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The Science Behind Habits

From hitting the snooze button and sleeping for 15 minutes to brushing your teeth before bed, everything is a part of a habit system that we have developed over years. Habits are nothing but repetition of a simple action in a consistent context that leads to a person doing it subconsciously. In more scientific terms habits are defined as "actions that are triggered automatically in response to contextual cues ". New neural pathways are formed when you repeat a task which later become habits due to firing of the same brain circuits over and over again


The habit formation attempt begins at the ‘initiation phase’, during which the new behaviour and the context in which it will be done are selected. Automaticity develops in the subsequent ‘learning phase’, during which the behaviour is repeated in the chosen context to strengthen the behaviour. Habit-formation becomes prominent in the ‘stability phase’, at which the habit has formed and its strength has plateaued, so that it persists over time with minimal effort or deliberation.


Our behaviours are extensively based on our traits and we own them, similarly habits are too. Habits may be generalized among the population, for example brushing teeth, waking up in the morning, etc. But how a person does differs from each other, this is what one has to focus on when we set goals for our new year resolutions on building habits. Choosing the target behaviour themselves is one important point when it comes to successfully executed habits, they have to have a sense of autonomy and sustains interest. Behaviour change selected on the basis of its personal value, rather than to satisfy external demands such as physicians’ recommendations or parents forcing or peer pressure are said to sustain and give a person the sense of well being and satisfaction.


In the book Atomic Habits by James Clear, he explains 4 laws of Behaviour Change – 1. Obvious cue (Ex: Reminders) 2. Easy to do 3. Attractive and 4. Satisfying experience. So let's think of building a healthy lifestyle for instance , your habit must be easy as eating a colourful (colour becomes the attractive component) fruit per day at your morning break (break – becomes your obvious cue) that gives you a satisfaction that you ate something healthy.

He also explains simple strategies for building habits like Habit Stacking – example after eating a fruit go for a walk and get back , drink 500 ml. These all together become a habit just like how we wash hands, eat food and drink water which needs no effort and has become a habit through years.

Another strategy is a starting ritual, a deed that automatically makes you do the desired habit. Eg: Setting up the alarm to wake up early – this is a starting ritual, instead of focusing on the habit of waking up early itself.

Also you can try coupling up your cravings with the newly formed habit to reduce the resistance that one might face. Eg: Playing a video game only when you walk , etc.

Similarly in habit formation, cue and rewards act as the key factors. Ex: A higher number on the weighing scale (being the cue) leading to a person following a healthy lifestyle leading to a reward, say – weight loss, a super fit body! This rewarding system creates a craving to form a habit which makes it easier.


Brain is a super structure that controls almost everything including the habits you form, breaking habits isn't as hard as you think if you have one key ingredient called simply as "repetition", what happens when you do a task repetitively? You simply create new neural pathways leading to newer habits, but all this does not happen overnight, everything takes time . Each habit for each individual takes different time to be created or destroyed. So just be "consistently repetitive". EX: Everytime you go for a smoke , try resisting it and focus on other tasks, repeat this consistently for a few days and you will end up with reduced frequency of smoking.



"Rome was not built in a day"

…likewise habits take time as sometimes you first need to break older / unhealthy habits and then build healthier habits on top , for example restraining from drinking alcohol and increasing your water intake. These take time, for some it takes lesser time than other and some may take a longer time period


"Nothing is impossible for a willing heart"

...The urge is what fuels your habits, and you need tremendous willpower to make the urge into a successful habit

Motivation: This may refer motivation from both the inner self and the external environment, you have to reconstruct your inner self as well as your external environment to work for you instead of it to work against you

Feedback: Any system without feedback remains incomplete and so, always look for scope to improve. If you have difficulty in following something, go back to check what and where things went out of track. If you succeed, look out for ways to improve the habit.

Habits are chains that are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken – Warren Buffett
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