Habits, Will Power, and Change

In her recent book, Good Habits, Bad Habits: The Science of Making Positive Changes That Stick, the psychologist Wendy Wood, examines how we develop habits, both good and bad, and how we can work to lessen our bad habits and build good habits.  Williams details how immediate rewards/pay-offs are a large part of what maintains habits: sweets taste good so we eat them.  Longer term rewards are not as effective in changing habits.  Woods notes that while we might like to think that our conscious mind can use reason and knowledge to guide our behavior it is more likely that immediate feedback, i.e., doing something and it feels good, is what sustains habits.  Woods and other psychologists have noted that one of the ways to make it easier to engage in positive behaviors, establish positive habits, is to make them easier to do.  Woods cites how she would sleep in her running clothes in order to make it easier for her to go running first thing in the morning.  In the Happiness Advantage, Shawn Achor relates a similar example, of sleeping in one’s work out clothes to make it easier to get up and work out, and stresses that a key to changing habits is to reduce obstacles to change, or what Wood calls “friction.”  Both Achor and Woods argue that one of the ways to reduce bad habits is to increase what Wood labels as “friction,” to make it harder to engage in the habit.  Achor cites an example of how he wanted to stop himself from turning on the television at night so he took the batteries out of the remote and put them in an inconvenient place to make it harder for him to automatically turn on the TV.  Wood points out that we can set up ways to create or lessen friction, but that changing the amount of friction is critical to instilling a good habit or breaking a bad habit.  She uses the example of smoking cessation efforts to illustrate this: arguing that things such as removing vending machines (for those old enough to remember cigarette vending machines) and making cigarettes more expensive were for more effective than warnings about the long term consequences of smoking.  

There are other strategies that help us change our habits.  These include strategies such as stacking your habits. This strategy involves adding a behavior on to an existing habit.  Starting small is a strategy stressed by  Fogg, in his book Tiny Habits.  The concept is simple: focus on small changes as these are easier to implement and maintain.  For example trying to sustain a vegan diet after years of unhealthy eating is probably an overreach.  Fogg and others would suggest changing lunch from a burger to a salad, as a place to start.  Finally, there is some suggestion that engaging in a habit more regularly, optimally on a daily basis may help sustain the habit.  In addition, we would suggest that the old axiom of taking things one day at a time may be useful, along with the recognition that changing habits can be a challenging process and that being critical of one’s self is unlikely to help us in changing habits. 

For those interested in work that examines the influence of habit on our behavior, and makes a strong case that habits are far more important than we think in driving human behavior, Charles Duhigg’s, The Power of Habit, is strongly recommended.   While addressing the issue of habits, the Happiness Advantage focuses more on positive psychology and the power of positive thinking. For more information and examples of strategies for changing habits we recommend delving into the work of Wendy Wood and B.J. Fogg. 


Recommended books:

Charles Duhigg:  The Power of Habit

B.J. Fogg:  Tiny Habits: the small changes that change everything

Wendy Wood:   Good Habits Bad Habits: The science of making positive changes that stick 

Shawn Achor: The Happiness Advantage 

Additional resources:

Wendy Wood’s website: https://goodhabitsbadhabits.com/