What do we know about habit building?

May 1, 2018
Jacynth Bennett

Jacynth Bennett

Associate Dean, Custon Solutions

As part of our work on wellbeing, we’ve been developing our understanding of how to build new habits (and sometimes break old ones).

Habit formation and wellbeing

Habit building is a vital skill for supporting our wellbeing, much of which is about developing and maintaining strong habits, whether we’re hoping to do more sport, get sleep better or build mindfulness into our daily routines.

What is a habit?

A habit is simply an action that requires little or no cognitive attention which we’ve automated in response to a cue.

Duhigg (2012) describes the habit loop (illustrated below). To start with, some day-to-day routine, event or experience, triggers the cycle. The habitual activity that follows results in a reward of some sort. Whether this is something tangible, a sensation, a feeling or an emotion, over time (and through repetition) we begin to crave this reward. As the cycle continues, the link between cue and reward (i.e. the habitual action) is strengthened and the behaviour becomes more automatic.

Habit loop

We can use this understanding to help us build positive behaviours into our day-to-day routine. For example, if you were trying to develop a habit of jogging a helpful cue could just be seeing your trainers each day when you arrive home from work. If you act as a result of this cue and go for a run, the sense of achievement and the endorphins your body releases act as the reward – hopefully making it easier to motivate yourself next time!

What are the first steps in habit formation?

If we want to build a new habit into our routines, the first step is to clearly identify what that habit is. Small changes are easier to implement than bigger ones (Amabile and Kramer, 2011). Breaking down goals into bite-sized habits makes them more achievable and easier to embed into a daily routine. So if my goal is to run more, I might decide to make a habit of going on 2-3 short runs every week and build from there.

This approach doesn’t need to just be limited to our home lives though – it’s exactly the process we use to improve teaching practice on our Masters and Fellowship courses at the Institute for Teaching. For more on the power of using deliberate practice to regularly embed specific, incremental changes into life and work routines check out Harry’s (IfT Associate Dean) blog on Designing training for teachers.

Once the habit is selected, the next step could be to engage in a visualisation activity. Gabriele Oettingen (2014) has researched different approaches to visualisation our goals during this initial phase, and the different effects these can have.

For example, we could jump straight to visualising what it will feel like to have successfully embedded a new habit into our lives, or alternatively, we could focus on visualising the barriers that might be in the way of us achieving our goals. Oettingen’s research suggests that by visualising both of these at the goal setting stage, we will increase our chances of achieving our goals. Visualisation at this stage allows us the opportunity to reflect on the new habit and consider if, in fact, we have a clear motivation for it and if it does feel manageable enough.

Planning out the habit

The next step in the process is the planning stage. Peter Gollwitzer’s (1999) research into Implementation Intentions found that those who think carefully about what they are going to do, as well as when and how they are going to do it, are more successful in embedding new habits. So, if I were looking to embed the habit of doing a daily mindfulness meditation, I’d need to commit to a time and place, as well as to ensure I had all of the necessary tools needed to help me.

Other research into habit building has emphasised the importance of context and cue. Thinking about something that you already do routinely and linking a new habit to this is a powerful prompt. Using the phrase ‘when…. then….’ is a helpful way to frame this planning. For example,

‘When I get out of bed in the morning, then I will use the first 10 minutes of the day to do a meditation using my mindfulness app’.

Consistency is important here. It’s helpful to choose the same time, place or situation as your cue.

Having visualised the barriers that we might come across at the goal setting stage, Gollwitzer’s research shows that formulating simple action plans to overcome potential barriers increases the likelihood that we will be able to work through them if and when they arise. In the case of habituating mindfulness, this could be as simple as scheduling reminders or it might involve thinking more creatively about practical solutions to more complex issues – e.g. time constraints. You could use the phrase ‘If…then…’ as a helpful way to frame this.

For example,

‘If I feel that I don’t have time in the morning, then I will commit to doing ten minutes of meditation before bed’


‘If I feel that I’d rather skim through the news and social media on my phone, then I will remind myself of how meditation helps me have a more positive start to the day’.

Additional support

Once we’re trying to get going with a new habit, there are a few other things that psychological research suggests might be helpful. Using reminders (e.g. alarms, post-it notes etc.) are a helpful way to get started with a new habit, but in order for a habit to become truly automated, these need to be phased out.

To stay on the right tracks and stick to our intended behavioural changes, peer support can be helpful. This could mean committing jointly to a habit with a friend or family member, or simply telling them so they can offer encouragement (or admonishment!) and ask how you’re getting on. Positive reinforcement like this can help to provide that all-important reward and motivation in the early stages of habit formation.

Final thoughts

So, when thinking about building a new habit in our routines, it’s well worth taking some time to think through the stages of habit formation and intentionally plan out a course of action.

Select the habit carefully – is it bite-sized and achievable? Visualise what success will look like, as well as the barriers could stand in your way. Plan out where, when and how you’ll implement your new habit. What will act as your cue? Think through the barriers and plan a course of action should they arise. These simple steps can help make the implementation of a new habit more successful.

We hope that by thinking about the habit-building process, and breaking it into these steps, it can serve as an encouragement and a helpful tool for teachers as we reflect on behaviours we can embed into our routines to support our wellbeing.

Read more…

For more info on habits and wellbeing, have a read of some of the titles that have inspired our work:
Charles Duhigg – The Power of Habit (2012)
Gabriele Oettingen – Rethinking Positive Thinking (2014)
Amabile TM and Kramer SJ, 2011. The Power of Small Wins. Harvard Business Review 89 (5).
Gollwitzer, PM, 1999. Implementation Intentions: Strong Effects of Simple Plans. American Psychologist, 54(7), pp. 493 – 503. Available here.


This article originally appeared on the website of the Institute for Teaching. In March 2019 the Institute for Teaching merged with Ambition School Leadership to form Ambition Institute.

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