Many people have ambitious goals but are unable to adjust their behavior in the long term in such a way that they actually achieve these goals. Time and again, we hear that routines and habits play a significant role in why certain people are successful and others are not. Individuals who formulate new resolutions, however, often give up before their behavior becomes habitual, or are too strongly oriented toward others rather than creating individual patterns of action. In addition, many find it difficult to break bad habits and/or replace them with new, desirable habits. Thus, the question arises to what extent habits affect the achievement of challenging goals. This post will look at how habits are formed, why this is often difficult in practice, and how habits affect one’s behavior and individual success.
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Before examining how habits affect goal achievement, it is useful to examine what habits actually are. The Cambridge Dictionary defines a habit as
“something that you do often and regularly, sometimes without knowing that you are doing it”.¹
In particular, the recognition that actions are partly performed unconsciously is important for understanding how habits affect one’s own behavior. Habits are generally formed whenever individuals pursue goals in their everyday lives. When a response follows a specific stimulus, a mental link is formed between context and response, which becomes more entrenched through repetition. After a significant number of repetitions, automation emerges, reducing the degree of self-control needed to achieve goals. Less self-control in this context means that individuals have more mental capacity available for other actions. Adequate habits can thus have a positive impact on the achievement of challenging goals. However, changing pre- existing habits is difficult, and the deliberate use of incentives is helpful only in the short term, if at all. Such adaptation is easiest when one’s environment changes as well. This results from the fact that a change in the environment also modifies the cues that form the basis for automated behavior. The overall influence of the environment on individual habits is significant, and habit formation can be driven both by a person’s conscious actions as well as by relevant contextual factors.²
Habits, however, do not form overnight, but are the result of a lengthy process. In their work, Lally et al. (2010) examined how habits are formed in the real world and suggested that the automation process can be classified through an asymptotic behavior rather than a linear relationship between the number of repetitions and the degree of automation. The more frequently individuals repeat their behavior in comparable situations, the stronger the link between cue and response, which is the basis for automated actions. Assuming asymptotic development in the formation of new habits, the focus is particularly on early repetitions. These are more prominent than those that are already built on partial automation. Although the importance of early responses to specific contextual cues is thus particularly high, the negative consequences of missed opportunities are less significant than one might expect. While constant behavior is important, isolated deviations do not result in the complete absence of the formation of desirable habits. The authors also point out that automation is more difficult in complex situations and habitual behavior may not be achieved under such circumstances.³
The power of the habit does not seem to lie in the action itself, but rather in the fact that automation leads to higher performance. The mental capacity saved by unconscious actions can be used elsewhere to pursue and achieve more ambitious goals. Individuals attempting to create habits and routines should be aware that it always takes time for the automation process to progress to the point where benefits actually result. It is conceivable that this process can be accelerated by trying to generate a constant environment. If comparable situations are created, it is probably easier to form the mental connections between cue and response. The fact that it is easier to develop new habits when one’s environment changes significantly also has potentially important implications. Changes such as a moving to a new place, a career change, or even the beginning of a college program can act as a kind of kickstarter for individuals who have the resolution to establish new routines and habits.
Even if habits are able to favor the accomplishment of goals, they can also have a negative impact on one’s life. Almost everyone has bad habits that affect everyday life to a greater or lesser extent. Often, those affected are even aware that their actions have a negative long- term impact, but bad habits are often linked to short-term rewards. It can at least be assumed that these positive experiences mask the negative consequences, so that individuals give in to their cravings and become victims of their habit. In a highly dynamic environment, however, there is also the question of whether habits should be desirable at all. Especially in professional life, more and more employers demand flexibility and adaptability from their employees. It could be argued that automating one’ s actions contradicts these requirements. On the other hand, when developing new habits, the focus should rather be on simple, repetitive activities that do not change or only change very little. If these actions are automated, it can be assumed that the performance of individuals can be increased and that the additional mental capacities that are freed up as a result will benefit other relevant skills such as problem-solving skills.
The statement that habits support the achievement of challenging goals is correct, but the reason for this is more complex than one might expect. It is not the habit, but rather the automated response to a particular contextual cue, that promotes individual performance. Consequently, it should be desirable to create good habits and replace bad habits. Individuals should always be aware, however, that this is time-consuming and requires patience. With increasing repetition, consistent behavior in comparable situations results in a higher degree of automation that allows certain actions to be realized subconsciously, provided the appropriate cues are perceived. Although consistency certainly plays an important role, individuals should not be deterred if they miss an opportunity to realize an appropriate response. If this occurs only in rare cases, the development of desirable habits will not be negatively affected in the long term as a result.
¹ Cambridge Dictionary. N.d. “HABIT | definition in the Cambridge English Dictionary.” Cambridge Dictionary. Accessed September 06, 2021.
² Carden, L., & Wood, W. (2018). Habit formation and change. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, 20, 117-122.
³ Lally, P., Van Jaarsveld, C. H., Potts, H. W., & Wardle, J. (2010). How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology, 40(6), 998-1009.