"The The Power of Habit" a must read by Charles Duhigg



Really good book on the power of habit in organisations and also in ourselves including interesting case studies especially Paul O’Neills Alcoa turnaround.

My favourite pages are pp. 272-274:



 “He wanted to become a painter, and then enrolled in medicine school, then left to join an expedition up the Amazon River. Then he quit that, as well. He chastised himself in in his diary for not being good at anything. What’s more he wasn’t certain if he could get better. In medical school, he had visited a hospital for the insane and had seen a man hurling himself against a wall. The patient, a doctor explained, suffered from hallucinations. James didn’t say that he often felt like he shared more in common with the patients than his fellow physicians.

“Today I about touched the bottom, and perceive plainly that I must face the choice with open eyes”, James wrote in his diary in 1870, when he was a twenty-eight years old. “Shall I frankly throw the morals business overboard, as one unsuited to my innate aptitudes?”

Is suicide, in other words a better choice? Two month later, James made a decision. Before doing anything rash, he would conduct a yearlong experiment.  He would spend 12 month believing that he had control over himself and his destiny, that he could become better, that he had the free will to change. There was no proof that it was true. But he would free himself to believe, all evidence to the contrary, that change was possible. “I think yesterday was a crisis in my life” he wrote in his diary. Regarding his ability to change, “ I will assume for the present until next year/ that it is no illusion. My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will.” Over the next year, he practiced every day. In his diary, he wrote as if his control over himself and his choices was never in question. He got married. He started  teaching in Harvard. He began spending time with Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who would go on to become a Supreme court justice, and  Charles Sanders Peirce, a pioneer in the study of semiotics, in a discussion group the called the Metaphysical Club. Two years after writing his diary entry, James sent a letter to the philosopher Charles Renouvier, who had expounded at length of free will. “I must not lose this opportunity of telling you of the admiration and gratitude which have been excited in me by the reading of your Essais” James wrote. “Thanks to you I  possess for the first time and intelligible and reasonable conception of freedom.. ..I can say that through that philosophy I am beginning to experience a rebirth of moral life; and I can assure you , sir, that this is no small thing.”

Later he would famously write that the will to believe is the most important ingredient in creating a belief in change. And that one of the most important methods for creating that belief  was habits. Habits, he noted, are what allow us to “do a thing with difficulty the first time, but soon do it more and more easily, and finally with sufficient practise, do it semi-mechanically, or with hardly any consciousness at all.” Once we choose who we want to be, people grow “ to the way in which they have been exercised, just as a sheet of paper or a coat , once creased or folded,  tends to forever afterwards into the same identical folds.”

If you believe you can change- if you can make it a habit- the change becomes  real. This is the real power of habits: the insights that your habits are what you choose them to be. Once the choice occurs- and becomes automatic- it’s not only real, it starts to seem inevitable, the thing, as James wrote, that bears “us irresistibly towards our destiny, whatever the latter  may be. The way we habitually think of our surroundings and ourselves create the worlds that each of us inhabit…the unthinking choices and invisible decisions that surround us every day- and which,  just by looking at them, become visible again.“ 


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