How are habits formed and how can they be changed? (3 ways to form and 7 ways to change habits)

This blog post aims to answer the question, “How are habits formed and how can they be changed?” and explores what habits are, the 3 components with which they are formed and the 7 ways in which they can be changed to help understand the answer. 

How are habits formed and how can they be changed?

Habits are formed with the help of the following 3 main components – 

  • Context cue.
  • Behavioural repetition.
  • Reward. 

A past activity, time of day, place, or anything else that activates the habitual behaviour might be used as a context cue.

Habits, according to research, can be changed by replacing an already existent habit with an alternate behaviour. Habits can be changed with the help of the following 7 steps –

  • Recognize your habits.
  • Find out how your habit affects you.
  • Apply reasoning to the situation.
  • Select a different option (alternative).
  • Remove any potential triggers.
  • Visualize the transformation.
  • Negative thoughts and conversations should be avoided.

What is a habit?

A habit (or will, in a more formal sense) is a pattern of behaviour that is repeated on a regular basis and usually occurs subconsciously. A habit, according to the American Journal of Psychology (1903), is “a more or less established manner of thinking, willing, or feeling formed via prior repetition of a mental experience.” 

Because a person does not need to engage in self-analysis when performing normal duties, habitual behaviour typically goes unnoticed by those who show it. Habits are sometimes unavoidable. 

Wendy Wood and her colleagues discovered that over 43 per cent of everyday activities are conducted out of habit in a 2002 daily experience study.

The process of habit building can help new behaviours become automatic. Because the behavioural patterns that humans repeat get imprinted in brain pathways, old habits are difficult to break and new habits are difficult to create, yet new habits can be formed through repetition.

When behaviours are repeated in a consistent context, the link between the context and the action becomes stronger. This makes the behaviour more automatic in such a situation. Efficiency, lack of awareness, unintentionality, and uncontrollability are all characteristics of automatic conduct.

How are habits formed? 

The process through which behaviours become habitual is known as habit development. Habits can arise without a person’s knowledge, but they can also be cultivated—or eliminated—to better-fit one’s particular objectives.

People form a variety of habits as they traverse the environment, whether or not they are conscious of them. People can have their wants satisfied more effectively in everyday life because of the knee-jerk nature of these activities. 

However, because habits become firmly embedded in our minds, it may be difficult to change them, even if they cause more issues than they solve. Understanding how habits form in the first place might help you dismantle and replace them.

Wood emphasises the neurology of habits, emphasising how they have a distinct brain imprint. You use your associative basal ganglia to learn a response, which includes the prefrontal cortex and supports working memory so you can make decisions. 

The information in your brain gets rearranged when you repeat the behaviour in the same situation. It switches to the sensory-motor loop, which sustains representations of cue response connections but no longer remembers the aim or consequence. This change from goal-directed to context-driven responses explains why our habits are so inflexible.

According to Wood, there is a twofold mind at work. When our purposeful mind is active, we behave in ways that achieve the results we want, and we’re usually conscious of our objectives. 

Intentions can shift swiftly because we can make deliberate judgments about what we want to do in the future that may differ from what we have done in the past. When the habitual mind is active, however, our habits operate mostly outside of consciousness. 

We can’t simply explain how or why we do things, and habits develop slowly over time. “Our thoughts don’t always work together in an ideal way. You can’t make yourself modify your habitual conduct even if you know the correct response “According to Wood.

Participants in a study were asked to sample popcorn, and fresh popcorn was preferred over stale, as predicted. People who often consume popcorn at the movies, on the other hand, ate equally as much stale popcorn as those in the fresh popcorn group when offered popcorn at a movie theatre. 

“People’s attentive, deliberate minds are readily distracted, and they revert to their old habits. We’re not thinking about what we’re doing 40% of the time “Wood speaks out. We may focus on other things because of our habits. Willpower is a finite resource, and once depleted, you revert to your old patterns.

MIT researchers uncovered a three-step brain pattern that forms the heart of every habit, according to Duhigg (2012) in his book The Power of Habit. 

Context Cue.

Cue is the first step. It signals your brain to go into automatic mode, causing the behaviour to occur. 

Behavioural repetition (Routine).

The second phase is behavioural repetition or routine, which refers to your behaviour and actions. 

Reward.

The final step is to reward yourself. It aids your brain in determining whether or not a certain habit loop is worth remembering. Habits have either immediate or hidden benefits. 

Habits that provide instant gratification are simpler to form and keep, whereas habits that provide delayed gratification are more difficult to commit to and maintain.

Example 1. 

Consider how much easier it is to check your smartphone than it is to exercise more.

Context Cue.

Someone likes or comments on one of your images, and you get a push notification on your phone. The notice acts as a reminder (or trigger) to check your account.

Behavioural repetition (Routine).

This is how things really are. You immediately check your Instagram account after receiving the push notification.

Reward.

This is the advantage you get from engaging in the behaviour (e.g., finding out who likes or commented on one of your photos). Remember that the reward aids the brain in determining whether or not this particular loop is worthwhile to remember in the future.

Example 2. 

Let’s look at the example of turning off the lights when you leave a room since some habits are good.

Context Cue.

The light instructs your brain to enter automatic mode and to employ which habit while exiting the room.

Behavioural repetition (Routine).

The actual act of turning off the light.

Reward.

Lower electric bills and a better overall home energy budget.

How can habits be changed?

Controlling habits is difficult, but not impossible. You can certainly overcome your bad habits with a few pointers and a lot of hard work. Here are some examples of how psychological research might be used to help you change your habits:

Recognize your habits.

Habits can be quite subtle and difficult to notice. You must bring your subconscious tendencies into your awareness. You might do so by observing yourself or asking friends or relatives to point out the habit you have.

Find out how your habit affects you.

Every habit has an impact, whether it’s physical or mental. Find out exactly what it is that it is doing to you. Does it assist you in reducing stress or providing pain relief? 

It might be anything as easy as that. It’s possible that chewing your nails might help you relax. To be able to control a habit, you must first understand how it works.

Apply reasoning to the situation.

There is no need to be spoon-fed with knowledge and counsel to understand the dangers of a bad habit. Binge-watching late at night before a big presentation isn’t going to assist you. Take a time to consider how you can regulate your obnoxious behaviours using your own wisdom and logic.

Select a different option (alternative).

Every habit elicits a certain emotion. So, until you find something else to replace it, it may be tough to get over it. It might be a basic, non-harmful new behaviour that you develop to help you break a bad habit.

Let’s say you have a tendency of slamming your head against the wall when you’re furious. That won’t be good for you. Instead, take a deep breath and count to ten the next time you’re irritated. Alternatively, imagine yourself on a luxurious boat. Just come up with a solution that works for you.

Remove any potential triggers.

Remove objects and events from your environment that may trigger your undesirable behaviour. If you’re attempting to stop smoking, stay away from smoke breaks. If you want to limit your sweet cravings, take all the candy bars out of the fridge.

Visualize the transformation.

If we start visualizing the change, our brains may be conditioned to forget the habit. Serious vision is remembered and acts as an incentive to change the habit cycle.

For example, to replace your habit of sleeping in late, imagine yourself getting up early every day and going for a jog. If you keep doing this, you will naturally feel more motivated to get up early and pursue your new activity.

Negative thoughts and conversations should be avoided.

Continuous negative words and thinking, similar to how our brain is conditioned to accept a change in habit, can sabotage your efforts to quit a habit. Believe in yourself and your ability to come out of it.

Conclusion – 

This blog post attempted to answer the question, “How are habits formed and how can they be changed?” and reviewed what habits are, how they are formed with the help of 3 core components and how they can be changed with the help of 7 steps to help determine how habits are formed and how they can be changed. Please feel free to reach out to us with any questions or comments you may have.

References –

Changing Habits. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://learningcenter.unc.edu/tips-and-tools/changing-habits/#:~:text=According%20to%20experts%20with%20Psychology,etched%20into%20our%20neural%20pathways.%E2%80%9D

Habits: How They Form And How To Break Them. (2012, March 5). Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2012/03/05/147192599/habits-how-they-form-and-how-to-break-them

Gaines, J. How Are Habits Formed? The Psychology of Habit Formation. (2022, April 11). Retrieved from https://positivepsychology.com/how-habits-are-formed/

Habit Formation. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/habit-formation

Clear, J. How To Start New Habits That Actually Stick. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://jamesclear.com/three-steps-habit-change

Habit. Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. (2022, April 25). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Habit

The Science Of Habit Formation And Change. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://fs.blog/everything-you-need-to-know-about-habits-the-science-of-habit-formation-and-change/

Gardner, Benjamin et al. “Making health habitual: the psychology of ‘habit-formation’ and general practice.” The British journal of general practice : the journal of the Royal College of General Practitioners vol. 62,605 (2012): 664-6. doi:10.3399/bjgp12X659466. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3505409/

Carden, Lucas & Wood, Wendy. (2018). Habit Formation and Change. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences. 20. 117-122. 10.1016/j.cobeha.2017.12.009. Retrieved from  https://www.researchgate.net/publication/322222649_Habit_Formation_and_Change

Society for Personality and Social Psychology. “How we form habits, change existing ones.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 8 August 2014. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/08/140808111931.htm

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