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Good Habits, Bad Habits

The Science of Making Positive Changes That Stick

By Wendy Wood
  • Read in 12 minutes
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  • Contains 7 key ideas
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Good Habits, Bad Habits by Wendy Wood

Good Habits, Bad Habits (2019) lays out the workings of human habits, drawing on groundbreaking new research into the psychology of human behavior. Combining the insights of neuroscience and lab-based experiments, it shows how we can harness our habits to change our lives for the better.

Key idea 1 of 7

Habits control our lives – whether we notice them or not.

What are the first things you do when you wake up? If you’re like most people, your morning routine is probably fairly fixed. 

You might just shower, dress, and hit the road. Or maybe you have to feed and dress your kids before you start your own day’s work. 

Whatever the case, you probably didn’t actually decide to do many of the things you found yourself doing this morning. 

There was no inner debate about whether to shower, or whether or not to make a coffee. Without any conscious thought, you just went ahead as you always do – showering, dressing, and brewing yourself a drink. In other words, you acted out of habit.

The key message here is: Habits control our lives – whether we notice them or not.


Whether it’s our morning routines or our exercise regimens, habits influence our behavior more than most of us know. So why do we so often overlook them? Because habits operate below the level of conscious thought.

You see, habits differ from other mental processes, like decision-making and willpower. These occur at the conscious level of the mind. When you hem and haw about which cereal to buy, you’re fully aware of the thought process you’re experiencing – it’s a thoughtful cognitive process.

Habits, on the other hand, work below the level of conscious awareness. They don’t really involve thought. Instead, they’re nonconscious repetitions of actions you’ve performed many times before.

Many of the things we do from day to day – both good and bad – are habits. It’s habit that makes you signal before you turn. It’s habit that makes you kiss your spouse when you get home from work. And it’s habit that keeps you eating the junk food you’ve been meaning to cut down on for months.

Recognizing the outsize role that habits play in our lives doesn’t strip us of agency, though. After all, habits are malleable – you can always lose the ones you don’t like and gain a few you do.

In order to do that, however, we need to take a look at how habits work.

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