Late night channel surfing, procrastination, and a mid-afternoon candy bar. While alone these things are just bad choices, they could quickly become bad habits under the right conditions, says Wendy Wood, provost professor of psychology and business at the University of Southern California (USC).
"About 40% of our behaviors are repeated almost daily, and usually in the same context," she says. "We tend to eat at the same times and places, exercise and go to work at the same times and places. This is a huge amount of repetition."
Good or bad, habits bring consistency to our lives. A type of associative learning, they’re formed when we repeat activities under the same contexts; essentially, we react to recurring cues.
"Once habits have formed, just perceiving the cues will automatically bring the response to mind," says Wood. "For example, when you walk into your kitchen first thing in the morning, you are likely to think about making coffee. The cues of kitchen and early morning bring making coffee-making to mind, and people often carry out the thought in mind."
While we rarely recognize our good habits because they’re consistent with our goals, our bad habits are easy to identify because they cause us to struggle even after we’ve made decisions not to do them.
"So if you decide that your habit of eating doughnuts at the vending machine is bad for your health, you are essentially of two minds: your habit mind thinks of buying doughnuts every time you walk by the machine at work, while your intentional mind is resolved to not eat doughnuts any more," says Wood.
Unfortunately you can’t change a bad habit overnight, but there are three simple steps you can take to pave the way, says Wood: