Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Habits change your life. Here’s how to change your habits.

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In Big Think Elizabeth Gilbert in association with the Templeton Foundation has an extremely interesting article on the central role that habit plays in shaping our lives, which implies that a change in habits results in a change in one’s life (exactly the thrust of this earlier (and still popular) post.

Gilbert’s article (which you can listen to at the link, if you prefer that to reading) offers a handy list of “key takeaways” (though the third in the list is not what I would call a “takeaway” — the takeaway would be the research findings discussed in the article.

  • The habits people build end up structuring their everyday lives, often without them noticing.  
  • When people recognize a bad habit, they often try to change it through willpower alone — but that rarely works. 
  • Here’s what research says are the most effective ways to replace bad habits with good ones.

She writes:

So you want to make a change in your everyday life — say, exercise more, meet all your deadlines, or develop a new skill. You make a plan, conjure your willpower, and commit. Yet, like the vast majority of people, you eventually fail. 

What happened? Perhaps getting to the gym was more of a hassle than you realized, or you found yourself too tired at night to study that new programming language.

It’s easy to blame yourself for lacking self-control or dedication. But behavioral change rarely occurs through willpower alone, as Dr. Wendy Wood, a behavioral scientist at the University of Southern California, told Big Think. 

Instead, the people most likely to make lasting changes engage their willpower less often than the rest of us. They know how to form helpful habits.

Habits shape our lives

The habits we build end up structuring our everyday lives, often without us even noticing. 

“In research we’re able to show that people act on habits much more than we’re aware of,” Dr. Wood told Big Think.

Sure, humans have advanced brains capable of creativity, problem-solving, and making plans. But it’s our daily habits — the small, everyday behaviors we do without thinking about it — that account for so much of how we spend our time and energy. 

Dr. Wood’s research finds that around 40% of our daily behaviors are habits. That’s why it’s worth taking a close look at what habits are, and whether they’re having a negative or positive effect on our lives.

What are habits, exactly?

Habits are automatic behaviors. Instead of requiring intention, they occur in response to environmental cues like time of day or location. Essentially, your brain forms an association between a specific context and a specific behavior. You then execute that behavior — the ritual or habit — in that context without even thinking about it.

Habits might be things like checking your email as soon as you get to work in the morning, walking a certain route home every evening, chewing your fingernails when nervous, or scrolling through your social media newsfeed when you hop in bed at night. 


Habits form when you receive a reward for a behavior. And like Pavlov’s dogs, you might not even realize that you’re learning something new.

How do habits form? . . .

Continue reading

The article includes this video:

Full disclosure: In my undergraduate years, I was enormously impressed by William James’s Psychology: A Briefer Course, and in particular by the chapter titled “Habit.” I can still recite portions of that chapter from memory, such as his dictum that we learn to [ice]skate in the summer and to ride a bike during the winter — that is, the integration and consolidation of a skill requires not only practice but rest, and it is during rest that our internal systems adjust themselves to incorporate the new skill into our patterns of behavior. 

Indeed, now that I think of it, my openness to Stephen Covey’s ideas (described in this post) doubtless derive from that earlier reading.

I include this in the category “Education” because (to my mind) education is the acquisition of habits more than it is of information.

Written by Leisureguy

19 June 2022 at 1:41 pm

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