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The Power of Habit — Group Read — Part 3 Discussion

By Joyweesemoll @joyweesemoll

Graphic for New Year's Resolution Reading ChallengeThanks to everyone who participated in the group read of The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg with posts, comments, tweets, and Facebook conversation. It helped me a lot to see the examples from other people’s lives and organizations. I hope the discussion helped you, too.

Re-reading The Power of Habit gave me many ideas for ways to get my New Year goals and resolutions started in ways that will lead to steady progress rather than starting off in a dramatic flash and burning out before any real change is made.

Today, we’re discussing Part 3 and our overall impressions of the book. If you want to catch up, here were our other discussion posts:

cover of The Power of Habit by Charles DuhiggChapter 8 explains how a social movement grows through strong social ties (friends and acquaintances), followed by weak social ties (friends of friends and neighbors), and finally by entering the social fabric of the community as a shared value. When have you witnessed or experienced this sort of societal change in action? 

I live in Kirkwood, Missouri, a safe traditional suburb ripe for one of those “it could never happen here” stories. In our case, it was a mass shooting at City Hall during a government meeting, one of the rare instances in the US when the shooter was black and the victims were white. While those of us in the community knew that this shooting wasn’t all about race, it was an opportunity to change from a community that generally ignored race issues to one that was generally open about them — a journey that many towns and suburbs in America would benefit from taking.

In the weeks that followed, there were large meetings. Many people attended in groups from their churches and neighborhoods, using their strong ties. Some, like me, with only weak ties in the community attended because the inciting event was so dramatic that we wanted to be part of something bigger than ourselves. I was quickly pulled into stronger ties — friendships that remain to this day.

The fifth anniversary of that shooting is next month. Has there been a permanent change in the social fabric of Kirkwood? Not as much as I know some of the organizers of those initial large meetings hoped for. But more, I suspect, than people realize because we don’t often stop to count them up. I, personally, know of at least four continuing efforts that grew out of a newfound willingness to openly discuss race issues in America and I’d guess there are other groups that I just don’t happen to be aware of.

My biggest involvement is with a Diversity Book Club. If you liked the part of Chapter 8 in The Power of Habit that discussed Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, I can recommend a book we read that goes much deeper into topic: Book Review: At the Dark End of the Street by Danielle L. McGuire.

Chapter 9 of The Power of Habit compares a compulsive gambler to a man who killed his wife during a sleep terror, asking us to think about how much personal responsibility we’re willing to assign habitual behavior. What were your thoughts?

I developed unexpected sympathy for the compulsive gambler as I learned more and more about the techniques the casinos used to keep pulling her back to the blackjack table. It reminded me of all the things I’ve read about how the modern American food environment contributes to the obesity epidemic. Since I fell hook, line, and sinker for the corporate interests that promote an “eat more” mentality, I’m very glad that I never found myself in the clutches of casinos offering spa vacations while making “gamble more” feel like a perfectly sane and natural solution to fatigue, stress, boredom, and even money woes. There but for the grace of God, go I.

Still, I did, eventually, claw my way out of the sea of processed food and doing so took wresting responsibility for my own eating habits back from the forces that saw profit in my willingness to let marketing guide my decisions. In the end, I had to agree with Duhigg’s conclusion:

That, in some ways, is the point of this book. Perhaps a sleep-walking murderer can plausibly argue he wasn’t aware of his habit, and so he doesn’t bear responsibility for his crime. But almost all the other patterns that exist in most people’s lives — how we eat and sleep and talk to our kids, how we unthinkingly spend our time, attention, and money — those are habits that we know exist. And once you understand that habits can change, you have the freedom — and the responsibility — to remake them. Once you understand that habits can be rebuilt, the power of habit becomes easier to grasp, and the only option left is to get to work. p. 271.

I can argue that it doesn’t have to be so hard. Stronger regulations could level the playing field so that corporate interests with psychologists and marketing experts on staff aren’t arrayed against individuals armed with little more than a book — if they happen to be lucky enough to have picked up The Power of Habit somewhere along the way. I’m especially willing to make that argument when the individuals involved are children who have much less experience fighting the urges that well-funded advertising works so hard to put in our brains.

There is another way to fight back, though, and I find it much more satisfying than going toe-to-toe against corporations and their billion-dollar advertising budgets. We can use the lessons of Chapter 8 in The Power of Habit to establish alternative habits for society, or at least the bits of society that we’re involved with throughout the day. Things like making exercise a normal part of the working day (Book Review: Instant Recess by Toni Yancey) or using social media to encourage each other in developing healthier habits whether its eating an apple instead of a candy bar or walking around a park instead of into a casino.

The Appendix of The Power of Habit presents a framework for changing habits. How do you see this working for you? 

Some of the participants in our group-read mentioned in the discussion of Part 1 (The Power of Habit — Group Read — Part 1 Discussion) that the framework was proving a bit difficult to apply to real life. The Appendix helped me with a more drawn-out example of how it could work. I think I could get myself to approach the habit-change process as an experiment — if only I can remember to do it!

What do you think about the author of The Power of Habit being a journalist? Would you have preferred that this book be written by a psychologist?

I like books by journalists. What they lose in expertise, they gain in research. The best books by journalists take a step back, see the forest for the trees, and don’t fall into the habits (ha!) that cause professionals to sometimes miss the obvious.

Did you like the mix of anecdote, research, and self-help in The Power of Habit? Would you have preferred more or less of any aspect of the book?

I like self-help books more than a lot of people. For this broad take on the topic of habit, I preferred the mix. For one thing, it opens the audience for the book and, thus, this group-read. For another, I suspect that if a reader needs more help with changing a habit than this book offers, a book on that specific topic might be most useful — Crafting a Life by Donald M. Murray to establish a writing habit or The Beck Diet Solution by Judith Beck to get a handle on an over-eating problem.

What are your thoughts on these questions and other issues raised by The Power of Habit? Link to your response on your blog or discuss in the comments to this post or the other posts.

There will be more discussion about resolutions, goals, books, and The Power of Habit tonight, Wednesday, during our #NewYearBooks Twitter chat. I put up a post a couple of weeks ago about how to participate: New Year’s Resolution Reading Challenge — The Twitter Chat. Join us at 9pm Eastern / 8pm Central / 2am GMT.

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