Good Habits

Dr. Phil Advisory Board member Dr. Art Markman offers strategies for developing good habits:

We are all concerned about breaking bad habits. In order to break a bad habit, though, you first need to know why people have habits in the first place. Then, you can put that knowledge to good use. You can make your good habits work for you, and you can help to get rid of your bad habits.

Habits are your mind's way of taking care of the little things that you have to do every day, but you don't want to have to think about. Imagine how frustrating life would be if you had to think about all of these things every day: 

  • Where is the garbage can in the kitchen?
  • Where is the light switch in the bedroom?
  • How are the numbers arranged on a phone?
  • Which button do I press to turn on the windshield wipes in my car?

Because these things do not change very often, your habit learning system takes care of them for you. That way, you can think about more interesting things (like what you want to read on the Dr. Phil website). To see that the habit system is working, think about what happens when you do change one of these things. For example, when you move to a new home, you don't know where the switches are and where you put the garbage cans. For weeks, you have to think about how to do these simple tasks. Not too long ago, I moved to a new office. I would find myself holding a crumpled piece of paper that I wanted to throw out and thinking about garbage rather than psychology. That was no fun (and a little bit stressful).

As another example, if you borrow a friend's car or drive a rental, you may have trouble finding the control for the windshield wipers. A few years ago, I had to pull off the road in a rental car when it suddenly started pouring, and I turned on and off the headlights rather than turning on the wipers!

We also see our habit learning abilities working at the grocery store. When you are faced with the wall of tomato sauce at the supermarket, you usually just pick up the brand of tomato sauce you usually buy. That is a habit. Not only do you usually pick the same brand, but that brand is often located in about the same place on the shelf each time you go to the store. When the supermarket reorganizes the wall of tomato sauce, it makes shopping harder, because you can't rely on your habits any more. I know when the supermarket I shop at reorganizes, it always takes me 20 minutes longer to do the grocery shopping.

Most of the time, habits are good. They let us do what we want to do without having to think about it. Now that you know this about your habits, make your habit system work for you. Whenever there is something in your life you don't want to have to think about, make sure that you keep that thing set up the same way all the time. Here are a few examples.

  • Always keep your garbage cans in the same location in your kitchen, bedroom, and office, so that you don't need to think about where they are.
  • Always keep first-aid supplies and thermometers in the same place, so that you do not have to think about where they are when someone gets sick or hurt.
  • Keep the same organization of the shelves in your kitchen so that you always know where to put the groceries away when you get home from the store.
  • Teach children to organize things consistently. My sons often have trouble finding a pen or pencil, because they tend to leave them where they were last using them. If they always keep their supplies in the same place, they won't have to spend time looking for them.

Finally, here are a few steps to develop a good habit.

  1. Make a list of activities that you think about now, but you wish would become habits.
  2. Pick one that you want to make a habit. You can always work your way through this whole list later.
  3. Think about all the ways you carry out that activity now. Chances are, you are doing this activity in many different ways right now so your habit learning system has not been able to take over.
  4. Pick one way of doing this activity and make an effort (at first) to do it the same way all the time.
  5. Before you know it, this activity will become a habit.

Next: Bad Habits and Your World


Art Markman is one of the world's leading researchers in cognitive psychology. Cognitive psychology is the area of work that examines how people think. He has done work on the way people communicate, reason, and make decisions. He is also interested in the way that people's motivation affects the way they think. In a 20-year research career, Art has published over 100 articles, books, and chapters including a textbook on Cognitive Psychology. He is currently the editor of the professional journal Cognitive Science. When Art is not working, he's spending time with his wife and three sons. Either that, or he's playing his saxophone. For more information about Prof. Markman, check his website at You can contact Art at

© 2007 Arthur B. Markman, All rights reserved.




Around the Web