This is my second posting on the concept of Habit, so you could say I am just starting to make a habit of it. In 2010 I wrote a blog posting on the subject which drew from what we knew then. I said at the time: “We know that reinforcing good habits is a good strategy, but the much bigger challenge is changing existing bad habits”. At the time there was a lot of focus on the business benefits for understanding the habits of consumers.  My point in 2010 was to say that habit was a key area to explore from a public policy perspective in order to promote pro-social behaviours, within the various streams of behavioural interventions.

Since 2010 there has been a lot more behavioural research into the subject with a much greater understanding of our ‘defaults’ which the Behavioural Insight Unit refers to in both its MINDSPACE and EAST guidance. There have also been some good books written. The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg and Making Habits, Breaking habits by Jeremy Dean who writes at PsyBlog.

Thus I thought I might summarise some of the more recent learning in the last four years here.

1. Understand the Context to ‘Make’ or ‘Break’ a habit

Up to 47% of everyday behaviour is non-thinking and habitual and people are very likely to rely on past habitual behaviour when they are distracted under time pressure and cognitively overloaded. This is why that cake or cigarette becomes such a quick and easy ‘stress-buster’ to many. Recent research shows we only have so much cognitive time and energy and as the book Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir explains, in a complex western developed society this can be very unevenly distributed. As a result anti-social habits get associated with poorer communities who can get cognitively exhausted early as they face for example much bigger status challenges than the well-off do. Further recent research in this field  shows much better than in 2010 why habit is an increasingly important public policy issue.

It is important to realise that old habitual automatic behaviour remains embedded within us and can reoccur if it gets the right cues. Thus the process of breaking an old habit or making a new habit does not end. It has to be a continual process of reinforcement or an old bad habit can return. Recognising this means that rather than the extra cognitive effort of seeking to remove an old bad habit you should look for the good bits of it to utilise them in creating a new good habit from within it. That will be much easier to sustain in the long-run.

From a motivational values perspective, extrinsic (motivation 2.0) ‘If-then’ rewards seem to go with the flow better with our habits than intrinsic (motivation 3.0) ‘now that’  rewards. The latter however works much better with complex activity which are not about unthinking habits. Dan Pink explains more about the difference in these types of motivation in his book Drive, which do seem to correspond with the Values research that TCC conducts.

To understand the context, you need to audit and map your habits to understand the following:

a) Identify the Cues and Vital behaviour (the ‘if” of ‘if-then’ motivation).  The cue is a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit applies.  A good summary of this from a values perspective is in section 2 of Chris Rose’s report here. The cue could be about: location; time; emotional state; other people; or an immediately preceding action. Therefore one should seek to identify how those possible distractions can be minimised. This might require other activities and initiatives to be put on hold so that ample time can be devoted to the change in question.

b) Identify the Routine triggered by the Cue. All the elements that follow from the cue. This can be a physical activity (we walk to the food cupboard to get that unhealthy food), but can also be mental or emotional too.

c) Reward (the ‘then’ of ‘if-then’ motivation). This what helps the brain figure out if a particular habit is worth making an automatic behaviour. In this case the unhealthy food you obtain from the food cupboard.

Over time the loop of cue-routine-reward becomes more and more automatic. You simply do not think about it. As Charles Duhigg observes, “The cue and reward become intertwined until a powerful sense of anticipation and craving emerges”.

2. ‘Break’ a habit: Change one of the elements above

Clearly wanting to make a change is vital to break a habit so you do need to work up to a determined starting point. Most of us can do this, however it is sustaining the change after a week that becomes the challenge. Being part of a supportive group or social network who share similar belief can massively help reach that start point. For individual and community level behaviour change, ‘strong ties‘ can help start a habit change, ‘weak ties‘ reinforce them and the habit that emerges helps makes the change stick. Having reached the stage where you believe change is required and then having understood all the elements that make up the habit, it then becomes much easier to address them in the following way:

a) Change just one aspect of the context, cue and routine to turn a bad habit into a good habit. But do not change all as you will not be able to maintain it. Generally this should be the routine. However it could for a short while include using incentives to change the activity. Making contextual changes or creating a new cue might be as simple as changing seating arrangements which eliminate an older habit and replace it with a more useful new one. Another approach would be to adopt the French professional culinary approach of ‘Mise en Place’ (eg ‘putting in place’) where you spend a lot more time on preparation and arranging first which itself restructures your routine. Concentrate on one habit at a time and look for ‘small wins‘. Simple changes at little cost are much more likely to be maintained than large scale and expensive ones. Breaking a change down into smaller parts also tends to work. This is an area where a public policy ‘Nudge’ in terms of adjusting ‘choice architecture’ would apply.

b) Make the Habit an event not a time. Keeping to a specific time is more difficult than creating an event as other important things intervene in your life. Physically doing something each time has much more impact

c) Make it regular – day in, day out. Walking 10 minutes instead of taking a bus can be quite simple. The cue here would be a specific bus stop you get off early from to create the short walk.

d) Test out rewards. Aim to reward yourself for good behaviour, testing out what works best over the early period when the habit is not yet formed and you need to avoid getting bored with the habit – a common reason for failure. In the short-run extrinsic incentives ( ‘if-then’ motivation 2.0 referred to above) can make a big difference, but to sustain the behaviour as a habit it needs to be reinforced so the action is unconscious and not calculated.

3. ‘Make’ a habit: Reinforcement

This is anything that makes a new or existing good behaviour more likely to occur. Thus simplifying things, check-lists and the use of training so the knowledge is ingrained all help to reinforce the change and then sustain it.

a) Commitment and intention. Getting someone to voluntarily set out goals, new rules and intentions will promote their own self control, and ownership of, their goals. It also sets a baseline for a regular plan/check-list and the follow-up self-monitoring below. Nowadays the rise of social media might positively help here as people make a more public commitment than in the past.

b) Training. Behaviour needs to be reinforced and forms of ‘training’ is often a good way to do this. ‘Training’ in this context does not have to be formal. It is all the ways we remind people of an action. Training also enables those changing the behaviour to get the feedback to identify the aspects that might lead to the new habit failing. In collective behaviour change activity this is where Reflexivity approaches can be applied.

c) Self-monitoring. Encourage the recording of successes each time the new behaviour is performed. Public recognition, if used carefully can also encourage consistency towards the new behaviour and reinforce it as a habit. Social proof and social norms (others are doing this too) can also help reinforce this.

4. ‘Make’ a habit: The made habit becomes automatic and emotionless. Once you don’t think about it any more it is a habit! This is what you are aiming for so persevering with creating the habit is important. Jeremy Dean suggests that it could take from 20 to 80+ days to make a real habit occur, which explains why people often give up after a week or two as it does take time to establish.

As well as writing about all this I have also been testing out elements of this approach and it does seem to work. I will be writing more about this on this blog later in the year.

All of the above can apply to any individual seeking to change a personal habit such as weight loss. Charles Duhigg in his book (p.121)  also flags up that adopting one new pro-social behaviour tends to lead to more virtuous behaviours being adopted at no extra cost. However, as pointed out above, we also know that for some people this is much more cognitively exhausting than for others, so supporting pro-social habits as part of ethical pro-social behaviour change will be an increasingly important element of public policy in an era of constrained budgets and changing health issues such as the rise of diabetes. If one were to use a current analogy this is increasingly important work as a form of pre-distribution in the public health area and could even become a habit for those involved in public policy!

Charlie Mansell is Research and Development officer at The Campaign Company. You can read more about our behaviour change work here and our work into values here.


Charlie Mansell is Research and Development officer at The Campaign Company. You can read more about our community cohesion work here and our work into values here. – See more at:
Charlie Mansell is Research and Development officer at The Campaign Company. You can read more about our community cohesion work here and our work into values here. – See more at:


Charlie Mansell is Research and Development officer at The Campaign Company. You can read more about our community cohesion work here and our work into values here. – See more at: