One of the books I read in preparation for my English 101 class project is Making Habits, Breaking Habits by Jeremy Dean. “This book started,” Dean starts, “with an apparently simple question that seemed to have a simple answer: How long does it take to form a new habit?” (3). He makes short work of the myth of 21 days — or 28. And he makes me think. My youngest daughter’s black cat, Angel, one morning a week or two ago, decided to slip outside when I went out to write in my potting shed. The next morning, he was waiting at the door for me as though this had been our life-long routine. Automaticity. He didn’t have to think about it. Every morning since then he has been waiting at the door to go out. Every morning, without much thinking about it (except to be bemused), I have let him out.
Not all habits form so easily. It can be incredibly difficult to form a new habit, depending on how much your routine — environment and companions — reinforce your old one. Try drinking water instead of coffee. Try cajoling yourself into flossing daily. Try writing every day. Breaking habits? Even harder. Dean helped me to understand why my friend Therese can’t quit smoking, despite multiple attempts: “90% of people quit quitting within the first week” (185). “The problem for making and breaking habits is that so much is happening in the unconscious mind,” Dean explains. “Since the unconscious is generally like the Earth’s core, impenetrable and unknowable, we can’t access it directly” (50).
The trick, it seems, is to become conscious. One way to become conscious is, of course, to write it down.
Dean has good news, too, for people trying to form a new habit. One upside of habit formation is that the will-power you exert in forming one new habit will have a kind of slippage or halo effect that makes it possible to make additional changes. It’s what I’ve said here before, one small change can become a catalyst for an entire cascade of changes.