Cover of Good Habits, Bad Habits by Wendy Wood

About the Book

Good Habits, Bad Habits is a timeless look at the habits in our daily and work lives. We have all experienced shifts in our everyday habits due to pandemics, the economy, and changing technology. So, it’s especially important to understand how to structure habits at work and home to achieve a balance of productivity, health, and relationships to promote wellbeing.

Habit science offers a blueprint for how to handle changes in our lives in order to be happy and successful. It isn’t always obvious how to handle change. Contrary to what you might think, willpower is not the answer. Information about what we should do and goal setting also fall short. Research shows that the way to create long-term changes that stick is understanding how to form new habits.


We spend a shocking 43 percent of our day doing things without thinking about them. That means that almost half of our actions aren’t conscious choices but the result of our non-conscious mind nudging our body to act along learned behaviors. How we respond to the people around us; the way we conduct ourselves in a meeting; what we buy; when and how we exercise, eat, and drink—a truly remarkable number of things we do every day, regardless of their complexity, operate outside of our awareness. We do them automatically. We do them by habit. And yet, whenever we want to change something about ourselves, we rely on willpower. We keep turning to our conscious selves, hoping that our determination and intention will be enough to effect positive change. And that is why almost all of us fail. But what if you could harness the extraordinary power of your unconscious mind, which already determines so much of what you do, to truly reach your goals?

Wendy Wood draws on three decades of original research to explain the fascinating science of how we form habits, and offers the key to unlocking our habitual mind in order to make the changes we seek. A potent mix of neuroscience, case studies, and experiments conducted in her lab, Good Habits, Bad Habits is a comprehensive, accessible, and above all deeply practical book that will change the way you think about almost every aspect of your life. By explaining how our brains are wired to respond to rewards, receive cues from our surroundings, and shut down when faced with too much friction, Wood skillfully dissects habit formation, demonstrating how we can take advantage of this knowledge to form better habits. Her clear and incisive work shows why willpower alone is woefully inadequate when we’re working toward building the life we truly want, and offers real hope for those who want to make positive change.


Good Habits, Bad Habits: A Conversation with Wendy Wood

By Michael Barnett
From Behavoiral Scientist

Early in her academic career, psychologist Wendy Wood noticed a trend: many of her fellow graduate students and professors struggled to get things done in the highly demanding but unstructured academic environment. Intelligence, talent, and motivation didn’t seem to matter—some of those who were struggling to stick to project plans or meet deadlines were among the brightest of the group. Why, she wondered, was it so easy to make the initial decision to change but so hard to persist in the long term? Willpower didn’t seem to be the issue—her colleagues wanted to and were trying to change—so what was? Over the past three decades, Wood has sought the answers to these questions. She recently wrote a book, Good Habits, Bad Habits: The Science of Making Positive Changes that Stick, which details the most important, practical insights from her research. We had the chance to talk about how better understanding how habits form and drive our behavior can help us change—and enjoy—our lives.

Michaela Barnett: Habits are ubiquitous, and we all probably think we know what a habit is, but as a researcher who has studied habits for years, how do you define a habit? And why do you think it’s important that we understand them?

Wendy Wood: You’re absolutely right that most people think they know what habits are.In fact, when I’ve conducted surveys, over 80 percent of people say they understand habits. But then I ask: So, how successful are you when you change behavior? Are you able to make changes and get them to stick? Those same people say, “Hmm, no, not very often.” So whatever people are understanding is not helping them.

Habits are a learning mechanism. All we have to do is repeat something and get rewarded for it, and we’re learning a habit. In research that I’ve done, we find that about 43 percent of what people do every day is repeated in the same context, usually while they are thinking about something else. They’re automatically responding without really making decisions. And that’s what a habit is. A habit is a sort of a mental shortcut to repeat what we did in the past that worked for us and got us some reward.

Most of us think of self-control as being able to force yourself to do things you don’t want to do. We have this idea that some people have super willpower and others don’t. You write a lot about why this is the wrong way to think about self-control. Why is that?

Many people actually confuse habit and self-control. The majority of people in my surveys say that in order to start a new habit you have to exert self-control, and that’s just not true. The issue with self-control is that we all know people who are just more successful at almost every domain of their lives, and psychologists have developed scales to identify these people by measuring how much self-control they have.

The people who score high on these scales tend to weigh less than the rest of us. They are more likely to have saved enough money for retirement. They have happier relationships, they’re more productive at work, they get better grades at school. These are all things that are associated with what we think of as self-control. But recent research by Angela Duckworth and colleagues has shown a fascinating contradiction: people who score high on self-control don’t achieve successes in life by exerting control. They are not practicing self-denial by white-knuckling through life. Instead, they know how to form habits that meet their goals.

Read the rest of the interview >>



“In Good Habits, Bad Habits . . . the social psychologist Wendy Wood refutes both [William] James’s determinism and glib exhortations to be proactive, and seeks to give the general reader more realistic ideas for how to break habits. Drawing on her work in the field, she sees the task of sustaining positive behaviors and quelling negative ones as involving an interplay of decisions and unconscious factors . . . Even people who score high on self-control questionnaires may owe their apparent virtue to situational factors rather than to sheer fortitude.” —Jerome Groopman, The New Yorker“Many authors have written about habits . . . but Wood is also a premier scientist in psychology, working on how habits affect and are affected by the human mind. Top tip: Willpower isn’t enough. But through her original research, Wood explains what does work.” —Bethanne Patrick, The Washington Post“[An] enlightening debut . . . [Wendy Wood] eloquently explains current research on the role habits play in everyday activities such as snacking, exercising, and commuting . . . Her insightful, data-driven advice includes tactics such as “stacking”—grouping desired behaviors together with already-established behavioral patterns to incorporate actions into routines. Wood’s research and perspective on the malleability of habits will bring hope to any reader looking to create long-term behavioral change.” Publishers Weekly (starred review)Fascinating and fun, this book will change a lot of lives. So much of human behavior is habitual—sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. Wood brings state-of-the-art social science into contact with the most pressing issues in daily life. She’s a tremendous guide.” —Cass R. Sunstein, Robert Walmsley University Professor, Harvard University, and author of How Change Happens

Wendy Wood is the world’s leading expert on habits—how we make them, break them, and change them. I expect that her book will be both eye-opening and immensely useful in teaching people how to get more done, quit smoking, start exercising, make better choices, and stop annoying their partners.” —Adam Grant, author of Originals“Wendy Wood is the world’s foremost expert in the field, and this book is essential.” —Angela Duckworth, author of Grit: The Power and Passion of Perseverance“No one has studied how habits form and influence behavior better than Wendy Wood. More importantly for readers, no one has done a better job of showing how to change negative habits into powerful, helpful versions.” —Robert B. Cialdini, author of Influence and Pre-Suasion“An insightful guidebook from the world’s preeminent habits researcher. Good Habits, Bad Habits is a captivating tale of the science of habits and how you can use them to improve your life.” —Jonah Berger, author of Contagious: Why Things Catch OnGood Habits, Bad Habits is a fascinating tour of the science of habits, and Wendy Wood is the consummate tour guide. One of the world’s leading habit researchers, Wood shares decades of her own research with wit, charm, and a keen eye for the stories that illuminate the processes of habit-making, habit-breaking, and habit-reshaping. If you want to understand your own habits—and how they form and can be reformed—Good Habits, Bad Habits is for you.” —Adam Alter, NYU Stern School of BusinessGood Habits, Bad Habits is a huge achievement. Wendy Wood manages to distill the science of habit formation, most of which emerges from her own lab, in a manner that is fascinating but also, above all, extremely useful for people looking to make positive change in their life.”—David Kessler, New York Times-bestselling author of The End of Overeating and Capture