According to psychology researchers from Duke University writing in Current Directions in Psychological Science in 2006, a habit is defined as an automatic behavior that is triggered without conscious intention. This ritualized action is launched, they explain, by an outside event (cue) which previously occurred alongside the behavior and has subsequently reinforced it. At first, the action is initiated in pursuit of some goal, but over time the behavior proceeds even without awareness of the goal.
In addition, habits provide some kind of reward which may or may not be recognized by the person doing it.
In fact, as the Duke University team observe, the majority of actions we perform every day are not the result of thinking and planning; we are much more likely to be driven by an unconscious routine instead.
Habits offer the advantage of conserving precious cognitive resources, by allowing daily activities to proceed without planning and deliberating.
The authors write that despite good intentions, many people find it very difficult to change their unhealthy habits to more beneficial ones — such as eating nutritiously or exercising regularly — because cues such as location or time of day can be powerful triggers. Willpower alone is usually not enough for healthy behavior change, according to the authors.
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Habits. US National Library of Medicine Consumer Health Informatics Research Resource (CHIRr) Information Sheet. Accessed September 30, 2013.
Neal, D. T., Wood, W., & Quinn, J. M. "Habits-A Repeat Performance." Current Directions in Psychological Science, 2006. 15(4), 198-202.