Making Habits, Breaking Habits

I began reading Making Habit, Breaking Habits the Tuesday after a long weekend of overindulgence at the Thanksgiving table. Think turkey, pumpkin pie, mashed potatoes, and more pumpkin pie. I didn’t need anyone to tell me to get my eating habits back in check. How fortuitous that this book, by Jeremy Dean, about habits, was my next Actionable read.

Author Jeremy Dean, a psychologist and creator of, writes his book in three parts. Part one is the ‘Anatomy of a Habit’ where he breaks down the basics and dispels some myths about habits. The second part of the book, aptly titled ‘Everyday Habits,’ describes routines in life that have become so automatic we don’t even notice them anymore. The final section gives the reader hope as we learn about ‘Habit Change’ and how to go about breaking some of those negative habits.

The Big Idea

The Big Idea: The biggest takeaway from the book

To change a habit takes time

"Habit change isn’t a sprint; it’s a marathon."
- Making Habits, Breaking Habits, page 190

For some time now, I have tucked in a corner of my brain the random fact that it takes twenty-one days to form a new habit. I have no idea where I first picked up this trivia tidbit, but if you Google “How long does it take to form a new habit,” this is the number that will pop up. One of the things I’ve learned from reading Mr. Dean’s book, and of course I left the research up to him, is that the twenty-one day benchmark applies to forming habits that are relatively simple; like wanting to drink a glass of water after breakfast. For anything more complicated, it is likely to take much longer. In fact the number of days is more likely to be around sixty six, not twenty-one.

Although this number of days seems daunting, the author explains that “it is possible to bend habits to your will — and become happier, more creative, and more productive.” And so, I stepped back from the dinner table and continued reading.

Insight #1

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Don’t try to change all your bad habits at once

"One response to being unhappy with ourselves is to go for a complete reinvention – try to avoid this."
- Making Habits, Breaking Habits, page 135

Before you know it, we will all be ringing in the New Year and with it, some of us will be making our New Year’s resolutions. You know the drill. We think about all the things we are unhappy with; lack of exercise, not enough time with family, weight gain, smoking and before we know it, our list of things we want to change is quite long.

It shouldn’t be surprising, as the author shares, that for highest chance of success we should start with only one habit we want to change. Not the whole list. It seems like common sense, but in reality, many of us skip over this step of simplifying.

Doing as much as possible to set yourself up for success is critical when breaking or making a habit. That means more than scribbling it down on a napkin at 11:58pm on New Year’s Eve. Jeremy Dean suggests that you make the time to think about your motivation, about why you want to make or break the habit. For some habits the motivation is obvious; health, quality of life, etc., but for others reasoning may not be so easily articulated. We need to ask ourselves what this new habit will do for us; we need a goal that we can ingrain so that it eventually becomes automatic. Mr. Dean explains, “what we find in the research is that when people’s goals start to weaken, or are weak in the first place, it’s very difficult to start forming a new habit. A few minutes spent thinking about this before you dive in will pay dividends in the long run.

Insight #2

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Breaking a bad habit requires a replacement habit

"Successfully breaking a habit is much more likely when you have a shiny new, well–planned habit to focus on rather than just thinking about suppressing the old habit."
- Making Habits, Breaking Habits, page 161

Whenever I have tried to break a bad habit I haven’t thought about replacing it with something else. I just want the nail biting to stop and so I try to stop doing it. I haven’t thought about whenever I feel the urge to bite my nails I should have some alternative behavior in mind to do instead. But, this is exactly what is suggested in this book. In fact, the following analogy, made this very clear to me:

“Think of the bad habit you want to change like a river that’s been following the same course for a long time. Now you want to stop it suddenly. You can’t just dam the river because the water will rise up and break through. Instead, you have to encourage the river to take a different course.”

Perhaps you are thinking that this sounds easy, but when you are sitting there in your kitchen, reaching for the second bag of chips, it doesn’t feel very doable. Mr. Dean suggests that “the beauty of habits is that, as they develop, they become effortless.” This is encouraging. Take it one day at a time and each day you stop yourself from reaching for the junk food the easier it will be the next day.

As I read Making Habits, Breaking Habits, it occurred to me that so much of what we do is habitual.  From brushing our teeth in the morning, to where we hang our coat, to the drive or walk to work, we hardly notice these tasks or even remember doing them. What this says to me, after pondering many of the points the author makes, is that whether it is a bad habit we are trying to break or a new habit we are hoping to form, it can happen, it just takes more time than most of us expect. Where do we go from here?  Well, I’m prepared to give it a go and tackle the nail biting once and for all.

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Barb Brittain-Marshall

ABOUT Barb Brittain-Marshall

Barb Brittain-Marshall is addicted to reading. Seriously, it has become a bit of a problem. Stacks of books clutter her home. She fears an intervention is close at hand...
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