Making Habits, Breaking Habits: How to Make Changes that Stick - by Jeremy Dean

Three main characteristics of a habit:

  1. We're only vaguely aware of performing them.

  2. The act of performing a habit is curiously emotionless. Habits, through their repetition, lose their emotional flavour. Like anything in life, as we become habituated our emotional response lessens.

  3. Context. We tend to do the same things in the same circumstances.

People who live alone report more of their daily behaviours as being habitual than those who live with others. Other people, then, disrupt our routines, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse.

It's possible for intention and habit to be completely reversed. Sometimes we unconsciously infer our intentions from our habits. How the habit started in the first place could be a complete accident, but we can then work out our intentions from our behaviour, as long as there's no strong reason for that behaviour.

When established habits were weak, intentions tend to predict behaviour. So, if you don't watch TV news that much, your intention for the coming week, whether it's to watch more, less, or the same, is likely to be accurate. Good news for our sense of self-control. Here comes the bad news. As habits get stronger, our intentions predict our behaviour less and less. So, when you're in the habit of visiting fast-food restaurants, for example, it doesn't matter much whether you intend to cut down or not, chances are that your habit will continue. Although people intend to change, when habits are strong, actual behaviour change is relatively low.

Whether habits are good or bad, under certain circumstances they are very difficult to avoid. Stress, in particular, drives us towards our usual, habitual response to a situation, even when we plan to do otherwise.

People's choices are affected by what thoughts arrive most easily in consciousness, not necessarily what's in the unconscious. On top of this, thinking too hard about the reasons for our decisions can make us less happy with those decisions.

30-second ‘screen break': For people who sit in front of monitors all day long, allowing the eyes to relax is a much better use of time than checking email. What's more, this space can be used to reflect on what you're working on.

Action triggers

What we want is a strong linkage between a specific situation and an action – once this connection is automatic, we'll have a new habit. This implementation intention, this if-then link, is like an embryonic habit; it's the blueprint for the habit to come.

The problem with using a time to cue up a new habit is that you have to be clock-watching. And we can't be clock-watching all the time. It's far better to use an event.

While setting specific times to perform habits is not recommended, it's very important to think about how a new habit will slot into your daily routine. Think about how large portions of your day are habits linked together in chains. What you want to do is add a new link in the chain where there is an open slot. You are looking for a time when you've just finished one regular habit and you're casting around for the next activity. Like putting out your rubbish after clearing the kitchen, or flossing your teeth after you brush. Look through your daily habits for an activity that forms the last link in a chain; then consider adding your new habit on here.

In order to break old habits, the attempt needs to be paired with making a new habit.


If you notice that you're failing to perform your new habit successfully, have a look at the reminders you've set up in your environment. Is it possible that you've started ignoring them? If so, it's time to change the reminder to something you will notice.


The key to creativity is being able to switch between a wide-open, playful mind and a narrow analytical frame.

If you're stuck in a rut with a creative problem, going down the same old avenues of thought, then these studies suggest a way out. Whether it's using spatial or temporal distance, the key is always inducing psychological distance in order to get into an abstract state of mind and away from established habits. People often say while they are fruitlessly searching for insight into a problem that they are ‘too close to it'. In a psychological sense this turns out to be true. For creativity, the further away, the better the view. At least, it is at the start of the process, when new ideas and originality are most important. Later on, different types of thinking come into play.


We have a certain level of control over our happiness if we choose the right habits, but which habits should we cultivate? Many different activities have been tested by psychologists and some have been shown consistently to improve how we feel day to day. These include things like boosting positive thinking and social connections, dealing with stress, being present in the moment, committing to goals, and practising gratitude.

One way in which we can fight back against automatic adaptation to pleasurable experiences is by adhering to that old saying that variety is the spice of life. If we can vary our happy habits enough, rather than repeating them in the same way over and over again, we can continue to reap the rewards.

The happy habit of savouring is simply reining your mind back in and forcing it to focus on the good things in life, to ‘stop and smell the roses'. People do this naturally, but four methods have empirical support: showing your emotions, being present in the moment, celebrating positive events with others, and positive mental time travel.

People's emotions are frequently detached from their habitual activities. During the performance of habits such as commuting, doing housework, shopping, and eating, the mind tends to wander away. Although it could potentially wander away to a happier place, this doesn't seem to be what happens in practice. Instead, on average, people's minds wander away to thoughts that make them less happy. This means that the pleasure we get from an activity generally comes from being engaged with it, whatever it is.

Making or breaking a habit is really just the start. To develop a truly fulfilling and satisfying happy habit, it's about more than just repetition and maintenance; it's about finding ways to adjust and tweak habits continually to keep them new; to avoid mind-wandering and the less pleasurable emotional states that accompany it. There is great enjoyment to be had in these small changes to routines. When life is the same every day, it gets boring. These ideas are stretching the formal definition of a habit which involves the same behaviour or thought in the same situation. For happy habits, we need slightly different behaviours in slightly different circumstances. We need the habit to rise above itself. Breaking and making new habits is just the first step. The ideal situation is an automatic initiation of the behaviour, but then a mindful, continuously varying way of carrying it out. A new type of hybrid habit: a mindful habit.