Why do they exist? Are they good or bad? How can we change them?


Habits emerge through associative learning. We develop patterns of behaviour that allow us to achieve goals. We repeat what works and gradually we form associations between specific cues and responses.

Much of our daily life becomes governed by habits that we have developed over our lifetime. Habits are a way of the brain “acting without thinking”. Conscious control of our minute-by-minute behaviour is very energy expensive, so the brain tries to transfer repetitive patterns of behaviour from conscious (energy expensive) to unconscious (energy efficient) control. Habits form when a new pattern of behaviour creates communication between the prefrontal cortex (the conscious, thinking brain) and the striatum (part of the subcortical, unconscious brain). In the unconscious brain the neurotransmitter dopamine aids learning of patterns of behaviour and assigns values to our intended goals. When behaviour is frequently repeated a feedback loop helps us stamp routines into a single unit or chunk, and dopamine again reinforces that chunk or pattern of brain activity. Once the habit is stored as a chunk of actions it becomes imprinted as a semi-permanent brain activity. This whole process means that habits that may have started out as actions under conscious control are gradually more automatic actions, less and less under conscious awareness. Automatic unconscious actions are what the brain strives for to conserve energy. 

Therefore an important characteristic of a habit is that it’s automatic and we often don’t recognise habits in our own behaviour. This is because as the habit develops the behaviour shifts from being goal directed to a cued (automatic) response to a particular context. This is why our habits tend to be rigid behaviours. 

Habits are useful because up to 40% of daily activities are repeated each day in similar contexts. Therefore it makes sense for the brain to conserve energy by developing habits to perform routine tasks. The often used example of a habit that requires less conscious effort is learning to drive. Initially keeping track of all the actions and coordinating all the information is very demanding and mentally taxing. As the skills are practiced they gradually become unconscious and fluid, to the point where on occasions you may not recall how you got from point A to point B because your driving was so automatic and unconscious. 

So are habits good or bad? In energy terms they are what the brain strives for, to conserve energy by looking for patterns and repeating patterns or routines with minimal effort- that's good for the brain. However, as habits become unconscious and automatic we can lose conscious control of them and they can become rigid ways of responding- that's possibly bad or not necessarily useful. Perhaps a better way to think about it is whether habits that we have developed either by conscious effort or by past repeated chance associations are currently beneficial. Established habits have at some time served a purpose; it is simply the case that that purpose may no longer be useful in your current situation. 

The problem, if one exists, is that once established habits by their very nature are hard to change. Change is HARD. Because our brains are stuck in a well worn groove of neurons firing together it takes conscious, concerted effort to change. While there is much made of the brains’ “neuroplasticity” the notion of “plastic”, taken as it is commonly understood (easily molded) is a little misleading. Plastic derives from the Greek word “plastikos” that is best understood as “molded”, but not necessarily easily. This means that while neural pathways can be developed it takes quite a deal of effort to escape the well worn groove and establish a new pathway. Imagine trying to set out to deviate from a well-established ski run, or to establish a fresh track in the bush rather than following the well-trodden path. 

Sorry, but forget the 21 days it takes for new neurons to develop to maturity- get ready for up to 6-9 months of graft. Discipline, persistence and grit will all come in handy if you truly want to change.

While the conscious mind can hold an intention, we can act to meet a desired goal or outcome. Unfortunately our conscious intentions to act differently to the past are easily swamped when the habitual mind is engaged largely outside of conscious awareness. Even when you know what you want to do, you can’t simply make yourself change the undesired habitual behaviour.  

So how do we set about changing our habits? Having good intentions is not enough. Many people are aware of the promotion of the “Go for 2 & 5” program that encourages eating 2 pieces of fruit and 5 serves of vegetables a day. While there is high awareness of, and support for these nutritional goals most Australians eat only about half the recommended quantity of fruit and vegetables. The program has changed people’s knowledge, attitudes and intentions, but not their practice or behaviour. Their intentions were overruled by habitual behaviour.

If you have read this far I am assuming that you have the intention of changing old habits or developing new ones.  To help with intentions; research in the fields of positive psychology and neuroscience indicates that you have more success when you’re moving towards something positive than moving away from something negative. Positive images are attractive to the brain and engage an approach mode of action, so what positive image of your desired goal can you visualise to pull you towards success? Come up with one, have it firmly in your mind, but also make it concrete, place it on a wall, in your computer, in your journal or diary, or anywhere you will reference it, and see it frequently. It can be really helpful when your resolve is slipping to remind you what you’re working towards and what all the effort is for.

There are three guiding principles to consider to effectively change habitual behaviour:

First, you have to sidetrack existing habits and create an opportunity to act on a new goal or intention. Remember free will, the power to do otherwise, is an illusion, it doesn’t exist, if it did we would simply choose to act differently. At best we may be able to exercise “free won’t”. Free won’t is the power to veto one impulse over another. This involves activation of the left dorsal frontal-median cortex (a conscious, thinking part of the brain), in intentional inhibitions of an action. This presupposes an ability to reflect on one’s own behaviour. Developing an attitude to reflect and respond, rather than reacting and regretting. This can take some practice as all too commonly we are pressured to respond quickly (reactively) instead of pausing to think. So instead of wishing to overcome an undesirable habit we either need to change the cues or develop a competing habit that may replace the old habit over time. If you are lucky enough to change jobs or move location you are presented with lots of new cues that can help to disrupt old cues and develop new habits. If large changes in environment aren’t possible, even small changes can make a difference. For example, if healthier eating is a goal, try moving unhealthy foods out of easy reach- try to give yourself the chance to reflect and activate your intentional inhibition circuits rather than reflexively (unconsciously) reaching for the poorer choice. Better still ditch the unhealthy stuff and replace it with healthier choices- we all know what they are. Writing a “healthy” shopping list when you are not pressured can give you the edge in the supermarket- it’s easier to make the “right” choice and it can reduce the urge to buy on impulse. 

As an aside, it’s important to monitor your overall stress levels and to do something about reducing high stress level as they prime you for a state of stress reactivity in your responses.

Second, repetition is the key to establishing a new habit. But remember that establishing a durable habit can take a long time. Don’t be fooled by the often quoted 15 to 30 days to establish a new habit. This is a neuromyth based on the observation that neurogenesis (the growth and maturation of new brain cells or neurons) occurs in this time frame. When you think about it, it is naïve to think that habits that have been developed and strengthened over years will easily succumb to a newly developing habit that may only have had weeks to establish. For lasting habits that stand a chance in the choice of free won’t, then discipline and persistence are the keys. Remember don’t expect to be good or perfect at the beginning, you just need to focus on doing better. Expecting perfection is the road to falling into guilt, shame and regret. Take it one choice at a time. It can feel overwhelming to contemplate change. However in reality our lives are simply a series of minute-by-minute choices. Endeavour to bring your choices to consciousness. If you're having trouble sticking to your goal, for a day, try this practice: when you recognise the old habit (often after it has unconsciously ambushed you), stop and say, "I'm choosing to: not work out; stay at the office to finish this project; lose it; look at my email rather than deal with my in tray; etc. Do you like yourself when you make this choice? You can choose differently, moment to moment. The next day, make the positive conscious choice apparent to yourself: I'm choosing to take a few calming breaths before speaking; I'm choosing to leave the office at 5pm. The more you focus on the positive conscious choices you can make today, the more you will develop into the new habit.

Third, there must be stable cues in order to trigger a new pattern. In some ways this is similar to repetition. Practice it daily. Someone asked the Dalai Lama to describe in one word the secret to living a healthy life. His answer? "Routines." The more you make what you want part of your everyday life, the more it will become so routine that soon you won't even have to think about it. Your brain is always searching for patterns to convert them into unconscious routines or habits. Make it easier by following set patterns. For example, say you want to develop the habit of using mouthwash when you brush your teeth. By always using it after you brush your teeth the repeated pattern is easier to maintain and one action eventually triggers the accompanying action. If you are starting from scratch- you don’t remember to brush your teeth- then while it sounds silly write it out as a list and post it where you will be reminded, e.g. next to your bed.


Here are some quotes about habits that you may find interesting:

  • “Habit is a cable; we weave it each day, and at last we cannot break it."     Horace Mann
  • “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit."     Aristotle
  • "Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going."     Jim Rohn.


Published on 11/4/2014


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