Power of Habits Book Review

At the end of last year, I read a book on the subject of habits which helped us, as a couple, make some big changes in 2016. We went from saving 20% of our after tax income in 2015 to saving 60% in the last quarter of 2016. Despite what looks like a radical change on the surface, we feel our lifestyle have only improved. I’ll explain how that change was possible in my Power of Habits Book Review.

Pulitzer prize winning journalist, Charles Duhigg, wrote a book called The Power of Habits: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.

The book is incredible as it helped us shape up in 2016. Here are the golden pieces of advice from the book.

(Here’s a link to listen to our episode on this topic, The Power of Habits:)

To help build credibility, the book starts off with the story of a man who can’t remember anything. He has a scientific condition that essentially makes him forget all interactions. He lives in a home with his wife who takes care of him.

The condition showed up in his 50’s (if I recall correctly). Of course, if you ask him how old he is, he’d say he’s in his mid 50’s, despite the fact that he’s now in his 80’s.

In his 60’s, he and his wife moved to a new home and found themselves worried that he’d find himself lost having to learn a new floorplan.

What amazed me about this person is what came next.

Despite losing the ability to remember people, topics, he could show you certain things.

“Show” is the key word here, because he couldn’t remember what it was he was trying to tell you.

For example, if you asked him where the snacks are, he would shrug. If you asked him where the bathroom was, he wouldn’t know.

However, if you suggest it was time to eat snacks, he would walk through the house, open a cabinet, and pull out the snacks. If he said he had to go to the bathroom, he would know which door it was in the hallway.

The scientists who researched this case would ask him WHY that drawer or door before he opened it, and he would just shrug. He wouldn’t know, but his habit of opening that drawer for food every time had become engrained.

Forming these new habits did not require forming any new memories.

This was a breakthrough in the science of habits.

Despite what we think or remember, we form habits on our own, based on our surroundings. Once those habits are formed, we can complete them unconsciously.

That’s why you might be on your way to work before you even realize you’ve been in the car for ten minutes driving down the highway.

It is a bit scary, but as the book goes on to explain, understanding HOW habits form is critical in understanding HOW to change habits.

What is a Habit?

Habits are a sequence of three events:

The first stage of any habit is a specific event, or trigger. Second, is a routine we perform. Third, is a reward.

In the simplest of terms, a habit is feeling the sensation of hunger — a “trigger”. The steps of making a sandwich is the routine, and getting to eat is the reward.

Another habit I learned to break out of (most of the time) has been feeling tired after work (trigger), deciding to lay down on the couch and turning on the television (routine) and being entertained instead of working more (reward).

The way habits work is that the routine and reward happen without much thought, and as evidenced by the opening story, they can happen with ZERO thought.

AND, we follow through on this “habit loop,” EVEN IF THE REWARD IS NEGATIVE.

Sorry for the all caps, but that part of the book was CRAZY to me.

If we experience a trigger (such as a co worker nagging at us), we will perform the same routine and experience the same reward each time (this might be thinking that co-worker is terrible and spending 5 minutes gripping about how terrible they are).

The book helps shed light on how we can re-wire unproductive habits into more conscious, high value habits.

The first realization is that habits can never be eliminated, they can only be replaced.

Essentially, the same trigger will always create the start of a routine. So, instead of trying to eliminate the trigger which might be nearly impossible, we can instead implement a NEW routine.

Following the example above, if our coworker nags, then we can implement a new habit of placing our focus on the very next task that needs to be done and then doing it. By completing a new routine (productive task orientation instead of internal reflection), we are able to build a new habit OVER the old trigger.

Sometimes we can eliminate a trigger altogether (such as removing a television from our living room to avoid watching too much TV), but often these types of eliminations are difficult.

Another positive habit change I had after the book was noticing my third cup of coffee each day was not necessary and probably having a negative impact on me. My usual trigger was feeling that tinge of tired around 2:30. My routine was to walk to the kitchen and pour myself a cup of coffee. The reward use to be (or I thought it was) drinking the coffee.

After reading the book, I tweaked the routine to pour myself a cup of water instead. ODDLY ENOUGH, my body would wake up just as much, indicating the coffee wasn’t what did it in the past. I later learned the routine of getting out of my seat and taking a few minutes to walk was most likely enough to revitalize myself for the next few hours.

That 3rd coffee of the day was replaced with a water and I still experienced the same routine, but this time, with a healthier reward.

Now you can see why quitting smoking is a very difficult process. The overall task of quitting smoking is actually being able to replace 20-30+ habits throughout the day.

A smoker for 20 years might always reach for that cigarette first thing after X event. By slowly installing new routines and rewards, can they replace the old habits. Quitting “cold turkey,” simply means they’ve picked up 20-30 new habits.

You can’t help yourself from becoming bought in from the anecdotes and stories from the book. When a U.S. General is able to quell mobs by convincing the local mayor to disallow kabob stands into the local town center (people can’t riot if they’re hungry), then I can’t help but wish someone could identify my negative triggers and cues.

While wishing is nice, the ultimate reward from this book was being motivated to dive deeper into understanding how to identify, change or remove negative triggers.

Change is not easy and luckily the book dives into an easier way to make change permanent.

Keystone Habits – And Why These Matter the Most

Have you ever had a terrible afternoon or evening? If you think back to it now, you might  recall one small event which led to a cascade of events. Maybe instead of going to the gym, you decided to go out for happy hour. Then, you ended up with a $100 bar tab. Then, since you paid so much already, you decided to order an unhealthy meal. After that, you decided to stay up late watching movies and slept in the following day.

Or maybe your cat and/or cats (still unclear if the suspect acted alone or if he had an accomplice) chewed up the cabling of your brand new expensive Christmas lights which took hours to hang up — whichever the case.

This type of behavior is what is known as “Keystone Habits”. These are habits that have the power to create a cascade effect down the road.

In this case, deciding to hit the gym may have led to an urge to eat healthier. No point in going to the gym if you’re going to negate all those gains by eating poorly. Similarly, now that your body is wiped out, you might feel an urge to get to bed earlier so you can rest.

This is one example of how one habit might have the power to create a substantial change in your entire day.

Our Keystone Habits in 2016

One Keystone Habit I decided to work on in 2016 was ironing my own shirts. I knew this would help me save money but I also knew I would be able to get through more audiobooks by killing two birds with one stone.

Listening to audiobooks put me into a better mood as I was learning and feeling more productive. This led me to creating more content over the weekends by writing more and working more on my new site.

Another Keystone Habit was cooking on Sundays. Similarly, I was able to listen to more audiobooks but I was also able to better control my diet. This helped me feel less groggy after eating meals (no more heavy Chicago style meals).

I even look forward to experiencing these new habits because I know the feeling happens long before the actual routine is done.

Experiencing the START of a Habit Loop Releases Dopamine

Another takeaway from the book is the habit loop releases a chemical in our brains called Dopamine. This chemical is responsible for feeling happy.

As a new habit is being formed, the dopamine is released when we experience the reward. Over time, the dopamine is released earlier and earlier because our brain starts to associate the trigger with the routine and eventual reward.

That’s why you might be more excited to attend the show than the actual feeling of the show itself. Our bodies understand what is going to happen and it responds accordingly.

While I could probably continue to go on and on about the book, I am going to leave it at that. The Power of Habits is a cool read if you’re interested in learning how to shift your current habits and build new, better habits.

Are there any old routines you’re looking to change? Any new habits you’ve had in 2016 or plan to make in 2017?


15 comments… add one
  • [email protected] Dec 26, 2016, 3:40 am

    Interesting, and timely also as lots of us think about New Year resolutions. When I think about things I do well, it’s often because that thing has become part of my ordinary routine, so I’m not thinking about whether I will or won’t do it (where there’s a likely chance I won’t!). Definitely inspired to check out the book, thanks!

    • Distilled Dollar Dec 27, 2016, 6:42 am

      I’m glad you agree! December is a great time to reflect on what worked/didn’t work throughout the year. The hard part is taking action in January to keep doing the same habits or rewiring the negative ones.

  • Mrs. Picky Pincher Dec 26, 2016, 7:56 am

    I’ve never thought about habits this way, so this was actually really enlightening. I especially hadn’t concerned the point about having negative rewards–but it’s so true! It’s funny how easily unproductive/negative habits can form naturally, without us even realizing they’re there.

    For me, I’d like to use these ideas to get back into my exercise regimen. I stopped in September during our DIY house renovation (that was plenty of exercise, believe me), but three months later and I’m still off the wagon. It’s been a bit more challenging this time since I started on some meds that make me horribly tired, but it’s all about creating positive habits and getting over obstacles, right?

    • Distilled Dollar Dec 27, 2016, 6:45 am

      I was equally shocked when I learned we can fall into doing the same habits, despite the reward being negative. Truly crazy, but it makes sense now!

      Based on your situation, it sounds like you’ll be back in the habit of exercising in no time. Getting back into an old habit is much easier than starting from scratch.

  • Jon @ Be Net Worthy Dec 26, 2016, 8:26 am

    Great post Matt! I read this book a little while ago and agree it has some great insights. The focus on “resolutions” this time of year should really be changed to a focus on which habits people are either going to modify or adopt.

    I love your two examples from 2016 of ironing your shirts and cooking on Sundays! They both killed at least two birds with one stone.

    For me, I developed the habit of packing my lunch to the office this year. It’s healthier and cheaper. For 2017, I still need to give it some thought. We are in the lull between having in-laws visiting and my family visiting and will do some deep 2017 planning next weekend when it is all over!

    Have a great holiday!

    • Distilled Dollar Dec 27, 2016, 6:48 am

      2017 planning weekend – sounds like my kind of weekend! Haha

      I love to brainstorm different challenges around this time of year for the following year. If the approach is well structured, then I find I have about a 70% follow through rate for the year.

      Ironing and cooking are two examples from last year and I’m putting together a post on every new habit we strung together in 2016. We started the year saving 20% of our income and ended the year saving 60%, all while feeling healthier and happy. Crazy how that works.

  • Full Time Finance Dec 26, 2016, 11:14 am

    Interesting way to look at habits, I hadn’t heard of this book before so I might pick it up from the library. The habit I need to get into is eating healthier. For much of my life I’ve had the indomitable digestive track. However it’s now starting to slow down. As such I have to change 35 yrs of eating habits where I could eat anything and never gain weight.

    • Distilled Dollar Dec 27, 2016, 6:52 am

      This book will be right up your alley as it helped me rewire a few negative habits. Best of luck and let us know how it goes!

  • Dividend Diplomats Dec 26, 2016, 12:11 pm

    Distilled Dollar –

    great summary you have here, please keep them coming. I have also found myself doing a few instances of the same in 2016 – poor performing co-workers and me complaining about it and leading ultimately to a negative reward. Change is great and building those habits are even better/breaking out of the old. The mind is a powerful thing!


    • Distilled Dollar Dec 27, 2016, 6:53 am

      Thanks for the comment Lanny!

      I’ve considered doing more book reviews, so now I might do one at least once a month moving forward. I find it helps me digest the information even better if I have to write a summary on it. Plus, some of this stuff is pretty nuts. 🙂

  • [email protected] Dec 26, 2016, 2:12 pm

    Love this post Matt! I need to check out this book. I love your examples of habits that have become part of your lifestyle now. I just wrote a post about this too – because when I looked at some of my good habits, I realized how far they have taken me! Thanks for pushing everyone on this topic!

    • Distilled Dollar Dec 27, 2016, 7:43 am

      Awesome! I just checked it out, and loved “eat REAL food,” which is easier said than done! 🙂

      I’m starting to find habits a better focus of my time as well. Goals can be difficult, especially when they’re contextually hard to grasp (such as a savings # to be reached 12 months from now). Instead, I find it easier to, as you put it as well, focus on the daily habits of learning, working, etc. that contribute to that end result.

  • [email protected] Dec 27, 2016, 3:49 am

    Hey, I love learning about habits! I feel that a large amount of what we do and who we become is based on our habits, so I am always looking for more books on understanding habits. Keystone habits sounds magically. I’m definitely going to check this book out, great review Matt!

    • Distilled Dollar Dec 27, 2016, 7:44 am

      I loved this book and it sounds like you will too. Let me know how it goes! 🙂

  • Daniel Palmer Jan 5, 2017, 7:32 pm

    Great review! Isn’t there some advice about spending 97 percent of your brain power on the 3 percent that matters? I guess the rest should be habit then.

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