Two Truths and a Lie about Habits

Are habits the same as a reflex ? An eye blink in response to an object moving towards us is a habit. Isn't it ? That's a lie. Blinking is simply a hard-wired reflex. This is not the same as a habit.

Eyes Blinking GIF

Habits are actions that we learn, sometimes unconsciously, in response to our experiences in the world. When we start to effortlessly take actions in anticipation of a future reward, we develop a habit. The formation of neural circuits make some habits more likely to occur and other actions less likely. This is how good and bad habits are birthed.

Two truths and a lie.

1. Making good habits and breaking bad habits takes more than self-control

A natural experiment in the United States shows that 9 out of 10 states with the lowest smoking rates are places where smoking is prohibited in workplaces, restaurants and bars. According to leading habit expert Professor Wendy Wood, around 40% of people's daily activities are performed each day in almost the same context. In the case of smoking, changing the environment adds friction which makes the behaviours less likely to occur.

Studies show that people with high levels of self-control aren’t constantly battling temptation — they’re simply relying on repetition to exercise, make lunch the previous evening or pay the bills on time. In that way, high self-control is an illusion founded on habitual repetition of good behaviours.

"It would be exhausting to rely on our self-control every time to do the right thing"

In an experiment, participants aspiring to eat healthy needed to complete an action to win baby carrots as a reward. When these participants with strong habits were offered the choice to select baby carrots or M&M's — 55% of them continued to choose eating carrots. This is far higher than what you would observe in the "real world".

Verdict: True. Habits are less about self-control and more about context, repetition and reward.

2. All it takes is 21 days of repetition to form a new habit

The mystery of how long it takes to form a habit depends on a term neuroscientist Dr. Andrew Huberman coined as “limbic friction”.

"Limbic friction is how much effort you need to engage in a behaviour."

The concept of limbic friction encompasses findings from psychology and neuroscience to describe the strain that is required to overcome one of two states within your body. One state is anxiousness (too distracted) and the other state is feeling tired (too relaxed).

An excellent peer-reviewed study modelling habit formation in the real world showed that for the same habit, it can take anywhere from 18 days to 254 days for different individuals.

Verdict: Lie. The 21-day myth can be traced to a 1960s self-help book by a cosmetic surgeon titled Psycho Cybernetics.

3. Visualising the sequence of things can help us turn intention into habits

In a review article titled Psychology of Habit, the authors highlight that with each repetition of a habit, small changes occur in the mechanisms associated with procedural memory. This is a recipe book of past behaviours for us to reach our intended goals.

Wendy Wood Provocation: Habits in Everyday Life and in the Workplace

If you have an intention to adopt a new habit, try visualising or simply imagine the specific sequence of steps required to execute that habit. For example, to get into the habit of running, go through all the steps involved from start to finish: (1) going to your room to get changed, (2) wearing your running shoes, (3) picking a podcast to listen to, (4) going on your favourite route and (5) having a refreshing drink when you return.

"Procedural memory holds in our minds the sequence of things that need to happen for a specific outcome to occur."

The mental exercise of thinking through all the steps can enable people to become far more likely to perform the habit. Doing this visualisation, just once, reduces the friction of carrying out this habit in the days and weeks that follow.

Verdict: True. It's remarkable that one simple mental exercise can help us adopt a new habit.


Vishal George is the Chief Behavioural Scientist at Behavioural by Design. His good habits include breath work, daily intention setting, yoga, time restricted eating and cardio. His bad habits include eating too much peanut butter and using the mobile phone before sleeping.

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