May 30, 2012

Church=The Power of Habit

The eleventh read in my Year of Reading at Your Mercy was The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. I polled people from my church this time, and this book was my friend Amy’s pick. (It’s a pretty big title at the library right now, and it’s pretty rare that I’m actually reading something trending at the moment. I was in for a week or so, and no one has to know why! Oh, wait…)

I can see why this book fascinates so many readers. Duhigg examines how people, institutions, and movements form habits and how they change them. My favorite kernel is the part that deals with personal habits, in which Duhigg breaks down how the brain develops habits and cravings and why they have such a hold over behavior. I have since become more thoughtful about my own habits, in some situations at least. But not when mysterious savories and sweets are offered up in the break room at work. (Recently we’ve had homemade tabouleh and maple/bacon cupcakes, so you know, I face tremendous difficulties.)

In another section, Duhigg uses the story of Rhode Island Hospital to demonstrate how bad institutional habits can lead to toxic environments. At this hospital, habitually accepted poor working relationships between doctors and nurses culminated in a rash of horrible medical mistakes. After reading this story, it’s plain to see how haphazard workplace conventions can morph into routines that are treated like policy, even when those routines are harmful to the institution and the people it serves. Another story that proves this point is that of the 1987 King’s Cross fire in the London Underground. This story is perhaps the most appalling example of how habits formed without forethought can lead to institutional breakdown in moments when it’s most important to have a well-reasoned plan in place.

In a completely different vein, the book demonstrates how retail giants like Target track our spending habits in order to gain dominion over the choices we make. I confess. I make it sound more sinister than Duhigg does. While I don’t intellectually mind the fact the Target sends me coupons for things it knows I buy, this section of the book gives me the heebie jeebies, even though the science involved is fun and interesting. I feel a bit hunted, cornered, duped, even though I never use any of the coupons Target sends me. (I’m a habitual coupon forgetter, or perhaps I should say I have failed to form appropriate couponing habits.) David and I have been talking a lot about the negative side of our consumption-worshiping society lately, and this section of the book stirred all those emotions right up into my chest.

As the book moves on, Duhigg moves farther and farther away from the realm of personal habit, which is so concisely related at the beginning, into the habits of movements and subcultures. The main example he uses here is the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955, started by Rosa Parks. While the events and people that Duhigg discusses in this section are compelling and inspiring, I think he loses the thread here. I’m not sure I follow exactly how the power of this movement relates to the power of habit laid out so neatly earlier on in the book. It feels like he’s trying to force material into his thesis, and, at least for me, it doesn’t work. I kept reading, though, despite this unravelling, for the story of the boycott itself.

Overall, I’m glad to have read The Power of Habit despite the qualm I mention above. You should read it too, just to find out how much Target knows about you or why toothpaste tastes minty fresh. The book is bursting with stories about how people and organizations make, break, and use habits—many more than I have mentioned here. It’s fascinating.

Several other people from my church also recommended books to me for pick eleven:

Nonviolent Communication by Marshall B. Rosenberg, picked by my friend Paul
Life of the Beloved by Henri J.M. Nouwen, picked by my friend Rev. Leslie
The Scarecrow and His Servant by Philip Pullman, picked my friend David
A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving, picked by my friend and fellow soprano, Judy

Nonviolent Communication: A Language of LifeLife of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular WorldThe Scarecrow and His ServantA Prayer for Owen Meany

I find a silly satisfaction in the fact that people from my church picked books with these words collectively in their titles: power, nonviolent, life, beloved, servant, prayer.

Ah, brothers and sisters… Do I hear angels singing now? No, that’s the theme to the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers. Eva and Netflix are in collusion to drive me mad.

Since The Power of Habit is so popular at the library, I had to buy it for my Kindle. In all truthfulness, though, I adore reading on my Kindle.

One comment

I love that you read this since I recently downloaded it on my Nook but haven’t gotten to it just yet. Thanks for sharing your review, Wendy! :)

by Amy M on May 31, 2012 at 6:44 am. #