- A habit is a learned tendency to repeat past behavior. Overeating, exercising, meditating, and nail-biting can all be considered habits.
- Habits are automatic, goal-independent, and cued by specific context—including internal cues (e.g., hunger) and external cues (e.g., the time).
- Habits take time to form (from a couple of weeks to several months or longer) and are promoted by reinforcers.
Showering daily, eating junk food at school, going to bed early, jogging every morning, biting your nails when nervous, and watching TV when you get home from work are all examples of habits. Habit refers to context-dependent but goal-independent learned behaviors that require little mental effort.
How can we form healthy habits? The first step is learning the science of habit formation.
The present article summarizes six principles of habit formation, as discussed in a recent paper by Harvey et al., published in the March issue of Perspectives in Psychological Science.
1. Habits do not depend on goals
Healthy habits are usually formed when, in pursuit of a goal, a person repeats a healthy behavior in a particular context. Over time, the behavior no longer depends on the goal.
Application: To form healthy habits, the first step is to set goals. As you pursue set goals, your behaviors can become habitual.
Or suppose you play basketball daily to lose weight; you may find playing basketball has become part of your routine even after weight loss.
2. Habits are cued by context
Habits are triggered by context cues, whether internal (e.g., stress, hunger) or external (e.g., an advertisement, the presence of others).
Application: To form healthy habits, be as consistent as possible: Try to perform the desired behavior in the same context, in the same mood, with the same individuals, at the same time.
Use event-based cues (e.g., studying after lunch) than time-based ones (e.g., studying at 7 p.m.) because the former are generally more effective.
Since we often engage in behaviors that require less effort, change your environment in a way that makes the desired healthy behavior easier and unhealthy habits harder to engage in.
For instance, to eat healthier, reduce the number of sugary and fatty snacks open on the counter. Simply replace them with your favorite fruits. Similarly, to sleep better, make your bedroom more sleep-friendly than work-friendly.
Last, get to know yourself. For instance, say you eat more food when out with friends. Awareness of such situational cues is important when you want to change unhealthy habits (e.g., to lose weight); and find solutions that work in these contexts (e.g., doggy bag).
3. Habits are learned through repetition
Repetition is essential to habit formation. It improves skills and reduces effort.
Application: Life can be unpredictable, so in order to continue to practice the habit regularly, it is necessary to use effective problem-solving techniques. In short, prepare and plan.
For example, if you are trying to lose weight and eat healthy, anticipate what to do if, say, you have no fruits or vegetables at home, a restaurant has no healthy options available, you cannot control the urge to eat the chocolate cake in the fridge, etc.
Also, use reminders (alarms, strategically placed post-it notes). But keep in mind that the effectiveness of reminders sometimes decreases over time (e.g., no longer noticing the post-it notes).
4. Habits are automatic
Bad habits are hard to break partly because habits are automatic, meaning habits require few attentional resources and often no conscious initiation or even conscious awareness. Automaticity concerns not just the behavior but also the attention to cues that trigger the behavior.
To illustrate, a health-conscious person entering a kitchen notices an apple first, whereas another person may notice a Snickers bar first.
Application: You can break the automaticity of negative behaviors—including negative automatic thoughts and thinking habits (e.g., “I am worthless” or “This will never work”)—by conducting behavioral experiments.
For example, if you often justify self-criticism as actually helpful or motivating, experiment with being more self-compassionate for a couple of days each week. See whether the results of the experiment show you are less or more motivated when being self-compassionate.
Compared to only discussing thinking habits, you may find these experiential exercises more effective in disrupting automatic negative thinking and promoting positive thinking. Remember, just like negative beliefs, positive beliefs can, through repetition, become automatic.
5. Habits are promoted by reinforcers
Reinforcers and rewards strengthen behaviors and facilitate habit formation.
Partial reinforcement (i.e., rewarding a behavior only sometimes) is more effective than continuous reinforcement (i.e., rewarding a behavior all the time).
And interval reinforcement schedules (reinforcement occurring only after a certain duration) are more effective than ratio reinforcement schedules (reinforcement always occurring with a certain probability).
Application: Use continuous reinforcement initially in order to create a strong link between the behavior and the reinforcer; subsequently, use partial reinforcement.
Anything you find rewarding—be it praise, a favorite snack, or an extra hour to play video games—may work. However, rewards sometimes lose their power to motivate and need to be replaced.
6. Habit change takes time
The last principle of habit formation concerns time. Forming new habits takes anywhere from a couple of weeks to many months—depending on the person, complexity of the behavior, consistency and frequency of performing the behavior, etc.
For instance, one study found habit formation takes anywhere from 18 to 254 days.
Application: Be patient and focus on forming just one new habit at a time. You did not develop bad habits overnight, so do not expect to be able to change multiple bad habits and replace them with healthy habits in a short time.
This is true even if you are going for therapy. Indeed, a course of psychological treatment (e.g., cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT) lasting a couple of months is likely too little time if the goal is changing multiple behaviors.
In short, to form healthy habits, keep practicing the desired behavior, remain optimistic, but be patient.