The secret world of habits

Habits are having their day, have you noticed? I’m in the middle of Jen Sincero’s new book Badass Habits, and next up is a recommendation from a friend called Tiny Habits by BJ Fogg. So I thought I’d dust off the first book review I ever wrote, on two books: The Power of Habit and Small Move, Big Change.

Something compelled me to write the review back in 2016. Then I took a deep breath and cold-called the editor of a local mag, Business in Greater Gainesville. She said yes to my pitch and just like that I was published! Are you as fascinated by habits as I am?! Read on!

How many people are trapped in their everyday habits: part numb, part frightened, part indifferent? To have a better life we must keep choosing how we are living.

Albert Einstein

Two very different books detail the science behind how habits work and show how to create positive changes that last. Small Move, Big Change and The Power of Habit: Why we do what we do in life and business have different approaches but together they crack the habit code and help the reader take control.

Habits are usually framed as good or bad. Caroline Arnold and Charles Duhigg offer a different view: intentional changes and habits – or microresolutions, as Arnold calls them – are easy to create with some reflection and strategy. ­You learn how to observe and control the habit loop: first you’re cued, then the habit or routine kicks in, then you get your reward. Here are two examples of cue, activity and reward:

  1. You’re watching TV and a beer commercial comes on. You suddenly want a cold one and you have some in the fridge so you grab one. The first sip is your reward, but was it intentional?
  2. You wake up in the morning and your running shoes are in front of the bed where you left them so you’d see them first thing. You slide them on and head out for a quick run. When you get home you feel energized and satisfied that you accomplished something already.

This type of small shift or microresolution can translate into big changes and results. They are often created in moments of frustration: your car is on empty and you have to stop on Monday morning again – so you might resolve to always fill up on Saturdays when you are out running errands. A small thing to decide, and easily doable. Arnold’s book is filled with stories and tips for microresolutions for all aspects of life. She’s easy to read with a casual voice, but she’s also no-nonsense and expects the reader to take responsibility.

The data science that companies use to explore consumer habits (and profit from them) is brought to light in Duhigg’s book. It’s fascinating and creepy. Marketing scientists employed by companies like Target spend serious time and money examining us and as a result they develop habits for us. They know what we want because they often create our wants. Whoa, right?

This relates to one of the biggest takeaways from Arnold: to be in control of your own life and habits, you must take time to reflect and examine what bothers you. Take it as seriously as the corporate marketers do. Keep asking why to get to the root of problems and to discover the small resolution to make. Let’s say you want to make mornings smoother. Why? Between eating breakfast and making lunches and gathering bags, you’re starting the day run down. Why? Well, it’s clearly too much stuff to do in the morning. Why not prep lunches the night before? You could resolve to take 30 minutes after dinner each night to prepare for the next day.

In addition to looking at personal habits, in later chapters of his book, Duhigg digs deep into organizational and societal habits. One anecdote he uses to illustrate the power of habits in our society is the story of Rosa Parks. We all know what happened on the bus, but he explains that prior to the incident, Rosa was a well-known and well-liked active member of her community. She had social ties – real physical ties – to people, families and neighborhoods. When she was arrested that was the cue for the community to come together and defend her.

Both books are equally engaging, but Small Moves is more practical and relatable. If you are even slightly motivated to make some changes, you will definitely find inspiration here to get started.

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