“Habit Change Is Easiest When People Move House or Undergo Some Life Transition.”

Habits interview: Wendy Wood.

I was very pleased to get the chance to interview Professor and Vice Dean Wendy Wood, because she’s one of the top experts in the field of habits, and has done much of the most interesting research in the area.

For instance, it was her research that showed that about people repeat about 40% of their activities almost daily — and usually in the same place.

I read a lot of her work as I was writing Better Than Before, my book about how we change habits. (To hear when it goes on sale, sign up here.)

I was very curious to hear more about Wendy’s ideas about habits, and how she thinks about them in the context of her own life.

Gretchen: You’ve done fascinating research on the subject of habits. What’s the most significant thing you’ve concluded?

Wendy: Habits are a simple, basic form of learning. Even rats form habits.  It’s amazing that this simple form of learning underlies so many of our daily activities.

People repeat about 40% of their activities almost daily and usually in the same location (shown in a  study I conducted at Texas A&M Univ–not Duke, as often reported). Given this high level of repetition, people easily form habits for daily activities.

Once habits form, the habitual response comes to mind automatically when you are in the familiar context.  For me, walking into my kitchen first thing in the morning brings to mind making coffee. And I usually just go ahead and make it without asking myself whether I particularly want to drink coffee this morning. It’s just my habit to do so, and I find myself doing before thinking—that’s the hallmark of habit.

What aspects of habits would be most helpful for people to understand?

Habits develop slowly, across many experiences. So they don’t shift easily when people change their goals and preferences. This means that we can actually be of two minds about something.  Your habitual mind might suggest one activity whereas your preferences and goals might suggest another.

The two minds were evident in a study I conducted with people at a movie cinema. We gave some cinema-goers stale, week-old popcorn and others fresh popcorn. And no surprise, people reported really disliking the stale popcorn. But those who had a habit to eat popcorn at the cinema ate the stale popcorn anyway. It was as if, even though they told us they didn’t like it, they were propelled by the cues of being at the cinema to keep eating it. People without popcorn-eating habits didn’t eat the stale popcorn, only the fresh.

Usually, our habits and our preferences are more in line than with the cinema study. But this study is important because it reveals the two minds problem. Habit learning (in that case, a cinema-popcorn habit) doesn’t integrate easily with our current goals and plans (disliking the stale popcorn).

What’s a simple habit that consistently makes you happier?

Ah, there’s the rub. With repetition, action tendencies become stronger.  The more often you drive to work the same way, the stronger your habit to drive that particular route. When habits are really strong, then you are even repeat them when you don’t intend to. On a Saturday, when not thinking about what you are doing, you might find yourself inadvertently taking the route to work when you meant to go to the store.

Feelings, however, become weaker with repetition. So, the more often you eat ice cream, the less pleasure you get from eating it.  Philosophers refer to this as the difference between the “active” and “passive” components of habit. With repetition, our action tendencies get stronger but our feelings habituate and weaken.

The bottom line is that, if you really enjoy something, you don’t want to repeat it in a routine way so that it becomes a habit. You lose the pleasure in the experience. Instead, you want to make habitual the necessities in life….that is, regular exercise, a healthy diet, saving money and paying the bills, and working. The pleasures in life should be savored and not performed in a habitual way…..including time with family, a great glass of wine, and the sunset over the ocean.

Do you have any habits that continually get in the way of your happiness?

Oh, jeez, we all have bad habits. These are habits that are inconsistent with our goals. Some bad habits were probably learned unintentionally, and others may have even been intended at one point, but no longer fit with our current goals and plans.

Many habits are tough to change. They become really resistant when they get tied up with physiological addictions such as smoking, drinking, and taking drugs. But even habits that are not addictive are tough to change. When you are in the context in which you performed the habit in the past, that behavior automatically comes to mind. You may have decided to change that behavior. Not to do it anymore. But it takes energy to inhibit the habit in mind and to choose to do something new. Often, we don’t have the willpower to make these decisions, and it’s just easier to act habitually.

Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?

Yes, I’ve had several points in my life when I was overweight, especially after both of my pregnancies. Me at 200 lbs was not fun. But I was fortunate to be able to lose that baby weight. That experience was partly how I got interested in habits. In the U.S., most of us know what we should do to be healthy—exercise, eat lots of fruit and veg, and avoid sweets and fried foods. But few of us do this. I started to believe that researchers are focusing on the wrong thing when trying to get people healthy (think, the “Strive for 5” health campaign). Psychologists are very good at changing people’s beliefs—or at changing behaviors for a short period of time. Many people can lose weight briefly, but longer-term change is tough. That’s been the focus of much of my research—to figure out why habits are so tough to change and to identify strategies to change them.

One insight has to do with performance contexts. Habits are activated automatically by context cues. So, change the context. We find that habit change is easiest when people move house or undergo some other life transition that changes the contexts in which they live (e.g., start a new job, get married). This is perhaps why people often report that they started a new, healthy behavior when on vacation. Away from familiar cues to bad habits, people are freed to act in new ways. Beware, though, that changing everyday contexts also removes cues to good habits. And in my research, people who were exercising habitually didn’t continue to do so after they moved and the cues to exercise changed.

People also can take charge of some of the context cues in their personal environments. For example, many people keep cookies, candy, and chips on their kitchen counter. Removing these cues to eating can help to stop habitual snacking. In restaurants, even something as simple as moving desserts to the end of a cafeteria line can reduce people’s consumption of sweets. Obesity is really an environmental problem.

Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits? (e.g. travel, parties)

Yes, as described above, out of familiar everyday contexts, people are freed-up to act in new, nonhabitual ways.

Do you embrace habits or resist them?

I had a speech teacher once who said she tried to do everything in a new way each day. She claimed to walk to school a new way, eat different things for lunch every day—you get the idea. To me, it sounded exhausting. She was clearly resisting habit formation, or at least the habituation of feeling that comes with repeating activities.

To me, habit formation is beneficial. Through habits, I pay my bills and I write for a couple hours every morning. I do those things automatically. They aren’t a struggle and so don’t take too much energy and decision making. Instead, I want to think about the activities that are important to me, especially spending time with my husband and sons.

This idea of doing some things habitually and others in a more thoughtful way follows from the two minds problem I mentioned above. We all have a habitual mind (even my old speech teacher, although she fought it). Might as well make it work for you—it is reliable at doing the same thing as in the past. And some tasks don’t require more than this. Of course, when I say that my writing is habitual, it’s really making time to write that is habitual. The writing itself requires effort and thought. But if you have a habit to write at a certain time every day or to write a certain amount every day, then you don’t have to struggle to make yourself do it.

  • I’ve found this particularly interesting: “The bottom line is that, if you really enjoy something, you don’t want to repeat it in a routine way so that it becomes a habit.”

    So what about creative practice? Is it pleasure or is it supposed to be a habit? I’m confused.

    I got into art because I love it, but I’m not consistent and sometimes months go by without me doing anything artistic. So is the solution to create a daily habit, or something to indulge?
    I presume it depends on your goals and maybe your tendency.

    I’m unsure what’s best for me.

    • Penelope Schmitt

      Nela–I am a quilter, but I hate having to work in a straight line, through one project at a time from beginning to end, to the next project–with no fabric buying or new project distractions I would feel I was on a treadmill! I just make sure I go in the sewing room and do SOMETHING every day–and I keep a journal to record whatever I did do. That helps me to actually finish more things and think about the long list of projects under way that I could play with right NOW. I find that quite a fun way to work, and my friends tell me I’m ‘very productive.’

      • Thanks for your input, Penelope! That’s a very interesting way of working, and I’m so glad it works for you!

        My problem is that I’m spread across too many different mediums so every time I switch a project, I forget all about the previous one, so I’m letting a lot of loose ends behind me.

        I have a really difficult time finishing stuff. Whenever a project spans more than a week, I just quit after my initial zeal blows out.
        My friends think I’m productive, but I know the truth.. 🙂

        • penelope schmitt

          Hmmmm I think I understand that Nela–I gave away all my yarn, and I got rid of all the flannel that was in my quilting stash. That spared me from guilt about two aspects of making things that were the least fun for me, and gave me more room for the things that are MORE fun for me. I have refused to even consider some things like hand dyeing fabrics or a long arm quilting machine, because I have no place to practice those arts — well, the garage I guess. I have quite enough to keep me busy for several lifetimes. Now, if I could stop acquiring more fabric, I’d be in heaven. This weekend I participated in a charity sewing event to make Christmas Stockings for local women’s shelters and other helping organizations. I took two boxes of scrap and uncut Christmas prints to the event, and came home with just ONE. I am so happy to know it all went to fabricate pretty items that will give joy, and so happy to have earned a couple of cubic feet of space in my closet.

  • allison

    “If you really enjoy something, you don’t want
    to repeat it in a routine way so that it becomes a habit. You lose the
    pleasure in the experience.” This explains to me why some kids get burned (burnt?) out after playing a particular sport from say 1st grade through high school. I know ‘practice makes perfect’, but I have seen many a good athlete lose interest in ‘their’ sport by the time they are a junior or senior in high school, no doubt because it has become so routine. I wonder how to get around that?

    I like that popcorn study – sadly, that is SO me! Sometimes I will agree to a movie I don’t even care about because I know it will mean popcorn for me! I would so be one of the ones eating the stale stuff. Lots of interesting things to think about with this post – so looking forward to your book! It used to seem like it was a long way off, but soon we will blink and it will be available – sweet!

  • SaraBeth

    Over 10 years ago my husband and I moved apartments and that was when he decided it was time to quit smoking (so he’d never have a smoking spot at our new place) and this was the time it actually stuck. It’s neat to see that there is some research behind it. Thanks for sharing.

    • gretchenrubin

      Yes, moving is a terrific opportunity.

  • pjrchs

    I think I’m an obliger – married to a rebel. I have recently been trying to walk or run mulitple times a week to get in better shape and used the “have to be here for my kids” approach to force myself to take it seriously. My struggle is that because this commitment of mine is not important to my husband, I find my obliger self giving in to his requests to skip workouts and spend time with him. Of course then I feel guitly because I’m not fulfilling the obligation to be healthy for my kids. How do I balance competing obliger impulses?

    • gretchenrubin

      Try more external accountability.

      Walk with a friend, work with a trainer, start a Facebook group with other friends who are trying to exercise, to check in about what you’re doing.

      You also might tell yourself, “I want to be a good model for my children as someone who keeps her commitments to herself, who is dedicated to living a healthy life, and who can resist temptation.” Tell your children every time you go or skip. Or tell your kids to keep tabs on you! if they’re old enough, they might get a kick out of it.

    • gina

      I know the feeling. After a long day, my husband just wants to sit and watch tv and have me there with him to sporadically talk about the day, the kids, the calendar, etc. I have a million other things I can/should be doing, but if I don’t sit with him, I feel guilty for not spending time with him. Tried to convince him to do something else to unwind, but this is his favorite way. If I am in the kitchen doing dishes I feel like, I have abandoned him and we lose the time to communicate. When I sit there and watch tv with him, I feel guilty about not getting things done that I need to. Luckily he goes to bed by 10, but then I am up for late doing all my stuff, or worse, put it off for yet another day. I have a ‘one day a week we don’t watch any tv’ rule that I just started last week. It helps a little for that one evening, but the guilt continues the other four nights a week. Even if you work out with someone else, that is not going to give you time back with your hubby, same with me if I do my stuff and not sit with him. Hard working out the balance, isn’t it?

  • msps

    I look forward to your book, Gretchen. I recently finished “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg, and I have to say he made a much clearer presentation than your interview subject, or at least his explanations worked much better for me. Basic premise was cue leads to routine which leads to reward. After a few times through the loop the reward creates a craving that reinforces the behavior till it becomes a habit. He had very useful ideas for altering habits as well. If you haven’t read it I commend it to you, and thank you for the impetus to begin looking into this area.
    As for a change motivated by some transition, I can say that I’ve experienced this once. A few years ago I needed to buy a new (to me) car. The one I bought smelled wonderful. I, sadly still a smoker, decided then that I liked the freshness of the car so well that I would not smoke in it. Almost 7 years later and now driving another car, I still don’t smoke while driving. Considering that I commute close to 10 hours a week this has been a great change in many ways. I still want a cigarette when I get home, so I am only an Abstainer in the car, but that’s something. Still working on short circuiting the smoking altogether–have cut by 1/3 fairly reliably over several months, so very interested in seeing what you have to share when your book arrives.

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  • Ivory Dorsey

    Thanks you Gretchen for researching and writing about the one major asset we have as humans; OUR PERSONAL PERSONA. You illuminate things we often do but seldom think about even though it is framing our lives and the outcome there of. In this post the golden nugget for me is: “The pleasures in life should be savored and not performed in a habitual way…..including time with family, a great glass of wine, and the sunset over the ocean.” Thanks Gretchen