My rating: 5 of 5 stars
William Shakespeare’s convivial axiom of “A merry heart goes all the day” contains a profound secret of the power of the mind. It tallies with the tenets of quantum physics that consciousness is the foundation of the universe. Accordingly, the significance of willpower has always been the subject of philosophy, literature, and science because that is a prerogative of our humanness, our sovereign power and right of exercising the great faculty of mind to the extent possible, just as John Milton in Paradise Lost advised us: “Mind is its own place and in itself, can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.” Further back in the antiquity, Aristotle corroborated that habits reigned supreme in connection with our construction of reality: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” In the tradition of Milton’s existential observation of the mind and Aristotle’s epistemological truth about the power of the mind, Charles Duhigg in The Power of Habit propounds an auspicious argument that explains how habits are formed and how to discontinue bad habits based upon the scientific findings of the brain and factual evidence in lay terms.
In order to give the reader the importance of habit formations and its relation to the neurological functions of the brain and the physiological effects on the bodily functions, Duhigg first avers that subconscious mechanisms that impact the numerous choice that seem as if they were the products of sound logics are actually influenced by habits of thinking. This habit formation results from the evolutionary progress of the brain’s mechanism for saving efforts, so that we can stop thinking constantly and redundantly about basic behaviors to devote mental energy to inventing irrigation systems, letters, waterwheels, printing machines, and other technological artifacts.
Then how are these habit formations programmed in our brain? Duhigg provides the reader with the simple but potent secret of 3-step loop as follows: (1) Cue: a mental trigger that commands the brain to go into automatic response and which habit to use; (2) the routine: physical and mental response to outward stimuli; and (3) a reward: feedback from the brain to parse if this particular loop is worth the remembering for the future. It is also quite reassuring to learn that even the smallest shift in the routine stage can upend the pattern and that every habit is malleable and fixable, however complex it may seem. Once the entire loop is established through a steady period of time, the brain stops fully participating in decision-making, letting an action put in auto-pilot mode. Hence, a habit is born. This also means that we can take control of the loop if we learn to create new neurological routines to overpower our less desirable or undesirable habits as long as cues are present.
To illustrate, the case of Travis Leach is the most compelling and realistically substantive in proving the power of habit formations fueled by willpower. Leach dropped out of a high school aged 16, wasn’t mentally strong enough to withstand criticisms and indignities, resulting in his frequent changing of odds-and-ends jobs. Then goddess fortuna must have winked at Leach when he got a job as a barrister at a newly established Starbucks store that made him turn over a new leaf in life. At the age of 26, Leach became the manager of 2 Stabucks stores overseeing 40 employees. He never got upset by irate customers or felt utterly powerless in a drip of criticism due to the company’s education of empowering willpower to their new employees based upon the science of habit formations. To dismiss it as a tactful advertisement for Starbucks’s business umpire is to discredit Leach’s hard-won triumph of will over his sociological disadvantages and psychological scars as a result of his unhappy childhood.
Duhigg’s vastly informative and highly entertaining guide to the habit of success does not bestride a vox populi bestseller list of common self-help books. With his thorough research of evidentiary neurological impacts on habit formations and use of everyday examples thereof, Duhigg marshals his knowledge of the subject and willingness to help people in plain language that is accessible to the initiated and the uninitiated. He then delivers a burst of scintillating pep to the reader with steadfast belief that the right kind of habit formations supported by willpower will transform the raw material of the mind into its Excellency through a process as mysterious as a “caterpillar transforming mulberry leaves into silk,” as his like-minded intellectual Ralph Waldo Emerson agreed two centuries ago. This is not a self-help book per se, but a modern day version of Aristotelian principles of ethics examining the nature of and relations between virtue, the mean, pleasure, and happiness that can make your life different.