January 17, 2013


Making Habits, Breaking Habits: Why We Do Things, Why We Don’t, and How to Make Any Change Stick. By Jeremy Dean. Da Capo. $26.

      Habits are necessary. Going through everyday life largely on autopilot makes it possible for us to handle routine matters – and many of the elements of everyday life are routine – without a tremendous amount of thought or angst. Psychologist Jeremy Dean does not give this particular extreme example, but it is worth thinking about: what if you had to contemplate every step you were about to take, thinking about which muscles you needed to use and how you needed to get them to work together to move you forward? You would never go anywhere. The scenario is absurd, of course, because once people learn to walk, they just do it. Walking is not exactly a habit, but considering this extreme example sheds light on Dean’s views about how habits operate and what functions they fulfill.

      There is nothing bad about habits, but there are bad habits – ones we would like to break. Smoking, eating unhealthful food, failing to exercise, and a host of other behaviors to which we are habituated may be ones that we know are bad for us or that we simply want to change for reasons of our own. But changing habits is hard – and Making Habits, Breaking Habits is intended to show why. Dean explains that habits generally form unconsciously, and that this is a good thing – he may not use the “walking” example, but he does point out that we do not necessarily want to think deeply about looking both ways before crossing a street.  Dean says that about one-third of our waking hours are ruled by habit – probably a conservative estimate for at least some people. And because habits do fulfill useful functions, changing them is difficult – harder, in fact, than creating new, better ones.

      The analyses in books of this type generally make a great deal of sense, and Dean’s certainly do.  (He runs a Web site called Psyblog, intended to interpret complex research in simple terms so people can make use of it.) Dean argues convincingly that habits are essentially automatic pilots, taking us through elements of everyday life that we must negotiate regularly and on which we need not expend too much mental energy because we are habituated to handle them.  So far, so good; but for this very reason, because habits do make things easier, it can be very difficult to change them.

      The prescriptive part of self-help books is where many of them fall down. Dean’s is better than most. He explains many ways to create new, positive habits: start with a small behavioral change rather than trying a major one; break a bigger change (such as healthful eating) down into small parts; build on existing positive or neutral habits to add new ones – for instance, if after work you wash up and change clothes, add “jog for 15 minutes” to the routine, so you are expanding it instead of trying to create something altogether new; create or join a support group; repeat the new habit as often as possible, until it becomes ingrained and automatic (like other habits); avoid being too hard on yourself if this process proves difficult – negative self-talk will only make it harder.

      But if the key to creating new habits is attention and repetition, the key to breaking unwanted ones is something else – and here Dean is less helpful. He admits that breaking bad habits is harder than creating new ones (which makes sense: our minds, as Dean shows, are hard-wired to create habits, not to dismantle them).  But his idea of breaking a bad habit by not inhibiting it – thinking of it as a kind of flow that will continue no matter what, allowing you to substitute something else but not to stop the flow altogether – is psychologically and theoretically sound but not terribly helpful in practice.  In addition, some of the research examples that Dean cites in discussing habits are interesting in themselves but not particularly useful for people trying to change their forms of habituation. For example, he cites a study on the roots of creativity in which one group thought of love, one thought of sex, and one (the control group) thought of neither. Those who thought about love did best on creative-thinking problems; those who thought about sex did best on analytical ones. Dean points out that the experiment was really about the balance between abstract and concrete thought, and then gets into a discussion of how we think about time, and it is all quite interesting – but not readily applicable to the underlying theme of the book, at least from a self-help perspective.

      Actually, the book reads like one in which Dean primarily shares his own fascination with a variety of research projects of various kinds, pausing occasionally to relate this study or that back to the whole issue of forming and changing habits.  And there is nothing wrong with being a bit discursive, especially when the underlying material is as interesting as much of it is here. But readers looking for somewhat more-focused and more-pointed answers to their questions about managing and changing their own habits may find Making Habits, Breaking Habits a bit less than habit-forming.

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