change habits

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Their review, published in Social and Personality Psychology Compass, reveals that our understanding of habit formation and disruption may not always align with the realities of behavior change “in the wild.” By bridging this gap between theory and practice, they’re paving the way for more successful habit-based interventions that can help us create lasting, positive changes in our lives.

“Forming a habit means connecting a situation you often encounter with the action you usually take. These connections help by creating impulses that push us to do the usual action without thinking. But the pushes from habits are just one of many feelings we might have at any time,” says Dr Benjamin Gardner, co-author and Reader in Psychology from the University of Surrey, in a statement.

“Impulses are like babies, each crying for our attention. We can only tend to one at a time. These impulses come from various sources – intentions, plans, emotions, and habits. We act according to whichever impulse demands our attention by crying the loudest at any given moment,” he adds. “Habit impulses usually cry the loudest, guiding us to do what we normally do, even when other impulses are vying for our attention. However, there are times when other impulses cry louder.”

Methodology: Defining ‘Habit’ With Science

To shed light on the discrepancies between habit theory and real-world experiences, the researchers conducted a comprehensive review of the existing literature on habit and behavior change. They focused on two key areas: habit formation, which involves creating new positive habits, and habit disruption, which involves breaking old, unwanted habits.

The team began by clarifying the definition of “habit” itself. They emphasized that habit is not the same as habitual behavior; rather, habit is a cognitive process that generates impulses to act based on learned associations between cues and responses. This distinction is crucial, as it highlights that having a habit doesn’t guarantee that the associated behavior will always occur.

Next, the researchers explored how habits can manifest in complex, real-life behaviors. They noted that even intricate actions can be habitually triggered, even if their execution remains more deliberate. For example, a person might automatically grab their gym bag when they get home from work (a habitual instigation) but still thoughtfully go through their exercise routine once at the gym (intentional execution).


One of the most striking findings from the review was that the widely accepted idea that strong habits can consistently overpower conscious intentions may not hold true in real-world settings. While lab studies have shown that habits can lead to “action slips” when people are trying to act in line with new goals, the researchers argued that these slips are more likely to be one-off mistakes rather than complete relapses into old patterns.

In fact, the team suggested that over time, a strong and stable intention to change can often override even deeply ingrained habits. They proposed that real-life contexts typically offer more opportunities for people to exert self-control and align their actions with their goals compared to the constrained settings of lab experiments.

The researchers also highlighted that forming a new habit, while helpful, may not be strictly necessary for long-term behavior change. They pointed out that other factors, such as finding enjoyment in a new behavior or feeling satisfied with the decision to change, can also support the maintenance of positive lifestyle modifications.

Discussion and Takeaways: Putting Habit Theory into Practice

So, what does this mean for those of us seeking to create meaningful changes in our lives? The researchers offered several key insights and recommendations:

1. Managing expectations: While developing new positive habits can certainly aid in behavior change, it’s important not to view habits as a “silver bullet.” Even a strongly formed habit won’t guarantee a behavior will persist if motivation fades entirely.

2. Harnessing the power of context: Habits are cue-dependent, so consistently performing a desired action in a specific context is vital for habit formation. However, it’s equally important to recognize that if those contextual cues change, the habitual behavior may be disrupted.

3. Adapting habit-breaking strategies: The review highlighted various ways to break unwanted habits, such as avoiding triggers, making the behavior harder to do, or replacing an old habit with a new one. The effectiveness of these strategies may vary depending on the person and situation, so flexibility is key.

4. Expecting (and planning for) setbacks: Slipping up and falling back into old habits from time to time is a normal part of the change process. The researchers emphasized framing these moments as temporary setbacks rather than failures to avoid the kind of negative thinking that can lead to a full-blown relapse.

“Think of someone who has developed a habit of eating a healthy breakfast every morning. One day, they wake up late, leave the house without having time for breakfast, and then grab a sugary snack on their commute,” says Dr. Phillippa Lally, co-author of the study and a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Surrey. “This single disruption can make them feel like they’ve failed, potentially leading them to abandon the healthy eating habit altogether. When trying to make a new behavior stick, it’s a good idea to form a habit and have a backup plan for dealing with setbacks, such as keeping healthy snacks on hand that you can quickly grab on busy mornings.”

Ultimately, this review serves as a reminder that while harnessing habit can be a powerful tool for behavior change, it’s not as simple as a self-improvement book or even a therapist can make it seem. By understanding the nuances of how habits operate in the real world and by tailoring our strategies accordingly, we can set ourselves up for greater success as we work towards creating positive, lasting changes in our lives. Armed with these insights, we can approach our habit goals with both realism and optimism, knowing that with persistence and flexibility, meaningful transformation is within reach.

StudyFinds Editor-in-Chief Steve Fink contributed to this report.

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