Book review: paperback version of “The Power of Habit”

(Ohana Nords just returned from our three-week Bangkok vacation. I have several “lifestyles in retirement” posts to write about our experiences, but I also have a backlog of other material about new books and investing. I’ll post about all of those subjects, but Bangkok reporting will have to wait a few weeks.)

How’s your New Year’s resolution working out?

Yeah, I know. But Charles Duhigg is here to help with a new version of his confirmed winner.

The Power of Habit” is now out in paperback. It was first published in early 2012 and it’s a huge hit with tens of thousands of people who’ve struggled to change their behavior. Mr. Duhigg gave them the tools to break the challenge into manageable parts. When we examine our cues, routines, and rewards we can create new habits and literally reprogram our brains to change our behavior.

Image from "The Power of Habit" book on cues, routines, and rewards.

Just do this!

You can use this book to reach financial independence, but people have used it to save their lives.

The hardcover book has nearly 900 five-star reviews (out of almost 1500!). Mr. Duhigg also did an excellent guest post on Get Rich Slowly about changing your spending habits, so I never wrote my own book review. However, I blogged about the impact that “The Power of Habit” has had on my habits and apparently he kept track of these stories. Last month I was surprised to receive an e-mail from a best-selling author (who’s also a New York Times investigative reporter) offering to share a review copy of the paperback edition.

I quickly responded (from Bangkok) but I was already too late– Random House “ran out” of paperback review copies. Luckily I travel with my iPad, and they offered me a NetGalley subscription. (Let’s pause a moment to appreciate the irony of a publisher being overwhelmed with demand for their paperback. Didn’t they see it coming? Maybe RH uses artificial scarcity as a marketing tactic, but as eBooks are outselling hardcopy I think that tactic just puts another nail in the coffin of the old-school book business.) This post reviews the eBook version of the paperback because the publisher couldn’t figure out how to supply an actual paperback review copy.

Of course, you could scamper over to your public library to read the two-year-old hardcover version for free, but you’d miss out on the paperback’s new material. It includes inspiring stories and advice from those who read the original edition and have changed their habits.

The book saved the lives of dozens of readers who had hit bottom and wanted to change– but couldn’t figure out how to break their bad habits. One reader used the book to finally start attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and she celebrated over 40 days of sobriety with Mr. Duhigg.

Another reader was using food to relieve boredom & stress, but those habits pushed his weight up to 340 pounds. The book showed him how to replace one of his routines with a small change (fruit instead of pastries for breakfast) that led to quickly losing a few pounds. That easy victory motivated him to start walking for exercise, and his progress inspired him to keep trying. He’s lost over 70 pounds and has the confidence to keep going despite occasional relapses.

A personal trainer knew he needed to quit smoking, but he’d already failed a dozen times. The book taught him to experiment with different routines and rewards until he found the key. When he quit his “keystone habit” of smoking, he was able to stop drinking too.

I sat down to read the new section, but I found myself reading the entire book all over again.

When I read a non-fiction book more than once, that means it’s a reference manual. When you read the book you’re going to start changing your life with small changes to your habits, and you’ll want to read the material several times. Try the library if you’re skeptical, but I think you’ll want to buy the paperback or the eBook. I found the eBook particularly good for highlighting text and finding keywords. I have to admit that the iPad’s backlighting and enlarged font size is also much easier on my presbyopian eyes.

Once again, I’m another testimonial for the book’s techniques. 20 months ago when I first read “The Power of Habit”, I wrote about doing more stretching and less Windows Solitaire. To my surprise, these days I’m still doing more stretching and zero Windows Solitaire. The beauty of the changes is that they’re habits, and I don’t even think about them anymore. I simply come downstairs in the morning and start stretching while I’m brewing tea, and when I sit down at the computer I’m ready to work instead of mindlessly clicking cards.

Last year I took the habit-forming techniques even further: pullups. The Marine Corps physical fitness test includes the men’s minimum of three, but the maximum is 20. The Navy doesn’t even test for pullups, so I struggled to do more than five of them– until I encountered the FinCon pullup competition. I won’t embarrass the personal-finance bloggers who enjoy this event, but we’re almost all testosterone-poisoned hypercompetitive guys (and a few hypercompetitive women). Unsurprisingly, many of us are military veterans.

Image of He-Man Masters of the Universe

Your typical personal-finance blogger guy…

Sounds pretty juvenile, right? Of course, I’m too mature to be suckered into something like this. But as I listened to the He-Man Masters of the Universe trash talk, I realized that this could be my motivation to improve my own pull-up performance. Silly, yeah. Old enough to know better– sure. But it’s working.

A year ago I started doing pullups every day. I rigged a bar right out on our back lanai (where I can’t avoid it) and I tested it out whenever I walked by. I researched pullup mechanics and learned that (men or women) it’s all repetition with incremental improvement and no magic. (This is catnip to submarine nukes.) After some experimentation (and a lot of sniveling) I settled on doing them in the morning– after my first cup of tea and before I ballasted myself down with breakfast. At first I’d miss the occasional day or two, but I stubbornly persevered. I already knew how to turn a small change into a new habit, and I even imagined how surprised the FinCon attendees would be when a balding middle-aged geezer started knocking out the reps.

Once I had my cue and developed a routine, you’d expect that the breakfast reward visualization would be enough. The improvements almost immediately reinforced my efforts, but I was surprised at my change of attitude. Instead of looking 10 months down the road to the next FinCon, I was looking forward to the next morning’s pullups. By March I was not only pumping out more pullups but growing new muscles. That fed right back into my surfing skills and led to doing even more strength-building pullup exercises. I reached two long-term goals just by creating one small daily habit.

Last week as I read people’s success stories in the new “Power of Habit”, I realized that I’ve joined their club again. Today I can pop my chin over that pullup bar 10 times, slowly and with strict form. I’ve added muscle around my shoulders and upper back, yet surprisingly I’ve lost 10 pounds. (Pullups get a lot easier when you reduce the weight.) Once again I’m in the best shape of my life. I have no idea when I’ll make it to 20 pullups, but I have the rest of my life to find out. Ironically I got distracted at the last FinCon and completely missed the pullup competition, but that “reward” had faded in comparison to the lasting physical and mental benefits. I even did pullups during our Bangkok vacation– not with a grudging “just do it” attitude, but because I wanted to satisfy my habit.

Once again I have to thank Charles Duhigg for helping me demonstrate the power of habit. Once again I wish I’d read his book 30 years ago.

It’s brilliant timing to release the new edition when many people are struggling with their New Year’s resolutions. Sure, this time you’re going to try harder and it’s really going to be different, but you’ll still make the same mistakes and burn out before Valentine’s Day. Do yourself a favor: make it really different for yourself this time, and learn how to build small changes into new habits. Then tell us how you did and share your advice with the rest of the readers!


Related articles:
Lifestyles in early retirement: habits and getting things done
Just write it.
Update to “Just Write It”
Book review: “Lean Body, Fat Wallet”
Exercise with a purpose

About Doug Nordman

Author of "The Military Guide to Financial Independence and Retirement" and co-author of "Raising Your Money-Savvy Family For Next Generation Financial Independence."
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