A habit (or wont) is a routine of behavior that is repeated regularly and tends to occur subconsciously.[1][2][3]

The American Journal of Psychology (1903) defines a "habit, from the standpoint of psychology, [as] a more or less fixed way of thinking, willing, or feeling acquired through previous repetition of a mental experience."[4] Habitual behavior often goes unnoticed in persons exhibiting it, because a person does not need to engage in self-analysis when undertaking routine tasks. Habits are sometimes compulsory.[3][5] New behaviours can become automatic through the process of habit formation. Old habits are hard to break and new habits are hard to form because the behavioural patterns which humans repeat become imprinted in neural pathways,[6] but it is possible to form new habits through repetition.[7]

When behaviors are repeated in a consistent context, there is an incremental increase in the link between the context and the action. This increases the automaticity of the behavior in that context.[8] Features of an automatic behavior are all or some of:[9]

  • efficiency
  • lack of awareness
  • unintentionality
  • uncontrollability


Habit formation is the process by which a behavior, through regular repetition, becomes automatic or habitual. This is modelled as an increase in automaticity with number of repetitions up to an asymptote.[10][11][12] This process of habit formation can be slow. Lally et al. (2010) found the average time for participants to reach the asymptote of automaticity was 66 days with a range of 18–254 days.[12]

As the habit is forming, it can be analysed in three parts: the cue, the behavior, and the reward. The cue is the thing that causes the habit to come about, the trigger of the habitual behavior. This could be anything that one's mind associates with that habit and one will automatically let a habit come to the surface. The behavior is the actual habit that one exhibits, and the reward, a positive feeling, therefore continues the "habit loop".[13] A habit may initially be triggered by a goal, but over time that goal becomes less necessary and the habit becomes more automatic.

A variety of digital tools, online or mobile apps, have been introduced that are designed to support habit formation. For example, Habitica is a system that uses gamification, implementing strategies found in video games to real life tasks by adding rewards such as experience and gold.[14] A review of such tools, however, suggests most are poorly designed with respect to theory and fail to support the development of automaticity.[15][16]

Shopping habits are particularly vulnerable to change at "major life moments" like graduation, marriage, birth of first child, moving to a new home, and divorce. Some stores use purchase data to try to detect these events and take advantage of the marketing opportunity.[17]

Some habits are known as "keystone habits", and these influence the formation of other habits. For example, identifying as the type of person who takes care of their body and is in the habit of exercising regularly, can also influence eating better and using credit cards less. In business, safety can be a keystone habit that influences other habits that result in greater productivity.[17]

A recent study by Adriaanse et al. (2014) found that habits mediate the relationship between self-control and unhealthy snack consumption.[18] The results of the study empirically demonstrate that high-self control may influence the formation of habits and in turn affect behavior.

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