In the search for peace and balance in my life, I have been looking for insight in a variety of sources. A little over a year ago, a friend posted this article from MacLean’s magazine on Facebook, and it immediately hit a nerve. I could never figure out why I had trouble reaching my goals and sticking to my resolutions. The problem, rather than being attributed solely to low willpower, is that I was trying to achieve too much, too quickly. I was trying to move too far out of my comfort zone and work in opposition to all of my deeply ingrained habits.
I experienced a lightbulb moment and began to look for more literature on habits. I enjoy reading books by psychologists or scientific researchers with a clear understanding of how human behaviour works. Therefore, I decided to go straight to the source and read Jeremy Dean’s book ‘Making Habits, Breaking Habits: Why we do things, Why we don’t, and How to make any change stick’.
What is the purpose of a habit?
Habits exist in order to allow our brains to take a break – sort of like cruise control. Normal tasks require us to think about how we will react to certain situations or stimuli. For instance, if I were to ask you what you would like to eat for dinner you would mull over the options, weigh the pros and cons of your caloric intake vs. how delicious pizza is, and eventually come up with an answer.
However, it would be a waste of energy for our brains to go through this lengthy process for each and every situation that we encounter during the day. Therefore, the human brain has developed a lovely way of fast-forwarding through this mulling-over process: Habits. When faced with a very familiar situation, humans are able to simply react to a stimulus, without even having to think about it. When you walk into a room it is natural for you to reach for the light switch. When you go into the bathroom before bed you don’t even have to think about grabbing the toothbrush and brushing your teeth. This is the reason we sometimes find ourselves in the middle of a task that we didn’t plan to do, just because we are so used to doing it.
I moved into a new house last year. When leaving my office I used to have to turn left out of the parking lot to get to my old house. Now, it was necessary for me to turn right in order to get home. The first few days were no problem as I was consciously aware of the change. However, on the third day I was distracted by thoughts of work and deadlines and on the way home I suddenly found myself a kilometre down the road in the direction of my old house. I hadn’t planned to go that way, of course, but since I wasn’t paying attention, my cruise control kicked in and my body attempted to take me home – albeit to the wrong home.
Habits aren’t always helpful
Of course, habits can be a double edged sword as not all of them bring us something valuable. Some are detrimental, such as habits of drinking far too many sugary drinks or smoking cigarettes. To me, one of the most important aspects of Dean’s book is his discussion on depression. He notes that depression can at least in part be attributed to habits. Depression is a habit of viewing the world in a negative way. If you react to a situation negatively, the synapses in your brain get used to this reaction.
The difficulty is that the situation does not need to be identical for us to react negatively again. This is why we sometimes get mad about something that is not necessarily important to us, and we later realize that we were really angry about something else. Once our brains get into a negative mode, it is hard to switch that mode off.
How to use habits to your advantage
It is much harder to make a change when we have to spend a lot of effort concentrating on it. So many things could go wrong. A great example of this happened in my life recently. A friend of mine started a new job where there is a fitness centre in the same building as her office. In contrast, I joined a gym around the same time, but my gym was neither near my office nor near my home. Therefore, if I wanted to go to the gym I was required to make a conscious effort and plan the trip.
The result is that my friend has experienced much better success than I have as going to the gym has become a habit for her, a regular part of her daily life. On the other hand, as I have not yet formed a routine or habit, I’m lucky if I can get to the gym twice a month. When we develop habits we bypass the need to have to think about our decisions, and we are less likely to look for excuses such as ‘I’m tired today’ or ‘it’s raining’. It’s easier when we don’t have to think about something, but we just do it.
Tip #1 – Linking Habits
Jeremy Dean encourages linking a new habit to an existing one in order to achieve better results. There is no set time frame for how long it takes for a habit to form. Easier tasks are more easily adopted as habits, whereas more difficult tasks can take months to start sticking. Therefore, it is advised to start extremely simple, and extremely small.
- Every time I go out the back door I will take the garbage out.
- Every time I finish eating, I will immediately wash the dishes.
- Every time I come home I will play one song on the guitar. *
*This was a resolution that I made. It worked quite well for about two weeks until I made the excuse that I was too tired one day, and gave up.
Tip #2 – Replace rather than Forbid
Dean suggests replacing a habit with another more positive habit, rather than trying to forbid yourself anything. He notes that ‘self-control is a limited resource’. It doesn’t matter how much we want to change, if we have had a tough day our self-control weakens. If we rely only on willpower and self-control to NOT do something, we are always in danger of failing if our mood changes. This is why creating a new, positive habit to replace this old, undesirable habit is an excellent alternative. An example that I have personally used is to replace eating chocolate while watching tv with knitting while watching tv. I can’t eat while I’m knitting, so as long as I keep my hands busy, I have a much better chance of avoiding the temptation.
Tip #3 – Plan for the worst
Whether you are trying to start performing a new habit or stop carrying out an old one, Dean advises to plan ahead and expect yourself to be tempted. He writes that deeply ingrained habits are prone to relapse, just like ‘the fact that you never forget to ride a bike: those connections in your brain aren’t gone, just dormant.’ This is the reason that it is so easy for us to fall back into our old habits if we are not properly prepared. As a way of trying to prevent this, Dean encourages the use of Implementation Intentions, which follow this structure: If I……. then I will…..
- If I go to the pub with my friends then I will order a coke.
- If I enter the lobby of the building then I will take the stairs.
In conclusion, Jeremy Dean’s book absolutely delivers. He details a myriad of thought-provoking psychological research projects, which try to explain why humans behave the way we do. He balances scientific fact seamlessly with anecdotal evidence and overall the book itself is immensely enjoyable to read. For me, reading this book was a turning point in understanding why I often fall into depression. I am certain that habits are an extremely important part of human behaviour and if utilized correctly, just might help us get that extra little bit of enjoyment out of our everyday lives.