20 Jul Book Review: The Power of Habits – Prologue
Philosopher William James wrote in 1892, “All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits.” Is this true? Similarly, J.C. Ryle, the evangelical Anglican bishop, published a series of children’s sermons called Stories for Boys and Girls in which he writes, “Oh, my dear children, who can tell the power of the littles? The power of littles is very wonderful! No one knows what can be done by a little, and a little, and a little. Oh, the importance of little habits. Habits of reading, habits of prayer, habits at meals, little habits through the day – all are little things. But they make up the character and are of utmost importance.”
Every morning I wake up, make my wife and me a cup of coffee, brush my teeth, and pick up my devotional to read while I get a quick start on my first few hundred steps (my goal is 15,000/day, so I have to start early!). I have had the exact same shower routine and the exact same literal pattern when I put my clothes on, the same way, in the same order, every day for the last 30 years. Am I making those decisions, or am I operating at an unconscious level, not really thinking at all about what I am doing? What behaviors can you actually say are truly habits, or simply just quick decisions? Duke University research has said that > 40% of our actions are not decisions at all but formed habits.
Paying attention to your habits are an important way of noticing patterns in your life that can lead to startling discoveries. These moments of lucidity allow us to make extremely small changes in the way we conduct our lives. However, noticing patterns can make substantial impact in other areas. The prologue relates a story about how a military advisor was able to pick up on the habits in the way crowds form in Kofa, Iran, often ending in a riot. When the habits were changed (restricting food vendors in the public squares and taking away kebob stands) people stopped showing up during a crowded rally, and riots became almost nonexistent. Picking up on a small habit potentially saved many lives.
The book is divided into three parts; how habits emerge at the individual level, then how habits form with organizations and companies, and finally, how habits form within societies. Each section revolves around a central argument: habits can be changed, good ones and bad ones, when we understand how they work. There is nothing you cannot do if get the habits right. Transforming a habit isn’t always easy or quick. But it is possible, and it may just save your life.