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We all have habits we’d love to make or break. Understanding exactly what a habit is might be the best way to start making them work for you.

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[ intro ].

We talk all the time about our habits. We want to get into the habit of going to the gym, or break the habit of hitting snooze...six times in a row.

But to actually change our habits, it helps to understand how scientists define them -- and what research can tell us about how to make and break them. A habit is an action that we do automatically in response to some contextual cue, because we've associated that cue with doing that thing. Like buckling your seatbelt automatically when you get in the car.

Being in the car is the cue, and buckling up is the habit. It might seem like an exaggeration, but the thing that scientists call a “habit” really is automatic. You just experience that contextual cue, and the habit happens without you having to devote much conscious thought to it.

Those cues can be be pretty much anything, from seeing a note on the fridge to having just done another activity. And it's the piece that's often overlooked when people talk about habits. A habit isn't just a thing you do… it's also the cue that makes you do it.

Psychologists believe we don't always use the best strategy to change our behavior. What seems like the obvious way to go isn't always supported by the research into how people actually form durable habits. Like smartphone apps designed to remind you to do the thing.

Great idea, right? Your phone reminds you until eventually, you just do it automatically. But a 2015 study from researchers in the UK showed that reminders from an app can increase the likelihood that you'll do something in the moment, but it'll also work against that thing becoming an automatic habit.

Why? Because you have the reminder to rely on! There's no reason for the habit to become automatic, because your phone will tell you what to do and when.

But research says that there is stuff we can do to be better at making habits. One strategy is known as piggybacking. This is where you pile an activity on top of another habit that you're already in the…habit of doing.

That way, the habit you already have can serve as the cue to do the second one. For example, a study published in the British Journal of Health Psychology found that people trying to get into the habit of flossing their teeth could piggyback the habit of tooth flossing onto the habit of tooth brushing. Furthermore, they had more success forming the habit when they flossed after brushing than when they flossed before, because the teeth-brushing became the cue for them to floss.

Now, how long does it take to really pick up a habit? There's a lot of self-help advice out there that tries to convince you that you can form a habit in 21 days. But research suggests there's really no set timeline by which a habit is set in stone.

It often takes much longer than three weeks -- but it also can vary widely from person to person. One 2010 study of 82 participants tracked how automatic a particular habit became for people over the course of 12 weeks. The researchers then used that information to approximate how long it would take for the habit to become fully automatic for each participant.

And… the results ranged from 18 days to 254 days. But, they also found that occasional missed days didn't doom the habit. You don't have to be perfect!

You just have to stick with it. And then, of course, we often underestimate just how important that context cue is. For instance, a 2012 study found that students who were in the habit of going to sports events at their school's stadium automatically talked louder when they were shown a picture of the stadium.

The researchers reasoned that talking loudly in the stadium counted as a habit, and just seeing a picture of the place was enough of a cue to trigger it. In fact, context is so important that it can also be the key to breaking a bad habit. A time when your normal routine is disrupted is a great time for habit-breaking.

If you move to a new apartment or start a new job, it's the perfect time to try to break that Starbucks habit -- especially if you aren't walking by it every day on the way to the office. So what does the research tell us about making a habit? Decide which habit you want to incorporate into your daily life.

Then, pick a thing or place or event that you encounter every day that you can tie that habit to -- and every time you encounter that context, do the thing. Some goal-setting advice out there might encourage you to vary your routine to keep it interesting, but with habits, you gotta keep it consistent -- because half of a habit is the cue! With time and repetition, psych researchers tell us, it can become automatic.

You just gotta have the motivation to stick to it, until you don't /need/ motivation any more. Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow Psych! If you want to get into the habit of learning new things and understanding how your mind works, you're in luck.

We post episodes on this channel Mondays and Thursdays on a nice, regular schedule. If you want to keep up with our videos, you can go to and subscribe. [ outro ].