The Power of Habit

Jaw last week was held on 8 January, the day when statistically, people have given up on their New Year’s resolutions, and resigned themselves to the fact they can’t change. Only 8% of people keep their resolutions, but why is this? Jaw focussed on the work of Charles Duhigg, and his book The Power of Habit. Duhigg makes interesting suggestions for why habits are hard to break. When we think of getting rid of bad habits, we only focus on the behaviour: ‘I want to give up sugar in coffee’; ‘I want to exercise more’, but habits are more complex than this. Habits have cues, and rewards. More than this, during our habitual behaviour, our brain activity drops off considerably – acting on bad habits is literally mindless.

We demonstrated that the more we do something, the stronger the neural pathways. First, a student traced the same shape over and over again on the whiteboard, and when we wiped it off, he drew it again, exactly as it had been. We also saw two maps of how to walk to Petersfield, one from someone who has only been there twice, and one from someone who goes there every week. Repeated patterns of behaviour make actions second-nature. Bad habits become like this – we do things without thinking. According to Duhigg, we can only change if we tackle not only the behaviour but the cue as well. If we tackle the cue to bad habits, then we don’t find ourselves absent-mindedly walking into the same pattern of behaviour.

View Charles Duhigg’s TED talk.

By Clare Jarmy, Head of Religious Studies and Philosophy


Bedales School is one of the UK’s top independent private co-education boarding schools. Bedales comprises three schools situated in Steep, near Petersfield, Hampshire: Dunannie (ages 3–8), Dunhurst (ages 8–13) and Bedales itself (ages 13–18). Established in 1893 Bedales School puts emphasis on the Arts, Sciences, voluntary service, pastoral care, and listening to students’ views. Bedales is acclaimed for its drama, theatre, art and music. The Headmaster is Keith Budge.

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