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

The Power of Habit is a wake-up call. It made me more aware of the things I do without thinking, and convinced me that it's possible to change what's unhealthy or unproductive. However, perhaps more importantly, it explains how to build the habits that you want to have.

Duhigg writes that habit-formation comes from a region of the brain known as the basal ganglia. After repeating an action often enough, the basal ganglia can take the place of the prefrontal cortex. We no longer need to consciously process the action — and now the prefrontal cortex is free to handle something else.

This was great for our ancestors. It meant that we could automate complex tasks without using as much energy. But today, we often see downsides in habit-formation — especially when products take advantage of science to create habits among consumers.

The book cites a study at Duke University about how much of what we do day-to-day is done with "minimal conscious control."

[T]he pervasive effect of habits in everyday behavior is a key to understanding the difficulty people frequently experience in changing their behavior. People often fail in their attempts at changing everyday lifestyle habits such as their diet and level of exercise. Such failures are understandable given that cues such as time of day and location trigger repetition of past responses. Failures to change do not necessarily indicate poor willpower or insufficient understanding of health issues but instead the power of situations to trigger past responses.
— David T. Neal, Wendy Wood, and Jeffrey M. Quinn

The idea that habit formation isn't necessarily about willpower was liberating for me. Don't direct your effort at trying to change your habits — instead, focus on setting up triggers that result in actions. Want to run more? Try putting your running shoes by your bed in the morning.