book review

Review of Good Habits, Bad Habits by Wendy Wood

As we enter into a new year, even a new decade, many of us are reflecting on what we learned from the past as well as how we want to change for the future. For me, the first words that come to mind when describing the last decade are a hot mess.

From the very beginning of the previous decade, I felt like I was hit over the head with tough lessons and massive obstacles to overcome. For the most part, I was able (sometimes barely) to keep my head above water. I struggled and staggered and persisted. In the end, I stumbled out of a decade in the trenches with a much clearer understanding of the world and my place in it. After having spent a lot of time wrestling with big picture stuff like health and wellness and love and relationships, I’m ready to shift my perspective to the small daily changes I can incorporate that will have a large impact on my productivity and growth in the new year and decade ahead.

It was with this mindset that I picked up Good Habits, Bad Habits by Dr. Wendy Wood, a Provost Professor of Psychology and Business at the University of Southern California. It’s a 300-page look at “The Science of Making Positive Changes that Stick.” The book is divided into three parts: How We Really Are, The Three Bases of Habit Formation, and lastly, Special Cases, Big Opportunities, and the World Around Us.

In Part 1, Dr. Wood defines habits early on as “automaticity in lieu of conscious motivation.” She demonstrates the reality that humans rely far more heavily on habits than most of us realize. This is because we exhaust our cognitive capacity as we “actively engage mental effort and energy.”

Think you should be able to just will yourself into a new habit and have it stick? Few of us are as successful as we believe we should be.

Dr. Wood argues that we cannot rely on willpower alone in modifying our habits: it’s unsustainable. Exerting willpower to achieve our goals over time is exhausting. Habits provide us with a way to reserve our cognitive energy and stamina rather than deplete them on small, mundane tasks. She provides loads of convincing research and examples to prove her point.

After explaining why and demonstrating how muscling our mind to bend to our will is not sustainable over time, Dr. Wood delves into the three bases of habit formation in Part II. context, repetition, and reward. She explains that creating a suitable context for the desirable habit “smoothes the way.” Then performing the act repeatedly will “jumpstart the engine.” Lastly, having a reward for performing the habit seals the deal. However, there are some very important, and perhaps surprising, considerations for choosing appropriate rewards (one is that negative rewards don’t actually work).

In Part III, Dr. Wood discusses how we can use habits to get through stressful times. If we have created desirable ones, when our mental faculties are weakened by stress in our lives, habits switch on. Habits allow us to operate on autopilot while our conscious mind works through the stress we’re struggling with. As she demonstrates in her book, “habits are resilient.”

The remainder of the book covers topics including addiction (I’m applying her ideas as I try to help my partner successfully quit smoking and myself to cut back on alcohol consumption). She also includes evidence of collective habit formation by cultural practices or government regulations that I hope will encourage policy makers to implement laws resulting in positive habitual actions in society as a whole.

My biggest takeaway from the book is definitely the one which Dr. Wood emphasizes the most: friction. We can reduce it to more easily form good habits or increase it to deter ourselves from continuing bad ones.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Dr. Wood’s work, and I have already found ways to apply it to my goals for 2020 and beyond. I encourage others to read it and implement even one part of its trove of tools for better habits and a more positive life experience.


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