Start a new (good) habit, kill an old (bad) one

Story highlights

  • 40% of our daily actions are so rote, they are automatic
  • The most effective way to adopt a habit is to replace a bad one with a better one

This essay is part of a column called The Wisdom Project by David Allan, editorial director of CNN Health and Wellness. The series is on applying to one's life the wisdom and philosophy found everywhere, from ancient texts to pop culture. You can follow David at @davidgallan. Don't miss another Wisdom Project column; subscribe here.

(CNN)Odds are, you are trying to break a bad habit or institute a good one right now. As a species, we are impressively committed to self-improvement, and most of us believe that habits are an effective means to that end.

Habits -- actions performed with little conscious thought and often unwittingly triggered by external cues -- are powerful influences on behavior and can be our greatest allies for positive change. But because they are so difficult to break, habits are also frequent saboteurs of personal progress.
"Habit is a good servant but a bad master" is how author Gretchen Rubin summed it up in her book "Better Than Before: Mastering the Habit of Our Everyday Lives." Hers was one of three recent books I read back-to-back on the subject of habit formation; the others were Charles Duhigg's "The Power of Habit" and Jeremy Dean's "Making Habits, Breaking Habits." Together, they helped me understand more deeply the importance of habit control, how to choose a habit to begin or end, and the mechanics of sticking with it.
    The first thing to know, each book explained, is that a lot of our daily actions are so rote, they are automatic. "All our life ... is but a mass of habits," philosopher and psychologist William James wrote, though a 2006 study put the amount of habitual daily action at 40%. Still, that's a lot of mindless behavior.
    It's helpful that we don't need to think about how or when to drink coffee, brush our teeth or drive to work. If we did, we'd waste so much time rethinking or learning those tasks, we'd get little else done.
    The whole trick is to get habits to work for you, not against you. Self-control is a limited resource, Dean explains, so a good habit means not having to exert effort every time you need to do the right thing.

    Room to grow

    The first thing to identify for yourself is the habit you want to work on, whether it's starting a new (good) one or ending an old (bad) one. That's a minor distinction, by the way. Eating healthier is eating less junk. Exercising more is being less sedentary. One is often the inverse of another.
    This step requires some honest self-evaluation. What is not working in your life? What personality flaws are holding you back? Where is there room to do better?
    We know what many of the most common areas of improvement are, at least when it comes to making resolutions. People want to lose weight, eat better, be more mindful, spend money more wisely, sleep better and improve relationships. By eliminating bad habits and starting new ones, you can succeed in most of these areas.
    One helpful checklist frequently used for goal-setting is the acronym SMART, created by economic theorist Peter Drucker. Effective resolutions, research has shown, are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound.
    Before finishing the first book (Dean's, which is the most prescriptive and research- and science-based), I decided on two habits to work on myself. The first was to be more present and mindful with my kids. The second was to stop seeking out and consuming free, non-nutritious food at work. One was a good habit to start, the other a bad habit to quit.
    Rubin, who approaches the topic personally and looks for specific techniques that work for her, recommends starting a habit at the same time as a big turning point such as pregnancy, marriage, a medical diagnosis, a family death, an anniversary, a long trip or a new year.

    Repeal and replace your behavior

    The consensus among these books is that the most effective way to adopt a habit is to replace a bad one with a better one. Dean's metaphor is to think of habits as well-worn rivers of action that flow out of the predictable path of your routine. Often, the most effective way to stop it flowing in harmful directions is not by damming it but by diverting it. For example, many people stop smoking by chewing gum.
    The point is that bad habits die hard, and as with riding a bike, your brain never stops learning how to do them.
    So it's easier to think about any habit formation, even new "good" ones, in terms of replacing unwanted behavior. That made sense for my snacking at work. I started buying healthy yet still delicious snacks to keep there: yogurt instead of morning doughnuts, dried papaya instead of chocolate, sweetened rice cakes instead of stale leftover doughnuts. A supply of healthy snack options kept me on a new course of action that largely followed the old eating habit pattern.
    To be more mindful with my kids, I needed to avoid the opposite behaviors, such as checking my work phone or planning activities while with them so I could focus on their needs and thoughts.
    Duhigg explains that habit "reversal therapy" is a legitimate technique used for things like tics and obsessive-compulsive disorder, as well as predilections such as gambling, smoking and bed-wetting.
    It's important to make a distinction between a bad habit and addiction, however, even if the behaviors seem to overlap. Addiction requires greater intervention than habit hacking.
    Dean describes the hallmarks of addiction as not being in control and not being aware of time/energy spent on the behavior. People with addictions are preoccupied with soothing a craving and needing more and more to get the same effect, as well as suffering withdrawal without it. Unlike bad habits, addictions eat away at important activities such as relationships and work. They tend to be an escape from normal life and are often hidden from others.

    The wonderful thing about triggers

    We like to think we have free will in every situation, but many of our actions are predictably triggered by external situations. And if those events are part of your daily or weekly routine, our Pavlovian tendencies