Repetition can make a simple behavior very powerful. Improving your physical health by exercising, increasing body strength by working out, or building up your potting skills in playing snooker can only be achieved by frequently executing these behaviors. However, people often struggle to maintain such regimes; sport schools typically see a decline in attendance a few weeks after the season start, and many training programs fail due to a lack of perseverance. Turning a beneficial behavior or practice into a habit is therefore the key to success. Unhealthy or ineffective habits may form barriers for change and may prevent establishing positive outcomes or improvements.
In the psychological literature, habit has always been defined in terms of frequency of behavior, which was inherited from the behaviorist school. However, there are problems with this definition. The first problem is that it is unclear how frequently behavior must be executed in order to qualify as a habit; does a habit exist after 2, 4, or 20 repetitions? Secondly, frequent behavior is not necessarily a habit. An athlete may regularly attempt to break the world record in sprinting, but few would consider this as a habit. We therefore need a better definition.
Such a definition of habit rests on three pillars. The first pillar obviously is repetition. Habits are formed by repeating behavior with satisfactory outcomes and without repetition there is no habit. However, repetition is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for behavior to qualify as habit, hence a second pillar, which is automaticity.
Habits are typically executed with relatively little mental effort, awareness, and conscious intent. These qualities make habits being experienced as easy or fluent; there is not much thought involved or needed to carry them out. While habits are forms of automatic behavior, they are functional and goal directed; we develop habits that serve us in one way or another, no matter whether these goals are constructive or unconstructive. If a habit has been developed, the recognition or activation of a goal may thus automatically elicit the accompanying habit. This relates to the third pillar of habit, which is context stability. This pillar is not so much a feature of the habit itself, but rather of the conditions and environments where habits occur. Habits are often elicited by specific cues, such as a particular time, location, physiological state, or the presence of an object or person. Habits thrive in stable conditions, where the same cue elicits the habitual response time and again. For instance, a person may have developed the habit of running twice a week after work and before having dinner. Such a habit may flourish if this person has a stable pattern of returning from work and having dinner at the same time and location but would be difficult to maintain in the face of irregular work times or if this person would travel a lot.
Measurement. If we accept that behavioral frequency is an inadequate definition of habit, the traditional way of using behavioral frequency as a measure of habit should be replaced by one that is commensurate to the new definition. The Self Report Habit Index has been developed for that purpose. It is a 12-item scale, which assesses habit as a psychological construct. It incorporates the various facets of habit, such as the experience of repetition and the lack of awareness and conscious intent.
Locus of control. The fact that habits are dependent on and elicited by cues in the environment where the behavior takes place points to a shift in locus of control when behavior becomes habitual. Whereas new or deliberate behaviors are controlled by conscious intentions and willpower, which is very much in line with prevalent sociocognitive models such as the theory of planned behavior, habits are to a much larger degree controlled by the external environment. Habits are thus less likely to change through motivation and attitude change. Although motivation and attitude change may certainly help make changes, managing the environments in which behavior occurs may be paramount to success if strong habits are involved. This implies identifying and changing or removing the cues that trigger old habits and engineering the environment for new habits to establish and flourish. Habits may thus be planned in a particular environment and may be promoted by, for instance, the use of implementation intentions.
Where is the habit? One may wonder whether habits really exist in the domain of sport and exercise. After all, many who practice sport and exercise do that intentionally and mindfully. These activities are characterized by repetition, but seemingly not so much by automaticity. It is therefore important to analyze precisely where exactly habits may reside. Take for instance exercising. While exercising may be executed intentionally and mindfully, it is often the decision to exercise where the problems lie. If we would deliberate every time whether or not to exercise, we would be vulnerable to our well-developed skills to rationalize and find excuses to stay home. On the other hand, if we make the decision to go exercising a habit and build this into our daily or weekly routines, we would not need to deliberate whether or not to exercise, but rather which route to take or which clothes to wear. In other words, while the activity itself may be executed in a mindful, and hopefully joyful fashion, the decision to exercise is the critical habit.
Opportunities to break and create habits. As breaking old habits often requires rearrangements of the environment where habits reside, we may look for opportunities to break habits that sometimes naturally arise. This happens particularly when people undergo life course changes, such as moving to a new house, starting a family, changing a job, or starting retirement. These events provide short windows of opportunity where old habits are temporarily broken, and individuals may be looking for new ways to arrange their lives. In those situations, people may consider making changes that they have contemplated all along. These may also provide opportunities where behavior change interventions may be more effective and thus provide more value for money.
Mental habits. We have not only habits of doing but also of thinking. Mental habits are repetitive patterns of thought, which may possess the crucial features of behavioral habits such as described by the three pillars. Mental habits may involve negative thoughts, which then may get in the way of good performances and may affect outcomes such as one’s self-esteem or mental health. Mental habits may also involve positive thoughts, which may then play constructive roles in keeping up one’s motivation and believing in oneself.
- Orbell, S., & Verplanken, B. (2010). The automatic component of habit in health behavior: Habit as cue-contingent automaticity. Health Psychology, 29, 374–383.
- Verplanken, B. (2006). Beyond frequency: Habit as mental construct. British Journal of Social Psychology, 45, 639–656.
- Verplanken, B., & Orbell, S. (2003). Reflections on past behavior: A self-report index of habit Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 33, 1313–1330.
- Wood, W., & Neal, D. T. (2007). A new look at habits and the habit-goal interface. Psychological Review, 114, 843–863.