Jan 10 / Simcha

Rethinking Habit-Breaking (W. Wood)

start3Wendy Wood, a professor of psychology and business at the University of Southern California, says that a habit only becomes bad “when it starts interfering with other important goals you may have.”  This piece is adapted from the New York Times article Turning a New Year’s Resolution Into Action With the Facts (1.9.2015).

  *                         *                        *

Much of what we know — or think we know — about habits is wrong. Here’s a primer that might help keep you off the couch and on the treadmill.


MYTH 1:  We fail to change our habits — or start good new ones — because we lack willpower.

Not really.  Good habits can help us resist temptation all the time (like ensuring we’re not around those chocolate chip cookies in the first place).

To create or change a habit, we should think much more about altering our environment and patterns of living, and less on steeling our mind, Professor Wood said, because “behavior is very much a product of environment.”

MYTH 2:   We fall back on bad habits when stressed. 

In fact, good habits persist even in times of high anxiety. Professor Wood co-authored a study in which students who already had unhealthy diets would eat junk food when stressed, but those who already had the habit of eating well — or of reading a newspaper or of going to the gym — were just as likely to do that.

MYTH 3:   It takes about 21 days to break or make a habit.

That number seems to have cropped up in the 1960s and somehow became “fact” without real proof. In a 2009 study in Britain, researchers explored how long it took participants to learn new habits, such as eating fruit daily or going jogging. The average was 66 days (with great individual variety – from 18-245 days, depending on multiple factors).

MYTH 4:  You need positive thinking to break or make a habit.

“We find positive fantasy is not helpful and may even be hurtful when trying to reach a desired future or fulfill a wish,” said Gabriele Oettingen, a professor of psychology at New York University and the University of Hamburg.

Research shows that people need to pair optimistic daydreams about the future with identifying and imagining the obstacles that prevent them from reaching that goal — something she calls mental contrasting.  Doing it the opposite way — imagining the obstacles and then fantasizing about changing habits — doesn’t seem to work as well.

MYTH 5:  Doing things by rote (or habit) is usually unhelpful. It’s better to be mindful of everything we do.

Research shows that most people repeat about 40 percent of their activities almost every day.  “We only have so much room in our brain,” said Ian Newby-Clark, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Guelph in Canada. “It would be incredibly taxing if we had to mindfully plan every step of our day.”

Habits free us up so we can think about other things.  Habits are only good or bad to the extent they start interfering with achieving ours goals.

MYTH 6:   Everything in moderation.

“There’s a real difference among people about how easily they adapt to habits,” said Gretchen Rubin, author of the forthcoming book, Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives. Some see habits as liberating; some see them as a trap. Some prefer to make a huge change all at once; others proceed step by step.

MYTH 7:   Shame and guilt keep you on track.

No. People need to be kinder to themselves, showing self-compassion if they lapse.  There is, of course, a fine balance between treating yourself kindly and making endless rationalizations and excuses.