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.