The Psychology of Habit Formation



Photo by David Mao on Unsplash

I believe we tend to shy away from changing behavior. Exercising more, getting fit, or eating better are often perceived as huge tasks. But they don’t have to if you follow a few simple principles, and take an incremental approach. The crux comes down to, what Franz Kafka would have put like this:

“Paths are made by walking.”

In the beginning, every path compares to a narrow trail. Vegetation might be in the way, and progress is slow and effortful. But by walking the path often, it becomes more solid. What’s been effortful in the beginning becomes easy with time and repetition.

Good Advice, Bad Advice

Health-related advice mostly relates to the what and why. For example, your doctor recommends reducing weight, because of certain risks. Of course, it’s a good thing to have sound reasons. And the program your doc recommends might be the best there is. But what and why don’t necessarily help with the question of how to make a new habit stick. It doesn’t help you “walk the talk”. This article is a step to close that gap.

Benjamin Gardner and colleagues argue that even health professionals shy away from giving advice on modifying behavior. Even they see behavior change as time-consuming and difficult for people to implement. That’s sad because health professionals could be making more with the time they have with their clients.

The usual advice of what and why is designed to deliberate. Psychologically this triggers what Daniel Kahneman calls “System 2”. This is a slow, deliberate cognitive system.

Relying on “System 2” we need us to pay attention and willpower. That’s why this kind of advice fails. We need our attention to do our daily work. Attention is a limited resource, or as some might say our mental hitpoints are limited. That’s why Steve Jobs, for example, kept wearing the same outfits day in day out. He didn’t want to decide on minor things. He wanted to reserve his mental hitpoints.

We need to utilize what Kahneman calls “System 1”.  This is our autopilot. He’s fast. We can give him new tasks. Of course, there is a transition. But then he can take care of tasks and we keep our mental hitpoints.

All we need to do is, take care of the autopilot for a while for him to learn the new task properly.

How Habits Are Formed

Benjamin Gardner proposes simple advice on how to create this change:

“We propose that simple advice on how to make healthy actions into habits — externally-triggered automatic responses to frequently encountered contexts — offers a useful option in the behaviour change toolkit. Advice for creating habits is easy for clinicians to deliver and easy for patients to implement: repeat a chosen behaviour in the same context, until it becomes automatic and effortless.”

Automatic and effortless. Isn’t that what we want? We get there by letting external cues trigger our routines.

Charles Duhigg, the author of The Power Of Habit – Why We Do What We Do, and How to Change, calls this the habit loop:

“This process within our brains is a three-step loop. First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future.”

Trigger, routine, reward. Like that, the smell of coffee in the mornings makes me get myself a cup of coffee, have a sip and enjoy the caffeine rush.

The Habit Loop According To Charles Duhigg

Repeatedly, psychological research has shown that the mere repetition of an action in the same context leads to habit formation (see this, and this for example). Through associative learning, the context then triggers the behavior. That’s why the Pavlovian dog still salivated when sounding a bell, though there was no food. Gardner explains:

“Once initiation of the action is ‘transferred’ to external cues, dependence on conscious attention or motivational processes is reduced. Therefore habits are likely to persist even after conscious motivation or interest dissipates. Habits are also cognitively efficient, because the automation of common actions frees mental resources for other tasks.”

That’s the beauty of this approach. Behavior becomes “second nature” and we have our minds free to deal with new business.

I have a habit of meditating on the bus commute. Whenever I meet someone or something interferes it feels quite strange not to meditate. With time the environment triggers you to do your habit. What initially was effortful becomes effortless and easy to maintain, even makes you uncomfortable when you can’t do your routine.

Transition: From Effort to Effortless

Unrealistic expectations can lead to giving up. Janet Polivy calls these unrealistic expectations false hope. We might be wrong about the ease, speed, likely degree of change, and presumed benefits of changing.

I’m saying this because a 21-day myth goes around. Gardner and colleagues counter that myth:

“Some may have heard that habits take 21 days to form. This myth appears to have originated from anecdotal evidence of patients who had received plastic surgery treatment and typically adjusted psychologically to their new appearance within 21 days. More relevant research found that automaticity plateaued on average around 66 days after the first daily performance.”

Based on daily repetition, of course, a 10-week rule is more realistic. Keeping up the motivation for 2-3 months can be an attractive option. Then the autopilot will take over. These numbers result from a study by  Phillipa Lally and colleagues. In absolute terms, habit formation appeared between 18 and 254 days. Repetition is the most important factor if you want your autopilot to take over quickly. Missing one opportunity to do your new habit will not affect the process. Just get back on track.

Strategies, That Get You to “Effortless”

The following strategies help with habit formation. Be aware that this is a learning process. According to Gardner one passes the phases of initiation and the learning phase on the way to a steady habit. The ideas below will help with both: getting started, and learning to deal with obstacles along the way.

1. Decide When, Where, and How

To start things decide when, where, and how. For example, if you want an exercise habit, define when and where you will exercise: “Immediately after waking on Mondays, I will go for a run for half an hour”. A stable cue is important because we want our minds to be free, and let the cue do the reminding. This kind of if-then plan helps automate your will.

The idea comes from the German psychologist Peter M. Gollwitzer. According to Gollwitzer defining when, where, and how helps “translate” plans into action. One might say, we create a “memory of the future”. As soon as we face the anticipated situation – waking up – we remember our goal and how we want to get it done. It can help to write these if-then plans down.

How refers to the kind of exercise, or maybe how you make the new habit more fun. I like to bundle new habits with “vices” of mine, like bundling writing with coffee and exercise with favorite music or audiobooks. Katy Milkman calls this temptation bundling. In my experience, this can help with starting a habit.

2. Small Changes

Combine habit formation with the small changes approach. Don’t try to run seven times a week. Run once a week, or if you have to, make it only one mile. Or half a mile. That way the bar is so low that you don’t have to think about it. You just do it. This helps create momentum, allows you to keep going, and make it a habit. You can grow skills, and raise the bar later on. Focus on the consistency first.

In terms of small changes Gardner and colleagues add the following:

“A sedentary person, for example, would be more appropriately advised to walk one or two stops more before getting on the bus than to walk the entire route — at least for their first habit goal. Small changes can benefit health: slight adjustments to dietary intake can aid long-term weight management, and small amounts of light physical activity are more beneficial than none. Moreover, simpler actions become habitual more quickly. Additionally, behaviour change achievements, however small, can increase self-efficacy, which can in turn stimulate pursuit of further changes.”

Self-efficacy is a fancy term for self-confidence in psychology. Can I do this? And, can I produce the wanted results doing so? Starting small therefore boosts self-confidence, and creates momentum to aim at and take on higher goals.

3. Variation Is The Enemy

They say variety is the spice of life, but in terms of modifying behavior, it’s a burden. Variation simply is incompatible with building a habit. Gardner argues:

“Variation may stave off boredom, but is effortful and depends on maintaining motivation, and is incompatible with development of automaticity.”

I believe it’s fair to say, that those who consistently do the same things over and over will have visible results. Those who stay on the same exercise program will more likely have huge results, than those who switch week by week.

Therefore the idea remains: repeat a single specific action in a consistent context.

Of course, you can spice things up with a cheat day when dieting. Or you can add a different type of exercise on the weekends to feed your need for variety. But in general, results depend on routine.

4. Pick Goals Yourself

Choose your goal yourself. Also, choose the way you want to get there yourself. Chances are you will have an intrinsic value when you do that. You’re more likely to persist. Research also has shown that self-chosen habits, compared externally induced, are easier targets. Therefore, have it your way.

5. Replace Bad Habits

Creating a routine of nothing doesn’t work. If you want to get rid of a bad habit replace it. For example, instead of eliminating coffee in the afternoons, replace it with tea.

Charles Duhigg on this point:

“The Golden Rule of Habit Change: You can’t extinguish a bad habit, you can only change it.”

“Rather, to change a habit, you must keep the old cue, and deliver the old reward, but insert a new routine.”

Breaking a routine is effortful. Why not use the existing habit loop, and make the best of it?

6. Self-Monitor

Self-monitor, for example, with a simple tick-sheet or an app like That way you can see progress and also get direct feedback.

Though this can be “painful”, because we tend to be hard on ourselves when things don’t work out, we can ask why the habit didn’t work. That way we create a learning process.

It’s possible, but unlikely to have the perfect streak at one go. Often we fall off the wagon because something unexpected happened. The second time, we know the situation and can prepare. Here, too, we can decide when, where, and how to deal with obstacles.

7. Deal With Different Contexts One-By-One

Let’s look at diet for example. There are so many contexts: breakfast, lunch, dinner, and all the little snacks. Taking them on at once would be a huge project. Why not split?

There’s definitely more than one habit loop if we look at diet. Why not start with breakfast only, or lunch – create a proper habit and then move on?

Moreover, we face (social) pressure in certain situations. Don’t start here. Start with safe situations, when you can likely see how things turn out. Build solid routines here, and later move to more difficult situations.


Habit formation advice is briefly delivered: repeat a chosen behavior in the same context until it becomes automatic and effortless. Also, this is easy to implement. Provided your “what and why” are sound these ideas will help you implement your new habit, with real potential for long-term impact.

Complement this article with The Power Of Habit: Why We Do What We Do, and How to Change by Charles Duhigg, or Peter M. Gollwitzer’s Implementation Intentions: Strong Effects Of Simple Plans.

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