The Simple Psychology of Habits
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If you’re a human being alive on planet Earth, chances are, you’ve got habits. Some of those habits we like, while some of our habits nag us because they don’t serve a healthy purpose yet they don’t easily fall away. As Mark Twain famously said about habits, “quitting smoking is the easiest thing in the world. I know because I’ve done it thousands of times.” Indeed there’s a huge industry built upon helping the helpless defeat their overeating habits, sugar habits, poor exercise habits, smoking habits and more. But what exactly is a habit anyways? Where do they come from, why are they here, and is there a simple approach to our habits that can better enlighten and empower us? I’ve got some ideas about all this – it’s a habit of mine to try to figure this sort of thing out – so tell me what you think:

In the simplest of definitions, habits are thoughts or activities that we repeat again and again.

Some habits are the kind that we enact willfully and consciously – like taking a walk every day – while others express themselves in an automatic and unconscious fashion – like mindlessly overeating whenever we eat. We’re going to pay special attention here to the second kind of habit, the ones that we tend to fight, and that have a strange power to linger on despite our best efforts. For sure, habits do seem to have a life of their own, as few people will ever say “Gee, I’d love to work on and develop and overeating habit.”

There’s no work to do in generating such habits, because the habit does itself. So here’s one of the most basic psycho-biological facts about habits: the mind is, by nature, habitual. Each of us has an inborn, habit-forming process that is designed in large part to help us with one of the most important tasks of survival and evolution – learning.

Have you ever observed a small child learn something new?

When I played peek-a-boo with my then 5-month-old son, covering my eyes and pulling my hands away, he laughed with excitement as predicted. I imagined that after 6 or 7 peek-a-boos the humor would wear off, and it would be “game over” – but he wanted to peek-a-boo forever, drooling and laughing each time. Peek-a-boo was more than just a game; my son was learning what psychologists call “object constancy.” To an infant’s mind, when a ball disappears behind a couch or eyes disappear behind hands, they’re gone forever. Seeing my face return was an epically amusing experience because what he thought was supposed to happen – face disappear into oblivion – did not. And he wanted to see it over and over because human beings learn through repetition. The nervous system is programmed at the most basic level to learn important information by repeating it. How many times will a child sing the ABC song in its zest for learning? And how many times will we, as adults, make the same mistakes in life until we learn our lesson? I think you get the picture.

The process of habituating, of repeating something over and over, essentially serves another interesting  primitive-brain purpose – to move us towards that which brings pleasure and away from that which brings pain. The learning process is naturally pleasurable, so we will instinctively repeat any learning behavior that provides us with more knowledge and control of our environment. Even when we first learned not to stick our fingers in the fire, though the event was painful, the new learning ensures future pleasure: no more burn. The habit of avoiding placing one’s flesh in the fire is thus born.

Unfortunately, this process of repetition of pleasure is easily distorted. For example, at some time in the past we may have come home from school or work after a distressing day, had some ice cream, and felt better almost immediately. The mind then quietly recorded, “feel bad, eat ice cream, feel good.” On the next downer of a day, the mind will automatically repeat this useful behavior, and thus an ice cream habit is born. We have learned to secure temporary pleasure while avoiding immediate pain.

The 2 Types of Habits

Let’s divide habits into 2 basic categories: positive and negative. Or think of it as “wanted” and “unwanted” habits. The words positive and negative are not meant here as a moral judgment as to the inherent goodness or evilness of a habit, but rather neutral terms describing the effects of these habits, and the biologic consequences that the habit evokes. A negative habit is a behavior that is repeated mechanically and automatically. It drains or disperses our energy, has harmful repercussions on the body or emotions, and goes against what we most want for ourselves.

Characteristically, negative habits have some immediate positive or pleasurable benefits. However, these benefits are short-lived and may eventually yield harmful consequences. An example of a negative habit is excess smoking. Smoking a cigarette gives people the immediate benefit of calmness and emotional security. Over time, an increased amount of cigarette smoking is needed to provide the same effect, and if this habit it repeated often enough, shortness of breath, congestion, and lung disease may result.

The human challenge here, is this: the same part of the mind that automatically replays, “feel bad, smoke cigarette, feel good” is not the part of us that can evaluate the continued usefulness of this habit, for without self-reflection and awareness, our mechanical nature will dominate. The distinguishing feature of negative habits is that they come naturally, take little effort to develop, and quickly gain a momentum of their own that is difficult to offset.

So, if negative habits are automatic, self-repeating and unconscious, it follows then that the simple ingredient, which must be present to work with any negative or unwanted habit, is always this: consciousness.

Consciousness here means awareness, wakefulness, presence and eyes wide open. It means we invoke the part of us that meditators often call “the witness state.” I know this is easier said than done, and yet, there’s no magic pill that eradicates an unwanted habit. Life is compelling us to wake up, moment to moment, in the face of any behavior we’re trying to let go of. As the famous Gestalt psychologist Fritz Perls proclaimed, “Awareness cures.”

So instead of the common strategy of fighting a habit, we awaken ourselves when we might, for example, overeat, and ask the question: “Is this what I wish to choose in this moment? Will I continue on automatic pilot, or do I choose not to eat?” Interestingly enough, even if we ask ourselves this question and choose in the moment to continue eating, we’ve actually “exercised” our choosing muscle, and made it stronger. The next time, when faced with the same choice, our ability to choose and accept any choice becomes stronger, and even more compassionate. We’ve strengthened our “awareness” bank account, and can readily use its assets.

Facing our unwanted habitual thoughts, or health draining food habits, or any habit that limits our life force and self-expression – is an act of self-evolution. Life calls us, through our personal challenges, to grow. It’s not about fighting self, hating self, hating the habit, or attacking our own weaknesses. It’s about following a path with a heart, and gently guiding ourselves back home.

Have you ever successfully transformed an unwanted habit with the power of awareness?

Warm regards,
Marc David
Institute for the Psychology of Eating
© Institute For The Psychology of Eating, All Rights Reserved, 2014

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  • Patricia Cordova

    Love the article.. This question is a little off subject but I hope you can address it….earlier I had come across an article on hypnosis and would love your take on – if and how and when hypnosis might be used to “un-do” these unwanted habits vs. the type of techniques you described here.
    Thank you for all your shared wisdom.
    Patricia

    • Hi Patricia –

      Thanks for the question. Hypnosis is something that can be very powerful for many people. I personally don’t have a lot of experience with it, but I have seen many friends and clients respond quite well to it, while others don’t. So, like any healing approach, it depends… Doing the work of self-inquiry and cultivating mindfulness is always intimidating, but often essential. By becoming aware of these tendencies within ourselves bit by bit, we not only unravel the root of the issue and expose it to our consciousness for healing, but also, in doing so we discover deep truths about ourselves and what causes us to repeatedly choose negative habits and why.

      If you feel drawn to explore hypnosis as a healing path for yourself, look into it. Trust your intuition.

      Best wishes,
      Marc David

  • Nikki Assalone

    Thanks for sharing this wisdom Mark. Very well said. I really love what you’re doing here. So often people neglect to realize that their food issues are just the symptom of a bigger problem. We’ve really got to stop treating the symptom and start treating the problem. Habits are such a HUGE piece of the pie! I love your take on consciousness specificly.

    I’m a nutritionist and clinical hypnotherapist working with overeaters myself. Hypnosis can be a very powerful tool, and yes, it works great on some while not so great on others. It’s important (Patricia) to remember that it’s not a magic wand, but rather a way to access the subconscious mind. Together with daily practices like meditation, affirmations and/or visualization we can really cultivate more presence and self awareness. (I have a downloadable recorded hypnosis on my sight if you’d like to give it a try before spending money – it’s at nourishment.us – I hope you don’t mind me sharing that Mark??)
    Thanks again, I’m thrilled to have found this sight and hope to go through the program in the near future.

    Light and Love
    Nikki

    • Hi Nikki –

      Thank you for your kind words.
      I’m glad to see you join in and add some insight and experience to the conversation here. We all have so much to learn from one another! I would be happy to see you in our training in the future.

      Best wishes,
      Marc David

  • Helga

    Hi Mark.
    Great Article! First,I would like to say thank you for the work and heart you put to all of your news letters. I enjoy and can’t wait to read them every week. They speak to me ever week. I had struggled with bulimia for from age 21-28. The firs 4 years were terrible. I would eat very healthy and when I had one unhealthy thing I would take off and binge to the point where I would vomit daily. 2 years ago I was blessed to become pregnant with my daughter Jade. That day I made a commitment to never through up again. So it has been 2 years now that I haven’t thrown up. This is a big victory. I also whent through a nutrition coaching through dr.hyman that’s where I learned about you and your site. It changed my life. However, despite of all the learning and my success of loosing the baby weight I still binge. I am tired of binging and this month I have been trying to fight it but reading this news letter it helping my psych to ask the right questions. Sometimes it happens so fast that I don’t get the chance to ask the questions . What do you do on those situations?

    • Hi Helga,

      Thank you so much for your encouragement and support for the work we’re doing here at the Institute; I’m glad these articles are a welcome part of your week.

      What a challenging road you’ve walked and what a blessing your daughter must have been! Congratulations on taking those first courageous steps towards healing.

      I wish I could do your question justice with a simple response, but I don’t think that’s possible. Everyone who binges has a unique set of circumstances, and there are no one-size-fits-all answers. If you’re going to try to do this alone, which is not easy, then I suggest you do your best to slow down in the midst of a binge.Take deep breaths, and stay present to yourself. This is an important beginning step. Feel free to reach out to us at info@psychologyofeating.com and we can recommend an Eating Psychology Coach.

      Warm Regards,
      Marc David

  • Kenneth

    I agree awareness is the first step. I also know awareness can be a seductive. Someone can become aware and the continue to do what s/he had been doing previously. They may compain about a lack of “will power”. Once one is aware the question them becomes not nescesarrily “why” but “why not”. Why can”t they stop? As the author noted, we do wire our brains w/ behaviors in response to emotions. Cognitve Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a method that moves beyond awareness to look at cognitive distortions that may be driving such behaviors. CBT can have a big impact when addressing “wellness ” issues.

    • Hi Kenneth,

      Thank you for coming by and joining in on the conversation.
      Agree, CBT can be so very useful here. It is a simple and powerful approach.

      Best,
      Marc David

  • Paddy

    Marc, thanks so much for this article. Wow, such a lot of information. I love the subject and wish that I had read this kind of information years ago. It really does make perfect sense. I’m embarking on a journey of success and success is really a sequence of [good] habits and in essence means replacing the old [unsuccessful] ones with new [successful] ones. This post is warmly received.
    A habit I got into was poor nutrition (although I didn’t think that I ate particularly badly i.e. I didn’t eat fast foods but I did eat the wrong foods, and a lack of exercise. It took a few photos that I saw when we were on holiday that snap me off that treadmill and I immediately changed my lifestyle to that of healthy eating (this time it really was healthy eating) and daily exercise. I lost 44lbs odd to bring me down to my ideal weight. It was very rewarding and liberating. I maintain that weight today (some 6 years later).
    Thanks again for a fantastic post. Love it.

    • Hi Paddy

      I love you how you describe success as a sequence of good habits. I’m so glad you felt this post provided some confirmation for you on your journey. Congrats on your healthy progress. One of the best things about doing work in this field is hearing how people are getting in touch with themselves and finding their balance. It’s a rough road sometimes, but worth the ride.
      Thanks for sharing your story here with us.

      Best,
      Marc David

  • Very good article and I must say that it is rightly said that if you need to keep your head in multiple things at the same time then you really need a sound, working and stress free mind. Always try to innovate and learn new things, the hypothalamus never stops learning.

    • Lindsay Young

      Hi!
      Lindsay here from IPE.
      We agree that a stress-free mind is key!
      So glad you liked the article.

  • Sean

    Great read

    “Characteristically, negative habits have some immediate positive or pleasurable benefits.”

    This is the sticker for most people as the instant buzz can mask the long term consequences.

    Kenneth raised an interesting point about the limitations of awareness. I think to develop a change in habit you have to train your mind to associate it with positive emotions that you can feel deep inside of you. This takes practice but it works if you keep at it.

    James Newman book ‘Release Your Brakes’ is a great read on this subject.

    • Hi Sean,

      Thanks for the book recommendation! For sure, after awareness has been practiced around our unwanted habits, we must eventually have some kind of action or adjustment. Being human surely has its strange challenges….

      Best,
      Marc

  • This is why a big component of weight loss is patience. The patience to be aware of our eating habits, and patience to get consistent even though we feel like giving up. If people want change but do not have the patience and awareness in every eating decision, I would against them that they would succeed.

    The analogy of starting small and exercising our “choosing muscle” in this article is the essence of change in any aspect of life like eating and taking control of one’s weight.

    Thank you for sharing this.

    • Hey Ryan,
      Indeed, patience and awareness is a huge part of the process.
      Thank you for your continuing presence here.

      Best,
      Marc David

  • Em

    This article is so very relevant for me. I will be asking myself if I choose to make this choice from now on whenever I feel that “out of control, ready to eat everything in sight” feeling come over me…..
    I love the way you write, and always feel like the information is so relevant to me. Thank you. Em

    • Hi Em –
      Glad to hear this spoke to you in a positive way.
      Thank you for your kind words.

      Best,
      Marc David

  • jan

    Meditate every morning and asking higher power for the patience and awareness that is needed.

    • Thanks so much for sharing!
      Sounds like a great morning routine.

      Kindly,
      Marc

  • liv

    Really great article! I had gotten into the habit of having a glass of wine every night after a long stressful day. The awareness was key in changing this habit into something a bit more healthy like going for a walk or a good yoga session. If I’m not aware though, I fall easily back into this habit.

    Thanks again!

    • Hi Liv,
      Everyone needs their rituals. They’re important and help us to feel safe, relaxed and content.
      I’m glad to hear yoga is one of yours.

      Warmly,
      Marc

  • Simona

    –unitil it feels lovable?

    “To trigger the new and improved re-birthed self most effectively we must love the old and deficient version of us exactly as we are – to progress in our self-realization process we must love the regressive, unrealized aspect. Love implies or encourages acceptance of self exactly as we find or observe it, rather than negatively judging it and wanting to change it.”

    – Working on it!

    Thank you, I love the strengtening of the desicion (&love) muscle!

    • Hi Simona,
      Sounds like you’re entering into the difficult and good work of discovering and loving self! Good for you!

      Best wishes,
      Marc

  • Bree

    In my experience depression is nothing more than a habit as well. Like smoking it starts with one or two negative thoughts and if uncontrolled can spiral out to an inability to see any light at all. When I fell into the habit of negative thinking and became depressed I was lucky enough to be very much aware of it and decided to change my habit. I decided every morning I would tell myself a list of things I love in my life or that made me happy in an effort to change my thought processes. At first it was hard, I had to start small. Things like hot showers and lying in the sun were all I could come up with but that was ok. As I got better at it I could expand to bigger more personal things and before I knew it I was changing negative thoughts through out the day to positive ones and the negativity started to subside.

    It didn’t happen over night and it certainly wasn’t easy however all I really did was change the habit, negative to positive. No doctors, no medication, no psychologists. And just like a smoker putting out their last cigarette, it feels amazing to know what you have accomplished!

    – Bree

  • Great article. Is there a difference between Object Constancy and Object Permanence? I always believed that constancy is more about the internalizing the idea of a parent being a separate individual. Object permanence is the realization that every day objects still exist even if you can’t see them. Anyway, thank you for the article — I enjoyed it.

About The Author
Marc David
Founder

Marc David is the Founder of the Institute for the Psychology of Eating, a leading visionary, teacher and consultant in Nutritional Psychology, and the author of the classic and best-selling works Nourishing Wisdom and The Slow Down Diet. His work has been featured on CNN, NBC and numerous media outlets. His books have been translated into over 10 languages, and his approach appeals to a wide audience of eaters who are looking for fresh, inspiring and innovative messages about food, body and soul. He lectures internationally, and has held senior consulting positions at Canyon Ranch Resorts, the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, the Johnson & Johnson Corporation, and the Disney Company. Marc is also the co-founder of the Institute for Conscious Sexuality and Relationship.