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A Handful of Tips for Developing Good Habits

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We're all creatures of habit. Each of us has an individually developed set of appropriate behaviors, bad attitudes, good traits, guilty pleasures. To improve ourselves, we need to alter our behavior patterns. Pat Brans shows how we can change our lives by developing new good habits and weeding out the old bad ones.

Many people attend training or read self-help books, and they love the ideas so much that they immediately commit to making big life changes. All too often, though, people snap back to their old ways of doing things, because they don't internalize the new ideas and aren't able to turn them into habit.

No one can wave a magic wand over your head and make you form new habits, but I do know a few tricks that might help. Let's take a closer at habits and techniques that you can use to make lasting changes.

What Exactly Is a Habit?

A habit is a behavioral response acquired through repetition. The behavior becomes automatic; given the proper trigger, the habitual response is performed with little or no conscious effort. We need habits, because we simply can't think of everything at once. For example, when you sign your name, you aren't aware of the multitude of small acts you carry out to form the individual cursive letters, but at one time you had to think of every stroke until it became automatic. Normal daily functioning requires that we learn to perform such tasks automatically, with very little conscious effort. When a procedure becomes a habit, we are free to put our cognitive effort to other uses.

One useful feature of habits is that, once you form a habit, you don't have to remember the whole procedure, which dramatically reduces the mental processing needed to perform the action. But learning a new behavioral procedure isn't easy. It requires extensive repetition. "Unlearning" a bad habit is often even more difficult, as a very small number of cues—or even just one—can reactivate the unwanted behavior.

While nobody is really sure what the neurological basis for habits is, neurologists have discovered that the memories we develop for habits and skills differ from our memories of facts, and these two types of memories use different parts of the brain. Abundant evidence points to the basal ganglia as playing an essential role in procedural or habit learning. It can be shown that this part of the brain changes during acquisition of a new routine. Furthermore, lesions in the basal ganglia can make it difficult or impossible for patients to perform procedural tasks. [1] Researchers have these kinds of general ideas, but they're still trying to figure out exactly which neural processes allow us to develop habits—or break them once they're formed.

It would be wonderful if scientists came up with a pill that made it easier to modify our behavior. Unfortunately, nothing like that is on the horizon. We really haven't improved on the "old-fashioned" techniques for acquiring or breaking habits.

How Do We Develop Habits?

A hundred years ago, American psychologist and philosopher William James wrote a good deal on the subject of habit. He said that changing automatic behavior involves pitting two hostile powers against one another. The old procedure has the advantage of being more deeply rooted. To replace it with a new habit, you have to combat the old inclinations long enough for the new behavior to develop even stronger roots.

According to James, the best way to break old habits and learn new ones is to follow three basic rules. Following is my take on James' three rules, which updates them slightly:

Rule 1: Launch yourself with as strong and decided an initiative as possible. Put yourself in situations that encourage the new behavior, and create circumstances that are incompatible with the old behavior. Where appropriate, take a public pledge to change your behavior. Doing these things will give you some momentum in the beginning and push away the temptation to fall back to your old ways. For every day you postpone a breakdown, the less likely it will ever happen.

Rule 2: Never allow an exception to occur until the new habit is securely rooted in your life. Try never to let new habits lose a battle against old ones. Every time you give in slightly to the old procedures, you throw away the effort you put into building the new ones. You need a series of uninterrupted successes for your new habits to become strong enough to override your nagging old habits.

Rule 3: Seize the very first possible opportunity to act on every resolution you make, and on every emotional prompting you experience in the direction of the habits you aspire to gain. You need to make your new habits automatic and forge their automatism into the brain. The more you exercise new behavior, the faster you develop the motor effect.

James also believed that it's important to keep alive your capacity to develop habits by performing a little gratuitous exercise every day. That is, do something every day for no other reason than that it's difficult. This exercise will raise your capacity for self-control. [2]

James' ideas are consistent with the work of modern researcher Roy F. Baumeister, whose studies suggest that self-regulation is something like sports training: When you've done too much, you tire of it, and your capacity for it is diminished. But you can also build stamina through practice.

According to Baumeister, self-regulation often consumes a limited resource like energy or strength, creating a temporary state of ego depletion. This depletion occurs because self-regulation overrides the ego's initial response, which is to act according to habit. Overcoming habit involves an internal battle between the first impulse and the new behavior. However, experiments have shown that the effects of ego depletion don't impair the ability to perform a difficult task, as long as that task doesn't require self-control. For example, working on your habits doesn't diminish your ability to solve straightforward math problems or memorize words. But excessive self-regulation in one area does diminish the capacity for self-regulation in a completely different area. If you spend all day trying to correct your posture, for instance, your efforts to restrain your drinking will be impaired in the evening. Working on one habit diminishes your capacity to work on another during the same day.

The good news, according to Baumeister, is that you can get better at developing new habits through practice. Self-regulation seems to be driven by a core capacity. If you perform exercises in one sphere, you become better at self-regulation in other spheres. For example, people who get good at dieting become well practiced in self-regulation. These people will therefore have increased capacity to develop good habits in time management. [3]

Benjamin Franklin's Method for Changing Habits

Now let's go back further in time, before William James. Nearly three hundred years ago, Benjamin Franklin developed an approach to changing habits. As a young adult seeking to improve himself, Franklin compiled a list of 13 virtues, giving a brief definition of each. As reported in his autobiography, [4] Franklin felt these character traits to be important, but he found himself lacking in them, and he thought that nurturing these habits would bring about big improvements in his life:

  1. Temperance
  2. Silence
  3. Order
  4. Resolution
  5. Frugality
  6. Industry
  7. Sincerity
  8. Justice
  9. Moderation
  10. Cleanliness
  11. Tranquility
  12. Chastity
  13. Humility

Franklin ordered his list in such a way that improving virtues higher up on the list facilitated improvement of those characteristics lower down. For example, if he improved on temperance, silence would come more easily.

Next, Franklin decided to focus his efforts on one virtue at a time, trying to develop the right habits in that area so the desired behavior became habit. To this end, each week he would concentrate on improving one of the virtues.

He carried his list with him, and every day he would note how many times he violated the virtue he was working to improve. At first he was surprised to see how "faulty" his behavior was, but he resolved to make improvement. The daily rating allowed him to measure progress.

Franklin set out to work through his entire list in a 13-week cycle, completing four such cycles per year. He went through one year in that way and then progressively slacked off.

Franklin noted in his autobiography that, while perfection was unattainable, he could make big improvements through his method. He must have done something right, because following his work to develop better habits, Benjamin Franklin went on to be a journalist, a business owner, a diplomat, a philosopher, and a founding father of the United States.

So what can we mere mortals do to develop good habits?

Three Rules for Forming Good Habits

Before beginning this technique, make sure that you can truly integrate the new behavior. Can you take on the idea as your own? You'll never fully accept a notion that you don't understand, or one that's inconsistent with your values. If you can pass this step, you can start working the idea into habit.

To develop good habits, you need to follow these three rules:

Rule 1: Start out committed to the new behavior. You may even make a public proclamation that you're going to change or develop a habit. For some people, public commitment adds motivation.

Rule 2: Work on only one habit at a time. Avoid becoming too ambitious. If you can change even one habit, you're doing much better than most people.

Rule 3: Establish visual reminders. Benjamin Franklin used a notebook. You might add a note on your smartphone or a reminder in your electronic calendar.

You've made it through this article, so clearly you're interested in what it takes to develop good habits. Now all you have to do is print these tips and tape them on the wall near your desk. Next time you attend training or read a good self-help book, try applying these three axioms to your effort to develop new habits.

References

[1] Ann M. Graybiel, "The Basal Ganglia: Learning New Tricks and Loving It," Current Opinion in Neurobiology, Vol. 15 (2005), pp. 638–644.

[2] William James, Talks to Teachers on Psychology: And to Students on Some of Life's Ideals. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1925.

[3] Roy F. Baumeister, Kathleen D. Vohs, and Dianne M. Tice, "The Strength Model of Self-Control," Current Directions in Psychological Science Vol. 16, No. 6 (2007), pp. 351–355.

[4] Benjamin Franklin, The Autobiography And Other Writings. Oxford University Press, 1993.

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