Friday, November 26, 2010

Us vs. the Coons - How We Form Habits

Last night, Kathleen suddenly looked up at me with terror on her face. "The feeders! We forgot to bring in the bird feeders!"

Lately raccoons have been climbing the trees in our front and back yards, knocking down the bird feeders that have sunflower seeds in the mix and having their own coon dinner.

The way they waddle you'd think a coon couldn't climb a tree. But amazingly, they seem to be able to climb almost anything. And smart! How did they know which bird feeder to attack? And how did they make their way down the six-foot cable from which the feeder hangs?

So we decided to bring these feeders in every night, replacing them in the morning. But that doesn't mean we always remember to do it. In fact, so far we've forgotten most of the time. Now why is that?

It's because in effect what we decided to do was make a habit of bringing in the feeders at night. Habits may be hard to break. But they're also hard to make.

That's because an action doesn't become a habit until it becomes second nature - until you do it without having to consciously think about doing it. And that won't happen until the brain cells involved in the action grow dendrites and connect with each other into a neural pathway, a physical network of brain cells that efficiently enables the action.

And that takes time. That is, it takes lots of repetition, because it's the doing of the action over and over that stimulates the brain cells' dendrites to connect with each other.

Some interesting bottom lines...

1. Whether you realize it or not, you're forming new habits all the time. That's the main thing the brain does - it learns. It creates neural pathways so that you don't have to consciously figure out what to do all over again. If it's important enough to consciously do it over and over, the brain creates a network to make it happen for you, automatically.

2. Good habits are formed just as easily as bad ones. The brain doesn't know the difference between a good habit and a habit. It only knows that you want to do something repeatedly.

3. Also, the brain doesn't know the difference from a habit, a routine, or a skill. To the brain, these are all behavior patterns. You learn skills the same way you pick up habits - by repeating the action many times.

4. Old habits don't die hard. They don't die at all. What really happens is that they are replaced by new ones.

5. You can consciously create a good habit, or you can consciously stop yourself from forming a bad habit. If you know that repeating a behavior will create the habit, you can realize you're about to form the habit and stop early in the process. That will prevent the habit from forming.

Well, we rushed outdoors expecting to see damage. But this time we beat the coons to the feeders, and we brought the feeders inside.

Since this is a simple routine, I suspect it will become second nature in three or four weeks. The percentage of times we forget will slowly decline until we automatically go outdoors every evening to deprive the raccoons of their dinner.

And after a while maybe - just maybe - the coons will make a habit of bypassing our yard.

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., Copyright 2010. Building Personal Strength . (Permission to use the photo purchased from


Bethany Learn @Fit2b_Us said...

Love this story and love the idea of habit forming. I once edited a book for a couple of guys writing about a similar topic. Since then, things like this stand out to me. @fit2bmama is now following your blog ... feel free to visit mine and follow back my early efforts at

Kathleen Scott said...

We haven't lost to the raccoons in two weeks now...but it's a little strange to know that the raccoons are training us.