The Force of Habit

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“All our life, so far as it has form, is a mass of habits.”— William James, 1892.

If you ever walk into my house you may find a pair of hooks–hanging on which, will most likely be a set of car keys.  My wife hung these hooks about a year ago.  Before that, I would walk a few more steps into our entryway to deposit my keys into a small porcelain bowl situated on a shelf.

Another person in our house (who shall remain nameless) did not use the bowl in this manner–did not, in fact, use anything in this manner as it related to keys–and as a result would sometimes spend a frustrated minute or two (or more) searching for said keys before leaving the house.

The idea was that the hooks would be a more immediate and visual cue.  Besides, sometimes other things ended up in the bowl and we might miss a set of keys we were looking for simply because they were under other keys or spare change or the general flotsam of life.  It was a good argument.  The bowl is still there and it’s still full of trinkets.

But an interesting thing happened on the way from the bowl to the hook.  I started losing my keys.

Avoiding the general argument for or against hooks versus bowls for storage of keys–I think it’s fairly obvious that this type of system for keeping track of things works.  I would also highly recommend it for items like wallets, purses, and cell phones.  The power is in the routine.  Put something in the same place every time for long enough and it becomes a habit.  You don’t even think about it anymore.  In fact, you don’t even consciously know you’re doing it.  The program just runs in the background leaving your mind free to work on more important things (like milk and bread inventory or solving the problem of how to pick up two different kids from two different locations at the same time), and magically your keys end up right were they should be, right where you need them—despite the fact that you have no recollection of putting them there.

We may snicker a bit at the thought of habits like this because they seem so . . . brainless.  But in fact, it is the development of just this type of automatic programing that allows our brains to do so many amazing higher order things.  Without mindless habits, we’d have to think to remember where we put our keys (or shoes or homework) all the time.  And that takes energy.

Consider the student going back to school or the adult starting a new job.  During those first few days and weeks, there are countless tasks and schedules and responses to learn, not to mention new relationships to figure out.  In short there is a lot to THINK about.  It’s exhausting.  After awhile, however, we are able to put many of these things on autopilot—freeing our thinking mind to solve more complex or important problems.

What really becomes interesting, however, is when we begin to consider how much of our lives we’ve given over to the autopilot.   In his book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, Charles Duhigg cites research done by Duke University documenting, “ . . . more than 40 percent of the actions that people perform each day weren’t actual decisions, but habits.”

And although where we put our keys may mean relatively little, over time, what we eat and read, how we spend our free time and money, how often we exercise, to what media we watch and listen, what we say to our kids each night, and how we organize our thoughts and respond to emotional cues plays an enormous role in our long-term health and wellness—physically, emotionally, and financially.  Indeed, as quoted above, our life is a mass of habits.

Obviously, this is a double edge sword—because both good and bad habits are tough to break.  Have you guessed where my keys end up when I don’t put them on the hook?  That’s right.  I keep finding them back in the bowl.  Though I have no idea how they got there.

Founder of, Chris Wondra is just another Wisconsin public school teacher. Find We Teach We Learn on Facebook and Twitter for daily tips on getting the most out of your brain. Email Chris at: .

One Comment

  1. hilarious. We also have a bowl – made out of clay by a neighborhood girl – and my backpack. I also have to check both places because I never know which one they will be….and once in a while I find them still in the ignition. That makes me smile and remember that I grew up on a farm where everyone always left keys in the ignition. Great article Chris – loved the intro quote too~