Making habits, breaking habits – book summary

Making habitsThese are my raw notes that I took as I was reading “Making Habits, breaking habits” by Jeremy Dean who is the creator of the excellent PsyBlog.


1 – Birth of a habit

21 Days habit forming myth comes from Dr Maltz (1960 Psycho-Cybernetics) and refers to amputees taking 21 days to adjust to the loss of a limb. Many books based on this time span, as are 28 days (give  a week more). 66 days is average from proper research. 21 days OK for easy habits. Good research examples.

Habit benefits: 1) We can zone out. 2) They are generally emotionless 3) They tend to be connected to context.

2 – Habit versus intention

Habits are built up, bit by bit into chains of behaviour we perform automatically. Can do this mentally also – Make an effort to do / attend to something/one. Unconscious learning happens with routines.

Habits don’t flow solely from intentions. Often accidental / random i.e. same route walking. We change our beliefs to match behaviour. As habits get stronger our intention prediction is less accurate. Strong habits are performed more regularly and closer in time. When making habits intention is poor place to start.Breaking habits can be hard as we create “justification”. (This connects to Mini Habits and Tiny Habits – No wonder action plans on training courses are so useless).

3 – Your Secret Autopilot

We tend to be poor at accurately describing our own mental functions including self esteem. We need to recognise the impact of unconscious thought on our day to day. Becoming more aware of our behaviour is very important to support habit change/ introduction.

4 – Don’t Think – Just do it

Behaviour over time ingrains habits, even if they are not relevant or “damage” us i.e. smoking. Direct cueing of subliminal messages is common to switch on habits – prime unconscious mind. These hardwired habits are hard to undo.

5 – The daily grind

“The Dice Man” by George Cockroft – Psychologist who roles a dice to decide what to use his time for. We have intellectual as well as behavioural routines that reduce cognitive load. Our emotions when doing habits are not often connected to the habit. We are thinking of something else. At work many routines are unwritten and create the culture or way of working that is not conscious. Effective organisations reflect on and adapt habits. The chapter looks at different habits including eating and shopping.

6 – Stuck in a depressing loop

Two thirds of people diagnosed with OCD will also experience depression and 90% will suffer on other major disorder. First stage of habit reversal is training on awareness. Catching signs early in habit sequence can reduce impact / amount. Stage tw is “competing response training”, replacing habit with a less bad habit. Self serving bias is low people with depression Rumination also creates more negative impact. CBT plays an important role in this area. Replacing unhelpful thoughts with helpful thoughts.

Not all repetitive thoughts are negative. We use positive thoughts a great deal.

7 – When bad habits kill

Air accidents – human error caused by pilots checking but not really checking: mechanical behaviour driven by ingrained habits. Changing or making environment change impacts this habit i.e. random “dangerous items” in airport scanner

8 – Online all of the time

Email checking: easy to do and hard to change because of that. Lost time after habit has impact.Social media – satisfaction “reward”from habit makes it self sustaining i.e. checking updates. All unconscious. “Deficient self regulation” not addiction. Difficient self observation and deficient self reaction.

9 – Making habits

Start small and build up your habits or break down larger habit into component part. Not just action required but thought: Contrast technique: view resolution after habit in positive and in negative and contract the two. Reality check helps adopt habit. WOOP technique: Wish (habit), (best) Outcome, Obstacle(s)  and Plan.

Implementation intentions. Not “I will: but “if X” … “then Y”.
Do not make “ifs” too rigid. Setting time based “ifs” i.e. 8am can be weak, due to the nature of busy lives.
The simpler the “then” the more likely you are to do it. Can be variations i.e then running or rowing machine for 30 minutes. Use a chain of then to arrive at habit i.e. listen to inspiring guitar THEN practice for 30 minutes.

Plan for and around relapses.

Motivation for keeping going: 1) Satisfaction 2) Peer pressure/ support 3) Rewards. Intrinsic is more powerful than extrinsic.

10 – Breaking habits

Mindfulness: being in the present
A) Relax the body and mind
B) Concentrate on something
C) Remindful (mentally Neutral)

Bad habits: combat with diaries to raise self awareness. Used review
Can’t stop a  bad habit unless  you are aware of it.
The more you push an idea out of your mind, the more it pops up.
Habits are highly embedded – replace with other less damaging habits.
Self control, like willpower is a limited resource.
Pre-commitment – remove items / change environment prior to habit occuring. i.e.turn work phone off at 6pm (can’t check work email later).
Self imposed rewards / penalties
Connect to core values  / beliefs (make conscious)
Change context (environment). Beware small changes wear off.

11 – Healthy habits

Successful weight loss: establishing regular, unchanging routines.
Environment – healthy food around, smaller plates.
Eat with non dominant hand (breaks unconsciousness of eating).
If…Then towards healthy eating “if I feel hungry then I will eat some fruit”

Same as above
Don’t set exercise goals too high / hard
Cue is crucial
Create time

Difficult to break as it is two habits: automated exercise and chemical habit (hence nicotine tabs etc).
Overall as above.

12 – Creative habits

Many creative people are experts in their own field BUT can create blisndpots

“What if” breaks mental constraints.
Time to gestate ideas helps.
Janusian thinking – ability to conceive opposite ideas.
Anologies can force creativity.
Words impact thinking – change words changes ideas.
Mind wandering can be made a habit.
The ability to switch thinking techniques / tools help.

13 – Happy habits

We have choice over level of happines.
Practice gratitude – write things we are helpful for.
Variety of experiences builds happiness.
Write / think about future positive.
Mindfullness and savour experiences.

This book is an excellent one for those keen on making habits stick. If I was to rate this, I would give it 5 out of 5 stars. It is based on research that is brought to life with academic yet interesting examples. I would recommend buying and following the PsyBlog.

Thanks for reading!

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