Guest Host: Terence Smith

It’s that time of year again when millions of Americans vow to create good habits and break bad ones. The psychologist behind PsyBlog explains why it is so difficult to modify our behavior — and to stick with the change.


  • Jeremy Dean Psychologist and creator of PsyBlog.

Read An Excerpt

Excerpt from “Making Habits, Breaking Habits: Why We Do Things, Why We Don’t, and How to Make Any Change Stick” by Jeremy Dean. Copyright 2013 by Jeremy Dean. Reprinted here by permission of Da Capo Lifelong Books. All rights reserved.


  • 11:06:54

    MR. TERENCE SMITHThanks for joining us. I'm Terence Smith, former correspondent of PBS, CBS and the New York Times sitting in for Diane Rehm, who is out with a cold today. It's that time of year again. Millions of Americans woke up yesterday vowing to create good habits and break bad ones. While many will succeed, many more will fail. The psychologist behind PsyBlog has written a new book that explores why it's so difficult to modify our behavior and to stick with the change.

  • 11:07:25

    MR. TERENCE SMITHJeremy Dean joins me in the studio. His new book is entitled, "Making Habits, Breaking Habits: Why We Do Things, Why We Don't, and How to Make Any Change Stick." Jeremy, welcome.

  • 11:07:39

    MR. JEREMY DEANThank you very much. Good to be here.

  • 11:07:41

    SMITHSo right off, have you made any New Year's resolutions?

  • 11:07:46

    DEANYou know what? I haven't. I'm a little bit against New Year's resolutions. And the simple reason is the idea that you might be able to kind of transform yourself in a week or two, right in the new year, is kind of what the research suggests, it's very difficult to make these kind of changes. So I haven't made any New Year's resolutions, but, you know, let's see, the year is young.

  • 11:08:09

    SMITHRight. Now, so that's the first question really. If people do resolve on New Year's morning or about this time to change the way they do things about eating or exercise or anything like that, assume for the moment it's a sincere effort, why is it so hard to stick with it?

  • 11:08:34

    DEANI think one of the mistakes that people make is they kind of bite off more than they can chew. So when people make resolutions like, for example, I'm going to be healthier in the new year or I'm going to be a better person, which are just too vague really to stick to. So one of the things I advocate in the book and psychologists have tested quite a lot is this idea of making really specific plans. So that's one kind of thing that you can do. And it's one reason that people find it difficult to make new habits, is because they don't use really specific plans like that.

  • 11:09:09

    DEANThe other thing is that habits work mostly unconsciously. So we're doing all this stuff without really realizing that we're doing it. So, you know, it's quite difficult to change something that you don't realize you're doing. It might seem a bit weird to say that we don't realize we're doing these things, but we tend to see the results of it, for example, in our weight or, you know, how we feel, but we tend not to notice quite a lot of the stuff. Psychologists have tested this and reckoned maybe about 50 percent of the things we do everyday are habits, which means that half the stuff we're doing is unconscious, you know, when we decide to do it.

  • 11:09:53

    SMITHSo you would suggest, for example, instead of saying I'm going to lose weight, l want to lose five pounds. Something more specific and perhaps realizable?

  • 11:10:02

    DEANWell, I would say, even more specific than that. And I wouldn't have a specific goal, like to lose five pounds. I would say choose a particular situation and then attach a particular action to it.

  • 11:10:17

    SMITHFor example?

  • 11:10:17

    DEANFor example, what you might do is you might say to yourself, if I feel hungry between meals then I will eat an apple, right, rather than some cake, for example, or some high calorie food. So making new habits is really about creating that link between a situation and an action that you perform in that situation and then repeating that over and over again until you do it automatically. So it's really a kind of a low-level thing that you're doing here and that's what I would certainly advocate.

  • 11:10:50

    SMITHOf course the very suggestion of New Year's resolutions suggests that people are not entirely happy with themselves. In other words, they have habits that they don't like very much and would like to change.

  • 11:11:01

    DEANAbsolutely, yes. And I think it is worth emphasizing that the vast majority of habits are good. I mean they're good habits. Things like looking both ways before you cross the road or putting on your seatbelt. All these kind of low-level things that our brain is doing automatically are fantastic for us. But obviously, there are some bad habits that we want to change. And the first step is noticing them.

  • 11:11:24

    SMITHTell me how as a psychologist and a researcher and all of this, that you became interested in this particular point, this nature of habit and what makes them so stubborn.

  • 11:11:38

    DEANWell, I think it was about three years ago I wrote a post on my blog, just the simple question, "How long does it take to form a habit?" And what I found was, when I Googled it, which is what people do nowadays to get information, the answers to everything, was that it takes 21 days. Apparently that's the amount, 21 days or possibly 28 days. That's what came up in all the search results. And there are actually quite a few books out there as well which will promise you that you'll be a new person within 21, sometimes 28 days. That's about the outside. So I tried to look around for some research. Is there any research that backs up this 21 or 28 days? No, there isn't. There's nothing to back this up.

  • 11:12:19

    DEANNo hard science. But in 2009 there was a study done and they got people to do regular kind of habits like eating an apple and doing a bit of exercise and these kinds of things. And they found a huge variation in how long it took to form a new habit. Some were a couple of weeks and some the habit wasn't even formed after two or three months, something like that. So anyway, I posted this piece to say that just 21 days is a bit of myth. And it got a big response. And that tipped me off that there was something going on here. And it's such an interesting area, habits, because it goes across so much of everyday life.

  • 11:12:57

    DEANYou know, if half of the things we're doing every day are habits then, you know, the things that we do regularly are having a huge affect on our lives.

  • 11:13:04

    SMITHAnd the fact that so many people responded on the blog suggests that, as I say, they're not entirely happy with themselves and they're thinking about this. They're thinking about what motivates them, why they do what they do.

  • 11:13:19

    DEANAbsolutely. There's a massive hunger for this and for understanding ourselves, which, you know, obviously for thousands of years we've been trying to delve down into the unconscious and work out the reasons that we're doing the things that we're doing, you know, from Sigmund Freud onwards. And unfortunately, it kind of turns out, that despite there's all these things going on down there it is quite difficult, in fact, we'd say impossible to work out often, what these motivations are. Which is why something I write about in the book is that it's about noticing habits, it's about kind of seeing your behaviors.

  • 11:13:55

    SMITHYou've said on the blog that a habit is a combination of our intentions and our past behavior.

  • 11:14:01

    DEANYes, absolutely. And lots of our habits are very good and they're built up because, you know, we intend, for example, to do well at work so we get into the habit of turning up on time and doing our job well. And then that habit builds up. And then we repeat it in the same situation and so on. And most of the time, you know, our habits do follow our intentions.

  • 11:14:26

    SMITHIt's a remarkable thing to think that we get so set in our ways by this repetition and once these habits are formed, that it is such a struggle to change it.

  • 11:14:38

    DEANIt is. And it sounds kind of odd when you think, you know, that all these things are being done unconsciously because it doesn't feel like all these things are unconscious. You don't feel like you're a robot walking, you know, kind of marching around, but that's the beauty of the way the brain works because it's dealing with all these things automatically, it's making these decisions automatically for us. And what that's doing is allowing us to, you know, concentrate on what's important. We can shift our focus, our concentration onto the vital things and then let our automatic processes take over everything else.

  • 11:15:16

    SMITHHow does this function? How do these habits function when we're confronted with a danger or a challenge or a trauma, something that comes along that changes things?

  • 11:15:29

    DEANYes. I mean habits are normally really heavily tied to situations. So we tend to do the same things in the same situations. And that's what normally cues up particular behavior. So whether it's eating or lack of exercise that normally people are worried about and all the other regular things that we do everyday, worrying for example, I mean we're talking about physical things here, but, you know, there's all kinds of mental things and, you know, obsessions and so on, they can be cued off by anxieties and worries and fears and so on. So all these kind of little mental and kind of physical situational things are setting us off in particular directions, setting our mind going in particular directions.

  • 11:16:13

    SMITHAs somebody who works on this and researches this, I wonder what your habits are and how do they play out? For example, you mentioned that this is your visit to the United States. So now you're in new territory.

  • 11:16:26

    DEANAbsolutely. Well, this is a fascinating thing. I mean, I just arrived yesterday in Washington. It's great to be here. This is the first time I've been in the U.S. And it's one of those wonderful things. You probably know when you go on holiday, suddenly you're out of your comfort zone, you're out of your old habits. You know, you've got to find a new cafe to have a cup of coffee in. And you go to a new museum or whatever it is. But it's also exhausting. It's exhausting because the whole time you've got to decide what, you know, what you're going to do next and how you're going to do it and how you're going to get around.

  • 11:16:57

    DEANYou know, I'm just seeing where the Metro is on busses and taxis and all that kind of stuff. So, yes, I'm enjoying it, but I'm kind of tired because I've got to make all these decisions. I can't rely on all those old habits. So that's kind of two sides of the habits there. You've got the fact that when you're out of them you're more engaged with the world because you're noticing everything because you're concentrating on it. But on the other side you're also quite tired because you've got to be thinking the whole time.

  • 11:17:21

    SMITHRight. And yet this is new for you and therefore, I would assume, you're more conscious of what you're doing, of the choices you're making, the decisions you're making.

  • 11:17:34

    DEANExactly. And this is one of these things about habits. It is a bit depressing in a way because things that we enjoy. For me, I really like cycling. I'm really into cycling. And I try to cycle most days if I can, weather permitting. This time of the year not that much, though it's a beautiful day today. But the pleasure I get from cycling over time decreases because my conscious mind, you know, flits away to something else. You know, I might be worrying about something I'm working on or whatever. And this is the same with all our pleasurable activities. You know, it's never the same as the first time, unfortunately. And life is a kind of constant battle really to get back to that.

  • 11:18:18

    DEANSo little tweaks in the way that you perform your habits, like for cycling for example, I like to try and do different routes or listen to different music or, you know, not listen to anything. Any way that I can to kind of wake myself up, wake up the conscious mind and pay attention to what's going on.

  • 11:18:32

    SMITHExactly. All right. Coming up, more about habits and how we make them and how we break them.

  • 11:20:07

    SMITHWelcome back. I'm Terence Smith sitting in for Diane Rehm. My guest this hour is Jeremy Dean, a psychologist whose book is entitled "Making Habits, Breaking Habits: Why We Do Things, Why We Don't, and How to Make Any Change Stick." Jeremy, we have a few emails coming in here and one person for example asked, "What is the difference between a habit and an addiction.

  • 11:20:36

    DEANWell, there's quite a bit of overlap between the two and I think the class example is something like smoking, where you've got what we tend to think of as addiction being the nicotine. You know, the nicotine's going into your body and then you're getting this kind of buzz. We tend to think of that as addiction. And then we've got the habit part of it which is kind of the behavioral bit. So it's like after you have a meal you fancy a cigarette or, you know, you're talking to people and you'd like to have something in your hand while you're talking, for example.

  • 11:21:07

    DEANSo we tend to think those traditionally sort of set perhaps but there is quite a fair amount of overlap between them. So, yeah.

  • 11:21:18

    SMITHAll right. Here's another question by email from Shelly. "What is meant by instant habits? Can a mental plan help create a shortcut to good habits?"

  • 11:21:28

    DEANYeah, exactly. This is kind of what we were talking about before, which is this idea of linking the situation with the action. So this if/then plan, if this then that. And so I just call those implementation intentions. And so I don't think you could really make an instant habit that way but you can certainly give yourself a good chance of actually performing that action in that situation. And each time you then perform that action in the situation then habit gets a little bit stronger and it becomes more and more automatic.

  • 11:22:06

    SMITHI should say that on your blog, the side blog to which we have a link incidentally on our website today, you get into other areas of human behavior. For example, I was reading one point you were making about the power or influence of touching someone when you're trying to make a point or persuade them or perhaps sell them something I suppose that the idea of touching someone is quite effective.

  • 11:22:41

    DEANIt really is. It has all kinds of powerful effects on people to touch them, as long as you're touching them appropriately of course. And it also varies across cultures as well. Not all cultures are touching cultures. So, you know, there's a variety of things going on there but as long as the situation is right I think you can use it.

  • 11:23:01

    SMITHDo we make new habits all the time or are we really dealing with things that have been true and habitual for us for a long time?

  • 11:23:12

    DEANYou know, there's not much research on this but I think it would be a fair guess to say that young people are probably making most of their habits. And as you age I would imagine that they're getting less and less, unfortunately. But then to a certain extent you discover what you like with age. And, you know, when you're a bit younger you're still exploring.

  • 11:23:34

    SMITHWell, and you get into, you know, you have the old phrase he's stuck in his ways, which suggests that you -- repetition, it sinks in and it's harder and harder to break out.

  • 11:23:47

    DEANExactly, it is.

  • 11:23:49

    SMITHAll right. Let's -- we have a number of calls coming in. People obviously are thinking about this themselves. So let's go to one. Here's Laura in Houston, Texas. Laure, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 11:24:03

    LAURAHi. Thank you for taking my call.

  • 11:24:04

    SMITHHappy to do it.

  • 11:24:04

    DEANThis is an interesting topic. Happy New Year. And I'm harking back to your conversation about the New Year's resolutions. I've given up the specifics and gone for much broader themes throughout the year and I find that it gives me a focus on a daily schedule to think about. And my first one was intention, to make choices with intention. And then it's a cumulative process too so the next year was gratitude, to show gratitude in all that I do. And last year it's balance and this year it's completion. And I find that it actually has made a transcendent difference. So it's been an interesting process.

  • 11:24:42

    SMITHJeremy Dean.

  • 11:24:43

    DEANThat's fantastic. Yeah, and it's really good to have those kind of high-level goals that you're talking about. And you want to be aiming towards something. And you mentioned gratitude though which is a very interesting one. And there's a fair amount of research on that now and that seems to be the habit -- a happy habit, one that makes us feel better, just to remind ourselves about the things that we're grateful for.

  • 11:25:05

    DEANAnd -- but like we were talking about the implementation intentions, these if/then plans, you can use those as well for example with gratefulness. You can say to yourself, you know, if it's the end of the day then I will, you know, think about something that I'm grateful for in my life. So, you know, there's ways that you can use these sort of low-level things as well. And it's great to have those high-level stuff as well.

  • 11:25:27

    LAURAAbsolutely, yeah.

  • 11:25:29

    SMITHWell, Laura, how long do these intentions last and do they become habits?

  • 11:25:37

    LAURAWell, some of them have, the ones that actually have legitimate meaning. And I find that as I do walk with this idea that, you know, it just -- it propels me to really be mindful about everything that I do, how I schedule my workday, what I do with my friends, my family, my eating habits, my exercise habits. So that I'm making actual decisions that are meaningful and that, you know, I can begin to incorporate it into my world.

  • 11:26:08

    LAURAAnd I found that, you know, just saying -- because like with the gratitude I started a gratitude journal so there was a certain level of using something on a daily basis and making a decision that this is something I'm going to do. But the other ideas -- and then continuing it on. I mean, just because the year's intention is no longer with me I still carry the intention and it becomes accumulative habit actually.

  • 11:26:34

    SMITHAnd I suppose, Laura, for being honest you're decision to show more gratitude suggests that you felt you weren't showing enough.

  • 11:26:43

    LAURAWell, yes. And I think gratitude -- I think it all comes down to gratitude. I think joy and love and all the things that we strive to experience in our lives manifests with gratitude. I mean, being grateful for what we have as opposed to, you know, pitying ourselves for what we don't have or who we don't have in our lives. I think we are all so blessed in so many different ways that it's -- really it's an attitude about approaching life. And, you know, the day goes the way the corners of your mouth turn. And if you start with a smile, sometimes that seems to help even in the gravest of circumstances.

  • 11:27:24

    SMITHAll right. Laura, thank you very much for your call. Jeremy Dean, obviously Laura's a very positive-minded person and she wants to do these things. So that helps, I suppose, in sustaining intentions.

  • 11:27:40

    DEANAbsolutely. And motivation is so important. And one of the things that people quite often ask about is, look, if I'm not as positive as that, you know, if I don't really fancy it, how can I boost up my motivation? And one of the exercises that's quite handy, which I mentioned about this, something called mental contrasting, which is a rather frightening name for something that's quite simple, which is really first of all thinking about the positive aspects of the change that you want to make. And then -- which most people find easy because it's quite easy to think about the good stuff.

  • 11:28:15

    DEANBut then you have to try and think about the barriers and you have to think, okay, what are the things that are going to stop me achieving this. And then you do a kind of contrasting. So you say, okay let's weigh these up against each other. And so, you know, it's like doing pros and cons basically. And then what studies show is that generally people will then either give up if they don't expect this goal to actually, you know, if it's not workable or they'll push on. It'll give them more motivation. So it's kind of a handy little exercise.

  • 11:28:44

    SMITHAre these habits or tendencies different between men and women?

  • 11:28:49

    DEANI don't think -- there's not much research on whether there is much of a difference. I would say probably not that much.

  • 11:28:57

    SMITHI point out that the title of your book is about making habits and breaking habits. More difficult?

  • 11:29:06

    DEANMuch more difficult. So much more difficult, especially long established habits. And I say in the book that one of the things about trying to break a habit is you have to think of a habit like a river running down from the mountains. You can't damn that river forever. You can't just stop it flowing. But what you can do it you can redirect it, so you can send it in a new direction. So that's always a thing with habits is if you've got a bad habit don't try to suppress it. It's much better to try and replace it with a better one. So that's really the way to go. It's kind of replacement rather than suppression.

  • 11:29:45

    SMITHAll right. Let's take another call, Juliet in Raleigh, N.C. Juliet, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 11:29:53

    JULIETYes, good morning.

  • 11:29:54

    SMITHGood morning.

  • 11:29:55


  • 11:29:55

    JULIETQuite a topic you guys have here. My habit is more of an emotional habit. It's something that I picked up a year ago after getting a little depressed. I've started to grind on one of my front tooth when I become nervous or have anxiety when I can't solve things or come up with solutions and now I have a short right tooth because of it, which it may be a little funny now, but it's not. And I really want to stop. Now, it feels good to do it and it's, you know, I'm just wondering what stuff I can do to stop doing that.

  • 11:30:45

    SMITHJeremy Dean.

  • 11:30:46

    DEANWell, the first step always with habits is to try to notice the situations in which you perform them. So it's trying to look for the triggers, the cues of things that will start you doing that. So you'll notice, if you try -- mindfulness was mentioned earlier and that's really about trying to be more aware of your surroundings and what's going on and what's going on in your mind as well. So you mentioned anxiety so I suspect it's related to anxiety. So you need to look and see kind of what sort of things are making you anxious.

  • 11:31:22


  • 11:31:22

    DEANSo it's like tracing -- you know, you're trying to trace it back to the source here. It may not be possible but you might -- you may get a clue from the situations in which you're finding yourself anxious. And that would be the first step.

  • 11:31:36

    JULIETOkay. Well, thank you.

  • 11:31:39

    SMITHWell, thank you very much for sharing your thoughts with us. I'm Terence Smith sitting in for Diane Rehm. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And if you'd like to call us call 1-800-433-8850 or send us an email to, find us on Facebook or send us a Tweet. That sort of habit that she was talking about, in this case perhaps born of anxiety and then an action grinding her teeth, whatever, is -- that's almost more than a habit. That's a reaction and possibly even a problem.

  • 11:32:25

    DEANYeah, I think it can be. And it's like I talk about obsessive compulsive disorder. And that's kind of in the same sort of area because we're on a sort of spectrum. Everyone worries about things. I mean -- and we all, for example, want to be clean and tidy and on time. Well, most of us do. So the thing is is to think about the fact that we tend to think that -- like people for example who have OCD are in a separate category. But really the kind of worries that they have adjust more -- they're kind of more than the general normal worries that the rest of us have.

  • 11:33:11

    DEANSo there's kind of a sliding scale between these things. So I wouldn't necessarily say that we're in a separate category here. I would say it's the same thing but more of it.

  • 11:33:21

    SMITHAll right. Let's get a call here from Lucia in Peoria, Ill. Lucia, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 11:33:28

    LUCIAThank you. It's already been stated, I was going to say awareness above all. And, which the other lady mentioned, mindfulness which is -- becomes to be the same thing. And a joy. I feel such a gratitude, such a joy even just for a touch, reaching out and touch my arm, touch my shoulder or maybe pat me on the cheek. I mean, those are such powerful gestures. And I tell you, I feel such a joy, almost like my chest just blows out as big as the whole earth globe.

  • 11:34:09

    LUCIAAnd I am always repeating it like a mantra constantly, love, peace and harmony, thankfulness, gratitude and empathy.

  • 11:34:23

    SMITHAll right. Thank you, Lucia. Jeremy, a comment on that?

  • 11:34:27

    DEANWell, that's a fantastic habit to have and it's great to be able to keep it over time as well. It's very difficult.

  • 11:34:31

    SMITHUm-hum. We have another caller here but even before that a Tweet has come in with a really intriguing question. The Tweeter says, "My mother, my sister, my cousin and I all twirl our hair. Can you explain that habits are genetic or can be genetic or seem to be genetic? Is that possible?"

  • 11:35:00

    DEANThere must be a component, mustn't there? But, you know, especially when you see families together and you see the same things. I know I do some of the same little habits I have as my mom and my dad and the way I speak and things. But of course it may not be I suppose because, you know, you're probably picking those up as a child and you're around each other a lot. So -- but I wouldn't be surprised if there's some kind of genetic component to it. Certainly some people seem to be more predisposed towards, for example, things like OCD. So that would mean that they were perhaps more predisposed to develop these -- OCD yeah...

  • 11:35:35


  • 11:35:37

    DEAN...a bit more obsessive compulsive disorder. They were a bit more -- so they'd be a bit more predisposed to develop habits more strongly. So there would be some element in there I guess.

  • 11:35:49

    SMITHAnd yet some of that is just the adoption of mannerisms from parent to child. You often see that, that people adopt the same even physical mannerisms, the facial expressions, that sort of thing from parent to child.

  • 11:36:05

    DEANYeah well, we start by copying. And, you know, I think it's one of the wonderful things about the human race is that we can copy each other because that kind of copying, someone else work at how to do it and then everyone else copies it. And, you know, it's safe to say, I think, to work out how to do it ourselves. So hopefully we learn when we're young to smile and be polite to strangers and that kind of thing. And then, you know, that's a good habit we pass onto our children.

  • 11:36:29

    SMITHWell, that's the question. Can habits be taught?

  • 11:36:32

    DEANAbsolutely, yeah. Absolutely.

  • 11:36:34

    SMITHAnd so they frequently are. All right. Coming up your calls and questions for Jeremy Dean. We'll be right back.

  • 11:40:02

    SMITHWelcome back. I'm Terence Smith sitting in for Diane Rehm. My guest, Jeremy Dean, is a psychologist. His website, PsyBlog, analyzes psychological studies relevant to everyday life. And I wonder about your habits. What are your habits, Jeremy? Your best and worst?

  • 11:40:23

    DEANOh, here we go. Here we go. Well, I have to say email, checking email. I mean it's one of these sort of modern scourges, isn't it, email? And I mean I've certainly battled with that one over the years. And the best advice I can give to people is to kind of have email checking sort of parts of the day, you know, to save it for a particular part of the day. For me personally that works, but, you know, it'll be different for everyone.

  • 11:40:52

    DEANSo that's certainly a bad habit that I've battled with. A good habit I suppose I've developed over the years is the habit of writing, really. And it was something that took quite a long time to develop because, you know, you try to sit down in front of the computer and you're staring at the blinking cursor. And you think about all the things that you could be doing instead of sitting here. There's all kinds of exciting things. Oh, defrosting the frig, everything. And just getting into the habit of sitting down in the morning in front of the computer and starting to write, that's a good habit that I've managed to develop, but it did take quite a long time.

  • 11:41:27

    SMITHWell, writer's block, I don't know if it's a habit or a condition.

  • 11:41:34

    DEANWell, writer's block, yeah, I don't know. But there is some research on this actually and they quite often say that the thing to do is try and write through it, write any old gobbledy-gook to get started.

  • 11:41:45

    SMITHAll right. Let's take some more calls. Richard, in Houston, Texas. Richard you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 11:41:53

    RICHARDGood morning. A comment on the idea of adopting mannerisms, facial expressions, hand motions and so forth of our parents. I've noticed that I have begun to exhibit such mannerisms of my father, who's been dead for some time. Although, it's possible that it's just something that I've begun to notice. The other thing goes back to mindfulness. In particular, I’m reminded of a practice of mine, which is a Buddhist practice, which is really built around the idea of mindfulness.

  • 11:42:32

    RICHARDAnd then attached to that are presets and other ideas, which were mentioned by the last caller, of loving, kindness, compassion, this sort of thing. I'll take any comment off the line.

  • 11:42:50

    SMITHOkay. Thank you very much, Richard. I mean that goes to sort of an earlier point made about mindfulness, consciousness and your point that much of what we do is not unconscious, but subconscious in that we don't think about it. Those are habits.

  • 11:43:08

    DEANAbsolutely. And mindfulness is such a great thing to develop. And it's one of these things that, you know, you can do right now while you're listening to the radio, absolutely right now. If whatever you're doing, if you just try to pay a little bit more attention to it, just listen a little bit more carefully, look around you, what can you smell, what can you see, all these kinds of things. It's just getting in touch with this stuff. And it comes from the Buddhist tradition, but, you know, psychologists have taken some of the aspects of it and found that they're fantastic. They really do work well for people.

  • 11:43:43

    SMITHWell, and you're also suggesting, don't operate on auto-pilot quite as much in your life.

  • 11:43:50

    DEANYes. That's one of the things about mindfulness that's so wonderful, is this kind of kicking yourself up out of auto-pilot so that you can experience more pleasure in what's going on in the world.

  • 11:44:01

    SMITHWell, here's a very practical question that came in a tweet from Adam. He asks, "Do you have any thoughts on developing the habit of waking up early?"

  • 11:44:11

    DEANOh, this is a very common one, being able to wake up in the morning. And this is partly a motivational thing I think. You really have to want it, especially if you're like me and a natural late riser. For us kind of late owls it is difficult to get up early. I don't know if this will work for you, but this is what I do. I try when I wake up to think about something that I’m going to do during the day that I'm really looking forward to. And then that sometimes does the trick.

  • 11:44:44

    SMITHIn effect, gets you out of bed.

  • 11:44:46


  • 11:44:47

    SMITHRight. Well, as a congenital late sleeper I know exactly what you mean. And yet you eventually develop a habit, I believe, partly because you do have things you want to do, you want to accomplish. And probably you're right to think of them first.

  • 11:45:10

    DEANAbsolutely. And just like I quite often think about our days as like a chain, a chain of habits all linked together. And yes, if you know when you wake up that the sooner you start on that chain the sooner you'll get through to the things that you want to do. So, you know, that's a motivating force as well.

  • 11:45:27

    SMITHLet's take another call. This is Kathleen. Kathleen is in Indianapolis. Kathleen, Happy New Year and welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 11:45:36

    KATHLEENHappy New Year, thank you. Yes, Indianapolis. We keep it cold here. Actually, I’m a writer and I just wanted to mention about writer's block just for a second. When I get writer's block I start writing "I remember," and then I go back to a memory. It doesn't have to be a good one. And I just write every detail I can of it. And usually that helps. But that's not why I called.

  • 11:45:56


  • 11:45:57

    KATHLEENI called because I buy myself one of those one-a-day-calendars every year. And I sit down and on every day I write down an adverb, like lovingly, carefully, slowly, quietly. And I live my life as an adverb. And every day I turn the page, there's the adverb. And as I go through the day I keep my adverb in mind.

  • 11:46:23

    SMITHJeremy, what do you think of this adverbial approach?

  • 11:46:27

    DEANThat's very interesting. I like the idea that you've got the calendar and you're going through, you know, each day because habits or routines that you want to get into the habit of, you want to ingrain and you do have to go daily. And you'd have to go as long as you go. But living by an adverb, I haven't heard that before, but that's very interesting.

  • 11:46:50

    KATHLEENAs long as they're, you know, joyously and not, you know, grumpily.

  • 11:46:55

    SMITHYes, right. Exactly.

  • 11:46:56

    KATHLEENAs long as they're good adverbs.

  • 11:46:58

    SMITHAll right. Thank you, Kathleen.

  • 11:47:00

    KATHLEENYou're quite welcome.

  • 11:47:02

    SMITHAppreciate it very much. We have a tweet from not far away from Kathleen, from Jeffersonville, Ind. Arthur asks of you, Jeremy, "What do you think of the potential value of hypnosis to break habits for the average individual?"

  • 11:47:24

    DEANYou know, I’m not aware of the research on this one, but some people do swear by it and say that it can help with the motivational aspect of it, to really make you want to do it. And with any strong habits like smoking, the will to, you know, give up does have to be stronger than the will to carry on. So, you know, anything that helps.

  • 11:47:51

    SMITHI suppose. All right. Here's a call from Evan in Patchogue, N.Y. Evan, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 11:48:01

    EVANHi. First, I just wanted to say I absolutely love "The Diane Rehm Show." Thank you so much. And I had a comment for Jeremy. When trying to change a habit I know most people tend to fall off very quickly. You talked about that. I find that for me it helps to look at the net effects of the habit. It keeps you motivated. So, for instance, you want to eat healthier, you may only eat healthy for three or four days instead of seven days, but as long as you continue to do it for those three or four days, over time you do it more and more and you build up that habit.

  • 11:48:36

    DEANYes. This is one of the things that came up when I was first researching habits, actually. And there was this idea going around that, you know, if you missed one day or you missed two days that's it. That's the end of the world. Forget about it, you know. You failed. And that's not true. That really is not true. It's exactly what you're saying. You've got to go a little bit easier on yourself. And there is actually some research to say that you are better to forgive yourself those slips than you are to go and beat yourself up about it.

  • 11:49:03

    SMITHThanks for your call, Evan.

  • 11:49:06

    EVANThank you very much. Take care.

  • 11:49:07

    SMITHThere's an email here from Chris who writes, "I used to have a habit of going to the gym. Unfortunately, I had to stop for a short period of time due to work. However, now I find it extremely difficult to get back into the habit and exercise the way I use to. Any suggestions?"

  • 11:49:26

    DEANWell, exercise habits are so difficult because I think unlike eating habits, you've got the appetite that comes along every four hours or so and it cues you off to eat, but with exercise if you're not in the regular habit of exercising then there's not really that kind of desire. You do pick it up after a bit of time and you start to miss it, but you've got to get over that hump at the start. You've got to get started. So I would look at the obstacles, think about the obstacles that are stopping you. What is it stopping you?

  • 11:49:58

    DEANI mean, presumably, if you were going to the gym before then you obtained the habit once so it should be there. That's one of the interesting things about habits, is they never die. They're always there waiting in the background. It's also one of the horrible things about habits. They're always waiting there to be activated. And it's, you know, serious addictions like alcoholics, for example, the alcoholism is always waiting and they have to be vigilant. But on the other hand, you know, if you developed a habit of going to the gym, for example, then it should be there in the background.

  • 11:50:27

    DEANAnd if you work out what the obstacles are and deal with them then that should give you a good chance.

  • 11:50:35

    SMITHAll right. Miguel in Delray Beach in Florida has a question that relates to a habit. You're on "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 11:50:46

    MIGUELYes. Thank you so much. Well, I have a habit that I think goes back to early childhood, which is the fact of getting up late at night and going to the refrigerator and getting things to eat. Now, I'm fully aware that that is harmful. There's nothing more than I want to do in my life than to shed off some pounds and get a whole night's sleep. And it doesn't happen. No matter how careful I am during the daytime, at night it happens.

  • 11:51:19

    SMITHAnd is it in response to an actual hunger, a craving or do you think it's just a habit?

  • 11:51:26

    MIGUELI think it's just a habit because I try to eat before I go to bed and still in all it happens.

  • 11:51:36

    DEANIt is very difficult, yes, I know. And sometimes when you get into the habit of sleeping badly it's very difficult to get out of. I know that myself, as well. You know, you have periods where you sleep well and then you have periods when you don't. But, presumably, when you wake up in the middle of the night, there's something going on there where you're getting up. And perhaps the first step would be to replace the eating with something else that you could do if you've got to get up out of bed.

  • 11:52:08

    DEANSo that would be the very first step. Could you have, you know, a small drink or something like that instead? Or could you read for a short period or something like that before going back to bed? Would that be possible, Miguel?

  • 11:52:22

    MIGUELYes. Yes, I will try that by all means.

  • 11:52:23

    SMITHAll right. Thank you, Miguel, for your call. I mean you mentioned habits as they relate to sleeping and periods in which it's difficult to sleep or easier to do so. Is that a habit or is that really caused by something, either something you've eaten or fatigue or whatever?

  • 11:52:45

    DEANYes. I think it is. I think there's lots of physiological causes for bad sleeping. But there is still a habitual element in there that it may turn out that, you know, that you wake up and you're worrying in the night, for example, and that's something that gets you out of bed once the mind activates and, you know, these things are going over and over. So, you know, some relaxation techniques can help with that.

  • 11:53:11

    SMITHI'm Terence Smith. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." If you'd like to join us, call us at 1-800-433-8850 or send an email to, find us on Facebook or send us a tweet. It's interesting this topic has brought in all manner of calls. And let's try to go to one more. Scott is in Cincinnati, Ohio. Happy New Year, Scott.

  • 11:53:40

    SCOTTHappy New Year. May I be the last to wish you a Happy New Year.

  • 11:53:44

    SMITHGo right ahead.

  • 11:53:46

    SCOTTYes. First of all, we love "The Diane Rehm Show" here in Cincinnati. And we wish her a speedy recovery. I think I had that cold and it'll just be a couple of days.

  • 11:53:55

    SMITHI expect that's right.

  • 11:53:56

    SCOTTI wanted to just make a comment about an earlier caller comment earlier in the hour that spoke about sort of the big picture. She spoke about her working on gratitude. I'd say also a good strategy is to work on something very, very simple, sort of looking for a one degree of change. In my case, for no real reason, no health reason or anything, I really cut down on my coffee drinking and began drinking tea again.

  • 11:54:34


  • 11:54:34

    SCOTTSo I was very successful with that and that helped me make other changes. And so I'd like some comments on that.

  • 11:54:42

    SMITHAnd that's something you did consciously. I mean you wanted to cut down on the coffee drinking.

  • 11:54:46

    SCOTTAgain, I was just looking for something. I wanted to make some changes in my life and I was just looking for something to start with that was very easy. And as a sportsman I understand the concept of life and sports being a mental game and one important aspect.

  • 11:55:00


  • 11:55:04

    SCOTTAnd I thought well, I will just deal with something very, very simple.

  • 11:55:07

    SMITHAll right. Very good.

  • 11:55:08

    SCOTTAnd that helped me accomplish bigger things.

  • 11:55:09

    SMITHLet's see what Jeremy Dean has to say about that. Thanks for your call.

  • 11:55:13

    DEANScott, that's absolutely perfect. Wonderful. What a wonderful call. I couldn't agree more with that. That really is the best thing to do, is that kind of thing. And because it is very difficult to make changes. So, you know, if you can just chip off a little bit like that, even just making the switch from coffee to tea is something. And you can build on that. You know, you can do that one. And if you want to do a New Year's resolution, that's cool. But then think to yourself, all right, we'll do that for January and then for February I'll do another small change. You build up.

  • 11:55:42

    DEANAnd then over time, you know, you get big results from all these small changes. So I think that's excellent advice from Scott.

  • 11:55:48

    SMITHI'll try one more quick call. John, in Washington, D.C., we only have a little bit of time left, but you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 11:56:00

    JOHNGreat. Thanks for taking my call. Just a quick question. I was wondering whether or not if there's any science behind where habits come from, as far as emotional response from the brain. So if you could do any kind of studies and see where the neurological activity is, is it coming more from like the frontal lobes or deeper down to where, perhaps, maybe the id would be located?

  • 11:56:20

    SMITHAll right. Let me ask Jeremy Dean to comment on that very quickly.

  • 11:56:24

    DEANBroadly speaking, the bit of our brain that sort of controls our conscious intentional decisions is the bit that's above our eyes, so the frontal lobes is the main part. And the habits are deeper inside the brain, in the older parts of the brain. So that's the general bit in the brain between the parts that are kind of habitual and the bits where we make the conscious decisions, which is right at the front there behind our foreheads.

  • 11:56:54

    SMITHAll right. Well, that's perhaps why we tap our forehead when all of this comes up. Jeremy Dean, thanks so much. Fascinating stuff. Jeremy Dean is a psychologist and his website, again, is PsyBlog and that is on our website, as well today. So there's a reference to it. Thank you all. I'm Terence Smith. Thank you for listening.

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