How Are Habits Formed And How Do We Create Healthy Ones That Serve Us Better?

We weren’t born knowing how to brush our teeth or fold our laundry. We didn’t come into this world knowing when to pay our taxes or get a health check either! 

As we explore and navigate this world, we begin to develop habits that help us live.  Because there is so much information we have to process daily, much of it is left to the subconscious mind to carry out. Consequently, that's where our habits are developed.

In order to survive, we often begin to form habits without knowing. That said, some of our patterns are created under challenging circumstances. As circumstances change, which they constantly do, many old habits become unhealthy, preventing us from living a fulfilling life rather than helping us.

Here we're going to explore how to break these habits and create new ones that serve us better. To do that, we must examine what habits are and how we develop them.

What Are Habits, And How Do We Form Them?

Our subconscious mind is responsible for habit formation.

While that is true, to form a habit, we must first make conscious choices regarding that habit. For example, we must choose to go to the bathroom and brush our teeth in the evening and begin brushing them regularly at the same time.

Through sheer willpower and repetition, we begin to form a habit. As time passes, this process becomes less and less conscious. We instinctively know that we must brush our teeth at the appointed time, and we rarely make conscious efforts to do so.

The part of the brain that's active at the beginning of the conscious process of habit-making is called the prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain is responsible for decision-making and environmental recognition. 

As we form a specific habit, this part inactivates and leaves all the work to the basal ganglia, which are responsible for the subconscious processes and the formation of emotions and pattern recognition.

By knowing the functions of the basal ganglia, we can recognise how habit formation and pattern recognition are interconnected. That means that when you're in a well-known environment, you are more likely to form and activate these patterns in that given environment. Put more simply, if you know where you are, you don't have to think about it.

While this may be an advantage for habit forming, it may also present as a disadvantage in breaking bad habits. That's why when we change our environment, we have an excellent opportunity to form new, healthier habits that we can try and eventually carry back to our old domain.

Hence, when we explore the process of habit formation, step by step, we can truly understand them and hopefully implement the formation of better habits.


Steps In Habit-Formation

Each pattern begins with a conscious psychological process called a "habit loop". A habit loop can be split into three equally important part:


  1. The Trigger. The first part is called a trigger. The trigger can be a thought, object, person, or even a set time that triggers you to perform a particular subconscious action.


  1. The Routine. After we receive a trigger, we fall into "the routine". That is the action we perform to complete what's needed.

  1. The Reward. After that action, we immediately receive the third part of the habit loop, called "the reward". Rewarding is what drives the brain to remember the habit loop subconsciously.

As previously mentioned, the subconscious part responsible for habit formation is also closely connected to emotion. So, as we receive the reward, we feel fulfilled, our subconscious remembers that and is more inclined to repeat it.

Now that we know how habits are formed, we can dive deeper into how we can develop excellent and long-lasting habits and potentially even break old and harmful ones.


How To Form Good, Long-Lasting Habits

As mentioned earlier, habit forming is primarily a subconscious process. To help our subconscious lead us to better habits, we should learn to work with it.

A big part of working with our subconscious is leaving it to work and learning to observe how it works. As we take our time to gently watch our automatic actions, at some point, we recognise which ones work for us and which ones don't. Over time this will inevitably bring this habit back into the light of our consciousness.

Now that we have learnt which parts of a given habit don't work for us or which habit has proven to be unhealthy, we can start consciously working on them. A big part of our conscious work is mindfully considering why we engage in that bad habit. 

Being mindful about why we decided in the first place to form it might help us realise that we no longer need it or even allow us to find ways that we can change it, so it works to our benefit.

Even if we're aware of why we developed a particular habit, that may not always be enough to break a bad one. We should also have an incentive or a good reason to form a new one. For example, we want to improve our health or feel better in our body, so we start consciously changing our habit of eating snacks to having a more balanced approach to nutritional intake.

Studies suggest that having an incentive is more important than having a solid will-driven personality. It would be best if you had a reason to change that's good enough, connected to your personal goals and dreams, rather than a strong will that you'll employ for a task you're not so passionate about.


Habit formation is largely a subconscious process. However, this does not mean that they’re impossible to learn or unlearn. In fact, we can bring it back to the light of the conscious mind and potentially change our habits for the better. With the use of intrinsic motivation, such as incentives, we can get rid of any bad habits we might have in our lives, and replace with ones that are better for us.


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