“Habits form the bedrock of everyday life. Without habits, people would be doomed to plan, consciously guide, and monitor every action, from making that first cup of coffee in the morning to sequencing the finger movements in a Chopin piano concerto.”1

The power of habit

Much of our lives are governed not by our conscious decisions or thoughts, but by our habits, whether behavioral, emotional or even linguistic. Once embedded, the very stickiness of habits means they’re tenacious and hard to dislodge. And even if we are aware that they are bad for us, we find it difficult to stop. In 1954, Iain Macleod, the UK Health Minister at the time and a habitual smoker, famously chain-smoked through a press conference about the dangers of smoking and lung cancer despite being convinced of the link between the two.

We can also be quite unaware that some of our actions are habitual. For example, we might make a cup of tea and add a couple of biscuits on the side (not realizing that we add that same couple of biscuits every time we make a cup of tea). Or we might unknowingly use particular expressions so often that we drive other people mad (if we were ever to read a transcript of our conversations, we’d probably be horrified to hear the number of “you knows” or “likes” or “super-this” and “super-that” that punctuate our everyday lexicon). Or each morning at work, we might find ourselves “unable to function” without a first cup of coffee. These are all habitual behaviors that become fixed in our neurological patterning. Sometimes, our habits are so embedded in our subconscious that they get us running on autopilot. When we’re driving a familiar route, for instance, we might have no conscious recollection of any details of the journey. Or, while trolleying our pre-ordained circuit through the supermarket, we probably won’t notice anything about the other people we pass, but we’re totally thrown if the layout of the store and product display has been altered.

This article is Part One of a three-part series in Alert! looking at habits in depth. Part One examines the theory behind habit formation and what we can do to put a stop to stickily engrained bad habits. In Part Two we go on to explore ways of creating new (better) habits in our lives such as committing to take regular exercise, keeping in better touch with friends and family, eating more healthily or reading more often. Part Three looks at how we can measure habits and habit strength.

Why habits form

Habits serve a significant purpose – certain behaviors become automatic simply to make us more efficient. We can all recall being in a totally new environment, perhaps working abroad or visiting friends with a very different lifestyle. It’s often disorientating and awkward. Everything seems to take much longer because every single choice and behavior requires 100 percent of our attention. Eventually, though, new habits develop which make our lives much smoother and more fluid... and these new habits actually free up our minds so that we can do other things in parallel. As Theodore Roosevelt said, “Habit and routine free the mind for more constructive work.”

How habits form

Our habits are deeply engrained in our brain and muscle memory, so much so that they become automatic. We can define this autopilot behavior with three qualities:

  • Minimal awareness – we can carry out the action without needing to pay much attention to what we are doing.
  • Efficiency – we can carry out a habitual behavior in parallel with other activities that demand more attention.
  • Lack of control and conscious intention – we do things without conscious intention or desire and it’s actually difficult to stop ourselves from doing them or doing them differently.2
  • Habits are believed to be formed through the interaction of three elements. Charles Duhigg, author of the book The Power of Habit3 defines these three as:
    • trigger or cue
    • routine
    • reward

Each element plays a particular role in embedding the habit. (Also see diagram below.)

The trigger or cue is the signal to carry out the habitual routine. For example, leaving your trainers by the side of your bed might be the cue you need to get up and go running first thing in the morning. Or taking a plastic bag along with you on a dog walk is the cue to pick up after your pet. The trigger can also be a preceding action, perhaps a habit in itself, creating a chained series of actions or even a ritual, all of which are usually automatic and carried out without thinking.

A habit also becomes embedded simply through the act of repetition, doing an action over and over again and often in the same environment so that it becomes routine and engrained in our muscle memory. For example, driving, brushing our teeth or riding a bike all become habitual behaviors. When we first tried them, they were tricky to master (some trickier than others!). But after carrying them out day after day, they became easy and automatic. Scientists say that once we master a new task or skill, our brainwaves slow down. We become more efficient at carrying out the task and therefore have less need to think consciously about it.4

Finally, for some habits, there is also a reward attached, sometimes simultaneous with the action and sometimes following it. This reward can be tangible, such as tucking into a bacon sandwich after going for a long, arduous run. Or it can be physiological, such as the dopamine release which provides the brain with a “feel-good” reward during or after an activity. Or it can even be subconscious, such as a sense of achievement at the end of a routine task.

Each of these elements (the trigger, the routine and the reward) combine to fix the habitual behavior in place. And once fixed, behavior is very difficult to change or stop. A diary-based study5 conducted by researchers at Duke University, North Carolina demonstrated that around 45 percent of everyday behaviors by students and other members of the community involved in the study were based on habit (routine behaviors, usually performed in the same location) rather than deliberate, thoughtful actions.

Charles Duhigg usefully deconstructs his own difficult-to-change afternoon cookie habit loop in his book and it’s the perfect illustration of the trigger-routine-reward structure on which our habits hang. Every afternoon, he would go to the cafeteria and eat a chocolate chip cookie which caused him to gain weight. He knew it was a “bad” habit, but it was a habit that he found hard to kick. The only way to do it, he realized, was to identify exactly how the habit worked. He soon discovered that the trigger for his cookie consumption was time: between 3:00 and 3:30 pm each day, he walked to the cafeteria. The routine behavior was the cookie consumption and his “aha” moment here was discovering that the cookie wasn’t actually the reward. This made it much easier to kick the habit of course. The actual reward was the chance to socialize with his colleagues. Once he realized this, his new routine behavior was simply to walk over to his colleagues’ desks at the same time in the afternoon and have a cookie-less chat. A new and less weight-compromising habit had been formed.

As Duhigg shows, there are strategies we can apply to break habits and change our ways for the better once we understand the trigger, routine and reward. And our awareness of unconscious, habitual behavior can also be heightened by the use of clever, innovative design which can surface our habits, moving them from our subconscious to our conscious mind. We look at a few innovations in the rest of this article.

The honking habit

Anyone who has visited India will know that the urban roads are crazy and chaotic. Drivers are in the habit of using car horns frequently (for almost every occasion, in fact). They most often honk not out of anger, but to signal driver intention or simply their presence. This incessant honking obviously creates a noisy, frustrating driving experience. Decibel levels are often well past the threshold for human pain. Anti-honking campaigns have failed in the past and Audi responded to the honking problem by making their car horns both louder and more capable of withstanding the driving demands of the Indian consumer. Audi’s India head Michael Perschke said, “You take a European horn and it will be gone in a week or two. With the amount of honking in Mumbai, we do on a daily basis what an average German does on an annual basis.”6

While drivers may well feel safer on the road if they can honk to announce their presence, there is a growing problem of hearing loss in urban centres in India and traffic noise is responsible for much of it. One study showed that 75 percent of traffic officers in Southern Indian cities had permanent damage to their hearing caused by daily exposure to traffic. So, no harm, then, in the work of Indian branding and behavioral design consultancy Briefcase, who tested a more behavioral-orientated solution to this problem. Their aim was simply to make drivers more aware when they had honked. They worked with Honda to add a simple red button to the dashboard. When drivers honked, this button bleeped and flashed continuously until they turned it off. They also printed a little frowning face on the button. They added this design to a set of Honda City and Honda Swift cars which they then tested with 30 drivers over 6 months. The Horn Reduction System reduced honking for all drivers by an impressive 61 percent on average.7 The designers speculated that this removed much of the indiscriminate, unnecessary honking by the driver.8

Their design worked, not because it required drivers to consciously reduce their honking, but because it brought the action of honking to the driver’s conscious attention and thus disrupted the behavior by making drivers turn off the annoying button. The presence of the frowning face also made use of injunctive social norms – things we know we shouldn’t do in society – to remind drivers that honking was largely an anti-social action. The device also cleverly tracks how much drivers use the horn, silently observing and tracking behavior so that usage analysis can rely on actual behavior rather than subjective self-reports, providing the designers with far more accurate records of behavior.

Mindless eating

Another study looked into the absent-minded eating of popcorn at the cinema. We often eat mindlessly, even when we aren’t really hungry. Researchers David Neal and colleagues conducted an experiment to identify the factors that disrupted or maintained the habit of eating popcorn. They took 158 participants into a cinema to watch movie trailers while also giving each a bucket of stale popcorn. Participants agreed that eating stale popcorn (as opposed to fresh) gave limited satisfaction, but researchers found that the quantity of popcorn they ate was dependent on a different factor. One group was told to eat the popcorn normally using their dominant hand while a second group was told to eat using their non-dominant hand (so if someone was a right-handed eater, they had to use their left hand to eat the popcorn). They found that those using their non-dominant hand ate significantly less than those using their dominant hand. It worked because eating with their non-dominant hand was not an automatic, habitual behavior and so required conscious attention.9 “Habit change may require interrupting fluid habit execution,” the researchers said.10 (Of course, it should be pointed out that, regardless of which hand they used, all the participants consumed some of the stale popcorn because the habit of eating popcorn when at the movies is so deeply engrained!)

Another study into mindless snacking was conducted by behavioral scientist Brian Wansink who looked at how to make consumers more conscious of the amount they were eating by using color to alert the brain. He found that inserting edible, serving-size markers – dyed red – into tubes of chips helped to curb overeating among 98 college students. In addition, the markers made students much more accurate in estimating how many chips they ate. In the first study, the red markers were interspersed at intervals, each designating one suggested serving size (equating to seven chips) or two serving sizes (14 chips). Students who were served tubes of chips containing the red markers consumed about 50 percent less than the control group.

The red markers also led to a more accurate estimation of actual consumption. On average, students eating the chip tubes without dividers underestimated their intake by 12.6 chips while those with red markers were off by less than one chip. Wansink commented, “an increasing amount of research suggests that some people use visual indication – such as a clean plate or bottom of a bowl – to tell them when to stop eating. By inserting visual markers in a snack food package, we may be helping them to monitor how much they are eating and interrupt their semi-automated eating habits.”11 So giving feedback allows us to consciously measure how much we are eating and make us more aware of the amount we have consumed.

Let there be light

Not only do we sometimes mindlessly overeat, we often needlessly waste energy in the home simply because we are not in the habit of turning off appliances. We habitually leave the TV on standby or forget to turn off a lamp. Design can help by alerting our conscious minds to our neglectful behavior.

Dr. Marc Hassenzahl is Professor for Experience Design at the Folkwang University of Arts in Essen, Germany. He studies non-coercive design and has developed a number of solutions to make us more conscious and aware of our unconscious behavior.12

One is the “Forget-me-not” light, a reading lamp that has to be periodically touched to stay on, making users conscious of the fact that the lamp is providing light for them. After being switched on, the lamp gradually closes its petals like a flower, and its light slowly dims. If one of the petals is touched, the lamp re-opens and shines brightly again.

Another is the “Never Hungry Caterpillar,” an extension cable that remains still when a TV or similar device is on but that goes nuts when switched to standby, twisting and turning and appearing to writhe in pain. The movement is intended to catch our attention and bring our neglectful behavior into our consciousness and it’s a far more effective method than the passive red standby light on the TV. This alternative design creates a visible, movement-based, highly emotional cue to tell us that we are wasting energy. We can almost feel the caterpillar’s pain.

Hassenzahl says, “Contemporary design is not used to making things troublesome. We are used to making things convenient. We are used to meeting the needs of our clients whether it is good for them or not. But what we actually need to instill change is ‘friction.’”


Repeat after me:

Trigger, routine, reward

Trigger, routine, reward

Trigger, routine, reward


The behavioral sciences have given us a simple model for understanding the architecture of how and why habits are formed. By thinking about or surfacing an existing or desired habit loop and defining the triggers or cues that establish it as well as the psychological rewards that cement the circuit, we can see how habits can be made or broken by using behavioral design or by changing the environment. And because habits are the backbone of all of our behavior, this gets everyone excited.

This is Part One of a three-part series looking at habits in depth.

1 Neal, D., Wood, W., Quinn, J. ‘Habits – A repeat performance’ 2006, Current directions in Psychological Science, Vol 15, No. 4, p198.

2 Verplanken, B., Wood, W., ‘Interventions to break and create consumer habits’, 2006, Journal of Public Policy and Marketing, Vol. 25 (1), Spring, 90-103.

3 Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, Random House 2012.

4 New Scientist, ‘Habits from when brain waves slow down’ 26th September 2011.

5 Quinn, J.M., & Wood, W. “Habits across the lifespan.” Unpublished manuscript, Duke University. See also Wood, W., Quinn, J.M. & Kashy, D.A. “Habits in everyday life: Thought, emotion, and action”,Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83, 1281-1297.

6 Globe and Mail, ‘Horn OK please? – Extra-loud car horns lead to growing problem of hearing loss in India’, 10th September 2012.

7 project: Reducing honking on Indian roads

9 Neal, D., Wood, W., Wu, M., and Kurlander, D., ‘The Pull of the Past: When Do Habits Persist Despite Conflict With Motives?, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 2011, OI:10.1177/0146167211419863.

10 Want to eat less? Try using your non-dominant hand, BPS Research Digest, 30 September 2011.

11 Geier, A., Wansink, B., & Rozin, P., ‘Red potato chips: Segmentation cues can substantially decrease food intake.’ Health Psychology. 2012 May; 31(3):398-401. doi: 10.1037/a0027221.

12 Things with attitude:Transformational Products, issuu.