How Habits Become Habits

written by: Eagle Hill School
We hear a lot about habits—starting good ones, breaking bad ones—but how are habits formed? What makes a person predisposed to certain habits? Most importantly, how can students focus on the process of how habits become habits to ensure they create good ones?

How Habits Work

By definition, habit formation is the process by which behaviors become automatic. If you feel compelled to have a coffee as soon as you wake up, or check your phone’s email every five minutes, you have a habit. But how do these patterns begin?

Habits begin with a behavioral pattern called a “habit loop,” a process that consists of a trigger, a routine, and a reward. The initial trigger is something that tells a person’s brain to let a behavior occur. Directly following this is the habitual behavior itself: drinking the cup of coffee, launching the mail app on your iPhone. Finally, there is the reward. This is a chemical reaction in the brain that tells a person “That was satisfying…do it again in the future,” thus closing the “habit loop.”

The part of the brain that is responsible for this type of neurological behavior is the “basal ganglia,” which is also heavily involved in the development of memories, emotions, and recognition. More conscious decisions are made in a different part of the brain—this is where habits may very well start. However, as the behavior becomes increasingly automatic, this conscious decision-making part of your brain goes on autopilot.

A Habit Begins

Knowing this, we can see that habits begin with choice, a consciously made decision to do or not do something. That is why it is vitally important for students to make the right decisions about how they approach their work, social lives, family interactions, and extracurricular activities. These seemingly minute choices brought on by stimuli (the triggers discussed above), repeated over and over again, eventually become habits.

Further, habits don’t necessarily have to form with only positive feedback, or the satisfying reward. Habits can just as easily be influenced by negative feedback. A good example of this is a student who finds mathematics to be difficult and uninteresting. When they go to study they find themselves strained and stressed (negative feedback) and so they stop and do something else (positive feedback: relief). We can see how these patterns easily become solidified.

Habits Old and New, Good and Bad

Habits generally get a bad rap. They’re thought of as things we do too much, or shouldn’t do at all. And in many cases this is true—we all have habits we wish we could kick, however major or minor they are. It should be noted that there are good habits and healthy habits as well.

The most important factor in determining whether or not a habit is “good” (aside from it being obviously “not bad”) is whether or not it’s conscious. That is to say, people should be actively deciding what repeated behaviors they allow in their lives. While it’s great to be a habitual runner, studier, or dorm room cleaner, it’s not ideal if one can’t understand why they feel compelled to do these things, and replicate these positive behavioral patterns in other areas of life.
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Learning Diversity is a blog hosted by Eagle Hill School where educators, students, and other members of the LD community regularly contribute posts and critical essays about learning and living in spaces that privilege the inevitability of human diversity.

The contributors of Learning Diversity come together to engage our readers from a variety of disciplines, including the humanities, social sciences, biological sciences and mathematics, athletics, and residential life. Embracing learning diversity means understanding and respecting our students as whole persons.


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