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?

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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

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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.

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I’m curious why you think your habits will become automatic in 1-3 months. Have you had that experience before? Mine definitely do not become automatic that quickly.

I know there’s a rumor or urban legend to the effect that it takes X days to establish a habit, where X is absurdly low, but I haven’t actually seen any evidence for that, and it doesn’t match my own experience.


I have no personal evidence that there’s actually any such thing as a habit, if we define that as a positive behavior that would take some effort to do if one weren’t used to doing it, but that currently takes zero effort to do and zero effort to maintain the disposition to do, because of one’s previous experience of repeatedly doing it.


Provocative claim! Maybe a better definition is something built in to your daily routine enough that doing the thing doesn’t take more than the effort inherent in doing it. Like if you were kicking yourself when you remembered that you’d meant to do it or otherwise spending cognitive effort on it when not actually doing it.

By that definition it would count as a habit if you’re doing something only because Beeminder makes you. I think people typically mean something stronger, like something is habitual if it takes neither cognitive effort beyond the actual doing of the thing nor requires any external prompting.

Related, @Paul_Fenwick’s Beeminder guest blog post, Failing your Goals with Beeminder.


Even more provocative claim: doing things doesn’t necessarily or usually take any effort whatsoever (in the relevant sense of “effort”). It takes literally zero effort for me walk at a normal pace, or to avoid falling over while walking (assuming I’m not really sleepy, intoxicated, sick, or otherwise impaired). (Maybe what I mean by “effort” is what you mean by “cognitive effort”? I don’t find it that useful to lump that together with other things, such as executing a physical action in a way that requires no conscious attention or thought.)

Effortfulness is an aversive property, although like many aversive properties it can be paradoxically attractive in some cases (see: spicy food, roller coasters, masochism). If I experience something as effortful, I’m much less likely to choose to do it. Beeminder (often) makes me choose to do it, but it doesn’t make it effortless. When the Beeminder-provided support is withdrawn, the “habit” usually disappears pretty rapidly. (The same’s been true for me for other motivation systems.)


I can’t figure out how to make a new forum thread to talk about this, but I feel like you have brought me to an epiphany: I, also, have no personal evidence that there is such as thing as a “habit.” Can the entire world really be so wrong…?

I can’t think of a single thing I do regularly that isn’t motivated by a distinct external trigger and/or explicit conscious decisions. Then again, I can barely even think of a single thing I do regularly. Maybe I have no habits because I have no daily routines in my work or social life; I wake at a different time and go to a different place every day of the week.


I’ve long suspected that “habits” are one of those things that some people have, and some people don’t have (I’m in the “don’t have” camp myself). The very examples that people use as “default habits that everyone has” when they’re explaining how to get more habits – brushing teeth, eating breakfast or lunch, getting a snack during the day, etc – are things that I have to actively put effort into remembering to do/doing, and they will very quickly disappear if the structure I’ve set up to support them go away. I’ve always assumed that the people who talk about “developing habits” have a different experience from me.

The closest thing I have to habits as traditionally conceived are muscle memory paths to get somewhere – I have a strong habit, I suppose, of getting to work in the morning, in the sense that I leave the house, and then a little while later I’m at work, and it doesn’t require conscious direction to do this. In fact, when I lived within walking distance to work, I had a perpetual problem of ending up at work when I was trying to go somewhere else, because work was my default “autopilot” destination. Is this what people mean by habits?


If you take the definition from the book The Power of Habit, then a habit is composed of a cue, a routine, and a reward. So the presence of a trigger would not disqualify a behavior from being a habit.

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I’ve been increasingly aware of this definition of a habit. To me including the “cue” in the definition of a habit seems to deflate the beautiful ‘promise’ of habits as something which one can be trained to do almost regardless of circumstances. My whole problem is that I have no reliable cues whatsoever! Or rather – the ONLY reliable cue I have is Beeminder coming due before bed, hence why I have something like 50 Beeminder goals…


I’m not sure I understand. Without a cue, wouldn’t you be doing your “habit” constantly? It sounds odd to call breathing a habit.

I find the inclusion of a trigger in the definition makes the concept much more useful. Most things you’d like to be a habit should happen in specific situations, whether that be a specific time or otherwise.

Realizing that habits involve cues and rewards give you tools to engineer your habits beyond brute repetition. Generally, find or create a cue to remind you to take the action at the appropriate time (Beeminder is really good at creating these cues), and then emphasize the intrinsic reward on completion or find another way to add a reward at the end.

I’d highly recommend you read The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. I think you’d enjoy it.

The typical understanding of a “habit,” when I hear about them in the lives of others, is that these are things you do ‘on autopilot’; because you have gotten used to doing them regularly, you simply do them without having to think about it or make careful plans. Things like brushing your teeth, eating breakfast/lunch, etc.

@kenoubi articulated this definition of a habit really well earlier in the thread:

I, personally, do not brush my teeth or eat meals with anything approaching regularity! (I average 1.5 tooth-brushes per day but they can happen at any time.) I don’t even necessarily wake and then sleep every single day. But there are many things (including eating and sleeping!) that I’d like to, generically, do regularly, but which can happen at any time during the day.

If a habit could be established just by practice, regardless of cues, it would be worth, e.g., trying to build up streaks in order to build practice. But if a habit requires reliable cues, I have to approach habits completely differently-- which is a little demoralizing, because I have almost no cues ready-made. Maybe I should read the book!

(I realise that “I have no reliable cues” is a bold claim, but I really mean it: I am rarely in the same place for more than three weeks in a row, so none of my physical environment can serve as a cue; I don’t feel hunger pangs when I need to eat, so eating is a habit I’d like to form; my sleep schedule is dramatically erratic; the only thing it seems like I can count on is alerts on my phone, but there’s a limit to how many of those I can set up before notification fatigue sets in!)

Frankly, I think I love beeminder so much because “checking Beeminder” has become the only habit-cue I have – it’s the only thing where I’m surprised if I don’t do it (because I get so many reminders & I know it costs me money to ignore them). This works for me as long as I keep all my Beeminder goals calibrated to where I can dispatch all of them with an hour or two of effort as soon as I remember them, but there are limits to this approach.


When, though? Consider someone with a toothbrushing habit. They’re not constantly brushing their teeth! Nor are they likely to do it at completely random times. Rather, they do it in response to a certain observation or feeling or as part of a certain sequence: maybe upon getting up in the morning. Maybe after breakfast. Maybe after or before showering in the morning. (I knew one person who actually brushed her teeth in the shower, believe it or not.) Maybe after feeling plaque buildup or some mouth sensation. Maybe when thinking about meeting or kissing someone.

These are the cues we’re talking about.

I don’t understand what this means. How are you envisioning a cueless habit to work? A Poisson process? Couldn’t be regular intervals, since the lapsing of those intervals would itself be a cue.

I’m not sure what you mean by “reliable” or “ready-made” cues. A cue is just a trigger. Feeling bored -> go for a walk. Think about kissing -> brush your teeth. They don’t necessarily occur with any regularity - any feeling or thought or sensation can be a cue. Even if you don’t eat and sleep every 24-hour period, you must still eat and sleep, so before/after eating and sleeping could be cues, as could using the bathroom. You already check Beeminder regularly, so you can also “build up” sequences of events that you do before or after checking. You mentioned remembering beeminder - remembering can also be a cue.

Looking at a clock or observing the time could be cues, as could seeing that it’s night, morning, or evening. You may not be in the same place for more than a few weeks but presumably you are still on this planet with its day/night cycle.

Another idea might be to get different alarms - like wear a couple watches and set them to go off at different times.


This isn’t entirely incompatible with the cue / routine / reward paradigm. With repetition, the cue, routine, and reward can become associated in the subconscious such that the cue can trigger the routine without a lot of extra thought or effort.

As @zedmango mentioned, for a long time my cue for tooth brushing was some combination of finishing a meal and feeling food residue in my mouth. The reward was my mouth feeling fresh. These things became so associated that it would cause me real discomfort to delay brushing after eating.

I know this was due to the habit and not to some innate personality characteristic because I’ve not always been that way, and there are times when I weakened the habit by consciously choosing to resist the discomfort and the urge to brush in response.

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