Magazine article The Christian Century

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

Magazine article The Christian Century

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

Article excerpt

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

By Charles Duhigg

Random House, 400 pp., $28.00

In 2002, with the publication of The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, Malcolm Gladwell sparked enormous popular interest in brain science. Later, his wonderfully titled and well-written Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (2007) established the field of brain science for popular audiences and became the standard primer on the brain's plasticity.

Many other interesting books have appeared in this emerging genre, combining vast scientific data with the sort of popular, narrative-driven exposition perfected by Gladwell. Two of the most popular recently have been Imagine: How Creativity Works, by Jonah Lehrer, and The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, by Charles Duhigg. Both are filled with intriguing stories and personalities, and both entertainingly introduce general readers to scientific data. They also represent the worst and the best of this genre, respectively.

Representing the worst, Imagine came in for very strong criticism almost immediately upon publication for its simplifications and some dubious conclusions. Isaac Chotiner of the New Republic called "almost everything" in the lead narrative of the book--a biographical sketch of Bob Dylan and an account of the composition of his greatest song, "Like a Rolling Stone"--"inaccurate, misleading, or simplistic." As a Dylan aficionado myself, I concur.

Later Lehrer was outed for fabricating quotes from Dylan and for lying to another journalist investigating the quotes. Now his ethics and trustworthiness were suspect. Ultimately, Lehrer announced publicly that he had lied and then hidden his tracks; he resigned in disgrace from the New Yorker, and his publisher yanked the book from circulation (though by then it had already sold over 2 million copies).

Far more developed and convincing in terms of its overall plan and argument and certainly far more trustworthy, Duhigg's The Power of Habit will remind readers of Gladwell's best work, and it represents the best this genre can muster. An award-winning investigative reporter for the New York Times, Duhigg may even surpass Gladwell, particularly in his ability to provide pragmatic and concrete instructions on how to think about and change personal habits. All of his insights are rooted in the emerging science of habit formation, an influential field in the business world and perfected by retail giants like Target. The implications of the book are intriguing for purveyors of faith as well.

Individual change, Duhigg argues, often revolves around certain "keystone habits" that dominate our lives. For example, physical exercise is a keystone habit for some people--a habit that affects many other areas of life in positive ways. But for many of us, bad habits stand between ourselves and such healthy practices. In Duhigg's account, change commences with the perception of the cues that trigger bad habits and proceeds from there to an embrace of the surprising power of "small wins." A small win might be, for example, taking a ten-minute walk after dinner, rather than climbing Mount Everest.

Change requires the expectation of reward, or what the spiritually inclined might call hope. We need the capacity to believe that things will get better; change must be an imaginable and feasible reality. …

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