On Habits

I just finished reading The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg, and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to break a habit, or wants to establish a new good habit, or who counsels people on lifestyle modification.

Some interesting things that I learned about habits:

– We can all be considered collections of habits. What we actually do tells the world everything about us, far more than what we think about ourselves. Marketers know this, and their ideal is to make our use of their products a habit. Some of the stories in the book are pretty creepy, especially the story about Target identifying and, well, targeting, pregnant women for their purchasing power (Target makes some pretty strong denials, but the evidence is not in its favor).

– Changing a habit actually changes neurological patterns in the brain, which can be seen on MRI’s. The frontal lobe of the brain, the part of the brain responsible for willpower and self-discipline, becomes visibly more active.

– Some habits are “keystone” habits, habits that are associated with other groups of habits, and once changed, seem to affect our ability to make other changes. Exercise is one of the strongest keystones, with a strong association between making daily exercise a habit and improving diet, improving family relationships, improving work productivity, and decreasing bad habits. Family dinners are shown to be positive keystone habits. But even something as simple as making your bed daily is a keystone.

– It’s almost impossible to just break a habit; it has to be replaced by a different behavior. A habit grows from an action that we do in response to a trigger, so when we face that trigger, we have to have something to put in its place. We have to have a reward already planned for us.

– It’s easier to form a good habit than to break a bad one. So, start with establishing some easy good habits, for practice.

– It takes 1-3 months to establish a habit, during which time you have to practice, practice, practice. It does become habitual, but at first it takes constant reminders, and plenty of little rewards. Willpower does get fatigued, and maintaining self-control during a long day makes us much more vulnerable to giving up on this practice. Anticipating those days, and having a backup plan is important.

What are some of my own habit success stories? I quit biting my fingernails when I was about 12, by wearing pretty nail polish. Seeing pretty colorful fingernails was just the trigger that I needed to keep me from chewing down to nubs. Getting regular exercise was a big one – I wasn’t sedentary, but I had a snack habit, and wasn’t quite active enough to prevent a slow, insidious weight gain and general feeling of malaise. That took commitment to a gym membership, going to regular classes where I’d enjoy social interaction as a reward, pushing myself hard enough to get an endorphin rush, but not so hard to be a turn-off for the next workout, finding things to keep my hands busy (knitting!) so I didn’t just sit and nosh on chips.

And now that I’ve typed in “habit” this many times, the word is looking really funny on the screen. 🙂




  1. Martha Huntley · · Reply

    Really interesting – and helpful – Mary! Now I want to read the book!

  2. I never knew that to break a habit, you had to replace it with another habit. That is really fascinating!

    1. Martha Huntley · · Reply

      Remember Jesus’ parable about the man who had a demon exorcised? But he didn’t replace that space with good spiritual stuff, and the demon returned with 7 friends to take up residence in the nicely cleaned up space!

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