I am going to talk to Wendy Wood about my bad habits. Professor of psychology at the University of Southern California, Wood researches how habits guide behaviour and has written a new book about it: Good Habits, Bad Habits: The Science of Making Positive Changes That Stick. Not market-driven self-help, it is based on research, data, actual science. I hope she will help me to understand my bad habits, change them, and maybe even pick up a few good ones.
What are my unwanted habits, though, since I quit smoking? I should probably look at Twitter a little less, but that’s everyone, right? Or Facebook, Instagram; whatever it is you look at your phone for. There is a chapter at the end of Wood’s book, How to Stop Looking at Your Phone So Often. You have to start off by noticing you are doing it, then use some of the tools you have hopefully picked up in the preceding pages, such as controlling the cues to the behaviour, adding friction ... we will get to some of that.
I bite my nails, habitually. It is gross, I know. But apart from that, I am struggling to think of anything. I will just confirm that I am otherwise perfect, with my girlfriend …
Ah, so it seems there are a couple more – quite a long list, actually. I won’t bore you with the details (most of it isn’t even true). Top of her list, though, is something I do recognise: I suck air in through my teeth sporadically when I’m talking, especially if I’m concentrating. It makes a noise. And sometimes I do something with my face at the same time, kind of screw it up.
“You know, to be honest, it kind of sounds charming,” says Wood, down the line from Baja California in Mexico, where she is on holiday. “I don’t know why you would want to change that, but I suppose if it bothers your family then that would be something to work on.”
You know what, no, I’m going to leave it. Being bothered by it is the only problem here. A leading expert on habits says that this one sounds charming, and I’m taking that. Next!
Wood asks which of my bad habits I would most like to change. Change is challenging and motivation will add to the chance of success. Let’s tackle the nailbiting, then, because I admit to it and it is disgusting.
“I can’t tell you about the origins of your nailbiting except that most people develop the habit when they are anxious and it distracts them,” she says. “Because it’s a little bit of pain and it makes you focus away from the anxiety, it is rewarding. So the next time you feel anxious, you go back to biting your nails.”
That figures. She asks me about the cues that activate the behaviour. Are there particular times and places it happens? Is it anxiety from work, sitting at the desk, trying to write and generate stuff? I think so, yeah, my high-pressure media job, calling up eminent scientists during their Mexican holidays.
She explains that habit memories change only slowly, if at all; that habits keep being triggered by the circumstances around you; and that your habit automatically comes to mind before you have a chance to do something else. “All of this makes our habits resistant to change.” Oh dear, no quick fix, it seems. But the way forward can be pared down into three parts.
1 Add friction to the habit so that it is not easy to perform
So I could wear gloves at times of high-nailbiting likelihood. Or coat them with that foul-tasting stuff they used to – and may still – give to kids. “Another possibility is to sit on your hands,” suggests Woods. Might make writing tricky.
“What women do, and there’s no reason why you shouldn’t consider this, is get a nice manicure,” she says. “That makes it more difficult for you to bite your nails because it is really obvious, plus you’ll have just spent a lot of money.” I could get extensions, she suggests. They wouldn’t have to be long, if I didn’t fancy going the full Selena Gomez.
2 Change the cues that activate the habit, so it doesn’t come to mind
If it is my work environment that is triggering the behaviour, could I change that? “Maybe getting a standing desk would make it less likely that you bite your nails,” she says. She tells me about a colleague of hers who got a treadmill desk, after which he was surprisingly productive. A treadmill desk! I like it, and that might even encourage one of my other good-habit targets; to do a bit of exercise.
3 Develop a conflicting habit that you practise until it becomes what automatically springs to mind
Something to do with my hands, instead of chewing them. Are fidget-spinners still a thing? A stress ball, perhaps, or an executive toy. I will think about it. “The thing to bear in mind is that willpower is going to get you started, but there is good research that it doesn’t stick around long enough for us to be successful when we are trying to change a strong habit.” Think about that diet that went the way of the one before. Or the gym membership that didn’t become a habit. We need the situation to help as well.
What about the positive changes, then? How am I going to turn my occasional, reluctant run into a habit? It is something Wood did. It wasn’t easy, getting up early – that was the only time to fit the run in. But she liked feeling fit and it helped her to control her weight. Goals and rewards help in starting to do something. It took time, too. She says she struggled for about a year with that one. A year!
Again, the suggestion is to use the environment to make the challenge easier. “I started sleeping in my running clothes and I would put my running shoes by the door,” she says. “And I had a dog at the time, whom I started running with. She loved it; she would come and wake me up.”
Great. I’m desperate for a dog and if it can help develop good-habit formation, that’s an added bonus. It might be tricky to get past the rest of my family, who want a cat. I’m not sure how sleeping in my running gear is going to go down either.
Talking to Wood is making me think about my relationship. There is a bit in her book where she talks about what she calls “habituation” in long-term relationships, whereby partners repeatedly do the same things together, settling into each other’s presence – and it is striking a chord. “It’s a good thing,” she says. “It means you are dependent on each other. But it can also get to a point where you are not feeling a whole lot in a relationship.”
How do I change that? “Do something new together, that creates new patterns and allows you to experience your partner in new ways. It could be as simple as cooking classes.” Yes, we like to cook; stick a dim-sum course on the list.
And that is probably enough for now, for 2020. It’s going to take time to form new habits. It’s true, old habits do indeed die hard. But I have a better understanding of how it works and some new tools. I’m going to create new patterns – and pork dumplings – with my partner, and this will enable us to experience each other in new and emotional ways.
I’m going to spice things up further by sleeping in my tracksuit. We will have a dog, too, not just for Christmas, and it will run with me every morning and that will feel – eventually – not like a chore but normal and good.
I’ll also run on a treadmill as I work. And I’m booking myself into a nail bar for a set of top-of-the-range acrylic extensions. But I will continue to suck air through my teeth. And to gurn, charmingly.
Good Habits, Bad Habits by Wendy Wood is published by Pan Macmillan. To buy for £17.60 (RRP £20) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0203 176 3837. P&P charges may apply.