Habits are the invisible architecture of everyday life, and a significant element of happiness. If we have habits that work for us, we’re much more likely to be happy, healthy, productive, and creative.
My habits research started as part of my ongoing happiness research—I often spend a lot of time studying happiness-related sub-topics, such as pain or the sense of smell—but I just kept pushing deeper and deeper into habit formation. The more I learned, the more I wanted to know—but also the more baffled I became.
I had many questions that seemed quite obvious and pressing to me, but strangely, few of the experts seemed to recognize them. For instance:
- Sometimes, people acquire habits overnight, and sometimes, they drop longtime habits just as abruptly. Why?
- Why do practically all dieters gain the weight back?
- It’s understandable why we have trouble acquiring habits of activities we don’t want to do, but why is it so hard to make ourselves acquire habits that we do want to do?
- Why do some people dread and resist habits, and others follow them eagerly?
- Why are people often so unmoved by consequences? Many graduate students take several years to write their dissertations, and stay ABD (“All But Dissertation”) even though they’re much better off finishing faster. One-third to one-half of U.S. patients don’t take medicine prescribed for a chronic illness.
- Do the same strategies that work for changing simple habits (tooth-flossing) also apply to complex habits (drinking less)?
- Do the same habit-formation strategies apply equally well to everyone?
- Why is it that sometimes, even though we’re very anxious—even desperate—to change a habit, we can’t? A friend told me, “I have a lot of chronic health issues, and I do a lot better when I don’t eat wheat or dairy. But I do. Why? These foods make me feel lousy. But I eat them.”
- Certain situations seem to make it easier to form habits. Why?
- Why do we indulge in a bad habit even when we’re painfully aware that we’re doing it? I’d heard that sequence in my own head: “I shouldn’t. I told myself I wouldn’t. I want to. I have to. Watch me.”
- Most importantly, what are the overarching strategies that allow us to change our habits—or help someone else to change a habit—whether that habit is exercising more, taking medication, doing homework, turning off the TV, or anything else?
I searched unsuccessfully for the answers, until one day a thought hit me: “I should write a book about habits! I’ll figure out the answers to these questions.”
The book’s title is Better Than Before, because that’s what we all want from our healthy habits—to go from before to after.
In Better Than Before, I identify the many strategies that we can use to make or break our habits. The most fun strategy? Treats. The funniest chapter? The chapter on Loophole-Spotting (I include a list of the loopholes we invoke to justify breaking our healthy habits, and they are hilarious.)
The book will hit the shelves in March 2015 (Crown), and if you want to hear when it goes on sale, sign up here.