habits.

Step 1Examine current routines: “As the route became more and more automatic, each [subject] started thinking less and less.” What are the current routines your classroom, grade-level team, or school follows without thinking? “Habits are often as much a curse as a benefit.” Address the cohesiveness of existing grade-level team or classroom of students. Try to avoid someone saying, “Oh, did anyone tell the new guy we were meeting?”

Step 2Acknowledge exclusivity: “[A]s it encounters the maze for the first time . . . the brain is working hard the entire time.” The new student or colleague is working much harder than everyone else in his or her early days in the new environment. “The objects, when presented outside of the context of the habit loop, made no sense to him.” Are there routines that are exclusive to your group? Will the newcomer understand what’s going on? If not . . .

Step 3Provide an invitation: Anticipate the newcomers’ ignorance of the cues, routine, and associated reward for the routines you identified in Step 1. Invite them to join you and help them through the experience identifying the elements of the group habits as you go.

Step 4Ask about past experiences: “At the end of an activity, when the reward appears, the brain shakes itself awake and makes sure everything unfolded as expected.” Help the new student or team member compare prior experiences with new routines. How do the perceptions compare to the reality experienced? How does this alignment or dissonance influence the newcomer’s commitment to the organization? To the team? Does it? Ask the new student or colleague how things were done at their last school. This provides them an opportunity to compare and contrast their prior experience with the present. Framing a current experience within the context of one from the past can help them to adopt the new habit more readily. “The cue and reward become intertwined until a powerful sense of anticipation and craving emerges.” How can we get students or new team members to “crave” learning? How do we support their perception of value in the process, thus generating a reward for engaging in a learning experience?

Now What?

Now what do we do with this information? In the field education, we attend to the dissonance between current habits and those of a desired future. We look at the study habits of students. We think about teaching habits of educators. We examine leadership habits of administrators. Use the previously outlined Habit Examination Process for each of these levels: individual, group, and organizational.

You – Begin with a habit you find particularly disruptive to your own productivity.

Team – List routines your team follows that are unique to your group, but engage in consistently.

School – Examine your school’s processes from the perspective of an outsider.

Use these resources created by other people interested in the subject of habits.

Melissa Birkett and K. Laurie Dickson created a study guide with discussion questions and related activities for each chapter. You can find the study guide, along with many other resources, at

Sandy Merz created a matrix to guide your through a reflective process examining your cultural habits. You can find tool at

The following PDF is an excerpt from Classroom Discipline: Guiding Adolescents to Responsible Independence by Linda Crawford and Christopher Hagedorn. In it you will find a menu of reflective questions. You can find the PDF at

About the Author 

Charles Duhigg is a Pulitzer prize-winning reporter at the New York Times. The Power of Habit has sold over 2 million copies worldwide and spent over 90 weeks on New York Times’ best-seller lists.

Future Relevant Reviews

Onboarding: How to Get Your New Employees Up to Speed In Half the Time by George Bradt & Mary Vonnegut

The Unemployed Millionaire by Matt Morris

The Teenage Brain by Frances E. Jensen, M.D.

 Download the PDF Rel.Rev.Power.of.Habit



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