Tag Archives: Charles Duhigg

Would You Go to the Gym, If It Would Save a Life?

That’s what Jen-Hsien Chiu thinks.

Chiu, a graduate of the Royal College of Art in London, developed Phabit – a “smart pot” that will nurture a plant, depending on whether or not you stick to your habit.

There’s actually some nuance to it. Users of the app complete a personality quiz that puts them into one of four buckets: obliger, questioner, rebel, and upholder. The idea being that the app will challenge each group of people differently.

On its face, it certainly seems like an innovative way to help us form better habits. However, I’m not sure how I feel about the idea of “holding something hostage,” especially another lifeform. I realize that to some, it’s just a plant, but there’s a growing body of evidence substantiating the sentience of plants.

Plant sentience aside (for the moment), let’s look at it purely from a habit forming perspective. Recall from Charles Duhigg’s excellent book, The Power of Habit:

Studies have shown that if you can diagnose your habits, you can change them in whichever way you want.

As I said previously:

That’s really important because this thinking wasn’t always the case. Sometimes, folks will tell you that you need to focus on the cue, while others will say you need to focus on the reward. As Duhigg suggests, you can focus on whichever aspect you want, so long as you’ve diagnosed the habit.

Now returning to Phabit – do you think seeing a wilted plant on your desk would raise your level of awareness, with regard to your shirking your goals? If I had to say, I’m probably going to guess the answer is yes. So, purely from a “science of habits”-perspective, Phabit certainly seems like it’s a great way to get people thinking about their habits.

Let’s revisit the plant sentience aspect.

If we presume that plants are sentient (and the evidence certainly points in that direction), then we must consider the ramifications of literally holding another life hostage to our actions. There are two possible outcomes I want to mention: empathy and PTSD.

Empathy. One might argue that by subjecting one’s self to this could foster a sense of empathy (i.e. I feel bad because *I’m* hurting the plant). One might also argue that the “continued killing of plants” (through not completing one’s daily goals) could potentially promote emotional numbing and maybe begin to strip someone of their empathy.

PTSD. Dovetailing with the point on empathy above, I suppose it’s possible that someone might begin to exhibit symptoms of post-traumatic stress from “killing” a plant (or multiple plants, depending on how things go). I realize that this might sound absurd in the abstract, but if we presume plant sentience, killing a plant would fall on the same continuum as killing another being. Granted, the ramifications to one’s psychological wellbeing might not be as severe as if one were to kill an animal or another human being, but when we invent things, it’s incumbent upon us to consider the possible ramifications from as many sides as possible.


Wanna Lose Weight? Get Some Sleep!

There was some research published within the last year that you might be particularly interested in, should you be in the middle of or about to go on a diet (or you’re interested in your health in general):

This article provides an integrative review of the mechanisms by which sleep problems contribute to unhealthy food intake. Biological, cognitive, emotional, and behavioral mechanisms all underlie this relationship.

When I first came across this headline — the less you sleep, the more you eat — immediately, I was interested. After reading the source article (which I quoted from above), I’m heartened by the possibilities for progress in this area.

Naturally, the food we eat has an effect on how we sleep, but the insight that the fewer hours of sleep we get having an effect on how much we eat, is really important. While anecdotal, I’ve experienced this phenomenon firsthand. If I find myself up past my “bedtime,” I almost always am hungry. And because it’s late at night, my executive function is impaired. Put differently, my ability to make good choices might be compromised. In this case, a good choice would be to not eat a bag of chips or a tub of ice cream (or anything sugary, for that matter). A good choice might even be to reach for a handful of nuts or maybe an apple.

The thing that I wanted to mention in conjunction with this research is my suspicion that there’s a cumulative effect. If you stay up late and then pig out on snacks too close to bedtime, invariably, you’ll probably be waking up with less sleep than you need. As a result, your executive functioning (willpower, decision-making, etc.), will be impaired for the duration of the day. By the time you get to the end of the day, you may find yourself more tired than usual such that when it gets to the time when you’d rather go to bed, you might prefer to “reward” yourself or (decompress) by eating some sweets and staying up late… and then it all starts over again the next day. Once you’re out of balance, Newton’s laws have a way of keeping you there.

This reminds me of something I shared a few years ago about Aikido:

One of the exercises we would often do to practice this sense of blending involved our partner (or partners as it was usually in groups of three or more!) to approach us as if they were attacking us. It was our job to then move out of the way, whilst staying centered. The tempo of this exercise usually started out really slow (intentionally). Though, as time passed, our partners would then speed up. You can imagine how it might be challenging to stay centered in this kind of an activity.

During these times of practice, I remember having a bit of an epiphany.

As my partner would approach me and I would step out of the way, I noticed that the quicker (and the more out of balance!) I was, the more out of balance I would be when stepping out of the way for the next partner who was approaching. Think about that for a second: as I stepped out of the way of one partner and I was off-balance, I was that much more off-balance when stepping out of the way for the next partner. It’s almost akin to the Bullwhip Effect.

This idea of eating “after hours” seems to be a mirror image of the off-balance I experienced during the Aikido exercise. So, if you find yourself on the cusp of a diet, I suggest you consider setting (and keeping!) a strict bedtime for yourself. If you’re curious about how to start this new habit, I strongly suggest Duhigg’s book: The Power of Habit.

ResearchBlogging.orgLundahl A, & Nelson TD (2015). Sleep and food intake: A multisystem review of mechanisms in children and adults Journal of Health Psychology : 10.1177/1359105315573427

The Habits of Societies: The Power of Habit, Part 3b

In Part 1a, we had an introduction Duhigg’s book on habits. In Part 1b, we looked at some of the highlights and the key points from the first section (on individuals) of the book. In Part 2, we looked some of the stories that Duhigg shared in the second section about Michael PhelpsAlcoaStarbucks, and the Rhode Island Hospital.  In yesterday’s post, we began our examination of the last section on societies by looking at Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rick Warren. In today’s post, we’ll look at the last chapter of the last section.

The last chapter juxtaposes the stories of Angie Bachmann and Brian Thomas. Bachmann’s story leads us on a journey of the development of a compulsive gambler and all the happenings that follow. Thomas’ story is the accidental murder of his wife. It seems strange that an adjective like accidental would precede a word like murder, but in this case, it seems to fit.

Duhigg uses these two stories to espouse the view that under different circumstances, we should be responsible for the consequences of our habits. To be honest, I didn’t see the oft-used conservative viewpoint that folks need to take ‘personal responsibility‘ coming. Nonetheless, Duhigg makes a pretty good case for it. In the case of Thomas’, there wasn’t much that he could have done to prevent the accidental murder. He “wasn’t himself” when it happened. Of course, Bachmann “wasn’t herself” when she was gambling, but the argument then becomes that Bachmann knew that she had a problem and knew that there were things she could do to prevent herself from destroying her life.

At first, I struggled with this viewpoint. I strongly believe that the environment plays a big part in the way we behave as people in society. Of course, Duhigg does acknowledge this. I’m just saying that I think, even today, we might be underestimating the importance that the environment plays on our ability to make decisions for ourselves.


After sitting back and reflecting on the last section of this chapter, I’m more ambiguous about what I think. When I read it, I remember thinking that Duhigg made a really convincing case that we need to take personal responsibility for our habits. But in reflecting on some of the other contrary evidence, I don’t know that everyone has the strength/willpower to simply change their habit when their environment continues to support their old habits. For instance, I’m thinking about someone who’s gotten mixed up in recreational drugs. If someone’s trying to change their life such that they no longer use recreational drugs, it’s going to be important that their environment change along with them. Meaning, if they stop using drugs, but they’re still hanging out will all of the same friends (who use drugs) and go to places where drugs are used, it’s going to be very difficult to maintain one’s goal of staying clean. There’s also the neuropsychological component where the chemicals in the drug cause certain reactions in the brain making it that much more difficult to give up.

Like I said, I’m ambiguous as to what exactly I think on this topic, but if you’re interested, I highly recommend reading the last chapter of The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. Duhigg makes an excellent case for personal responsibility.


If you liked this paper/series, you might want to check out some of the other papers/series I’ve posted.

The Habits of Societies: The Power of Habit, Part 3a

In Part 1a, we had an introduction Duhigg’s book on habits. In Part 1b, we looked at some of the highlights and the key points from the first section (on individuals) of the book. In yesterday’s post, we looked some of the stories that Duhigg shared in the second section about Michael Phelps, Alcoa, Starbucks, and the Rhode Island Hospital.  In today’s post, we’ll look at the last section of the book on societies.

Because of my sense that I’m meant to be a leader of a very large organization, I was particularly excited to get to the section on societies. It certainly did not disappoint. There were only two chapters in this section. The first chapter talked about movements: the civil rights movement in the 1960s and Rick Warren. With regard to the civil rights movement, Duhigg tells the story of how we came to know Rosa Parks. I was shocked to learn that Parks wasn’t the only (nor was she the first!) black person to take a stand (metaphorically) against the injustice in the South. In fact, there had been others like her who tried to remain in their seats on the bus, but no movements formed after their decision to remain steadfast.

Part of the reason that Parks created such a stir was because of how connected she was to her community. When people learned that Parks had been arrested, people wanted to help. Simply wanting to help wasn’t enough. As we learn, all of this willingness to help had to be funneled into a new activity: civil disobedience. There’s a particular powerful passage that I want to share. In my reading of the passage, it makes me think that this was one of the important turning points of civil rights movement:

As the bus boycott expanded from a few days into a week, and then a month, and then two months, the commitment of the Montgomery’s black community began to wane.

The police commissioner, citing an ordinance that required taxicabs to charge a minimum fare, threatened to arrest cabbies who drove blacks to work at a discount. The boycott’s leaders responded by signing up two hundred volunteers to participate in a carpool. Police started issuing tickets and harassing people at carpool meeting spots. Drivers began dropping out. “It became more and more difficult to catch a ride,” King later wrote. “Complaints began to rise. From early morning to late at night my telephone rang and my doorbell was seldom silent. I began to have doubts about the ability of the Negro community to continue the struggle.”

One night, while King was preaching at his church, an usher ran up with an urgent message. A bomb had exploded at King’s house while his wife and infant daughter were inside. King rushed home and was greeted by a crowd of several hundred blacks as well as the mayor and the chief of police. His family had not been injured, but the front windows of his home were shattered and there was a crater in his porch. If anyone had been in the front rooms of the house when the bomb went off, they could have been killed.

As King surveyed the damage, more and more blacks arrived. Policemen started telling the crowds to disperse. Someone shoved a cop. A bottle flew through the air. One of the policemen swung a baton. The police chief, who months earlier had publicly declared his support for the racist White Citizen’s Council, pulled King aside and asked him to do something — anything — to stop a riot from breaking out.

King walked to his porch.

“Don’t do anything panicky,” he shouted to the crowd. “Don’t get your weapons. He who lives by the sword shall perish by the sword.”

The crowd grew still.

“We must love our white brothers, no matter what they do to us,” King said. “We must make them know that we love them. Jesus still cries out in words that echo across the centuries: ‘Love your enemies; bless them that curse you; pray for them that despitefully use you.'”

“We must meet hate with love,” King [said].


The parts about Rick Warren were equally powerful, but when contrasted with the life/death matters of the civil rights movement, it’s hard to see it in the same light.

Because I’ve shared an excerpt from this book about Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement, I thought it best to talk about the last chapter of the section in a different post. Look for it tomorrow.

How Do I Break a Habit? First, Notice

Last year, Charles Duhigg published a great book called, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. It has been really well-received garnering almost 900 five- and four-star ratings out of 1050+. I haven’t had the chance to read it, yet, but I have seen many interviews with Duhigg explaining the principles from the book and videos like the one I’ve embedded below with some animation.

A few days ago, I noticed the video embedded on Farnam Street and I thought it’d be a good idea to share it with all of you. It’s one of the best summaries I’ve seen Duhigg give on the principles from the book. In fact, it’s one of the best summaries I’ve seen on habits, in general. If you’re interested in habits, another good person to read (or listen to) is BJ Fogg. Without further adieu, here’s the clip from Duhigg:

There’s so much good information in there, but the piece I want to draw your attention to is near the very end:

Studies have shown that if you can diagnose your habits, you can change them in whichever way you want.

That’s really important because this thinking wasn’t always the case. Sometimes, folks will tell you that you need to focus on the cue, while others will say you need to focus on the reward. As Duhigg suggests, you can focus on whichever aspect you want, so long as you’ve diagnosed the habit. Happy habit-breaking!