The psychology of habits

Teacher, blogger and trainer Joe Kirby takes a look at the force of habit – one of the most powerful influences we have on our behaviour whether we like it or not – and how we can use this in school.

Scientific research suggests that cues and consistency make habits last.

Why do we automatically wash our hands after going to the toilet? Why do we automatically tend to put our seatbelt on when we get into a car? Why do we tend to forget our New Year’s Resolutions by March?

These puzzles can partly be explained by the psychology of habit. Knowing this scientific research can come in very handy as teachers and school leaders.

Scientific research

In 1899, one of the founders of modern psychology, William James, gave some talks to teachers on the human mind. ‘It is very important that teachers realise the importance of habit, and psychology helps us greatly at this point … Habits cover a very large part of life,’ James argued; much of our activity is automatic and habitual. ‘The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work’ (James, 1899).

Research a century on suggests that around 45% of our daily actions are habitual (Wood et al., 2002; Wood et al., 2005; Wood & Neal, 2007; Evans & Stanovich, 2013). Scientifically, habits are learned, contextual, automatic responses (Verplanken & Aarts, 1999; Wood & Neal, 2007). Simply repeating an action consistently in the same context leads to the action being activated on later exposure to the same cue (Lally & Gardner, 2013). Using the toilet is the cue for washing our hands. Getting into a car is the cue for putting on a seatbelt. When a specific behaviour is performed repeatedly in an unvarying context, a habit will develop. Habits, scientists have found, do not rely on conscious attention or motivation, so persist even after conscious motivation or interest dissipates (Bargh, 1994). Habits free mental resources for other tasks. For example, learning to drive requires conscious attention to the pedals at first, but after that becomes a learned habit, attention is freed for scanning the road and for conversation. Decades of studies show that habit strength increases following repetition of a behaviour after the same cue (Hull, 1943; Lally et al., 2010; Lally et al., 2011). Cues and consistency combine to create a new habit. One study showed that it took an average of 66 days for a habit to form, with a range of 18 to 254 days (Lally et al., 2010). The time taken for automating the habit depended partly on the complexity of the habit: drinking a glass of water every day is easier than doing 50 sit-ups every day. Psychologists now argue that habit formation advice – that is, to repeat an action consistently in the same context – offers a simple path to long-term behaviour change (Gardner, Lally & Wardle, 2012).

Cues and consistency

In schools, we can use the power of habit to improve our pupils’ lives, just as a parent says to their child, ‘What’s the magic word?’ to teach them to be thankful and thoughtful. From the research evidence, two principles suggest themselves to make a habit last:

Choose a ‘cue’ or a reminder that occurs without fail at least daily.

Repeat the action consistently after the cue for as many days in a row as possible.

The best cues recur unfailingly, such as waking up or entering or leaving a lesson. This explains why so many of us forget our New Years’ resolutions: because we haven’t turned them into daily habits with unfailing cues or consistency.

Greeting people professionally is a useful habit for young people to learn for any interview they attend and anywhere they work later in life. A simple cue is seeing a teacher. I have seen how teaching pupils to smile and greet teachers cheerfully with ‘good morning!’ or ‘good afternoon!’ helps pupils learn how to interact positively and politely. Because this cue occurs many times a day at school, pupils have many chances every day to practise. Some pupils already have this automated, and are at an advantage in later life. Schools can help all pupils to achieve this advantage by teaching and reinforcing it consistently until it is an automatic habit for everyone.

Pupils have to remember lots of items every day: uniform, books, equipment, homework and kit. Quite often, something gets forgotten. Checking they’ve got what they need in their bag the night before and in the morning is a useful habit. A simple cue is to check their bag just after they’ve woken up. When it comes to exams, having this habit automated hugely reduces stress, pressure and panic.

Focusing on with practice in lessons straight away and not time-wasting is another habit that gives pupils great advantages that accumulate rapidly over time. Compared to a pupil who wastes just the first two minutes of practice each lesson, a pupil who focuses gains an extra 10,000 minutes of learning from Year 7 to Year 11. A simple cue to start practice such as ‘Ready…go!‘ is powerful when it is consistently applied. If all teachers in the school give the same cue, it makes it easier for pupils to establish the habit.

If teachers and school leaders decide collective cues and ensure consistency together, they can set their pupils up for habitual success.

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Bargh, J. A. (1994) ‘The four horsemen of automaticity: awareness, intention, efficiency, and control in social cognition’ in Wyer, R. S. & Srull, T. K. (eds) Handbook of social cognition, vol. 1: basic processes. Hove: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, pp. 1–40.

Evans, J. & Stanovich, K. (2013) ‘Dual-process theories of higher cognition: advancing the debate’, Perspectives on Psychological Science, 8 (3) pp. 223–241.

Gardner, B., Lally, P. & Wardle, J. (2012) ‘Making health habitual: the psychology of “habit-formation” and general practice’, The British Journal of General Practice, 62 (605) pp. 664–666.

Hull, C. L. (1943) Principles of behavior: an introduction to behavior theory. New York, NY: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

James, W. (1899) Talks to teachers on psychology. New York, NY: Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt and Company.

Lally, P and Gardner, B. (2013) ‘Promoting habit formation’, Health Psychology Review, 7 (sup. 1) pp. 137–158.

Lally, P., Wardle, J. & Gardner, B. (2011) ‘Experiences of habit formation: a qualitative study’, Psychology, Health & Medicine, 16 (4) pp. 484–489.

Lally, P., van Jaarsveld, C. H. M., Potts, H. W. W. & Wardle, J. (2010) How are habits formed: modelling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psycholology, 40 (6) pp. 998–1009.

Verplanken, B. & Aarts, H. (1999) ‘Habit, attitude, and planned behaviour: is habit an empty construct or an interesting case of goal-directed automaticity?’, European Review of Social Psychology, 10 (1) pp. 101–134.

Wood, W. & Neal, D. T. (2007) ‘A new look at habits and the habit-goal interface’, Psychological Review, 114 (4) pp. 843−863.

Wood, W., Quinn, J. M. & Kashy, D. A. (2002) ‘Habits in everyday life: thought, emotion, and action’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83 (6) pp. 1281−1297.

Wood, W., Tam, L. & Witt, M. G. (2005) ‘Changing circumstances, disrupting habits’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 88 (6) pp. 918−933.