The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business
by Charles Duhigg. Random
House, 2012 ($28)

Whether healthy or destructive, habits shape our cognitive wiring. Once they are established, it takes a hefty effort to overwrite those neural connections. In The Power of Habit, Duhigg demystifies the brain processes involved in forming and altering these mindless actions.

Mindlessness, in fact, defines a habit, but the routine does not start out that way, writes Duhigg, a New York Times reporter. Habits, he explains, are choices that all of us deliberately make at some point, and then stop thinking about but continue doing. Not only are they a natural consequence of our neurology, they serve a purpose: without habit, we would spend inordinate amounts of time tending to the mundane but necessary tasks of cleaning, clothing and feeding ourselves. So as we become practiced in a task--essentially, as we learn--mental activity decreases. Studies in rats, for example, show that the brain's basal ganglia stored habits while the rest of the brain took a nap.

No surprise, then, that breaking a habit requires cognitive exertion. Habitual actions occur in a loop of cue, routine and reward, with cravings driving the cycle. Luckily, a wealth of science shows you need not deprive yourself of the rewards of your behavior to change it. To break a habit, substitute in a new routine while keeping the original cue and the payoff.

This technique may be familiar to recovering alcoholics or those who have tried to stop smoking or overeating. In a neat twist, however, Duhigg shows how football coaches, military officers, CEOs and even civil-rights pioneers have harnessed this golden rule of habit change to turn losing teams into champions, deflate rowdy crowds, ingrain emotional resilience in employees and alter social norms. Glimpsing how habits come to define us provides a fascinating look into human nature.