How-Tos

Habits, they’re more important than you think

Tips on discouraging the bad ones and encouraging the good ones

By BWA Research Fellow, Fraser Tull

Around 40% of what you do is performed every day in the same location, and around 70% of this is done without thought or deliberation. Unfortunately, this “mindlessness” can derail your behaviour change campaign.

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Consider for example, the last time you went to the movies. If you’re a regular moviegoer who routinely gets popcorn, then chances are you would have devoured the box no matter how bad the popcorn tasted.

In fact, even if the popcorn was seven days old and stale you would have continued reaching for more. Why?


You’ve developed a habit


  • habitual behaviour is performed without conscious intent (i.e., you don’t need to think about eating popcorn to initiate or guide its performance)

  • you can perform it while doing complex activities (e.g., eating popcorn while enthralled in a gripping movie plot)

  • and it can be difficult to control (i.e., you need to consciously stop yourself from reaching for another handful).


This poses problems for our behaviour change campaigns tackling bad habits. After all, if stale popcorn won’t do the trick, what will?


How do you kick those bad habits?

Simple, you need to be mindful of what you’re doing!

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It’s OK, you don’t need to be a Buddhist monk . . .
One approach is to frequently remind yourself “don’t do it“. This way, you’re aware of your current actions and can intervene to stop the behaviour from occurring.


Personally though, I think this sounds like a lot of hard work, and I doubt you’ll be successful at persuading anyone to do it!


Another approach is to form an Implementation Intention, also known as “if-then” plans. This approach requires the individual to first identify the critical situation and then outline the desired behavioural response (e.g., “if I’m at the cinema counter, then I’ll avoid purchasing the popcorn”).


Later, when exposed to the critical situation, the desirable behaviour automatically comes to mind (“Oh that’s right! I’m not getting popcorn anymore”).


Fortunately, this approach can be scaled up!

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Another approach is to take advantage of major life events, like moving house, starting a new job or having children.

During these times, you have to plan many of your day-to-day activities (e.g., what’s the best way of getting to work from here?).

This provides a “window of opportunity” when you’re aware of your current actions and more responsive to intervention.

Think about your own behaviour change challenge, can you target people during a major life event, because if you can, you’re more likely to succeed!

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Another option is to interfere with the natural flow of the behaviour. For example, the moviegoers in the popcorn study were influenced by the taste of the popcorn (i.e., only continued to eat fresh popcorn, not stale popcorn) if they were forced to use their non-dominant hand.

Some behavioural problems may be targeted this way (e.g., engineering the driver’s door forcing them to open with their left hand to encourage them to remember to look for cyclists). Does yours?


What about good habits?

Fortunately, habits usually work in our favour. Think about the last time you brushed your teeth. I bet you mindlessly picked up the toothbrush and started brushing as part of your usual morning routine.

In fact, I bet you were busy thinking about something else (e.g., “How am I going to handle that difficult conversation at work today?”).

This way, habits clear the way for us to meet many of our daily demands!

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It may seem hard to believe, but good habits are as strong as those pesky bad ones.


For example, remember feeling exhausted after a three-hour exam? Well, you might think that, when given the option between a chocolate bar or an apple, you would splurge on the sugary fix. Well, not necessarily.


If you have a habit of eating healthy snacks, then you’re actually more likely to go for the fruit!

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This is why we love good habits – they continue even when you lack motivation.
For this reason, behaviour change campaigns promoting “good” behaviours should encourage habit development.


How do you create good habits?

It’s all about finding a relevant cue. For example, if you wanted to develop a habit of flossing, then you’re better off flossing immediately after you brush your teeth than before you brush your teeth. Over time, brushing your teeth will become associated with the behaviour of flossing, and come to activate the behaviour automatically. However, be patient, as it takes around 66 days for a habit to develop.


What about more wicked problems?

Sometimes we’re faced with the challenge of overcoming bad habits while developing better alternative habits. Consider for example the problem of obesity. For this problem we need to break bad dietary and sedentary habits (e.g., sitting on the couch drinking soft-drink) and create good dietary and physical activity habits (e.g., going for a walk and drinking water).


What do we do in this situation?

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Some researchers have assessed whether its better to break the bad habits or develop the good ones.


To break bad habits obese patients were instructed by their doctor to do something different (e.g., “write a short story on any subject”).


Meanwhile to develop good habits other patients were instructed to find relevant cues and ensure regularity in their health behaviour (e.g., “repeat the behaviour in a consistent context”). 


What happened? Both were equally effective, and importantly, unlike patients receiving standard care, both habit-based interventions result in sustained behaviour change.

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Consumer behaviour can also reveal some useful insights. Customers are more likely to shift to a product that can fit within an existing habit.

For example, it’s easier to switch from bottled soft drink (bad habit) to bottled water (good habit) than switching to water from the tap.

Do you have a similar alternative to your problem behaviour?

Anyway, that’s plenty for now. If you’re interested in learning more about habits, checkout this book that came out a few months ago. It’s edited by Bas Verplanken, one of the great habit scholars. You can also see him in action when we hosted him back in 2014!