My Favorite Books on Habit and Behavior Change

by | Jul 29, 2016

brain bookshelf

One of the greatest illusions I’ve had to overcome in my life is that I’m a rational human being. Sure I try to be, and sometimes I might succeed. But the more I’ve studied neuroscience and psychology, the more evidence I’ve seen that a ridiculously small number of human behaviors are a direct result of rational, critical thought.

Instead the vast majority of our behavior is directed by habits and heuristics, mental short cuts that prevent us from having to think too much, a perilously slow process that takes far too much effort to be useful in most everyday situations.

Of course that isn’t the way it seems to us as we go through our day. The conscious part of our brain is tremendously skilled at making meaning and reasons for everything we do and encounter, even if it isn’t privy to all the facts.

We come up with stories that jive with our beliefs and what we’ve experienced in the past. Everything that happens to us we view through this lens. To quote Anais Nin, “We don’t see the world as it is, we see it as we are.”

While our ability think quickly and make predictions is tremendously helpful in our day-to-day lives, it can also make us woefully blind to reality when our expectations are based on erroneous assumptions.

Facts are surprisingly easy for our conscious brains to ignore if they don’t play nicely with the stories our minds generate. The people voting against your favorite candidate are ignorant fools, right? Yet we’re always a little surprised when someone on the other side of the political aisle is actually a nice, thoughtful person.

Reality, especially when it comes to complex issues like another person’s behavior (or even our own behavior), is often more nuanced than our simplistic judgements can see.

Not only does this result in many incongruous situations––sometimes hilarious, sometimes deeply painful––it also makes it difficult for us to change our habits. When we hold on to one story about the world or about ourselves, it can make the path to change virtually invisible.

One thing I try to do here at Summer Tomato is reveal those irrational beliefs and help you change the stories that hold you back from making changes that can improve your life. These faulty beliefs come from many places, from the dieting industry (“No pain, no gain”), to our culture (“Beauty is thin”) to our families (“Food is love”).

I could write until I’m blue in the fingers explaining why restrictive dieting does more harm than good, or why processed foods are dangerous, or the benefits of eating more vegetables. But if you’re interpreting my words through one of the above lenses change will be nearly impossible.

Changing beliefs is hard, because we identify with them so strongly that we usually can’t see them. Over the years I’ve read a number of excellent books that have helped me understand this process and I want to share some of them with you today.

Awareness of how your mind works can help you identify with it less, and is one of the most powerful tools for freeing yourself from the illusion of your beliefs.

These are the books that have influenced my thinking on how our thoughts shape our actions, many of which I’ve read since writing Foodist. I’ve also included some of the classics in case you’re new to the subject.

I’ve grouped these into rough categories around topics such as habits, motivation, and happiness. If you think there’s a great book I’m missing here, feel free to let me know in the comments.

Oh, and if you’re curious about what else I like to read feel free to follow me on Goodreads (warning: I’m a little obsessed with sci-fi).

Habits

The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg

The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite by David A. Kessler

Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions by Dan Ariely

Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard  by Chip Heath

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell

Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think by Brian Wansink

 

Beliefs

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck

Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha by Tara Brach

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

The Upside of Stress by Kelly McGonigal

Redirect: Changing the Stories We Live By by Timothy Wilson

Rising Strong by Brene Brown

Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind by Kristin Neff

 

Motivation

Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy Baumeister, John Tierney, Denis O’Hare

The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It by Kelly McGonigal

No Sweat: How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring You a Lifetime of Fitness by Michelle Segar

Finding Your Way to Change: How the Power of Motivational Interviewing Can Reveal What You Want and Help You Get There by Allan Zuckoff, Bonnie Gorscak

Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges by Amy Cuddy

Super Better: A Revolutionary Approach to Getting Stronger, Happier, Braver and More Resilient -Powered by the Science of Games by Jane McGonigal

 

Happiness

10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works – A True Story by Dan Harris

Better Than Before: What I Learned About Making and Breaking Habits–to Sleep More, Quit Sugar, Procrastinate Less, and Generally Build a Happier Life  by Gretchen Rubin

Stumbling on Happiness by Dan Gilbert

The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom by Jonathan Haidt

 

Mind & Brain

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Olive Sacks

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

On Becoming a Person: A Therapist’s View of Psychotherapy by Carl R. Rogers

Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior by Leonard Mlodinow

What books have influenced your beliefs?

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27 Responses to “My Favorite Books on Habit and Behavior Change”

  1. Jay Scott says:

    Your line of “making reasons and meanings for everything” made something come to mind.

    I heard a great quote the other day – basically saying that the glass is not half empty (that’s a judgement and illusion), and it’s not half full (that also is a judgement and illusion) – it’s half to capacity.

    That means that the glass is what it is, and we can work to make it fuller by accepting it – not tainting it with “the color of our thoughts” as Marcus Aurelius said. Great blog Darya, deep and so true. -Jay

  2. Julie says:

    This is a fantastic list!
    I love Gretchen Rubin’s work. Her podcast is a particularly excellent resource that discusses habit-change in a way that is easily applicable to daily life.
    I found Thinking, Fast and Slow to be mind-blowing.
    I am not sure what category this would go under, but it is along the same lines as some of the books on your list: Quiet by Susan Cain has impacted me.
    I’ve also started Ariana Huffington’s book, the Sleep Revolution and that book addresses the reasoning for why we should change our habits to make sleep a priority.

  3. Eric says:

    “Prometheus Rising” by Robert Anton Wilson is like an owner’s manual for your brain, and “Undoing Yourself With Energized Meditation” by Christopher Hyatt is your brain on Silly Putty. Two fun ones for motivation are “Awaken the Giant Within” and “Unlimited Power” by Tony Robbins. Those books are ones that challenged my assumptions about the way things were, and opened my mind to new possibilities.

  4. Kevin says:

    I like your blog because you comment on more than just food – although food and eating are important, they are only part of who we are. A couple of books I’ve read lately are: “59 seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot” by Richard Wiseman; “Whistling Vivaldi: How stereotypes affect us and what we can do,” by Claude Steele; and “One Mind: How our individual mind is part of a greater consciousness and why it matters” by Larry Dossey, MD. By understanding who we are, and knowing where our motivations for our actions come from, we have a chance to change them (but it’s hard!!)

  5. I am a huge fan of Sonja Lyubomirsky’s The How of Happiness. And, in a totally different category, I found the book “Driven to Distraction” to be hugely influential on helping me think about how I tend to think.

  6. Debi says:

    I’ve come to really appreciate the McGonigal sisters theories on motivation and willpower. After learning about them separately, I was fascinated to learn they are twins. I’d love for them to write something together or otherwise learn more about how they each came to their scientific positions.

  7. Pam says:

    Wow, awesome list of books … and great suggestions in the comments, too! Thank you!

  8. Brian says:

    Also a big fan Darya – love your work in it’s variety and holistic view on health and happiness, living a full life. Great list, I would also add Dan Pink’s “Drive” to the list.

  9. Bella says:

    Wonderful list, I’m going to pick some of them up. The War of Art by Steven Pressfield is another great one for motivation.

  10. Sheila says:

    Loving What Is, by Byron Katie, has really allowed me to think of things in a different way and has helped me be more compassionate to others and to myself. Thanks Darya, I love your blog.

  11. Dani says:

    Thanks for sharing this lost, Darya! So many great reads:)

  12. Bonnie says:

    Wow! I just found this blog last week and I am so glad. I feel a bit overwhelmed by all the info here, but I can’t stop taking another bite, article by article. I have just purchased your book, Darya, so that’s where I’ve decided to start. I just read an article about Padrones here. I never heard of them before, but can’t wait to try them now. They sound delicious and fun. I am working on learning to get healthy, but I have to admit, the idea of NOT dieting is kind of scary. Will I gain weight? Will I eat the right things? Will I turn into a Padrone? I’m sure it will get better and I’m willing to figure it out, but I kind of feel like I’ve been ‘conditioned’ all my life to not know how to get my nutritious on. Soooo glad I stumbled across Summer Tomato. I had not ever found a site like this, and I’ve looked everywhere Google could take me, believe me!

    • Darya Rose says:

      Welcome! Giving up dieting was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done, but was also one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Besides, it’s always waiting for you if you want to go back 😉 Start small to make it less scary, and come back here often to ask questions when you get stuck. We got your back.

  13. Jill Heist says:

    Darya!

    I was somehow added to your mailing list and I am so glad! I love your content. This list of reads is fantastic. I was familiar with Kelly’s sister’s work and am excited to look at Kelly’s work now–great stuff. I second the recommendation of Quiet, and would place it under Beliefs. I also love Dweck’s work. Thank you so much for spreading the word!

    P.S. Another great book on sleep is Shawn Stevenson’s book Sleep Smarter.

  14. Monica says:

    Kelly McGonigal was my yoga instructor back when I was a neuroscience student at Stanford. I appreciated her smart, engaging way of connecting actions and subjective experience (like yoga) to underlying psychological/neural phenomena in service of a more awesome life. It’s the same reason I read SummerTomato. 🙂 Not surprised that she twice makes your best-of list: you’re birds of a feather.

  15. Amy Rhodes says:

    Great list Darya! Thanks for sharing. I’ve read a few of them, but now have more to try.
    I’ve come to a place in my life where I know it is all in my head. I’ve dieted for so many years I feel like I could write a book on nutrition, yet I’m still overweight.
    There’s a huge difference between knowing what to do and rewiring your brain to actually do it.

    Thankso for a great article!

  16. Jamie says:

    Nice book list!
    I’ve also been very impacted by the book Man’s Search for Meaning.
    I’m almost done with Non-Violent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg and I think it is probably the single most influential book for me right now. It offers very practical strategies on how to change negative self-talk and to help you communicate compassionately with others even in the midst of conflict. He has one chapter on translating “have to’s” to “choose to’s” stating that we always choose to carry out behaviors and that if we are in touch with why we are making those choices we can change obligations to enjoyable activities and also notice better when we make choices that don’t promote happiness. That’s been one of the most immediately impactful teachings for me. I’m much more productive now as I see my actions as choices that I make to improve my wellbeing as opposed to just things I have to do. I’m slowly changing my communication patterns too and seeing improvements in my relationships. I highly recommend it. 🙂
    Last recommendation, I haven’t read her books yet but Tara Brach has an awesome podcast on Western Buddhism and meditation. Thought that might interest you given that you are reading a book by Jack Kornfield who was one of her teachers.

  17. I love the book recommendations. It can be very eye opening to understand why we behave in the ways that we do. A lot of time it can lead to finding a solution. The most difficult habits are the ones that we know are extremely irrational and yet for whatever reason are unable to break from them.

  18. miller says:

    Awesome post. Thanks for sharing, I have been reading and looking for new books on self help and love reading about becoming a better me.

    I will def check some of these out.

    Thanks for sharing

  19. Ray Lee says:

    Hello,

    I love the list you have shared above!
    Your idea is an amazing of book shelf. I will buy some books from the above list:

    1. The Upside of Stress by Kelly McGonigal

    2. Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

    3. On Becoming a Person: A Therapist’s View of Psychotherapy by Carl R. Rogers

    ~Ray

  20. Justin says:

    Great list and post! Thank you.

    I also really enjoyed “The Business of Belief.” Mind opening and inspirational!

  21. Katie says:

    I would love to hear more about how restrictive diets cause harm. You have read many books. I look forward to learning more about your expertise.

  22. Mary says:

    “The Biology of Desire” by Marc Lewis changed my life. It explains why sex, food, gambling, etc., can indeed affect your brain like heroin or cocaine, but none of them, including the drugs are actually .addictions”.

  23. Darya, It’s great to come across your blog which I’ll enjoy following.

    I’d add to your list of books “Enough” by John Naish and “The Gospel of Food” by Barry Glassner. And for anyone who has serious difficulty overcoming binge eating, “Overcoming Binge Eating” by Chris Fairborn.

    Your interest and emphasis on habit change, and on obstacles to habit change is obviously really helpful to people who have struggled with losing weight.

    I’ve developed Delicious Dieting here in the UK to help people change eating habits permanently, one step at a time. Recognising internal obstacles to progress is part of the approach. I’ve noticed in working with individuals to help them lose weight that these obstacles fall into particular types (ambivalence, willpower, self-belief and pressure from others).

    I’ve also designed a really simple scale for people to use to gauge their hunger/ fullness levels, the Appetite Pendulum [link removed].

    Best wishes
    Dr Helen McCarthy

  24. James Justus says:

    I have four more books to consider adding to this list.

    Small Move, Big Change by Caroline L. Arnold

    Mind Hacking by Sir John Hargrave

    The Art of Power by Thich Naht Hanh

    13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do by Amy Morin

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