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Habits are...


Explanations > Behaviors > Habit > Habits are...

Description | Example | Discussion | So what



Habits are automatic sequences of actions that we enact, often with very little conscious decision involved. We may know what we are doing, but do not consciously think about whether or not to do it. Typically, we may notice that we are enacting a habit but do not remember deciding or even initiating the action.

Good habits are positive and useful. Bad habits are negative and problematic. Habits can also be neutral, having neither helpful nor harmful effect.

Once ingrained (or 'habituated'), habits can be very hard to prevent or give up. This can be problematic for bad habits.


Cleaning your teeth is a useful, positive habit.

Sucking one's thumb is essentially a harmless action but is socially thought of as a bad habit and children are discouraged from what is believed to be a nipple-substitute action.

Always being critical of a partner's attempts to help is a negative, destructive habit.

Superstitions such as 'touching wood' when mentioning a positive outcome are often a neutral, harmless habits that may have a good side in the comfort caused. Superstitious action can also be bad when it constrains action and causes anxiety.


Our lives are full of choices and decisions which, if we stopped to carefully consider each one, would fill up our time. Habits are one of a range of automated decision processes we use to save time. By some counts, habits make up about 40% of our daily activity.

Habits are created by habituation, which is a process of conditioning whereby repeated triggers and actions become automated.

Habits are triggered by events, thoughts and situations, for example brushing teeth may be cued by getting up or finishing a meal. Triggers may be simple or may be a complex set of conditions.

While habits can be useful, we can also fall into bad habits which can be difficult to give up.

A common situation with habits is that we do not notice we are doing them and even find some comfort in them, yet they annoy other people who can find them particularly irritating. For example a person may make 'humming' noises while they think, which interrupts the thinking of others around them.

Normally, decision-making takes place in the pre-frontal cortex. In habits, it moves down into the basal ganglia, which is a non-conscious and hence difficult to consciously change.

So what?

Actively work to create good habits by deliberately noticing or creating a trigger and providing a consistent reward (which can be physical or psychological).

Act to reduce or remove bad habits by noticing triggers and avoiding them wherever possible. If you cannot avoid them, try interrupting the action. Also ensure that rewards do not happen, even comforting little self-talk. Again, interruption and corruption can be effective here.

See also



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