A friend of mine kept a dozen or more boxes of the same breakfast cereal lined up in his kitchen. He enjoyed this particular cereal and did not want to waste any brainpower seeking an alternative. What he lost in variety and spontaneity, he made up for in efficiency. That, in a nutshell, is the virtue of habits – they’re automatic, learned behaviours that provide a quick answer to life’s puzzles.
Without habits, you’d be paralysed by endless deliberation from the moment you woke each day – whether to shower then eat, or eat then shower, what to eat, what to wear, which route to take to work, or where to park.
Habits can also be comforting. If you follow the same routines each day, then you mostly know what to expect. If this suits you, then in personality terms, you are probably a low scorer in ‘openness to experience’, a tendency that tends to grow with age. A downside to habits is that not only are some of them obviously unhealthy, but having too many can hamper your creativity and deprive you of serendipity.
If you want to change, bear in mind that habits tend to be triggered by cues in the environment – that cereal box in the kitchen, the café on the way to work. That’s why holidays are such a great antidote. Put yourself in novel situations and you’re forced to think afresh rather than rely on old habits.
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Asked by: Alex Warren, London
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Dr Christian Jarrett is a cognitive neuroscientist, science writer and author. He is the Deputy Editor of Psyche, the sister magazine to Aeon that illuminates the human condition through psychology, philosophy and the arts. Jarrett also created the British Psychological Society's Research Digest blog and was the first ever staff journalist on the Society's magazine, The Psychologist. He is author of Great Myths of The Brain and Be Who You Want: Unlocking the Science of Personality Change.