General Psychology

December 1, 2023

The Power of Good Habits: Diverting the River

We’ve all heard the term “bad habit.” But what is a habit, exactly? The Cambridge Online Dictionary defines it as “something that you do often and regularly, sometimes without knowing that you are doing it[2].” Basically, they are learned behaviors that have become automatic. They form when you repeatedly do the same thing, and they are often based in attitudes and values[3].

For example, someone who values health and exercise will work out multiple time per week. Someone else who values exploration may eat out at a new restaurant every weekend. Both are regular, predictable behaviors that become automatic over time. Other times, values may not drive habitual behavior. For example, people may value something such as saving money for a rainy day and have a “value-action gap”, which is to say their actions don’t match their values[3]. Someone in this situation may want to save money but find themselves shopping on a nearly daily basis. The value is saving money but the habit is the opposite: spending money.

Aside from personal values, many of our habits were learned from others and reinforced socially[1], such as saying ‘excuse me’ while walking past someone, watching a sports game, or checking social media on your lunch break. Much of this habitual behavior is automatic and beyond our awareness. It’s just what we do. The behavior occurs without consideration or reflection[5], meaning we just don’t think about it. Habits are so powerful that they may continue long after their immediate use has ended[4]. For example, think about someone who has been in abusive relationships and still goes completely silent at the first sign of annoyance even when they are around safe people in healthy relationships. But not all habits are equally ingrained, which has led some researchers to coin the term “habit strength[5].” Habit strength is so real it can even be measured by brain scans, meaning habitual behavior changes the shape of your brain[4]. They are very deeply established patterns of behavior and very hard to break or change.

It is important to say that habits should not be confused with routines, which are longer sequences of behavior[3] like showering, brushing your teeth, then laying down in bed. Routines are something like a long string of habits that you wove together on purpose to achieve a goal. You shower, brush your teeth, then (hopefully) go to bed at a reasonable time to improve your health, wellness, and ability to socialize successfully without repelling your would-be friends with unpleasant body odor. An example of a less healthy routine would be coming home from work, sitting in front of the tv for countless hours eating junk food, then going to bed in the early hours of the morning. You would definitely feel less well after a week of the second routine. So it is of paramount importance to your success, functioning, and overall well-being to establish good habits and helpful routines.

Convinced? The next step is changing habits, but how do you change automatic behavior? Think of a river. Take the Grand Canyon for example. Ages ago, the Colorado River likely ran through a shallow riverbed. Over time, the river cut the Grand Canyon right out of solid rock into the form we recognize today. Think of habits as cutting neural pathways out of your brain, which hopefully isn’t made of rock! Neurons build connections, and your thoughts run through them like a river runs through a riverbed. In order to build a new habit, you need to redirect that river into a brand-new riverbed. This will be difficult at first because your river will want to run right back into its old bed. Dam it up! Redirect your thoughts into the new canal you are trying to build. What this means is you need to act with intentionality for a while. If your habit is coming home from work and sitting around for hours, and this is something you want to change, then you need to get yourself up off your couch and push yourself to take a walk or do whatever you want your new habit to be. This will feel strange and maybe a little awkward at first, and you’ll likely feel self-conscious for a while, but that’s just part of the process. Eventually, whatever the new routine or behavior is will become automatic. It takes a significant amount of willpower up front to divert that river but soon the water will cut out a new riverbed for you to coast down like a lazy river.

One final point: it is easiest to establish good routines and habits when none are already in place. Take the example of starting a new job. Intentionally building good habits as soon as you start the job will take you further than allowing bad habits to form and correcting them later after receiving feedback from your supervisor. Transitions and new beginnings can be seen as opportunities to start off on the right foot and build good habits. Investing that intentional effort up front will pay you back later.

[1] Dolan. P., Hallsworth, M., Halpern. D., et al. (2010). Mindspace. Influencing Behaviour through Public Policy. London: The Institute for Government and Cabinet Office.

[2] Habit. HABIT | definition in the Cambridge English Dictionary. (n.d.). Retrieved September 20, 2022, from

[3] Southerton. (2012). Habits, routines and temporalities of consumption: From individual behaviours to the reproduction of everyday practices. Time & Society. 22(3). 335-355. DOI: 10.1177/0961463X12464228

[4] Steinglass, J. E., Evelyn Attia, E., Glasofer, D. R., Wang, Y., Ruggiero, J., Walsh, B. T., & Thomas, J. G. (2022). Optimizing relapse prevention and changing habits (REACH+) in anorexia nervosa. International Journal of Eating Disorders. 55. 851-857. DOI: 10.1002/eat.23724

[5] Thaler, R. & Sunstein, C. (2008). Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

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