Synopsis

Making Habits, Breaking Habits (2013) provides an overview of exactly what habits are and how we form them. Using this knowledge, it reveals how to create healthy habits and tackle the bad ones so that we can experience lasting, positive change in our everyday lives.

Who should read

  • People interested in human behavior and psychology
  • Anyone willing to improve their life and make lasting changes

About author

Jeremy Dean is a psychologist and the founder of the immensely popular PsyBlog, a website dedicated to scientific research into how the mind works. PsyBlog has been cited in such media outlets as The Guardian, The New York Times and Wired.

The book content (9 minutes read)

What’s in it for me? Take control of your habits – both good and bad.

No matter how straightedge or in-control you think you are, your life is dominated by habits. The thing is, these habits can be good! They can be part of your morning routine, or constitute your mannerisms during conversations. Such habits should be celebrated, or even fostered, like when you want to start cooking more at home, or reading more.

However, not all habits are good. Many people know they should quit smoking or maybe lose a few pounds, but they don't think about quitting their more invisible habits, that is, their negative thought habits. These habits can be very dangerous.

This book start at the very beginning by explaining what habits really are, and then explain how you can take control of your habits and transform your life for the better.

In this book, you’ll discover

  • why your family always sits in a certain order at dinner;
  • how to make happy habits; and
  • what merely trying to quit smoking does to your self-control.

Habits are repeated behaviors with little to no conscious intention.

What happens when someone throws a ball to you? In all likelihood, you catch it before you consciously realize what’s going on. This is a habit – an action repeated so frequently that it’s done unconsciously.

This first aspect of a habit involves automaticity, that is, not being aware of the execution of a given action, such as flicking on a light while entering a room.

Also, since repetition decreases enthusiasm, the act of performing habits is emotionless.

Consider your morning routine: Does it conjure up strong emotions for you? Or imagine looking out upon a mountain range for hours from your office window every single day. It’s wonderful and breathtaking at first, but, over time, the pleasure of seeing it greatly decreases.

In addition to automaticity, context also defines habits because of the associations you form between your surroundings and your behavior. Remember what it was like to be a student? The freedom of almost zero obligations and the beers you enjoyed with your friends? You may well connect the pleasures of socializing with the habit of drinking alcohol because of these early experiences, so now every time you socialize, you want to drink a beer.

But how are habits actually formed? Take a look at the following:

First, intentions create habits. For example, you want to have healthy, white teeth, so you start brushing them regularly.

Another way habits are formed is through explaining random past behavior by adding an intention later on. Say you always sit in the same place in your friend’s kitchen because it was the only free spot when you first visited her. Now, however, you tell yourself it’s your favorite place because the light is just right and the chair is comfy.

Finally, you can combine both the intention and explanation behind your habits. Perhaps you started biking to work because you were dieting, but you continue doing it because you enjoy being out in the fresh air.

Habits are omnipresent, and when they’re bad, they can be very bad.

What habits play a role in your life? Perhaps dieting and smoking spring to mind. But our lives are actually full of many different habits.

A minimum of one-third of our waking life is powered by our unconscious, where we operate on auto-pilot, not fully cognizant of what we’re doing while we’re doing it. It’s not surprising, then, to find you have many more habits than you might think.

Social habits, such as who sits where at the family dinner table; work routines like saying “mm hmm” and “a-ha” during meetings; eating habits that help us sift through multitudes of food-related decisions every day – and the list goes on!

Do you ever catch yourself checking your email for the hundredth time only to discover that, still, nothing interesting has arrived in your inbox? Then you’ve experienced what behavioral psychologists call the partial reinforcement extinction effect, when you keep repeating the same action, even without reward, simply because you’re used to doing it unrewarded.

Even if we get the rare reward of an interesting email, we keep robotically refreshing our inbox regardless, as we’re used to the frustration.

But there are other habits that you can't see: habits of thought. If they are negative in nature, these habits can be connected to mental illnesses such as depression.

Whether thoughts are positive or negative depends on our appraisal of something that happens to us, and sometimes we appraise in unhealthy ways.

Imagine you lost your job. If you’re in the habit of perceiving yourself as powerless and culpable, you’ll have trouble fighting the negative emotions that unemployment entails.

Another type of habit is rumination – when you think about something over and over again. Some say that retrospection can help us learn from our supposed failures, but there’s a difference between reviewing your past experiences and wallowing in the misery and pain of them.

Happy habits can be created.

What you might not know about habits is that, even though they stem from your unconscious, you can manipulate them. This is good news indeed, especially if you want to form a new, healthy habit.

To do so, follow these three steps:

Determine your motivation. You need an overarching goal to help you overcome obstacles. To pinpoint your ultimate goal, you can employ the WOOP – wish, outcome, obstacle and plan – exercise.

Start by writing your wish down, along with the best possible outcome, and the obstacles you are likely to face.

Say that your wish is to run daily. Your outcome might be to get in shape so you can complete a 10km run and your obstacles will probably be harsh weather and physical discomfort.

Next up, you need to plan by finding the right implementation intention and act on “if x, then y” decisions. For example, “If I enter a building, I will take the stairs.”

Positive statements like “I’ll take the stairs” are far more effective than “I’m not taking the elevator,” as self-denial reinforces the attraction of something – in this case, the elevator.

Next, remember to repeat your actions, as repetition leads to automation. If you’re unsatisfied with your habit development, try coping planning:

Anticipate challenging situations for your new habit, such as heavy rain or being late for work, and find the right if-then solution. For example, “If it is raining, I’ll try my waterproof running gear.”

Finally, make your habits happy habits. One way to do this is to avoid becoming habituated to something and just going through the motions. Ironically, “habituation” is the anathema to happy habits.

Having happy habits means switching it up. This could mean taking different routes to work in order to keep enjoying your bike rides, or techniques like savoring, where you pause and intentionally engage your senses to savor the moment, such as stopping to smell a fragrant flower.

Breaking habits is hard but you can do it.

Nearly all of us have bad habits we want to kick. Perhaps we’re overweight or want to rid ourselves of nicotine addiction. For many of us, though, it’s hard to change.

One survey, conducted in the 1980s, at the University of Scranton, found that out of 213 people, 60 percent weren’t able to stick to their New Year's resolutions. So what can we do to break free of these habits?

First, recognize the habit you want to kick. The consequences of bad habits are often more obvious than the habits themselves. It’s easy, for example, to recognize that you’re overweight, or, if you’re a smoker, that you’re out of breath.

To find them, you can use mindfulness, the conscious recognition of what you’re doing in any given moment.

Mindfulness takes a little practice. You can start with the following exercise:

Relax your body and sit comfortably in your favorite chair. Then, give your focus to one thing, such as your breath. As you sit, be non-judgmental and open-hearted with yourself and compassionate toward your thoughts and feelings.

This is the first step toward dropping your bad habits, as the more mindful you are, the more aware you’ll be of what you’re doing, including your habitual actions.

Another great approach working on your self-control.

Self-control is like a muscle; it strengthens through training. Merely trying to break a habit can help.

When you get frustrated, bear in mind that we sometimes tend to overestimate our ability to control ourselves. Say you want to quit smoking. Just trying to stop will be good for your willpower. Once you know you can go one week without nicotine, for example, you can try going for two.

Here are some other basic ways to get your habits under control: monitoring behavior, by, say, keeping a food diary; distraction, like chewing gum instead of smoking a cigarette; and changing your environment – for example, moving to a new, non-smoking apartment.

Final summary

The key message in this book:

Habits play a huge role in our lives. With a little awareness of what habits actually are and a bit of practice in some straightforward psychological techniques, we can break free of our unhealthy habits and create ones that serve us.

Actionable advice:

Hack your diet.

Try some of these tricks to make sure you stick to your diet:

  • We tend to eat food that is close and visible, so put some fruit on the table instead of cake.
  • Use smaller plates at meal times. Larger plates encourage you to eat more than you actually need.
  • Try eating with your non-dominant hand. This slows you down and gives you a chance to register that you’re getting full, so you don’t automatically reach for more.

Suggested further reading: The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

The Power of Habit explains how important a role habits play in our lives, from brushing our teeth to smoking to exercising, and how exactly those habits are formed. The research and anecdotes in The Power of Habit provide easy tips for changing habits both individually as well as in organizations. The book spent over 60 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.

Related Books

13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do

13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do

By - Amy Morin

Take Back Your Power, Embrace Change, Face Your Fears and Train Your Brain for Happiness and Success
22 minutes read
Non-Obvious

Non-Obvious

By - Rohit Bhargava

How To Think Different, Curate Ideas & Predict The Future
15 minutes read
Hannibal and Me

Hannibal and Me

By - Andreas Kluth

What History’s Greatest Military Strategist Can Teach Us About Success and Failure
16 minutes read
The Creator’s Code

The Creator’s Code

By - Amy Wilkinson

The Six Essential Skills of Extraordinary Entrepreneurs
10 minutes read
The In-Between

The In-Between

By - Jeff Goins

Embracing the Tension Between Now and the Next Big Thing
12 minutes read

Other categories

Share