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Motivation and perseverance
MAKING HABITS, BREAKING HABITS:
Why We Do Things, Why We Don't, and How to Make Any Change Stick
By Jeremy Dean
253 pp. Da Capo
Reviewed by Karyn Hall
Self-help books offer advice on how to lose weight, learn a new skill, make more friends, get promoted, find a passion, and exercise more, in addition to a number of other topics. Yet despite readers' intentions to accomplish their goals, it seems most don't, even when their health is at risk. What makes change so difficult? Jeremy Dean addresses the psychology of changing habits in his book Making Habits, Breaking Habits.
Researchers say that change is not easy because of the characteristics of habits. Habits help us function with less stress and conserve our energy. Because of these automatic behaviors, we don't have to think about how to drive a car, what foods to eat, which laundry detergents to buy or whether to eat breakfast before or after getting dressed for work. Changing a habit requires energy, work and focus, all of which is tiring.
When the existing habit is a desired behavior, the lack of awareness required for that behavior works well. At the same time, when the existing behavior is one you want to change, the stronger your habit the less power an intention to change has and thus the harder changes are to make. Intending to change is not likely to be sufficient to create a desired behavior when the existing habitual behavior is strong. If you have a strong habit of eating chips while you watch television in the evenings, changing that behavior to going to the gym will be difficult.
Dean, the creator of PsyBlog, summarizes research findings on habits and offers suggestions on how to use the research results to be successful in making desired habit changes. His book is divided into three sections: Anatomy of a Habit, Everyday Habits, and Habit Change.
In Anatomy of a Habit, Dean looks at the characteristics of habits and how they are created. He considers the characteristics of habits such as being automatic, having little emotional involvement, and being rooted in the situation in which they occur. He also considers the reasons we behave habitually even when we know the behavior won't be effective, such as why we still flip light switches when we know the electricity is off.
Perhaps you've heard that a new behavior takes 21 days to become a habit. Dean says that different behaviors take different lengths of time to become a habit, up to about 284 days.
In the second section, Dean reviews the impact of habits in different areas of our daily lives, such as travel, work, and social relationships. For example, when you were a child your family members probably sat in the same seats at the dinner table each night. Your friendships are likely based on activities that you share more than shared attitudes. Dean suggests that friendships are partly shared routines.
Dean also discusses the dangers of habitual behavior in certain situations. Responding habitually to a pre-flight check without paying attention can lead to lost lives--and has.
In the section about changing habits, Dean notes that the first step is to increase your awareness of habitual behavior. One of the characteristics of habits is lack of awareness and change requires that you be aware of the behavior you want to change. Wondering how you ate a whole bag of chips or not remembering the drive home are examples of how unaware we can be. This isn't a new idea. But later in the section he offers helpful advice for those who want to make changes.
One useful idea is to use the contrast technique. To do this, you create a positive vision of the problem behavior being solved. Then you think about the negative aspects, the reality of what it means to solve that problem. For example, you might relish the fantasy of becoming a kickboxing champion. The imagery of being so fit is probably gratifying. When you consider reality though, such as how you will get time off from work and the difficulty of learning the moves, your expectations of success may not be as high. If from the beginning you're willing to create a plan to deal with the difficulties and persevere through the learning stages, dedicating time and practice to your goal, then you are more likely to be successful than if you just start classes without considering the obstacles.
Dean also discusses implementation intention as a specific type of plan that helps you be successful. Implementation intention means addressing specific obstacles with specific actions before you face those obstacles. He uses an if-then format. Instead of saying I want to be kinder, you make a specific statement: If I see drivers trying to merge in traffic, I will let them in. Instead of saying I want to eat healthier, say If I want potato chips, I will eat baked sweet potato chips instead.
Currently there are multiple books available on the topic of habits, including Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely and The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. Making Habits, Breaking Habits offers an integrated and well-organized look at what researchers have learned and discusses those results in practical terms: A perfect book for those who want to keep their resolutions for 2013.