The three varieties of habit

I like habits. I think chipping away a little at a time is a great way to make a big dent in something, and I’m always looking for ways to break down big problems into little solutions I can effect over time. But I’ve noticed in my readings that not everyone has the same idea of what a habit is; in fact, I’ve identified three distinct meanings different authors use, and making or breaking each type of habit needs a different kind of attention.

Type 1: Automatic habits

The first type of habit is the automatic habit, something you do without thinking about it. I don’t have to think about reaching for the floss after I brush my teeth in the evening: a good habit, in this sense. On the other hand, I tend to use my desk as the default place to pile papers and supplies I don’t know what to do with: an equally automatic habit, but one I’d love to get rid of.

This automaticity is the meaning of habit used by Charles Duhigg in his excellent book The Power of Habit, in which he identifies habits by certain kinds of brain activity:

“This process within our brains is a three-step loop. First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future.”

—Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit

If you want to build a good automatic habit, you need a reliable cue and an immediate reward feeling for the behavior you’re trying to reinforce. The typical advice is to work on building one small habit at a time; it can take a lot of work and consistency to make a small amount of good behavior automatic.

Conversely, if you’re trying to break a bad habit, you need to replace the cued behavior with something better that gives you the same reward feeling. The Power of Habit includes a step-by-step process for determining your cues and rewards so that you can choose an appropriate substitute behavior. (Also, the “one small habit at a time” advice still applies.)

Type 2: Intentional habits

More broadly, people use the word “habit” to mean any action done on a regular basis. The second type of habit is thus something you choose to do over and over. Habits of this type that I’ve held at various times include

  • Exercising every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday
  • Writing a review on Goodreads for every book I read
  • Going to bed at a reasonable hour every night
  • Working on getting papers published every workday
  • Clearing off the kitchen table every evening

None of these has ever felt totally automatic: every time, I have to talk myself into it, and if I skip one day, I’m likely to feel like I’ve “lost my streak” (as the language-learning app Duolingo calls it) and have less motivation to get going again the next day. Gretchen Rubin’s Better than Before offers several strategies for beginning and maintaining habits, but the thesis of the book is that understanding yourself better helps you make and keep habits. (For example, do you think you could eat just one square of chocolate each day without obsessing about it? If not, Gretchen says, you’re better off going cold turkey when quitting a bad habit. If yes, it might be more sustainable just to reduce the bad behavior, rather than eliminating it altogether.)

My own advice for maintaining intentional habits runs counter to the usual advice for automatic habits: instead of focusing on one thing at a time, make sure you have enough commitments that you can’t keep them all in your head at once. This forces you to use schedules, checklists, something you have to refer to regularly that will remind you to keep up the desired behaviors even when they don’t feel important. In other words, build an automatic habit of asking your past self what the plan is.

Type 3: Mindsets

I read The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People expecting the advice to be to make my bed every morning or to read a whole book every day or something. Instead, I was surprised to see that the titular seven habits were more like general guidelines for approaching life and choices: Of the things that concern you, focus on what you can influence. Find solutions to conflict that benefit both parties. Take care of the important things before they become crises. These seemed more like mindsets, facets of a particular worldview, than concrete actions to repeat.

How can you adopt a habit in this sense? I wrote last week that it’s hard to change your own mindset, but if you want to change your mindset, you’re already partway there. Surround yourself with people, books, podcasts, etc. that demonstrate the kind of attitude you want to have, and your internal dialogue will start changing to match.

So there you have it: three varieties of habit. Have I missed any? What kinds are you interested in making right now? Let me know in the comments!


3 thoughts on “The three varieties of habit

  1. I think the definition of Type 1 and the advice to get rid of a bad habit with a new positive reward trigger for the new action might be whiy Advent and Lent are so effective at helping me break bad habits. It get a quick conscience pat on the back instead of whatever reward I get from the thing I’m trying to get rid of.

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    1. That could be! I remember one day I dragged myself to the gym, then later in the day thought “Oh! I forgot to feel virtuous about it!” That feeling of “I’m doing what I approve of” can be really powerful.

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