The best books for harnessing the power of habits

The Books I Picked & Why

The Marshmallow Test: Why Self-Control Is the Engine of Success

By Walter Mischel

The Marshmallow Test: Why Self-Control Is the Engine of Success

Why this book?

Researchers placed a marshmallow in front of a child, and if they could wait for several minutes without eating it, they would be rewarded with an additional marshmallow. This is the famous psychology experiment known as the Marshmallow Test, and it teaches us what it takes to acquire the habit of delaying gratification for a greater reward. The children who performed well on this test not only had good grades in school but also tended to be healthier and less likely to abuse drugs later as adults. Taking the test results at face value, one might conclude that much of life is predetermined by genetics. However, this book also shows there were certain techniques which greatly improved the test results—and that’s what gives me hope.


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Carrots and Sticks: Unlock the Power of Incentives to Get Things Done

By Ian Ayres

Carrots and Sticks: Unlock the Power of Incentives to Get Things Done

Why this book?

Hyperbolic discounting is a term used in behavioral economics to describe our tendency to overvalue immediate gratification while undervaluing future rewards. When asked to choose between getting (A) one apple a year from now or (B) two apples a year and a day from now, people pick (B). However, if the choice is between getting (A) one apple today or (B) two apples tomorrow, people find (A) more attractive. Why is it so difficult to acquire good habits, like going to bed early or getting important work done, instead of playing with our smartphone? The idea of hyperbolic discounting offers a brilliant explanation, shedding light on the troublesome natures we humans possess. Although that’s not the main focus of this book, it’s still an excellent, easy-to-read introduction to behavioral economics.


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Satisfaction: Sensation Seeking, Novelty, and the Science of Finding True Fulfillment

By Gregory Berns

Satisfaction: Sensation Seeking, Novelty, and the Science of Finding True Fulfillment

Why this book?

Why do we need to acquire good habits to begin with? One reason is we can’t feel a sense of fulfillment or achievement where there’s no stress. People like Elon Musk and Bill Gates surely have enough wealth to spend the rest of their lives lying on the beach, but that’s not what they do. Eating sweets is all it takes for the neurotransmitter dopamine to be released and give us a dose of happiness, but that doesn’t satisfy us for very long. In this book, author Gregory Berns focuses on the stress hormone cortisol. He shows us, in an approachable and entertaining manner, that a reasonable amount of stress is what actually helps us experience a deep sense of satisfaction.


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Daily Rituals: How Artists Work

By Mason Currey

Daily Rituals: How Artists Work

Why this book?

This book summarizes the habits of 161 famous geniuses—authors, musicians, philosophers, and more. When we think of someone who’s a genius, we tend to imagine someone living a very eccentric life. But according to this book, many geniuses actually spend their days in a very regular, disciplined manner: they wake up early, get their work done in the morning, take a nap, and go for a walk. (Of course, some of them do live an eccentric life, like Marcel Proust.) As it turns out, people become geniuses not by waiting for inspiration to randomly strike, but by developing good working habits and devoting time to their work every day.


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What I Talk about When I Talk about Running: A Memoir

By Haruki Murakami

What I Talk about When I Talk about Running: A Memoir

Why this book?

What really fascinates me about Haruki Murakami is not his body of work per se, but the process through which he rose from anonymity and became a world-renowned author. Until he was 29, he’d never imagined he had the talent to write a novel. Before his rise to fame, novelists were known to live a wild and intemperate existence, drinking lots of alcohol into the wee hours and getting started on their manuscript past deadline. Murakami, however, broke this stereotype as someone who wakes up early, works out every day, and has run multiple full marathons. I have no doubt it was the power of his habits that made him a world-famous author. He even says his motto is to turn himself into “a creature of habits.”


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