Monday, October 06, 2014

Book Review: The Power of Habit

I'll be honest, I probably would have never picked up this book if it hadn't been a selection for my occasional book club. I didn't really expect it to impart anything I hadn't already read or been exposed to in one way or another. So perhaps my low expectations are to blame, but the fact is I didn't really like it at all.

The problem with it basically was that it was clearly something that should have been a science book written by a science writer, instead written by a business reporter. Now, it could have been a fascinating business book too, if it had tried to be a business book. But it didn't, it tried to be a science book and it failed.

Maybe I've just read too many amazing science books and my standards are too high.

There's one glaring problem with the book that I just couldn't let go of: the author never offers a clear definition for what he considers a "habit." How can you write an entire book about something, trying to make it scientific, without defining the term? Especially when it's a term that is used in different ways in everyday life. Whenever I thought I had figured out what he meant by "habit" he would go and do something like try to make a case for sleepwalking and parasomnias being "habits." Hint: they're not, even a little. And if you're wondering why not, read Dreamland by David K. Randall.

The author also had a habit of bouncing back and forth between three or four different topics within each chapter, telling part of a story A then derailing to story B then back to story A then a bit of story C before back to story A. This is a structure that can work, but it just really got confusing and frequently led to repetitive sections that reminded me of how irritating it is to sit through a "previously on" teaser when you're binge watching a TV series. And often the topics were only tangentially connected, sometimes the connection was so difficult to find I honestly would have no idea why I'd suddenly spent five pages reading about something else only to go back to the original topic.

So why did I actually read this entire book if it irritated me so much and it was so inconsistent? Because buried in the difficult structure and lack of scientific rigor were some really interesting stories and a couple points that I'd heard before but didn't mind hearing again. In the introduction, the author talks about an Army major who had discovered a way to curb riots in Iraq by removing food vendors from some public areas. A later chapter talks about how changing safety habits in a corporation actually revolutionized the entire company, including increasing profits. They were all fascinating stories, and I would have happily just read a set of essays or stories. It was only the analysis of the topics where it all fell apart, especially whenever the author slipped into weird self-help book language (and he seemed to be more than a little fixated on obesity and diet despite that not being something that came up in a way that suggested he did a significant amount of research on the topic, especially since several things he said could be proven untrue by reading other books about food and eating habits).

The one good thing that came out of reading this book was that while I was getting irritated at it, I was reminded of some things I already knew and ended up buying a FitBit to change some of my own habits. So even if I didn't learn anything new, the reminder did end up being useful.

But anyway, I can't really recommend this book. If you're interested in any of the topics covered in it, other authors have looked at most of them more effectively in other books.