Latest developments in causes and treatments



Understanding Habit Formation

The route to long-term recovery from compulsive behaviors involves breaking bad habits or retraining habits away from self-harming behavior and toward self-enhancing behavior. It helps to see how habit formation works and our guide for this journey is Dr. Benjamin Gardner at King’s College London, head of the Habit Application and Theory Group.

In 2019, Dr. Gardner organized a meeting of experts at the European Health Psychology Society conference in Croatia for the purpose of “establishing an agenda for habit research in health.” Nineteen researchers accepted the invitation and provided written contributions which were whittled down to a series of 21 questions. The questions do not seek to explain habit formation but rather to direct further research into habit formation, specifically in four areas:

  • how habit manifests in health behavior
  • how to form healthy habits
  • how to break unhealthy habits
  • how to develop and evaluate habit-based behavior change interventions

Dr. Gardner’s paper eloquently and patiently moves through all the research it took to get down to 21 questions. There is a lot to be learned about habit formation along the way.


It takes a cue to activate a habitual response. That cue could be anything, but they often fall into several large categories. There are time-of-day cues, triggered by making up, eating meals, or work schedules. There are event-based cues, location-based cues, and cues triggered by the presence of other people. It’s not exactly clear how to rank cues or how multiple cues add up when present at the same time.

One way to retrain the habit is to change the behavior that follows the cue. For example, if driving past a McDonald’s restaurant triggers an urge to eat junk food, retrain yourself to take a drink of water whenever you pass a McDonald’s. Soon when you see a McDonald’s, you’ll feel thirsty instead of hungry and reach for a bottle of water instead of a chocolate shake.

Habit Formation

One of the findings in the review was based on how long it took for various activities to become habits for a group of 96 participants. While not a large sample size, it showed that most people found new habits difficult to maintain at first but quickly got better until they plateaued. This indicates that support in acquiring a new habit is needed most at the beginning and can often be withdrawn once the habit is ingrained.

Other researchers found that once a new habit plateaus, it tends to erode with time, albeit often slowly. Different habits and different people have different rates of erosion, so the ability to withdraw support for habit formation is not absolute.

Some researchers showed habits can be formed in as little as one to two weeks, but the studies are slim. Gardner cites one study of gymnasium new member attendance that showed six weeks for gym use to plateau. Habits are easier to sustain when they become routine, which is why weekends often upset daily routines that are scheduled around work or school.

How strong are your habits? People self-report how strongly they feel their habits to establish baselines and peaks of “habit strength.” People who score high for self-control also score high for habit strength. One of their secrets to dealing with urges is they plan in advance what they’re going to do instead of deciding in the moment.

Some things that impact habit formation are the size of the reward experienced, the timing of the reward, and “the reinforcing impact of each repetition.” Without an adequate reward, the habit becomes difficult to sustain. Similarly, if there is a long lag between performance and benefit, it’s harder to sustain the habit.

Tomorrow we’ll look at what Dr. Gardner found about how to break a habit.

Written by Steve O’Keefe. First published March 13, 2024.


“Developing habit-based health behaviour change interventions: twenty-one questions to guide future research,” Psychology & Health, November 2021.

Image Copyright: rattanakun.


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