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.
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.
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.
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.
Habits are built through learning and repetition. A person is thought to develop a habit in the course of pursuing goals (such as driving to a destination or satisfying an appetite) by beginning to associate certain cues with behavioral responses that help meet the goal (turning at certain streets, or stopping at a drive-thru with a familiar sign). Over time, thoughts of the behavior and ultimately the behavior itself are likely to be triggered by these cues.
A “habit loop” is a way of describing several related elements that produce habits. These elements have been called the cue (or trigger), the routine (or behavior), and the reward. For example, stress could serve as a cue that one responds to by eating, smoking, or drinking, which produces the reward (the reduction of stress—at least temporarily). The “habit loop” concept was popularized by Charles Duhigg in The Power of Habit.
While a routine involves repeated behavior, it’s not necessarily performed in response to an ingrained impulse, like a habit is. You might routinely wash the dishes or go to the gym without feeling an impulse to do so because you feel you need to do those things.
Widespread bad habits include drinking or eating more than is recommended, smoking, and drug misuse. Other common and potentially harmful habits include excessive viewing of phones or other devices (which can, for example, be disruptive to sleep when done at night).
A person may not be fully aware of how her habit works—habits are built to make things happen without us having to think much about them. Consciously intervening in one’s own habitual behavior likely won’t come naturally, so breaking a habit can require some consideration and effort.
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.
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).
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.
The amount of time needed to build a habit will depend on multiple factors, including the individual and the intended behavior. While you might be able to pick up a new habit in a matter of weeks, some research indicates that building healthy habits can also take many months.
Habits are a person’s behavior running on auto-pilot: The brain is likely not used to scrutinizing why a bad habit is carried out. Bad habits are also ingrained in the mind due to the rewarding feelings that they bring—or used to bring, when the habit was formed.
Trying to mindfully consider why you engage in a bad habit—and what other options there are—may help. So could taking some time to think about what prompts the bad habit and reevaluating what you get out of it (or don’t). Consider and keep in mind why you want to make a change, including how the change reflects your values. When a habit is part of an addiction or other mental health condition, professional treatment may be the best way to achieve change.