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  • Toby Sinclair

Book Summary: Good Habits, Bad Habits by Wendy Wood

Updated: Mar 19, 2021

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⭐ Toby's Rating: 5/10 - Recommended For: People interested in the science of habits

3 Big Ideas

  • Context is one of the most important factors in habit formation. If the context remains stable—you keep living in the same place, you keep driving the same route to work, you keep sitting on your couch every evening—then you repeat past actions automatically. You can shape your context to make habits easier to build.

  • To build new habits, reduce the friction to do the behaviour. Make it easy to do. To break habits, add friction. Make it harder to do. For example, if you want to watch less TV. Unplug your TV after use. It adds friction so you'll watch TV less.

  • Variety is the enemy of habit. This is because the variety creates unstable contexts. Variety is not the spice of life.

2 Most Tweetable Quotes

Google to date has logged about 291 million searches for “bad habits” but only about 265 million for “good habits.” Bad habits get noticed.
When people told stories of successful life changes, more than a third mentioned changes in context.

1 Top Takeaway

I really enjoyed the focus on context. I reflected on my tendency to underestimate how much my actions are affected by the context. Instead, I often think it's my own decisions that are driving my behaviour. This is called the introspection illusion.

The book shares several ways you can shape your context to make habits easier to build or break. One idea is from Professional Cooking: "mise en place" ‘What do I need to make this?’” This is when Chefs prepare the kitchen for cooking so that it’s easy to complete the recipe. You can apply this principle in your own life by shaping your environment to do the behaviours you desire.

An insight for you:

How can you shape your environment so desired behaviours become easy to do?

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Big Ideas Expanded


How do Habits Work? ⚙️

A Habit Definition

A mental association between a context cue and a response that develops as we repeat an action in that context for a reward.

The situation you’re in triggers the response from memory, and you act.

The basic logic of habits is that when we keep doing what we’re doing, we’ll keep getting what we’re getting.

Effortlessness is a defining property of Habits.

Four Habit Building Blocks:

  1. Create a stable context

  2. Reduce friction

  3. Make it rewarding

  4. Repeat until it becomes automatic

Four Habit Breaking Blocks:

  1. Change the context

  2. Increase friction

  3. Make it less rewarding

  4. Add variety to stop the repetition


Habits and the brain 🧠

Learning from rewards like this is associated with a neural region called the basal ganglia, shown in the picture above. If you were hooked up to an fMRI scanner when first doing these tasks, your brain would show the most activation in a neural system known as the associative loop. This involves a part of the basal ganglia, the caudate nucleus, along with the midbrain and the prefrontal cortex, which is associated with self-control, planning, and abstract thought.

As we repeat actions in routine ways, brain scans show, neural activation increases in the brain’s sensorimotor loop. This connects a different part of the basal ganglia, the putamen, with the sensorimotor cortices and parts of the midbrain to form the sensorimotor network. Your actions have rewired your brain. You are, to anyone watching you, doing the same thing as when you first learned the action. But your brain is now engaging somewhat different neural systems.

When we learn to tap a keyboard in a pattern over and over again, we learn to connect a cue (e.g., a signal to hit a given key) with a response (e.g., a finger tap). With practice at such tasks, habit neural systems come online with increased activation in the putamen.

That’s a key aspect of why habits are crucial for long-term behavioural change. Brainpower is overwhelmingly costly.


Myth of Self-Control 🧁

Trying to suppress desire undermines our best intentions and makes our goals harder to achieve.

We stay awake worrying that we cannot sleep, and we spend all day mentally in the refrigerator when we are hoping to diet.

This has become a national phenomenon. When Americans are surveyed about the biggest barrier to weight loss for the obese, lack of willpower is cited most often. Three-quarters of us believe that obesity results from a lack of control overeating.

Even obese people themselves report that their own lack of willpower is the biggest obstacle to losing weight. Eighty-one per cent said that lack of self-control was their undoing. Not surprisingly, almost all of these respondents in the survey had tried to change. They had dieted and exercised but to no avail. Some had tried to lose weight more than twenty times! Yet they still believed that they were deficient in willpower.

Self-control involves putting yourself in the right situations to develop the right habits.

We expect deliberation and willpower to be the route to health, happiness, and success. Indulging in forbidden treats (like M&M’s and marshmallows) should be the action that requires little thought. Instead, when you have the right habits, the opposite is true.

The good effects that we popularly ascribe to “self-control” are more accurately described as situational control.

The most successful people have situational control. They are able to shape their environment with the right forces that help to achieve their goals. Self-control becomes easier.


Relationship between Stress and Habits 😞

Habits are those safe harbors in stressful times. They aren’t affected by stress like our more conscious selves.

In a study of 174 tough decisions made by corporate executives about acquisitions, major product launches, or restructurings, the executives who felt more anxious and under the gun (based on spouse interviews and company reports) were less likely to take strategic risks.

Under the gun, we act out of habit, whether the behavior is something that brings benefit, brings harm, or has no effect.

When we have good strong habits for eating particular healthful foods for breakfast, such as hot or cold cereal and health bars, were more likely to do so during stressful times.

Mental tiredness, much like stress, boosted habit performance, reflecting the limited capacity of conscious thought and the hardiness of automaticity.

Habit resilience illustrates an important point about the nature of habits in general: they aren’t always the most effective option in a given situation, especially when that situation is complex and requires critical thought.

Given decision-making strained by stress, tiredness, distraction, or lack of ability, the balance in our lives tips toward habits. An additional reason to establish good habits so that the habitual choice is the right choice.


Power of Context 🗺️

Habit is a compromise effected between the individual and his [or her] environment. —Samuel Beckett

Context pervades our understanding of habit. If the context remains stable—you keep living in the same place, you keep driving the same route to work, you keep sitting on your couch every evening—then you repeat past actions automatically.

Context refers to everything in the world surrounding you—everything but you. It includes the location you are in, the people you are with, the time of day, and the actions you just performed. Even your mobile phone represents a context that is physical as well as a virtual space external to you. These are the external forces that drive or restrain our actions.

There’s perhaps no simpler context influence we can engineer in our lives than sheer proximity. Proximity determines the external forces to which we are exposed. We engage with what is near us and tend to overlook what is farther away.

Can something as simple as proximity get people to exercise?

Between February and March 2017, a data analytics company looked at this question using cell phone records from 7.5 million devices (yes, our phone use is being evaluated in ways we are only starting to realize). They analyzed how far people with mobile devices travelled to paid fitness centres. People who covered a median distance of 3.7 miles to the gym went five or more times a month. Those who travelled around 5.1 miles went to the gym only monthly. That seemingly small difference—less than a mile and a half—separated those who had an exercise habit and those who went rarely. To our conscious minds, such a small distance does not make sense as a barrier. But it clearly was associated with whether people exercised habitually.

We tend to underestimate how much our actions are affected by the contexts around us.

mise en place

Shaping your context can help you form better habits. As a professional chef, Jörin says, “My first thought is mise en place: ‘What do I need to make this?’” He prepares the kitchen for cooking so that it’s easy to complete the recipe. “Once I know that I have all the ingredients and all the equipment to make a new dessert, then I mentally figure out in which order I need to do it. I have it scaled out in the way that logically I am going to use it. When I start working, I didn’t forget anything. It is lined up in front of me so that I don’t have to think about it. So, here is my crunchy layer on the bottom. Then this is my filling that goes on top of it, and then here is whatever glaze that goes over it.” When cues at your station are organized, “you can concentrate on the methods that it takes to make the dessert rather than have to worry about if you have the right ingredients on the right tray.”

Professional kitchens run on a model of automaticity. They repeatedly and quickly turn out the same quality dishes to keep a restaurant full of customers happy. To do this, chefs harness the external forces in their kitchens by creating stable contexts that automatically cue the right response.

But this is a principle that has power beyond the kitchen. Jörin explained that he uses mise en place in his job as a teacher. “Every day when I go home, I set up my roster, my whole class for tomorrow or for Monday. All the stuff that I need for Monday morning is on my desk ready to go. This is how I live my day. I want to know what I do at 10:00 tomorrow. I don’t want at 9:00 to send out a text that this person has to be over there. In order to efficiently get stuff done, you need to have a timeline and set up for different tasks ahead of time.”


Habit Discontinuity

When you wish to try something new, changing context is a good place to start.

Discontinuity forces us to think.

By making fresh decisions, we act in new ways—ones that may work better for us.

Habit discontinuity gets us out of ruts by exposing us to the underlying reality of why we’re doing what we’re doing and why we’re going where we’re going.

In new contexts, we choose behaviors that fit our current goals.

Discontinuities can make us into more genuine, integrated versions of ourselves.

We can compare voter turnout during presidential elections in counties where it rained with sunnier counties. Even a millimetre of rain reduced voting by a little, 0.05 per cent, in analyses from 1952 to 2012.

This is the dual nature of habit discontinuity. Disruption of cues in our everyday contexts can be beneficial, freeing us to act in more authentic ways. But disruption can also be harmful, wreaking havoc on our habits of citizenship, making tax evaders out of taxpayers, and increasing nonvoters in the electorate.

When people tell stories of successful life changes, more than a third mention changes in context. Stories of failed change often involved feeling stuck in one’s current environment.

The lesson from all of this is that habit discontinuity is powerful. It alters the balance of habit and decision-making in our lives. Disruption makes us think. In so doing, it can make life interesting and allow us to act in ways that more closely reflect our values and interests. But it can also put beneficial habits at risk. Disrupting a habit is, of course, just the first step in making a change. It clears the decks and puts old habits behind us. How well we use that opportunity depends on what we do next. By understanding disruption, you will be able to (1) protect your good habits so that they can weather change, and (2) use disruptions to pierce your bad habits at their most vulnerable places.


Habits and Addiction 💊

Quitting smoking is easy, I’ve done it hundreds of times. —attributed to Mark Twain

The National Institute on Drug Abuse defines addiction as a brain disorder involving compulsive drug seeking and use.

When environments change and significant friction on drug use is introduced most addicts are proven to quit.

It shifts the location of the dysfunction from people to the environments in which they live.

Take the experiences of thirty-two Australians who had been treated for alcohol and opioid addiction. They were interviewed once a year for three years following treatment.

Three years later, only five of the thirty-two had stayed off drugs completely. This handful in stable recovery stood out. They had made radical changes in their living arrangements. Some had given up public housing support, moved to a new city, and gotten jobs where no one knew they had been addicts.

“The most important difference between those who have achieved meaningful recovery and those who have not lies not in their skills or knowledge, but in whether they were able to overcome the financial and social obstacles to moving to a nonpathogenic environment.”


Power of Consistency 🏃‍♂️

Habits play out over long periods of time—years—with actions that have to be constantly maintained.

If your goal is to reduce your environmental footprint, it’s not enough to take the bus home from work tonight. You have to do so today, tomorrow, and in the future. To become solvent and pay off your debts, it is not enough to forgo buying those new shoes or that new phone. You have to resist making purchases repeatedly, at least until your accounts are in the black. To form new relationships, you have to persist even if the first person at the gym turns down your coffee invitation. You have to meet more people you might like and repeatedly make offers to connect with them. You have to somehow become committed to the consistent procedures of doing things.

Habits don’t crave variety. In fact, they hate it. Variety weakens habit. Variety attenuates its power to direct your behaviours. This is because variety is the enemy of stable contexts.

Only by keeping your life as consistent as possible will your habit grow.

Locations, electronics, people, time, and other actions: all are stable cues that become tied to exercise to make up your morning habit. Change one, and it could undo your habit and make you think, at least right then. Change one permanently, and it could eliminate the habit altogether.

If you set up your world to be constant, recurring, and unwavering, then cues can be the jet fuel to make your new habits take off with stupendous speed.

CEO of Weight Watchers, about the long-term success of their members. He admitted:

“In the great majority of cases, when making change efforts, people just can’t stick with it. You know, anybody who does Weight Watchers long enough will ultimately be successful—if they’re actually doing the program. What we saw was that most people don’t. This is the other side of Weight Watchers.”
“If you have a weight-loss problem, you will always have a weight-loss problem. If you’re wired to overconsume, if you use food in a certain way, if you struggle with food because your metabolism is set a certain way, it is a chronic condition that never goes away."


Add Friction to Break Bad Habits

Google to date has logged about 291 million searches for “bad habits” but only about 265 million for “good habits.” Bad habits get noticed.

You are likely someone who checks your work email after the conventional workday is done. I know this because, in the latest Gallup data, 59 percent of U.S. workers who had work email accounts did so.

To stop excessive phone usage remove the cues that make you grab the phone. The most straightforward way to do this is to hide your phone. Don’t bring it when you sit down to breakfast or when you take a break at work for coffee and a doughnut.

You can readily add friction to make phone use more difficult. Silence it. Turn it off. Switch on your phone’s Do Not Disturb mode so that only dedicated callers can get through to you. Removing the alerts removes cues to use and stops activating that unwanted thought, “Check phone.” These small changes don’t seem like much but they are enough to slow your conscious mind.

Whatever you choose to do to make using the phone more costly, do it consistently. With repetition, the initially difficult change becomes automated. The new action starts to be the one that automatically pops into mind, while the costs to your old habit persist.

Make other actions easier. Instead of looking at your phone, is there something else that you could quickly do instead? There’s one viable alternative that I’ve personally witnessed many times: get a watch.

And finally, make not checking rewarding.


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