Behavioral Book Breakdown: “The Power of Habit”

Carrying these posts over from my personal site, as I believe that behavioral science can have a great impact on the public sector, especially given the relative lack of funding. Behavioral science can generate low-cost solutions to entrenched problems, and so I’ll occasionally describe books I’ve read on the subject. Here’s the first one.

Year: 2012

Author: Charles Duhigg

This one, this is how it all started. I received this for my birthday in 2012, just as I was getting into running, and it helped me focus and really believe I could improve in my fitness, in my relationships, in my career. I have often referred to this book as my bible, but it’s more like my amazing grace, as I once was lost, and then, after this book, I was found.

But what does it actually say?

The main concept is that every thing you do regularly consists of a three step process. A cue, a routine, and a reward.

The cue is what it sounds like – maybe that’s your alarm waking you up – and the routine is the actual process – perhaps that’s dragging yourself downstairs to run across a bridge – and the reward is what you get for it – in my case a sense of satisfaction at achieving goals.

Setting up cues isn’t very hard, and most can do so. And it’s pretty easy to envision rewards. But sticking with the routines is the challenge, and what trips most of us up. How many times have you decided you were going to lose weight or gain a new skill or save money and then fallen short? Even just this year, the very focused version of myself failed at learning to program because I couldn’t figure it out without an instructor’s guidance.

So the key is to make that routine different, and then to stick to it. Easier said than done! But necessary.

Learning to delay gratification is a great way to build willpower, even if it’s for something minor. Not being allowed to skip the routine in the middle to get to the reward can change anyone’s behavior. Even if you have to metaphorically tie a hand behind your back, do it.

For me, I used to always skip runs for dumb reasons. Or slack off on schoolwork. For running, instead of just running however much I felt like, I put it on my calendar, and that blaring reminder got me out the door. I got better clothes and shoes. And I didn’t bring a metrocard so I couldn’t cut it short. And over time it just became harder NOT to run than it was to run.

Make your cue strong, find a way to get through your routine, and then reward yourself for achievement.

“The Power of Habit” was the first book about behavior that reached me. You should read it if you want to learn about it yourself.



We are Justin and Alissa, and we have spent enough time in the public sector to offer our thoughts and ideas about how to make this field into the very best version of itself.

We’ll spend time discussing news, trends, studies and personal experiences, and share our analysis of the sector. We will also, we hope, have some fun along the way, although that was probably the least fun way to say that. We’ll do better!

Anyway, we do this not to criticize or disparage but out of love, as the public sector is where we’ve long felt at home and we want it to reach its full potential.

Stay tuned for more posts, and thanks for reading.