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  • Writer's pictureMed Insider

The Habitual Unknown

By Yuan Cheng


  • Habits are caused by the repetition of rewarding experiences

  • Our habits are shaped by neurological and societal pressures

  • Breaking a habit could take much longer than forming one


All 7.837 billion people on earth have existing habits and are on a path to forming more. A habit, psychologically speaking, is a learned and context-triggered tendency that comes from repeating a specific behavior. It’s often not even a conscious action. For example, brushing their teeth before breakfast can be a habit.



In the brain, the basal ganglia—a part known for pattern recognition and the establishing of memories and emotions—is responsible for the formation of habits. Active choices, scientists discovered, are made primarily in the prefrontal cortex, hence why habits are mostly reflexive. While performing a certain habitual action, the performer often is distracted with other notions. This multi-tasking, however, would not interfere with the automatic and accurate performance of a habit like it would a conscious decision.


Habits are also based on the environment. Studies have shown that when on a vacation, habits and routines are more easily altered. This is because habits are very much dependent on cues (when and where you do a specific thing), as it connects behavioral reactions with such cues. Being on a vacation would expose you to different cues than your daily life would and would loosen your previous habits.

Habit Loop

An action relies on a habit loop in order to become habitual. The habit loop consists of the cue, the behavior in response to the cue, and the “reward” (mental or physical) that one attains once the behavior is carried out. An example is gossiping: although this activity does not immediately come to mind when the word “habit” is mentioned, it’s a product of the habit loop. There are often social cues for the initiation of gossiping, and the “reward” participants achieve is the sensation that they have power in terms of knowledge.

Making & Breaking

Making a habit only takes around 21 days, but breaking one can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days.


CNN health suggested a multi-step habit-setting plan for those who want to form positive habits but don’t know how to.

The plan recommends creating a distinctly fun and cue-centered procedure that can be repeated, allows variability, and has a concrete vision of the results. Social support from friends, family, or colleagues can also play a significant role in encouraging someone to adopt a new habit.


Breaking habits is notoriously difficult because we often don’t consciously think about how bad habits are carried out and we often cannot pinpoint specifically where in these habits we get the satisfaction craved. The breaking of habits is thus hinged on the understanding of habits. Consider ways to circumvent cues that trigger these behavioral reactions, or find alternative (and better) ways to derive the same pleasure one derives when committing to a bad habit.


Habit vs Routine

Though the two are often used interchangeably in daily conversation, there is still a subtle difference to their structures. A habit is formed on the basis of subconscious cravings, but routine could be a series of things you do mostly out of the obligation.

Fun Fact

A fundamental component for success in product-oriented companies is to figure out what sort of pleasure the consumers get from what actions. Target, for example, derives habits from a user’s purchasing history and deduces their current needs and lifestyle based on these habits.



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