What are the Effective Ways to Change Habits?

Habits are powerful factors in our life. They are often unconscious, consistent, express our character and values. We can learn new habits and unlearn the old ones. Usually we want to change bad habits such as drinking, smoking, unhealthy eating and learn positive ones such as healthy lifestyle. Stephen Covey states that in order to make something a habit in our lives, we have to have knowledge, skill and desire. By knowledge he means a theoretical paradigm, what to do and why. Skill is how to do. The desire is motivation, want to do.


Habits are learned sequences of acts that have become automatic responses to specific cues and are functional in obtaining certain goals. There are four characteristics of habits: minimal awareness, efficiency, lack of control, intentions. Repetition is necessary for habits to develop. Habitual behaviors typically emerge from repeated actions in stable contexts. This repetition can reflect people’s attempts to achieve some goal or people’s unintentional reactions, when they are unaware of what has been learned (Wood, 2002).
Repeated behaviour may turn into a habit and thus become a stronger trigger of future behaviour than attitudes and intentions.


There are three main key ingredients to form a habit. Firstly, cues remind to do the habit, behaviour. For example, a situational cue (see people doing the same); a locational cue (being in a certain area or environment can cause certain habits); emotional state cues (for example stress related behaviors; some people eat unhealthy snacks when they stress). Secondly, we perform response, some certain behaviour. And thirdly, we set goal: (why we are doing) in the beginning and later not as effective.


Habits and goals interact through habit formation, habit performance and inferences about the causes of behavior. First, goals influence habit formation by initially motivating people to repeat actions and to expose themselves to performance contexts. Once habits form, context cues come to automatically activate the habit representation in memory.
Second, people act on the habit in mind as well as on their prevailing goals by tailoring their behavior to the current circumstances.
External factors such as stress and distraction influence the impact of these two processes by reducing the motivation or ability to deliberately pursue goals and increasing reliance on habits (Wood & Rünger 2016).


According to the habit theory, repeating behaviour in stable content, increasing frequency, increases the strength of habit.
Habits are maintained by biological factors (e.g. addiction), motivation and goal to maintain.
Some behaviours turn quickly into habits (e.g. taking a new route to work), whereas others take longer practice (e.g. learning to drive a car).
Habits are very powerful because they do not need a lot of information, they can be triggered by many cues; they narrow your mind.


Action planning: (plan ahead), what do you do when you see a stimulus,  e.g. take away sweets, put fruits in front and you will eat it.

Stimulus control: control the desire (stimulus), put away, change environment, e.g. go shopping only after eating, avoid going when you are hungry; avoid going to the supermarket where you might buy unhealthy food, instead go to the market to the fruits and vegetables area only.

Vigilant monitoring: think what you are doing. Do or not, depending on is it a good or bad habit. Heightened attention to and inhibitory focus on the unwanted response (e.g., thinking, “don’t do it”).

Context change: is a powerful factor in changing habits because it frees people to establish new patterns of behavior in the absence of competing habit cues. People naturally experience changes in everyday performance contexts when, for example, they move to new locations, start new jobs and join new groups of friends. When contexts change in this way, people no longer rely on habit cues, and they more consciously consider what to do.

Self-control: substitute habits. When you have a bad stimulus, do something better. Most successful at habit change is when people have self-control resources to implement an alternative action to the habit.

Counter conditioning: replace the cue with the better one, e.g. when want to smoke – go to exercise.

Identified reinforcement management: reward or punish. When you do a bad habit, punish yourself, e.g. do pus-ups. When you resist to a bad habit, reward yourself, do something you like.

According to different situations, habits/intentions guide behaviour. When habit is strong, our quick impulses, wishes guide the behavior. When habit is weak, our intentions, goals, values guide the behavior. Frequency and stability makes the habit stronger. You need to identify the cues that trigger unwanted habits.
If you want to change habit: make it intentional. How well you believe to change the habit, you will influence the intention (Verplanken, 2006).

I wish You health and happiness,

Ieva Kurmyte


Ji, M. F., & Wood, W. (2007). Purchase and consumption habits: Not necessarily what you intend. Journal of Consumer Psychology17(4), 261-276.

Covey, S. R. (2004). The 7 habits of highly effective people: Restoring the character ethic. New York: Free Press.

Verplanken, B., & Wood, W. (2006). Interventions to break and create consumer habits. Journal of Public Policy & Marketing25(1), 90-103.

Wood, W., Quinn, J. M., & Kashy, D. A. (2002). Habits in everyday life: thought, emotion, and action. Journal of personality and social psychology83(6), 1281.

Wood, W., & Rünger, D. (2016). Psychology of habit. Annual Review of Psychology67, 289-314.

Wood, W., Tam, L., & Witt, M. G. (2005). Changing circumstances, disrupting habits. Journal of personality and social psychology88(6), 918