It’s a new year, and you’ve made a resolution to find the new you. So, you want to start going to the gym or incorporating a healthy lifestyle. But you may wonder, how long it should take before you stop having to force it and start doing it automatically.
The surprising answers are found in “Making Habits, Breaking Habits: Why We Do Things, Why We Don’t, and How to Make Any Change Stick” (De Capo, $26), a psychologist’s popular examination of one of the most powerful and under-appreciated processes in the mind.
Drawing on hundreds of fascinating studies, psychologist Jeremy Dean busts the myths to finally explain why seemingly easy habits, like eating an apple a day, can be surprisingly difficult to form, and how to take charge of your brain’s natural “autopilot” to make any change stick.
“When you’re trying to create a positive new habit, the key is repetition,” explained Dean. “You’ve got to repeat the same behavior, or thought, in the same circumstances, in response to the same cue. For example, when you’re at home, after you finish eating, you always load the dishwasher. Or, when you’re flying a commercial jet, you always put the undercarriage down before you land. Breaking bad habits is harder. The key is not to try and inhabit the habit. Paradoxically when we try to put things out of our minds, they come back stronger. There is a well-known study where participants were specifically asked not to think about a white bear. Unfortunately the more they tried to inhabit the thought, the stronger it got. This is what’s going on when we desperately try to push a habit out of mind: It comes back stronger than before.”
Dean is the founder and author of the popular website “PsyBlog,” which he launched in 2004, when he noticed a dearth of smart, readable news for those who like psychological insights backed up by science. Read the world over, the site has been featured in BBC News, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The Guardian and The London Times.
“One of the best habits I consciously develop myself is writing, or rather the practice of trying to write,” said Dean. “Ten years ago I found it very hard to sit down regularly to write up my own accord. Nowadays, though, I arrived in front of the computer as if by magic (although, unfortunately, the research and writing still doesn’t do itself). It’s so ingrained that I feel there’s something missing from my day if I haven’t managed to squeeze out at least a few words.”
Witty and intriguing, “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” shows how behavior is more than just a product of what you think. Although people like to think that they are in control, much of human behavior occurs without any decision-making or conscious thought.
When the author was asked to reveal any of his negative behaviors, he quipped: “And, you’re asking about my worst habit now? Now you’re putting me on the spot. It’s like one of those job interview questions where you have to name one of your faults. You have to choose something that’s a bit bad but not too bad. So, my worst habit would have to be avoiding questions I don’t want to answer.”