Book Review: The Power of Habit

Charles Duhigg, (2012),The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do and How to Change, Random House Books.

An award-winning New York Times journalist, Charles offers an informative yet witty insight into the surprising amount of power that habits hold over us. His simple yet engaging style of writing helps condense what could be dry, technical matters into concrete examples of how overcoming habits has led to massive transformations in the lives of real people, athletes, and multinational companies.

“Habits, scientists say, emerge because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort.”

The prologue starts with a bang. Lisa, a woman who had run away to Cairo on a whim after her husband left and demanded a divorce, woke up in a strange bed and tried to light a pen instead of a cigarette. She decided that she needed a goal. Something all-consuming to work toward. In a taxi on her way to go see the pyramids, she made up her mind that she would come back to Egypt and trek through the desert. As an overweight smoker, she knew she would need to make huge lifestyle changes, with no money in the bank and no idea whether such a trip was even possible she committed to trying to achieve that goal.

In a taxi on her way to go see the pyramids, she made up her mind that she would come back to Egypt and trek through the desert. As an overweight smoker, she knew she would need to make huge lifestyle changes, with no money in the bank and no idea whether such a trip was even possible she committed to trying to achieve that goal. The first thing she decided, was to quit smoking.

Four years later, she hadn’t had a cigarette, didn’t drink, had lost sixty pounds, got out of debt, bought a house, ran a marathon, started a Masters degree and had held down her first job for longer than a year at a design firm. And it had started with changing one single “keystone” habit.

Neurologists discovered the patterns inside her brain fundamentally changed. Where her old habits pathways were evident, it was clear that her new habits had overridden this data, any impulses to engage in the old behaviour were crowded out by the new. Instead of craving the satisfaction of giving in to the old habit her brain was now rewarding her for showing self-restraint in her behaviour.

“This is how willpower becomes a habit: by choosing a certain behavior ahead of time, and then following that routine when an inflection point arrives.”

The book covers three main topics, individuals, organisations and societies. Exploring why we do the same thing day in and day out and how companies exploit our shopping habits, or follow the same destructive patterns even when the results are demonstrably growing worse. The section on society also offers some interesting insights into what conditions need to exist in order to facilitate a campaign movement and ensure that people can realign their thinking and move with the changes.

“Someday soon, say predictive analytics experts, it will be possible for companies to know our tastes and predict our habits better than we know ourselves.”

This was a great read, whether you feel the need to start transforming your habits or simply want to see how organisational change happens at a ground-up level. We can highly recommend it. Now, we just have to choose one of our bad habits to focus on and get the ball rolling…

If you have any recommendations for an interesting read we would love to hear from you. We are planning on adding more book reviews to the blog so if you have one that you think is worthy of inclusion we’ll be happy to take a look. Get in touch via Twitter @ActiveOutcomes, email, or by visiting


I’ve been wanting to write about approaching “change” for a while. With the sad news about David Bowie’s death today, it seemed like an appropriate topic.

Here was a man who lived in a constant state of artistic flux, capable of flowing between movements, genres and careers. Embracing new ideas and giving older ones a new lease of life. He committed so much to a musical concept that he would be forced to create an entirely new character to encompass it.

Change can be daunting. It can be huge, overwhelming even. It can be hard to know where to even begin. You may know something is missing, you might have an end goal in sight, but the thought of making the change can be enough to put some people off even trying.

Be brave. Commit to your idea. Throw yourself into the change, because if you want it, if it is worth your effort, you’ll find the time to make it happen. That’s how I got started working as a freelancer, setting up Active Outcomes, I wanted a new challenge. I wanted to write for a living. It hasn’t been the easiest path, sometimes I wish I was working for someone else, that I could leave the office at the end of the day and switch off from everything. (An almost impossible task when you are running your own business!)

So in honour of David Bowie, a man who inspired me (and probably a lot more people around my age) from the moment I watched The Labyrinth as a kid – here are my thoughts on bringing about change, quoting the lyrics of David Bowie’s ‘Changes’.


“Still don’t know what I was waitin’ for…”

The first step is the hardest. You want to achieve something. You can write another to-do list, or you can stop procrastinating and take the first step.

Break down your goal so that it is in smaller, more manageable chunks. If your first task will take five minutes, for example, you want to run your idea by a collague and need to set up a quick meeting, you’ll have that one done today. If you can achieve something quickly you’ll feel far more motivated to keep on racking up those quick wins. With your head down solving the problem you’ll see the progress you’re making rather than the stack of work and potential obstacles ahead.

“Turn and face the strange…”

When you’re not working on a specific task – try and anticipate any obstacles before you run straight into them. Plan how you’ll overcome them. Brainstorm as many ideas/solutions/issues as you can think of. You may never need these ideas, but you’ll feel a whole lot better knowing you have them in your back pocket. Plus, sometimes it just feels good to let rip with your creativity and throw a few wild ideas around. What’s the worst that can happen?

“A million dead end streets…”

Test your ideas. Ask around. Chances are, others will have made the mistakes and can point you in the direction of a solution, or at least tell you where the pitfalls are. Be flexible. If at first you don’t succeed that doesn’t mean it’s not still worth pursuing your goal. There isn’t usually a straight path between points A and B. Besides, you tend to learn a lot more on the scenic route.

“Every time I thought I’d got it made, it seemed the taste was not so sweet…”

If it isn’t going well, get some perspective. Step away from the problem. Better yet, get someone else to take a fresh look at it. If they are completely new to your issue they might pick up on something you’ve missed because you’re too close to the problem. I find explaining an idea to someone with absolutely no prior knowledge helps me to understand and describe it in clear and simple terms. It is far too easy to overcomplicate things when you are bogged down in a process fighting against the way you’ve always done something.

Adapt. Be willing to strike an idea off the list, even if it was your favourite. If it isn’t working, there is no sense clinging to it, working around it or tweaking it so that it fits a bit better. You need to define what is good enough. If you have a solution that only just solves the problem, if you look at it sideways, with your head tilted at a certain angle, then it probably isn’t the best possible option. You’ll save yourself a lot more time and trouble down the line if you admit that you need to go back to the drawing board to get the change you need made.

“So I turned myself to face me…”

Following on from the last point, it helps to periodically take stock of what you are doing to achieve your goal and why you are making this change. Life is complicated, things change, priorities shift on a day-to-day basis. Understanding the change, what it involves and why it is important to you can help motivate you to push on and achieve it. If you’re running out of steam, visualising the end result can get you back in gear. If you are no longer filled with an all-consuming passion to get this change made it will help to understand what has happened in the meantime.

One thing that is certain is that change is hard. If you are managing a big change that impacts on others, either personally or professionally, you can feel crushed by their resistance to your ideas. I’ve always found that the best antidote to this is passion. If you can get other people to share your enthusiasm, if you can convince them of the potential reward and invite them to take the journey with you, you’ll make your job a lot easier.

You have to be the biggest cheerleader for your change, you have to live and breathe it, you have to get others excited by the idea and make sure that they know you are the person to see if they want to help make it happen. Throw yourself into it. Genuine enthusiasm is contagious. It might not be the way things have always been, but trailblazers like Bowie never let a thing like that stop them did they? And look at the legacy he has left in his wake.


If you need help managing change, or if you just want to talk through a problem, Active Outcomes can help. Contact us today for more information.