Creatures of Habit

Effective advice for lasting habit change

We Are Creatures of Habit

We are creatures of habit, but what does that mean?

This blog will be about habits. I do research on habits and self-change and I've blogged on these topics for almost two years now. Here at Psychology Today, I have a bigger and better platform, and I am ever so grateful. But, what to say first? How to set the tone?

Perhaps I should begin with the title of my blog, Creatures of Habit. The title says so much about my approach to human psychology in general, and to habits in particular.

First off, we are creatures. We are animals. We're very sophisticated and good-looking and all that, but let's never forget that we're made of flesh and blood. In particular, our brains are incredibly complex evolved machines. Our brains govern basic processes such as breathing and food intake, and also enable us to appreciate the finer points of John Cleese's performances in Fawlty Towers.

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As creatures, we have needs. We need to eat, and so we eat. As rather intelligent and social creatures, we like to chat with one another, and so we do. We take turns and finish our conversations gracefully. And there are dozens and dozens more behaviors that are just as complicated, if not more so. How on Earth do we get all of this done?

That's where habits come in. Habits help us through our day. When we are doing something that is habitual, we are not engaged in the task in the same way as when we are doing something that is not habitual. Just as an example, consider making breakfast in your own kitchen on any given weekday. Next time you do it, watch how effortlessly it happens. It's not exactly like an out-of-body experience, but it's close. Your movements through the kitchen are stereotyped. You grab the milk out of the fridge, turn toward the counter and give the door that little nudge you with your foot that you know it needs. If something is on your mind, you might not notice that you're sitting at the table and munching on your second piece of toast until you're halfway through it. Now, compare that to getting breakfast at a friend's house. Maybe you're dog sitting (you're so nice!) Where's the milk? The bread? Oh my goodness, so complicated!

That's the power of a habit. And you don't have just one. You don't even have a dozen. You have dozens, maybe even hundreds. Thank goodness for habits! But, here's the catch: You don't like all of your habits. In fact, some of them are decidedly displeasing to your good self. You'd rather not be eating cheese doodles all the time. But, every night without fail, you find yourself wiping that orange stuff of off the remote.

You resolve to change your bad habits. You mean it. Sometimes you succeed but often you fail. Why? Not because you're a bad person. You're probably not a bad person and, even if you are, that's not why you're failing. You're failing because, simply put, habits are extremely hard to change. They're hard to change because they're so ingrained, because they're so almost-automatic. Now, really, what would be the point of having a habit that didn't free up your mind to crunch on more pressing matters, like the definition of the in-field fly rule? Do not despair, though. There are ways to change your habits, and in this blog I will do my part in helping you to become a better person through better habits. Stay tuned!

 

Ian Newby-Clark is a psychologist at the University of Guelph who gives research-based advice for lasting habit change.

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