Deep Thoughts About Habits

Given the overwhelming prominence of habits in our lives, in a Harvard Business Review article, Kristi DePaul ponders what it takes to build a new one. She writes,

Our habits govern our lives, literally. Research shows that around half of our daily actions are driven by repetition.

[T]he neuroscience behind habit formation doesn’t offer shortcuts. Experts advocate for the old-fashioned approach: incremental progress. Dedicated commitment is what, time and again, has proven to lead to change.

Yes, it’s the old “Baby Steps” trope. And why not? Something that has worked for so many people will most likely continue to work for more of us.

DePaul takes a rather jaundiced view of some ideas discussed in recent Childhood Obesity News posts. She says that when someone wants to create long-term change, the first step is to build not habits, but routines. She draws a distinction between the two, and this is why:

Nir Eyal… told me that this is a common fallacy — one that tends to end in disappointment. “When we fail at forming new patterns of behavior, we often blame ourselves,” he said, “rather than the bad advice we read from someone who doesn’t really understand what can and cannot be a habit.”

So apparently, the ability of a behavior to become habitual is not without limits. A routine needs to have attention paid to the frequent and deliberate repetition of it. In other words, it requires intention, which is a product of conscious thought. Only when we get to the point of doing something without thinking does it become a habit. That process takes a while, and people want to skip that tedious “routine” phase, so they wind up being unsuccessful habit creators.

What is it about routine?

A routine is not only intentional and effortful, it can even be downright uncomfortable. So it comes as no surprise that DePaul’s habit-formation tips are actually routine-formation tips. Number one is “Set your intentions.” And be real. That means accepting the fact that it’s going to take some work. So, start by choosing realistically, and then summon up your reserves of patience, commitment, and (shudder) — self-discipline.

DePaul quotes habit expert Charles Duhigg as saying “There’s no such thing as 31 days to start a new habit.” Readers may recall that another authority puts the average time span as around 66 days — but even that might not be long enough. This applies to good habits, naturally. Forming a tiramisu habit may take only a couple of days.

Another person she quotes urges any aspiring habit-former to reflect on what they are trying to achieve, and why. The understanding of “why?” can serve as an explosive charge capable of blowing up roadblocks. This is reminiscent of the views expressed in article:

We’re also motivated by reflecting on our progress towards our goals. A 2010 study reinforced this: here, researchers monitored people who were trying to form better eating habits. They found that those who were encouraged to reflect on how they were doing, and who adjusted their habits accordingly, were ultimately more successful.

It cannot be repeated too often, the mind is the source of all progress. Next time, we learn more about how to demolish obstacles and stay on the habit-formation trail.

(To be continued…)

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “What Does It Really Take to Build a New Habit?,”, 02/02/21
Source: “The Power of Good Habits,”, 2023
Image by Natalie Maynor/CC BY 2.0

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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