Human consciousness, that wonderful ability to reflect, ponder and choose, is our greatest gift of God. But it is possible to have too much of a good thing, and fortunately we also have the ability to operate on automatic pilot, performing complex behaviors without any conscious thought at all. One way this happens is with lots of practice. Tasks that seem impossibly complex at first, like learning how to play the guitar, speak a foreign language or operate a new DVD player, become second nature after we perform those actions many times (well, maybe not the DVD player). “If practice did not make perfect,” William James said, “nor habit economize the expense of nervous and muscular energy, he” (we, that is) “would therefore be in a sorry plight.”
But of course there is a dark side to habits, namely that we acquire bad ones, like smoking or overeating. I imagine that most people — save, perhaps, for a friend of mine who said, in reaction to a news story about the dangers of hypertension, “I’ve given up all of my vices; please don’t take away my salt!” — would love to find an easy way of breaking a bad habit or two.
Charles Duhigg, an investigative reporter for The New York Times, has written an entertaining book to help us do just that, “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.” Duhigg has read hundreds of scientific papers and interviewed many of the scientists who wrote them, and relays interesting findings on habit formation and change from the fields of social psychology, clinical psychology and neuroscience. This is not a self-help book conveying one author’s homespun remedies, but a serious look at the science of habit formation and change.
Timothy D. Wilson in The New York Times. Here