At the start of the new year, many of us are trying to kick old habits to the curb and develop healthier new ones, from eating right to drop a few pounds to getting enough sleep. With just a few weeks into 2012 passed, this is the time that resolutions drop from a 77 percent success rate to around 60 percent. So it’s the perfect time to crack open Making Habits, Breaking Habits: Why We Do Things, Why We Don’t, and How to Make Any Change Stick (Da Capo Lifelong Books, 2012) by Jeremy Dean, founder and author of PsyBlog.
When I think of habits, the first ones that come to mind are bad ones, as a former smoker and someone who has bitten my nails for 31 years. As someone who successfully switched from a night owl to an early bird a few years ago and who finally quit smoking, I know it’s possible — but difficult — to change habits. What really stands out in Dean’s book, however, is the insight behind habits and their unconscious nature and often, their benefits.
When we’re engaged in habitual behavior — about one-third to half of our time — Dean notes, “Habits help protect us from ‘decision fatigue’: the fact that the mere act of making decisions depletes our mental energy.” Of course, there’s another chapter devoted to dangers, examining when running on autopilot can be risky or even fatal.
For those getting ready to pat themselves on the back at reaching the hallowed 21-day mark on keeping a resolution — not so fast. Dean busts the 21-day myth in the first chapter, citing research that it takes an average of 66 days for a habit to form. This varies, obviously, depending on difficulty. Participants in the University College London study who chose to drink a glass of water after breakfast established a habit in about 20 days, while those who walk 10 minutes after breakfast took about 50 days to get into the routine. Skipping a few days here and there didn’t matter to habit formation, so if you’ve missed a few of your planned workouts or healthy snacks, don’t despair.
Full of anecdotes and interesting studies, Making Habits, Breaking Habits is an engaging read, with insights rather than how-tos. However, Dean does provide some successful strategies for the creation of better habits, such as the WOOP (Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan) exercise. First, write down the wish, then the best outcome of the habit, followed by likely obstacles. Then there’s the plan, which involves an implementation intention or intentions, proven in 94 studies to be effective in changing habits.
The gist of the implementation intention is an “if-then” scenario that is very specific, yet flexible to account for different variables in everyday life. For example, “If I crave chocolate, then I will eat an apple.”
Dean also mentions the success — and danger of rewards, noting that you can become used to rewards. “Developing a good habit will be most successful when we do it for its own sake, when it’s done automatically, and when we take satisfaction in what we’ve achieved,” he says. (For a great example of this, check out the excerpt in this issue from Magical Journey (Grand Central Publishing, 2013) in which Katrina Kenison describes taking her first yoga class at age 40.
And for those of you constantly checking your email on your smartphone, there’s a fascinating comparison of this habit with a study done on rats who keep pushing a button for pellets, even though they are not always rewarded.
As for my own nail-biting habit, there’s some discouraging input since I am not disgusted enough with myself. Dean says in one example, “People who are deeply disgusted by their own nail-biting, and would love to have long nails, have a much better chance of breaking the habit than those who think it’s no big deal.” But if there’s one thing that I took away from this book — aside from its interesting insights and anecdotes — it’s that any habit can be broken or created. It’s just not always easy.
How have you successfully established good habits or broken bad ones?