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.