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What is a habit?

David Yates

Phileas Fogg contemplating his habitual lifestyle.

Phileas Fogg contemplating his habitual lifestyle.

When we’re not drinking strong coffee, biting our nails or working late at Logsit Towers, we love to keep up with the latest technology news. Something that has struck us recently is just how many stories there are on the subject of habits and positive habit formation. As former research psychologists, habits are of great interest to us and so this is the point where we say that our app will help you form a bunch a positive new habits and get rid of all your bad ones, right? Well, not exactly! To explain why, it helps to take a look at what exactly is meant by a habit.

When psychologists talk of habits, they’re concerned with behaviour that is performed frequently in the same context. Typically the behaviour has become so ingrained that it no longer requires much, if any, thought to be carried out. This is perhaps easiest to appreciate if we consider what happens when we interfere with the outcomes of a habitual behaviour. Tea-making is a good example. If you’re anything like me, you’ve made hundreds of cups of tea in your kitchen and it’s become a very easy task; something you can do with minimal attention. But what happens when you rearrange your kitchen, moving the contents of the cupboards, perhaps changing the location of the fridge? Suddenly, the beautifully choreographed dance of the tea-maker is thrown into disarray: no longer can you pivot mindlessly towards the fridge for the milk; gone are the days when you could hold a conversation whilst successfully navigating to the teaspoon drawer. The task is not just harder than it used to be, it’s harder than it would be in a completely different kitchen because the context of your own rearranged kitchen is triggering all of the old, now useless, responses. You’re not merely unsure where the teabags are, you’re actively compelled to go to their old location because that behaviour is a habit, triggered by the context of making tea in your kitchen, not by active decision-making.

Suffice to say, a habit generally requires *lots* of repetition under stable conditions for the behaviour to become sufficiently stamped-in that you can’t help but do it! Most of us have a few positive habits, but many others elude us despite our best efforts. The reality is that our lives and schedules are rarely as consistent as the arrangement of our kitchen furniture, so the goal of forming true habits can often be unrealistic and perhaps even demotivating - we can’t all live with the clockwork precision of a Phileas Fogg!

At Logsit, one of our goals is to help people to regulate their behaviour and become more aware of the things they care about, rather than outright habit formation. You might not be a habitual runner, but by checking-in when you do go for a run, you will have a record of how long it’s been and can take steps to make it more likely that you’ll go again sooner rather than later. Setting a responsive reminder can be a great approach, not because it forms a habit, but because it is a concrete goal that adapts to your behaviour. The more you achieve this goal, the better you will become at removing the everyday impediments and procrastination that are often the real stumbling blocks to healthy behaviours. The truth is, it's probably not a habit you're looking for, what we really gain from doing things on a regular basis is the knowledge of how and where they can fit into our busy lives. The longer this goes on, the better you'll get at accommodating the behaviour and the fewer roadblocks you'll find to doing the things that matter to you.