Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do and How to Change It

By Charles Duhigg
Random House     2012
402 pages     Nonfiction

The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg is an entertaining and instructive look at how habit influences the behaviors of individuals, organizations, and cultures. If you are seeking a self-help book that will instruct you in how to get and maintain a good habit or get rid of a bad habit, this is not the book to read. But it is a clear-eyed look at how habit influences every aspect of life.

A Pulitzer Prize winner, Duhigg writes in a clear, narrative style in keeping with his career as a reporter at the New York Times. He has done his research, and his stories are entertaining. The section on the power of habit in personal life was extremely engaging and made my husband and me look at our daily activities with new eyes--the pleasure my husband gets from going upstairs at night to a bed that he carefully made in the morning and the habit I have of checking my email the very first thing in the morning, which is pleasing to me because I like to get them out of the way first thing. We also discussed the habits that we are not so proud of--the ones that drive each other crazy. (Those I won't go into here!).

 Duhigg traces back personal habits to their origins and then looks at the ways in which those personal habits can change. He tells the story of Tony Dungy, a pro football coach who became convinced that the key to producing a winning team was to change players' personal habits so that behaviors on the field would happen automatically. He taught the team moves that would operate on a three step plan, find the cue, change the routine, and feel the reward. Duhigg believes that to change the habit, you must find the cue and the reward. Then you can change the routine and change the habit. He adds one more ingredient--belief. Dungy took these three steps, cue, routine, and reward, added in belief, and changed the makeup of the way his team played. His team became winners because whenever they felt the cue, they moved into the routine, and received the reward. However, it was only when belief entered the picture that the team really became winners.  

I particularly liked the chapters on corporate habits because so many of them were very skillfully illustrated by Duhigg. He tells of how Paul O'Neill changed one keystone habit at Alcoa Aluminum and turned the faltering company around. Most significantly, he tells about how the climate at Starbucks helps individual employees become responsible members of the corporate and cultural community. There are a couple of horrifying stories about how counterproductive keystone habits  can be. For instance, the habits taught to the employees in the London Underground were very disconnected from one another. On the one hand, the employees knew their own jobs very well, but they didn't know what the other employees' jobs were or how those jobs were interrelated. So, when a small fire began in one of the underground stations, everyone continued to do his/her own jobs, without taking any personal responsibility, and a huge fire erupted which killed several people.

One of the major strengths of the book are the stories. One amazing story line is about how Target figures out its' customers buying habits. For instance, their technology can tell when a woman is pregnant--before she tells anyone--and target (no pun intended) ads to fit her condition. They determine probable purchases because of subtle changes in shopping habits. 

The reviewer in the New York Times had a criticism of The Power of Habit. He says, "The point is that habitual behaviors come in many different forms, and squeezing them into one framework misses some of the nuances of how to change behavior effectively. In recent years social psychologists have developed many effective interventions to help people improve their lives, only some of which involve breaking bad habits in the way Duhigg describes." Duhigg's framework of cue, routine, reward may be too small a framework.

I asked my husband what he learned most from The Power of Habit. He said that he hadn't realized how much of life was dictated by habit. He thought that he could identify the good and bad habits in his life, but now he realizes that habit is everywhere in his life and the lives of the people, the companies, and the culture around him. 

I tried to hone in on a few personal habits that I am not proud of and consider my options regarding those habits. I have had to chuckle at myself. I am trying to keep a food diary in the weeks before I visit the doctor in January. I am using an app called My Fitness Pal. I have had to "do over" using this app several times over the last several months because I stop using it when I have a day when I want to eat something that I don't want to keep track of and have it show up on my food log. I don't want to look at the daily calorie count on the days when it is going to go over what I have allotted for myself. Denial is one of the weak sisters of habit. 

My husband and I read this book together and it engendered a great deal of conversation. Sometimes we had to pull ourselves away from the breakfast table and begin our day. Reading together has become one of the enjoyable habits that we have created as a couple.

Duhigg closes The Power of Habit
by writing "If you believe you can change--if you make it habit--the change becomes real. This is the power of habit: the insight that your habits are what you choose them to be. Once that choice occurs--and becomes automatic, habitual--it's not only real, it starts to seem inevitable, the thing, as (William) James wrote, that bears "us irresistibly toward our destiny, whatever the latter may be."

The Power of Habit comes out in paperback on January 4. It is a thought-provoking, highly enjoyable book. We both can recommend it.

Charles Duhigg's website:

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Middlesteins

by Jami Attenberg
 Grand Central  2012
272 pages     Fiction

Last night at book club we discussed The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg for nearly an hour, almost a new record! The hostess served Chinese food; one person told about growing up in Skokie; and another talked about a morbidly obese aunt and how that dear aunt was in her mind the whole time she was reading about Edie, the mother in the novel. All in all it was a great book club meeting. 

As those of you who read my blog know, I am not a great fan of family problem novels, but I read The Middlesteins with great empathy and understanding. The Middlesteins are a middle class Jewish family in suburban Chicago. Now in their early 60s, Edie and Richard's marriage has fallen apart. Richard left because he finally realized that Edie was a) eating herself to death, b) she didn't love him and nothing he did could save her, and c) he didn't want to be buried along with her. Other family members include their children Bennie, his wife and twins, and Robin and her partner, Daniel. None of the characters are loveable, but all are interesting enough that you can read about them without going "Oh, for heaven's sake!" 

Bennie and Robin are very angry with their father for leaving their mother in the midst of her obesity-related illness, and Rachelle, Bennie's wife, has forbidden Richard to see his grandchildren. (The grandchildren, by the way, are perfect 13-year-old characters in all their eye-rolling, texting, and inappropriate laughing glory.) Bennie and Robin support their mother at the expense of their father, trying for one last ditch effort to save their mother's life. But Edie seems impervious to all the family's efforts, intent as she is on the owner of the Chinese restaurant where she eats almost every night. Kenneth, the restaurant owner, loves Edie in part because she loves his food.

So, as you can see--a family problem novel. The reviewer in the New York Times asks the pertinent question about why Edie embarked on this self-destruction in the first place. "What's remarkable is the unfailing emotional accuracy and specificity with which Attenberg renders Edie's despair." The reviewer says that the message of The Middlesteins is that life is full of disappointments and that in our "efforts to ease our pain, we often make decisions that have the opposite effect. We leave marriages that have become difficult and later experience loneliness and terrible searing regret. We wall ourselves off from negative emotion and end up blocking out love. "

Wow! All of this sounds like a real downer, and indeed there are moments of intense agony. My husband asked me why I read family problem novels when there is enough drama in our own family. And indeed, we can ask that question. One possible answer is that in reading about a family that is not like ours but has, it seems, problems far greater than our family, we can look with fresh eyes at our own life situations. Even though we may not find solutions to our family problems, we see how another family handles--or doesn't handle--the problems they face. We can look at our family members who are contributing to the drama and think, "Well, at least he/she's not...!"

Attenberg uses the interesting literary device of the omniscient voice that takes us into the past and the future of the main characters.  She moves us from our current point of view of the characters to a totally different point of view. Ah! we say. I get it! when we suddenly realize why Edie is obese. Oh, No! we say when we discover the things that will happen to Robin in the future. This skilled writing, while a bit cluttered, creates a picture of the characters that is rich and full, albeit a bit frustrating. One line in the novel probably sums up the dilemma of this type of character development: "Did we ever know these two people at all?" 

 Pain, hurt, disappointment, and guilt are all parts of life. Ultimately, it is how we deal with all these aspects that determine how we are going to live. The reviewer says: "Those who approach the world with an open heart receive love in return--even if it's the last thing they do."

The Middlesteins has been chosen for the Chicago Jewish Community's One Community/One Book for this year. Here is a link to the activities. I had to laugh that the kickoff event is a discussion of "Jews and Chinese Food."
Jamie Attenberg's website: