• Andrew Wien

What Time Magazine Got Wrong About Habits

Time Magazine recently published a special edition called “The Power of Habits—start good ones, break bad ones, change your life.”

Time’s circulation means that lots of folks will read these articles, learn something, and improve their lives. The potential impact is huge... except they got habits all wrong.

Time made a classic mistake—the authors confused habits with behaviors. A habit is just one type of behavior, and forming a habit requires a different approach than doing more of the good non-habitual behaviors.

BJ Fogg, a behavior researcher at Stanford, explains behavior on a spectrum based on automaticity. On one end, you have behaviors that are not automatic and require a decision each time (e.g. going to the dentist). We decide every single time when to go to the dentist. Because this behavior will never become automatic, dentist offices try valiantly to get us to make an appointment for our next visit. First, as we are leaving the last cleaning, and then with texts, emails, and postcards 5 months later.

On the far right, you have behaviors that are completely automatic. They happen without us even being aware of them. Biting nails, chewing with your mouth closed, or pressing the gas when a light turns green are things we don’t even think about.

Most behaviors fall somewhere in between, which is why it’s a spectrum. We call something a habit when we do it enough that it becomes automatic.

But how automatically? There is no magic line to cross. It’s just the more automatic the behavior is, the more it is a habit. Brushing your teeth, going to the gym, and starting your day creating a to do list are all behaviors that some do with enough automaticity to call them habits.

The Time Magazine special edition has an article titled “the 30 personal finance habits everyone should follow.” Great! Sounds helpful.

However, after reading through the 30 “habits,” I generously counted 7 recommendations that might be called habits. The rest just didn’t happen frequently enough.


  • Keep money in your wallet to a minimum

  • Read all contracts before signing

  • Make a shopping list and stick to it

Definitely not habits:

  • Take advantage of automatic paycheck deductions

  • Buy a car and keep it for 10 years

  • Optimize your 401(k) account every year

Ah! These don’t happen frequently enough for people to form habits. Therefore, how they integrate these behaviors into their life is completely different.

So, when you have that next great idea for how you want to change what you are doing, be clear. How frequently will the desired behavior happen? Will you work to form a habit, or do you need to use some other mechanism to change your behavior?

(Author’s note: taking advantage of automatic paycheck deductions only happens once at the start of a new job, and then we revisit as life circumstances change or we get a raise. A bank putting money into a different account for you each month is not a behavior… you are not doing anything!)

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