We are all skilled in the art of habit-making. We do it all the
time, and it is easy for us. We do it without thinking—and sometimes
that's exactly the trouble.
In Dan Ariely's book, Predictably Irritational,
habits can be likened to behavior called 'herding'. Herding is when we
follow what other people are doing, thinking that since other people
are doing something, it must be a good thing to do.
In the case of habits, this takes on an interesting twist called
'self-herding'. This is when we follow not someone else, but our own
previous behavior, without stopping long enough to consider whether
it's really good for us or not.
Here is an example of how this might work to create problematic
eating habits. Perhaps at some point a woman is having a difficult time
in life, and she treats herself to a sweet piece of candy, and then
maybe a few more pieces. And let's say the next week or so something
goes wrong again—big or little—and she starts to feel worried or
anxious or scared or overwhelmed. Now here's the tricky part. Human
nature has a way of nudging us in the direction of the simplest
approach to relieving a bad feeling. We don't usually stop to think
about long-term consequences, or whether the approach is beneficial to
us or not. We don't go into complex computations about how our behavior
might lead to a weight control problem, or anything like that. We tend to take
the path of least resistance, which very often means doing what we did
before, especially if it worked out for us.
Let's go back to our woman. The next time she feels bad for one
reason or another, she instantly remembers what she did the last two
times and does it again. She acts this way time and again, not
realizing that she is no longer choosing to deal with difficult
situations by eating sweet comfort food—she has become habituated to
And that's not all there is to it. Moving on from candy, she may now
easily go to other kinds of eating - junk food, comfort food, overeating - in order to cope with life. It gets
easier and easier. This is how eating habits are born, and then it sticks.
Thinking, weighing your options, considering the pros and cons of
your behavior—all this is much harder than just following suit again
and again, doing what you always do. It ends up feeling right.
So the habit starts with a good experience. You feel soothed by having something delicious to eat, and it grows from there.
The good news is, habits can most definitely be broken. It takes,
first of all, a real desire to do so. Then what it takes is careful
attention, thought, daring to try something different, practicing the
different behavior just like you practiced the old behavior. With
enough practice, you end up with a new habit that can be much, much
better for you.