Old habits die hard (The Power of Habit review)

3 minute read

I have a few quite obnoxious habits and a few really good ones. I have tried to get rid of some of them, and succeeded in most cases, but some or most of them just reappear after some time. Have you ever wondered why that happens? A book by Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business explains it in detail, and I’ll write just a brief outline of the book. You should definitely read the book.

All habits have a system by which they work. And as we learn things, they all become habits to us. Let’s take driving, for example. When I first learned how to drive, it was all finicky and stressful. And by that I mean just driving forward, knowing when to change the gear (we generally have manual transmissions here), how to give the turn signal, when to turn the wheel, etc. Driving is a set of a large number of skills, but people seem to drive pretty comfortably, without the stress mostly. When we learn a skill, and use it on a day to day basis, our brain (the reptilian one) creates the habit loop. The process can be summed to cue > routine > reward. And most of human behaviour can be explained by that simple formula.

When you feel a sensation or some other cue, for example, when I wake up, I need some mental calmness time, to prepare me for the day. My routine was to make a coffee, and aimlessly surf the net or read emails while drinking it. The reward was mostly lacking because I would lose valuable time, but the habit was there, and hard to change. But, when you recognise the cue, and the reward you expect, it is not that hard to change the routine in between. You just have to find something that will give you the same reward as the bad habit you have right now, but now it will be better for you. When you feel the urge to smoke a cigarette, it’s surely not nicotine calling you, but something else. Maybe you are bored, maybe you want to talk to someone, maybe you just smelled some great coffee, and the first action you take is to pull that cigarette out. I’ve been there, and the urge to light it up is devastating, it’s automatic behaviour for you. Like you have been programmed to do it.

Programming is the correct word, we program ourselves to do a lot of stuff. You probably take the same route to work each day. Or when you go outside to take a walk, to refresh yourself, you take the same route. Our brains work like that because if we processed and decided on each piece of information we collect, our brains would explode, and we would not get to think about the greater stuff in life. Walking by itself would be a chore big enough that our minds couldn’t wander off to think about art or love.

Learning new things, like a new language or driving, is forcing us to create new mind maps of stuff we have to do, so we experience anxiety and sometimes quit and completely leave the new skill behind. But if we persevere and stick on to learning it, new mind maps create in our brain, and we form a habit of doing those new things. Computer programming has somewhat become a habit for me, at least the stuff I do on a day to day basis. I feel the same anxiety when learning a new language, a new framework, or having to solve a different problem.

Once you find similarities between the things you are doing at the moment, and the stuff you have done before, your brain will connect the dots, and make it an easier path for you. All problem solving skills are mental habits of some kind, you learn how to identify the problem (the cue), you know how the solution should look like (the reward), and you fetch the stored routine from your brain to solve the problem. Of course, the routine might not fit the problem 100%, but that is where we adapt and create a new routine for the problem at hand.