Habit Formation Theory: Making Good Behaviors Stick

Habit Formation Theory: Making Good Behaviors Stick
Table of Contents

Success is the sum of small efforts – repeated day in and day out.
~ Robert Collier


As the quote above suggests, the actions we take every day, commonly known as habits, serve as the building blocks of success. Habits form the basis of routines, which make up how we spend much of our day.

While we can shape and change our habits, we also form them unconsciously. If we do not thoughtfully cultivate our habits, we can fall into behaviors and routines that detract from our goals or are simply unhelpful.

For example, you may have developed a habit of biting your nails when you feel anxious. Although the action of nail-biting doesn’t change whatever is triggering your emotions, your brain figured out this behavior is soothing.

Over time, nail-biting and anxiety become so cognitively linked that you may start chewing your nails before realizing you are nervous [1]. At this point, the habit has become automatic.

You will need a lot of effort and attention to break this habit and save your nail beds.

Luckily, the exact mechanisms that make a habit so hard to stop can also help us introduce healthier and more productive ones into our routines. To tap into the power of habit formation, we will first have to understand how it works.

What is habit formation theory?

Habit formation theory is related to behaviorist theory. Researchers like B. F. Skinner and John Watson hypothesized that our behaviors become habits when a stimulus repeatedly provokes us to complete an action that is reinforced by a reward.

Here’s an example. Imagine you have a hard time sleeping at night. So you decide to make a cup of lavender tea. The chemicals in the tea make you tired, and you fall asleep within 15 minutes. Since the tea worked, you repeat this behavior the next night and the next. Eventually, making and drinking tea at night will become a habit.

It seems logical that our behavior persists as long as the habit serves its purpose. However, there are many situations where a habit remains, even if it is no longer helpful.

For example, it can be tricky for people who are used to driving a manual car to switch to an automatic one. Their habit of pushing the clutch can cause serious problems if transferred onto driving an automatic car. Psychologists believe this “stickiness” quality is due to how habits become automated.

In many ways, habit automation is similar to the way we learn and retain information. Think about how you learned your phone number. It may have been difficult the first few times you had to recall it. However, after many days and weeks of saying, writing down, and typing your number, it takes much less energy for you to remember it.

For this reason, habit formation theory is often tied to the four stages of competency learning theory.

Habit formation and the stages of competency

While Abraham Maslow is best known for his hierarchy of needs, he also developed a theory about learning and skill development called the four stages of competence [2]. Maslow believed that we go through four stages as we approach learning a new task.

Like building habits, learning a skill requires a lot of cognitive energy upfront. With enough repetition and practice, we become more competent and can perform the skill more automatically.

Stage of CompetenceDescriptionExample in habit formation
IgnoranceIf the task is entirely new, we may not realize how much effort is needed to develop the new skill. We might not even realize that we have to learn anything new to perform the skill properly. We can only progress from this stage if we acknowledge our skill shortfall and are willing to improve ourselves.Mike constantly overspends and has a lot of debt he doesn’t pay off. He has no savings. He is not sure where his money goes, even though he feels like he doesn’t spend that much.
AwarenessYour lack of skill has come into your awareness. You can see how learning the skill will benefit you. However, you will need a lot of support and advice to build the skill.Mike talked to a financial advisor who told him to make a budget and track everything he spent. After that, he tries a few different budgeting methods. Sometimes, he forgets to add some expenses to his budget. Still, he feels like he is getting better control of his money.
LearningYou have the skillset, but executing requires time and energy.Mike started to budget out his income at the beginning of the month so he knows exactly how much money he has. He also inputs every purchase he makes into a tracker.
MasteryYou’ve completely mastered the skill, and you are able to perform the task with little cognitive effort.Mike is so used to budgeting that he never feels the urge to overspend anymore. He always has money left to save, prioritizing paying his debt over frivolous spending.

The stages of competence can help explain why our habits take less and less cognitive effort over time. 

In the case of habit formation, the neurons activated by the behavior build stronger connections with each other. Neuroscientists often say neurons that “fire together, wire together” [3]. This makes it more likely that when you come across the stimulus that triggers your behavior, you’ll perform your habit rather than a different action.

When our brains habitualize a behavior, it goes through a standard four-part process, known as the four stages of habit formation [4].

The Four Stages of Habit Formation

In his best-selling book, Atomic Habits, author James Clear breaks down habit formation into four stages. All habitual behaviors start and end in the same way, which creates a reinforcing loop.

Four Stages of Habit Formation

After cycling through the stages many, many times, we can complete an action without even thinking about it. On the other hand, if we disrupt any of the stages, the habit is less likely to stick.

Habit formation stage one: cue

The cue is the stimulus that sets off the habitual behavior. Cues can be emotional, physiological, environmental, or time-based. Here are a few examples:

  • A phone notification
  • Hunger
  • End of the workday
  • Going to bed
  • Getting in a car
  • Boredom/stress

When we encounter these cues in a specific context, our brains start to initiate the firing pattern that results in our habit. Hunger may lead us to go in the kitchen or call for takeaway. Getting into the car may trigger us to start the ignition or put on our seatbelts.

We can use cues to encourage or weaken habitual behaviors. Many car models now include alerts that make an annoying sound until all passenger seatbelts are fastened. Likewise, an app notification that lets you know that you’ve been scrolling for more than 10 minutes can encourage you to put your phone down.

Cues are not always transferable. For example, while we may habitually throw our jackets on the couch when we get home, we won’t do the same thing in our workplace or at a friend’s house. This is because the brain is less likely to revert to autopilot in a new setting [5].

For this reason, changing environments is highly recommended for people trying to break deeply ingrained habits, like smoking.

Habit formation stage two: craving

The next step in habit formation is the presence of a craving. All our habits developed as a way to help us meet a physiological or psychological need. Cravings can trigger internal motivation by raising our dopamine levels [6]. This gives us the cognitive and physical energy to engage in the behavior that will help us fulfill our needs.

Cravings and habits are often clearly linked, such as making a sandwich when hungry. Sometimes, the habit doesn’t directly address the craving but satisfies it nonetheless. For example, some people may use snacking to relieve boredom or scrolling on social media to feel less lonely.

Procrastination is a common example of a craving being met by an unhelpful habit. High-stress levels can lead to a craving for relief. Avoiding tasks is an immediate way to mitigate stress. However, procrastination often backfires as it leads to worse stress and additional consequences in the long-term. Still, if the habit is ingrained, people will continue to procrastinate, even if it doesn’t serve them in the long-term.

This short animation from TED-Ed explains the mechanisms behind a procrastination habit: Why you procrastinate even when it feels bad.

Unlike the other stages, cravings are difficult to change or adapt. A mindfulness meditation practice can make us less responsive to cravings [7]. However, for many people, the best way to undo bad habits driven by cravings is to meet the need in a healthier way.


You don’t eliminate a bad habit, you replace it [with a healthier one].
~ James Clear 


Habit formation stage three: response

The habitual action itself appears in the third stage. Habits are considered a response to our cravings. If we crave entertainment, our habitual response may be to turn on the TV or scroll through social media.

We do not always engage in habits solely because we enjoy doing them. Instead, we are motivated to complete actions that help us fulfill our cravings. This distinction can result in habits that actually make us feel worse in the long-term, like overeating, drinking, or procrastinating.

When most people try to change their habits, they focus on changing their responses. However, this can be difficult if the new habit doesn’t fulfill the underlying craving or if the cues for the old behavior are still present.

The lesson is that we can’t leave needs unmet. That’s why it’s important to find new habits that meet the same needs, but without the negative consequences or side effects. For example, a person that overeats to alleviate boredom can instead try a team sport or social group.

It can also be difficult to maintain good habits if bad habits are strongly reinforced by the final stage.

Habit formation stage four: reward

The kind of rewards that cement habits are not prizes or medals. Instead, the reward is fulfilling the craving. This is what distinguishes habits from goal-oriented behaviors [8].

If a goal-oriented behavior creates a problem for us, we are more likely to adapt it and continue towards the goal. Let’s say studying late at night for an exam was making it difficult for you to fall asleep. You would probably move your study time to another slot in your schedule.

However, since the aim of a habit is to fulfill a craving, harmful habits can persist as long as they fulfill the underlying need. Even if streaming Netflix at night is causing sleep deprivation, you are less inclined to change your behavior.

We may also develop habits to meet cravings that we are not aware we have. So, we could go through a habit without envisioning the reward. This is different from goal-oriented behaviors, where we always have the end goal in mind.

HabitsGoal-oriented behaviors
• Waking up late/going to bed late
• Washing our hands/taking a shower
• Driving a car
• Setting a bedtime or an alarm
• Following a skincare routine
• Following directions to a specific destination

While habits and goal-oriented behaviors are not the same, habits can help reinforce our more deliberate behavior choices. For example, if you want to get your daily exercise before you start your day, having a habit of waking up early will help you succeed.

Likewise, people often look into changing their habits when they interfere with their goal-oriented behaviors.

Making good habits stick with the habit loop

When we reach the last stage of habit formation, the craving is met, and the motivation behind our behavior goes away. However, when we run into the cue again, it starts the process all over again. This cycle is known as the habit loop.

The Habit Loop

The Habit Loop explained:

Every time our brains go through the loop, the neurons associated with the habit strengthen and deepen their connections [9]. This is why old habits can be performed without much or any conscious thinking, but newer habits require a bit more cognitive effort.

We can reduce some of this cognitive burden by using existing habits as cues for a new habit chain. If you already do yoga several times a week and want to start a journaling habit, you can decide to journal after or before you start your flow. This way, you can take advantage of already established neural pathways and automate the habit faster.

We can also introduce or strengthen new habits by adapting each stage of habit formation.

Redefine the cue

As James Clear mentioned in his talk about the habit loop, cues can be redefined in order to elicit a different response. For example, someone with an online shopping habit may interpret coupons as a cue to start browsing and making purchases.

They can add friction to their habit loop by turning coupons into a signal to wait 48 hours before making a purchase. If the coupon expires during that time, then they avoided an impulse buy. On the other hand, if they still want the purchase after two days, then they can make a more rational decision at that time.

Identify the craving

This is probably the trickiest technique to implement, especially if many of your cravings are unconscious. One way to gain insight into what triggers your habit is to record your emotional state and circumstances right before you feel the urge to engage in a habit. After a few weeks, you will begin to notice a pattern. From there, you can start to experiment with an alternative response.

Change the response

Since every habit serves to meet a need, even bad ones have some purpose. One of the best ways to eliminate unhelpful habits is to replace them with better ones [10].

For example, if you have a habit of scrolling through social media on your work breaks, you can swap it for a podcast and a short walk. Nicotine patches and gum are part of a similar strategy to help people quit smoking.

Reduce or increase the reward

As mentioned before, habits are rewarding because they alleviate cravings. However, a habit’s reward is not always linked to its helpfulness. In fact, habits that are difficult at the start may actually feel like punishments, even if they will result in positive effects.

This is because the reward is usually delayed [11]. Our impatient brains may prefer the immediate gratification of the bad habit over the eventual benefit of the better habit. We can resolve this by either making the bad habit less rewarding or making the good habit more rewarding.

For example, pay close attention to how you feel after you’ve engaged in a bad habit. After staying up all night watching TV, did you feel refreshed in the morning or terrible? Compare that to a night where you went to bed 8 hours before you needed to wake up. Noticing the difference between these two outcomes may be enough to reduce the reward value of going to bed late.

Although useful, the habit loop isn’t the only model you can use to change your habits. There are other options you can leverage, which we have documented in our article: “How to Break Bad and Unhealthy Habits: 5 Effective Strategies.”

Sources

[1] Cleveland Clinic. (2020, March 31). Nail Biting: When Does It Go Too Far? Health Essentials from Cleveland Clinic. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/nail-biting-when-does-it-go-too-far/

[2] Burch, N. (1970). Conscious competence theory of learning a new skill The four stages of competence. https://www.mccc.edu/~lyncha/documents/stagesofcompetence.pdf

[3] Mendelsohn AI. Creatures of Habit: The Neuroscience of Habit and Purposeful Behavior. Biol Psychiatry. 2019 Jun 1;85(11):e49-e51. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2019.03.978. PMID: 31122343; PMCID: PMC6701929.

[4] Gardner, B., & Rebar, A.  Habit Formation and Behavior Change. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Psychology. Retrieved 24 Feb. 2023, from https://oxfordre.com/psychology/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780190236557.001.0001/acrefore-9780190236557-e-129.

[5] Duhigg, C. (2019). NPR Choice page. Npr.org. https://www.npr.org/2012/03/05/147192599/habits-how-they-form-and-how-to-break-them

[6] Berridge KC, Robinson TE. Liking, wanting, and the incentive-sensitization theory of addiction. Am Psychol. 2016 Nov;71(8):670-679. doi: 10.1037/amp0000059. PMID: 27977239; PMCID: PMC5171207.

[7] Keesman M, Aarts H, Häfner M, Papies EK. Mindfulness Reduces Reactivity to Food Cues: Underlying Mechanisms and Applications in Daily Life. Curr Addict Rep. 2017;4(2):151-157. doi: 10.1007/s40429-017-0134-2. Epub 2017 Apr 28. PMID: 28580229; PMCID: PMC5435775.

[8] Bouton, M.E. Context, attention, and the switch between habit and goal-direction in behavior. Learn Behav 49, 349–362 (2021). https://doi.org/10.3758/s13420-021-00488-z

[9] Crystal Raypole. (2021, February 5). Habit Loop: What It Is and How to Break It. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/habit-loop

[10] Publishing, H. H. (2016, November). Trade bad habits for good ones. Harvard Health. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/trade-bad-habits-for-good-ones

[11] Thomas Rutledge Ph.D. (2021, August 24). Why Bad Habits Are Easy and Good Habits Are Hard | Psychology Today. Www.psychologytoday.com. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-healthy-journey/202108/why-bad-habits-are-easy-and-good-habits-are-hard

Alisha Verly Jensen
Alisha Verly Jensen
I am a freelance wellness writer passionate about positive psychology and gentle productivity. I enjoy studying personal development and sharing what I’ve learned to help others create a balanced and fulfilling life. When I am not writing, I am tending to my garden.