• July 26, 2014

Book offers advice on making, breaking habits

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Posted: Sunday, January 13, 2013 4:30 am | Updated: 9:40 am, Sun Jul 14, 2013.

This year, you’re really going to do it.

No more unfulfilled promises. No more embarrassment, explaining or excuses.

You’ll never have to hide that bad habit again because you’re going to quit smoking, stop gambling, be kinder, resist going online every 10 minutes, lose weight or whatever it is you’ve been meaning to do for months.

You’re really going to do it. You are. And with “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” by Jeremy Dean by your side, you really might accomplish that goal.

Step into the self-help section of any bookstore or library, and you might think that “21” is a magic number: a lot of books claim that you can fix your life in that many days.

Jeremy Dean said establishing habits isn’t that easy, however. Research shows that it takes an average of 66 days for a habit to be formed, depending on several factors. A “really strong” habit could take a year to create.

From the time we get up in the morning until the time we fall asleep, we follow habits without thinking about them, which is one of the main characteristics of a habit. Habits are also “curiously emotionless” and are generally followed in connection with another situation: you get in the car and turn on the radio because, well, you’re in the car.

That’s a habit made in “response to rewards from the environment.” Conversely, making habits can also be intentional but it depends on how worthwhile we find them. You may intend to get to the gym every day, for instance, but if you’d really rather stay in bed, guess which activity wins.

“There has to be an ultimate goal that is really worth achieving or the habit will be almost impossible to ingrain,” Dean said. Muster all the willpower your body possesses, visualize until your head hurts, but nothing works if there’s no internal reward. External rewards, Dean said, are “laced with danger.”

As for breaking habits, it’s hard to stop doing something you’re not aware you’re doing. What’s worse: studies show that trying to suppress a thought or action makes you want to do it all that much more. So forget about self-control, Dean said. Instead, change your cues, pay attention, know yourself, and learn some “happy habits.”

Looking for a quick-fix for those New Year’s Resolutions? Nope, “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” ain’t it.

By helping us understand what makes us tick and why, Dean avoids platitudes and misty advice to give his readers the tools they need to stop being frustrated by change and lack thereof. He advocates patience and dispels a lot of myths about why we do the things we do (or don’t), explaining why our willpower fails us or why we find some habits easy to make.

That’s helpful, and could make a fix that sticks.

While there are times when this book seemed smaller than its subject, I think it would be advantageous to anyone who’s serious about changing behavior. If that’s you, then find “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” — then do it.

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