Making Habits, Breaking Habits: Why We Do Things, Why We Don’t, and How to Make Any Change Stick


I first heard about Jeremy Dean’s Making Habits, Breaking Habits: Why We Do Things, Why We Don’t, and How to Make Any Change Stick when it was reviewed on one of my favorite blogs.  I was immediately intrigued for 2 reasons.

I’ve been really interested in the psychology of habit-making and ego-depletion in terms of my own self-recovery and personal motivation.  These are two major topics that are constantly discussed in the arm-chair self-help blogs that I frequent, like the popular blog Zen Habits.  Secondly, quite unlike the books written by marketing gurus and other business men, this is a book written by an actual psychologist who is interested in the science of how our minds work.  On the other hand, Jeremy Dean isn’t an academic-level researcher psychologist but he is someone who can understand and translate the literature for the general public in a readable, fun way.

My spouse was kind enough to get a kindle version for me, to distract me from my late pregnancy CRANKOS and how absolutely fascinating it was indeed!  So here are some of my notes on the book!!

What is a “Habit”?

Dean defines a habit in 3 ways.

1. They are unconscious.  We’re not aware of performing them — we’re on auto-pilot — and do them without conscious deliberation.

2. They are emotionless.  Through repetition, we’re habituated to them and they are no longer painful, wonderful, exciting, stressful, whatever.  They just are.

3. They are context-driven.  We do habits under trigger-driven circumstances, like Pavlov’s drooling puppy; habits are strongly rooted in the situations in which they always occur.  Our brain initially starts to associate an action and an outcome but over time, starts paying less attention to the outcome and simply responds to the environment in the same patterns.   This context includes places, people, sounds, or even unconscious patterns elsewhere in the environment that have nothing to do with our own goals or intentions (<– ie. branding).

Given these three factors, it was surprising to me that 1/3 to 1/2 of our waking hours are spent in habitual, unconscious behaviors. I tend to think my day is chock full of choices and emotions, all processed through my “free will” and awareness.  I think it is because we tend to poo-poo on the notion of routine (aka the daily grind, the rut) but there is a reason why our brains efficiently seek out patterns of thought and behavior.  By pushing these into our auto-pilot mode, “habits help protect us from ‘decision fatigue'” which depletes our mental energy. Habits free up our processing power for other, maybe more important thoughts.

How can we build or break habits?  

Generally speaking, Dean notes that studies reveal a certain basic fact: when our established habits are weak, our intentions tend to predict behavior.  But as our habits get stronger, our conscious intentions predict behavior less and less.  What is frustrating though, our unconscious is a slippery, unknowable beast and we actually convince ourselves that we’re in control of precisely those behaviors that we lack control over! Habits are incredibly powerful and complex precisely because they are driven by individual desires within an unknowable unconscious.  In fact, our goals and desires can often be activated unconsciously by the wrong people, at the wrong time, or start to be associated with a habit that doesn’t actually serve our goals.  The tl;dr memo is, habits are hard, sneaky bastards. 

So how can we monitor our own habits?  If up to half of our actions follow an unconscious pattern and these habits are necessary ways our brain prevents “overload,” how do we make sure they are helpful habits?

1. The first step is to observe ourselves and our behavior carefully. People on diets are encouraged to do food diaries, carefully paying attention to what and when they eat.  People with Tourette’s syndromes undergo therapy where they observe and think about the factors that set off their tics.  Simply notice your habits.  Afterwards, there are a number of possible therapies.

2.  After training yourself to be aware of your habits, one second step is to introduce a competing response.  In other words, replace those habits with a less-bad habit.  Smokers take up chewing gum.  Many with depression and anxiety similarly are encouraged to identify certain (negative) habits of thoughts and replace them with something more helpful.

3. You can also change your environment. Remember that the 3rd factor of Dean’s definition of habit is about context.  In a study that he cites, participants were able to change their habit more easily when they changed their environment — in this case, switching to a new university.  As he writes:

This is because new surroundings don’t have all the familiar cues to our old habits. Without these cues, our autopilot doesn’t run so smoothly and our conscious mind keeps asking us what to do.  That’s why moving house is like going on holiday: without your established routines, you have to keep consciously thinking about what you’re going to do now.  The same thing happened to these students.  Instead of automatically watching TV…they were more likely to think, “What did I plan to do today?” and “What do I actually want to do now?” As a consequence, a world of possibility opens up.

In general, major life changes (new jobs, getting married, changing apartments or schools, etc) lead to big situational changes, which means old habits are disrupted. In a fascinating study, Dean points out that moralizing public safety messages about cigarette smoking did very little to help people quit.  It was an environmental change — outlawing smoking in public areas and restaurants — that impacted smoking rates! People could no longer associate socializing with smoking.

4. Really identify your motivation and new goal for making/breaking your habit.  Echoing numerous self-help texts, Dean says the best way is to clarify your own motivation and start with a small, concrete change.  But DO NOT fantasize about your success.  Instead, once you decide on a change you want to make, use the contrast technique, or, the Wish Outcome Obstacle and Plan (WOOP) method: 

  • First imagine an ideal, positive vision of your problem, as it is solved.
  • Then, dwell on the negative aspects of your problem.
  • Finally, contrast these two so you can do a type of “reality check,” comparing fantasy with reality.

This forces people to decide if their goal is really achievable or not.  Then, you can visualize the processes that are involved in reaching a goal.

As for how to build the new habit, I’ll write about that in the next blog post (this one is getting too long!)

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3 Responses to Making Habits, Breaking Habits: Why We Do Things, Why We Don’t, and How to Make Any Change Stick

  1. Pingback: Jeremy Dean’s Making Habits, Breaking Habits (Part 2) | tokyo breakfast

  2. Pingback: Goals: April Mornings | I Wish I Lived There

  3. Pingback: The 5 Choices: The Path to Extraordinary Productivity ~ Book Summary & Review (Part 2 of 2) | tokyo breakfast

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