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Habit Formation

Reviewed by Psychology Today Staff

Habit formation is the process by which behaviors become automatic. Habits can form without a person intending to acquire them, but they can also be deliberately cultivated—or eliminated—to better suit one’s personal goals.

How We Form Habits
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People develop countless habits as they navigate the world, whether they are aware of them or not. The knee-jerk nature of these behaviors can help people get their needs met more efficiently in everyday life. Yet the fact that habits become deeply ingrained in our brains means that even if a particular habit creates more problems than it solves, it can be difficult to break. Understanding how habits take shape to begin with may be helpful in dismantling and replacing them.

What are examples of habits?

Habits may be harmful or health-promoting. Instinctively reaching for a cigarette after waking up—or any drug associated with particular cues—is a habit. So is picking up a pair of running shoes after getting home each day or buckling your seatbelt without thinking about it.

Why do humans have habits?

One likely reason people are creatures of habit is that habits are efficient: People can perform useful behaviors without wasting time and energy deliberating about what to do. This tendency toward quick-and-efficient responses can backfire, however—as when it gets hijacked by the use of addictive drugs or consumption of unhealthy food.

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How to Build Better Habits
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Old habits can be difficult to shake, and healthy habits are often harder to develop than one would like. But through repetition, it's possible to form—and maintain—new habits. Even long-time habits that are detrimental to one’s health and well-being can be broken with enough determination and a smart approach.

What are some ways to build a good habit?

Consider the context and dynamics that lead to habits. Building healthy habits can involve putting yourself in situations in which you are more likely to engage in the desired behavior, planning to repeat the behavior, and attaching a small reward to the behavior that doesn’t impede it (such as by watching TV or listening to music while exercising).

How do incentives help build a habit?

While intrinsic motivation—the internal force pushing us to engage in a behavior—is ultimately invaluable, incentives or rewards may help with habit-building by getting a person to begin to engage in the hoped-for behavior (such as working out) in the first place. 

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