Beeminder Forum

Do habits exist?


@kenoubi @oulfis @lanthala @dreev

This is branched off of the discussion at Thoughts and experiences with big(ger) pledge Amounts?


In response to someone’s claim that habits should become automatic in 1-3 months, I said:

@kenoubi responded:

My view: habits definitely exist.

@kenoubi’s suggestion that habits take zero effort after repetition is not the only possible mechanism for a habit. Another way habits could work is that doing the behavior still takes effort, but not doing it brings some feeling of discomfort that is strong enough to make your default action be to do the behavior.

Here are a few examples:

  • Hygenic habits - not washing your hands after using the bathroom can trigger a feeling of disgust or uncleanliness sufficient to make you wash your hands. Same goes with, e.g., going to bed without brushing your teeth.

  • Safety habits - not wearing a seatbelt or helmet can trigger a feeling of feeling unsafe sufficient to make you use the safety device.

  • Completion/cleanup habits - if you’re used to some kind of completion or cleanup after doing something, leaving it unfinished, undone, or uncompleted can trigger a feeling of discomfort that something is still hanging and needs to be done.

Note that these habits are not formed solely by repetition - rather, they require repetition combined with some sort of emotional association like “I better wash my hands so I don’t get sick” or “I need to clean up after using the blender” which over time creates a feeling of discomfort when you don’t do the behavior.

Also note the analogy with memory - to memorize a text, it is not sufficient to repeat it many times. There are many people who speak a text aloud regularly but haven’t memorized it. You have to have a certain intent to remember it, a certain feeling of “this has to come next after this” that you consciously embed along with the sequence. As with habits, memorizing works best if you include an emotional association.

In the other thread, @lanthala discussed navigation:

Navigation is similar - repetition combined with a certain conscious feeling of “this is the route, this is the first step, then I do this, in order to get to my destination” leads to being able to navigate to the destination unconsciously.

Like @lanthala, I’ve also noticed the “default autopilot” situation of heading towards a common destination without thinking about it - this is a clear example of a habit to me.

@lanthala refers to this as “muscle memory” - I see muscle memory as different than navigation. With muscle memory, it’s totally physical - you learn a specific sequence of physical actions (piloting a hang glider, swinging a golf club, performing a squat with correct form), by consciously thinking about each step as part of a sequence that you’re learning, and eventually the sequence becomes “chunked” into what seems like one physical action.

It’s also interesting to note the resemblance to OCD here. With OCD, the feeling of “I need to do this next” becomes so overpowering that you can’t stop it even when you know it’s harmful. As with habits, the feeling of discomfort from OCD often comes up in a hygenic or safety context.


This is an interesting framing, which almost makes me willing to concede that I might have some habits:

However, of the examples given, only wearing a seatbelt is something I do regularly. But I think, actually, the most compelling account for “habits” I’ve heard lately is from the Atomic Habits book club (I haven’t been reading the book, but have been following along with the comments):

I’m definitely the type of person who wears a seatbelt every time they are in a car.

And the “not doing it brings some feeling of discomfort” framing sort of explains, I think, how I am that type of person: for me, is that the act of “getting into a car” includes four steps. 1, open door; 2, get in; 3, close door; 4, buckle seatbelt. I’ve mentally bundled them to the extent that it wouldn’t occur to me to skip my seatbelt any more than it would occur to me to skip closing the door.

Thinking in terms of identity also helps me identify “habits” I do have: I may not be the type of person who regularly brushes their teeth or eats meals or responds to emails, but I am the type of person who gets a lot of reading done, for example. I know many people who talk about wanting to “find time” read more, but I feel like I don’t have to do anything at all and I read something every day. Or, I habitually walk places within a mile or two, or take transit (because I’m the kind of person who doesn’t drive). I’m not sure if these are really “habits” but they’re the kinds of things I’d be wanting to accomplish by establishing new “habits” so it seems like they count?


Yes, your reading and walking definitely count as habits. If I can propose a definition: a habit is something you do regularly, without thinking, and you would consider superfluous to have a beeminder goal for it :smiley:
E.g. the ultimate habit-forming success of a beeminder goal is when you can archive the goal


For me, the default reaction to that is to become numb to whatever that feeling of discomfort is. In that way, at least, I don’t think I’m super weird. People get used to all kinds of things, good and bad. (They don’t have to, of course; this is assuming that the feeling of discomfort isn’t anchored in anything deeper in one’s personality.)

I think most people (including me) have experienced automatic seeking of a common destination, and similar programmatic behavior. That might be a “habit” in some sense, but I think not in the one that’s actually relevant here. The program still has to be started somehow. The process of taking a shower (+brushing my teeth, +shaving, +dressing myself) is fairly automatic for me, but starting that process is not. I haven’t found the starting to happen reliably after whatever was causing it to happen (be that Beeminder, or fear of a dangerous situation, or some other person’s expecting me to do something) is withdrawn. Sometimes it does for a while, but it tends to fall apart relatively quickly.

That, specifically, is what doesn’t happen for me.

If I need a Beeminder goal to do it, I’m going to need a Beeminder goal or some other form of concrete reinforcement to keep doing it. There is no time at which I expect or have observed that to end.