“Good Habits, Bad Habits” by Expert Wendy Wood

On average, it takes us sixty-six days of repeating a simple health behavior until it becomes automatic. In other words, identify a new behavior, do it repeatedly for two months and a week, and it will become a habit. Wendy Wood, author of Good Habits, Bad Habits (on Twitter)

Want to change a habit? Psychology professor Wendy Wood‘s Good Habits, Bad Habits: The Science of Making Positive Changes That Stick  just came out. Author Adam Grant calls Wood, a long-time researcher on this subject, “the world’s leading expert on habits.”

Everyone’s had at least one habit, and I’d presume to say that everyone’s tried to change at least one. Often repeatedly. Often unsuccessfully. Turns out we can’t rely on willpower alone. According to the book’s publisher:

We spend a shocking 43 percent of our day doing things without thinking about them. That means that almost half of our actions aren’t conscious choices but the result of our non-conscious mind nudging our body to act along learned behaviors. How we respond to the people around us; the way we conduct ourselves in a meeting; what we buy; when and how we exercise, eat, and drink―a truly remarkable number of things we do every day, regardless of their complexity, operate outside of our awareness. We do them automatically. We do them by habit. And yet, whenever we want to change something about ourselves, we rely on willpower. We keep turning to our conscious selves, hoping that our determination and intention will be enough to effect positive change. And that is why almost all of us fail.

The Kirkus Reviews summary states, Wood “notes that the same learning mechanisms responsible for bad habits also control good ones.” An example given: exercising and cigarette smoking. How one winds up choosing either activity and how one engages in either repeatedly is also the key to how to produce change.

More on this from Publishers Weekly:

Wood contends that the way to create new behavioral patterns that will eventually become second nature is to engage in habitual, repetitive action. Wood acknowledges research that shows that some people might possess innate powers of self-control that defy the norm, but she argues that these supposedly high levels of self-control should really be understood as efficient habit formation…She also offers strategies for stopping undesirable habits by disrupting the contexts that enable them, and shares real-life examples of habit change. For instance, she demonstrates how laws banning smoking in public spaces forced a widespread change of habits and led to a national decline in smoking . Her insightful, data-driven advice includes tactics such as ‘stacking’—grouping desired behaviors together with already-established behavioral patterns to incorporate actions into routines. Wood’s research and perspective on the malleability of habits will bring hope to any reader looking to create long-term behavioral change.

Selected quotes, via Wood’s Twitter page, on the process of changing habits:

Though we routinely do it, educating people about the benefits of a behavior does not translate to changing habits. With habits, we learn not by learning, but by doing.

For those of us who want to develop a new habit, it’s key to establish a routine. Doing something at the same location or time of day (like putting on sunscreen before you leave the house every morning) makes a huge difference.

Vacations have many benefits. One you may not have considered: a chance to change unwanted behaviors. When you travel, you are not constrained by the habit cues in your everyday environment. You have a chance to try new things. What would you change?

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