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This is Your Brain on Habits

written by Emily vanSonnenberg 1 February 2011

Emily vanSonnenberg, MAPP '10, designed and teaches the UCLAx course, Happiness: Theory, Research, and Application in Positive Psychology. She operates a private practice helping people cultivate meaningful and fulfilling lives, and consults for organizations on how to create desired outcomes and increase well-being. Through her articles and speaking engagements, Emily translates psychological research into practical guidance and goal-directed strategies for the general public. Full Bio. Emily's articles are here.

How many of you admit to having at least one bad habit you’d rather do without? If you’re honest with yourself–that is, if you realize that you’re human–then you nodded your head. Pick your head up, because there is good news: habits are learned. Therefore, you can unlearn bad habits and learn new, positive habits to replace those undesirable ones!

Brain in Action

Brain in Action

How? Let’s explore the brain’s mechanisms that underlie habit formation and what it takes to form new habits.

What is a Habit?

A habit is automatic behavior that occurs without much conscious thought.

The term, habit is often thought of as the automatic behavioral engagement in a destructive activity. However often that may be true, a habit can also be the automatic behavioral engagement in an activity that serves to promote well-being. Would you like to possess new and positive habits that do, in fact, serve your well-being?

Perhaps the thoughts that now come to mind are, “Awww geez, how much effort will I have to expend to get into the positive habit of exercising every day before work [writing in a Gratitude Journal every night before bed] [devoting more energy to my friendships that have taken a backseat to my job]?”

It will, undoubtedly, require effort to form new and positive habits. With concerted, disciplined effort over a period of time, frequently repeated behaviors can become automatic. By using some of the willpower lurking within you, new positive behaviors can become habits.

The Brain on Habits

MIT researcher Thorn and colleagues have identified areas located within the brain that account for habit formation, namely the basal ganglia.

Basal Ganglia - from Wikipedia

Basal Ganglia - from Wikipedia

The basal ganglia play a large role in movement control, emotion, cognition, and reward-based learning. Within the basal ganglia, there are two areas responsible for the functions that work in unison to form habits:

  1. The dorsolateral part of the striatum controls movement and is connected to sensorimotor functioning (seeing, hearing, moving, etc.)
  2. The dorsomedial striatum controls flexible behavior and is connected to areas where associations are recognized and formed

For example, when we move a part of our body in a new way and it feels good, for example salsa dancing, the dorsolateral striata are active. When we feel a sense of accomplishment for having tried something new, the association is recognized in the dorsomedial striata. Our brain then experiences reinforcement (formation beginning) that this new activity is one that serves us well.

Okay, so you tried something once. How long must the new behavior be repeated until the behavior becomes a habit?

Drinking water

Drinking water

Habits Take Time to Form, Though Not Much

Habit formation researchers Lally and colleagues from the University College London recently discovered the time period it takes for the brain areas just mentioned to learn a new habit. There is no one standard time period for a habit to form — it can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days. More specifically, the period of time depends on the difficulty of the activity being learned and the level of commitment on the part of the individual.

For example, it is markedly easier to form the habit of drinking one glass of water every day than it is to do 60 sit-ups every morning before work. Lally and colleagues discovered that, on average, participants learning to form a new habit succeeded within 66 days. By the 66-day mark, the repeated practice of those activities had hit their plateau of learning increases, and thus, the behaviors became as automatic as they ever would become.

These researchers identified an important caveat to keep in mind regarding learning a new habit: early practice of the activity resulted in greater increases in automaticity. So, if you’re going to miss a day from your repeated daily practice of learning a new habit, skip a day that is further along in the 66-day period, since the reward/increase in learning for a new behavior is greatest at the onset.

Positive thoughts

Positive thoughts

Examples of Positive Habits

An abundance of potential habits exist which research shows can foster our well-being and ability to flourish. If you want to increase your well-being–feel more positive emotions, more meaning, closer relationships, and a greater sense of accomplishment, consider implementing these positive activities (or come up with your own) every day to form habits that contribute to well-being.

  • Keep a Gratitude Journal at night.
  • Practice random acts of kindness to strangers.
  • Engage in a novel activity with your partner each week and talk about the new experience together.
  • Learn a new word.
  • Begin a new hobby (or re-awaken one you enjoyed as a kid)

How to Break a Bad Habit

If you want to break a bad habit, here is one method that is often successful:

  1. Identify a positive habit and congruent behavior you would like to adopt.
  2. Identify the habit you want to break.
  3. Recognize the sensory impulse(s) you experience in your body or other stimuli that occur just before you usually act on the negative habit.
  4. Instead of acting on the negative impulse, use your conscious attention to re-focus your thoughts and behaviors on the new and positive habit you identified in Step 1.
  5. Substitute the new behavior that is congruent with the positive habit you want to form for the behaviors of the negative habit.

Continue Steps 4 and 5 for at least 66 days. Notice that you are using the triggers from the old habit to reinforce your practice of the new habit.

Living Automatically, by Choice

This way or that way?

This way or that way?

All in all, if you want to form a new habit, you can! Acquiring a new habit tends to take just over two months until it is automatically cemented into your brain’s neural pathways. Use the willpower inside yourself to commit to repeating the behavior so that you can form a new and positive habit. Sooner than you may anticipate, you will no longer need to think about doing the behavior. It will become automatic.

You can develop good or bad habits. Take your pick. If you consciously behave the way you want to behave for only a few months, it grows markedly easier, as you adopt new positive habits that contribute to well-being. The effects that positive habits can have on your well-being are nothing short of life-changing, and this, is within your control.

“We are what we repeatedly do; excellence then is not an act, but a habit.” -Aristotle

Editor’s note: This article appears in the chapter on Self-Regulation in the book, Character Strengths Matter: How to Live a Full Life.




Lally, P., van Jaarsveld, C. H. M., Potts, H. W., & Wardle, J. (2009). How are habits formed: Modeling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology, 40(6), 998-1009. doi: 10.1002/ejsp.674

Thorn, C. A., Atallah, H., Howe, M., & Graybiel, A. M. (2010). Differential dynamics of activity changes in dorsolateral and dorsomedial striatal loops during learning. Neuron, 66(5), 781-795. doi: 10.1016/j.neuron.2010.04.036

Maymin, S. (2007). Create New Habits: Self-Regulation. PositivePsychologyNews.com

Peterson, C., (2006). A Primer in Positive Psychology New York, NY: Oxford University Press.


Inside the brain courtesy of Andrew Mason
Basal Ganglia courtesy of wikipedia
Drinking water courtesy of D. Sharon Pruitt
Positive emotions in notes courtesy of Nina Mathews
Crossroads courtesy of Lori Greig

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oz 1 February 2011 - 1:57 pm

Emily – what about the impact of the limbic system. I have seen research suggesting that we are more likely to stick to exercise programs that have positive emotions associated with them

Laurie 3 February 2011 - 10:02 am

I have had great success creating good habits using the 30 day trial system. I pick a habit I want to form and then trial it, but doing it for 30 days in a row. I’m pretty strict about it, if I skip a day I restart from day one!

At the end of 30 days, I find that I have enough practical experience of the new lifestyle to decided if I like it or not. If I do, another 30 days is typically enough to turn it into a concrete habit (60 days rather than the 66…)

I keep track of each and every day using HabitualApp, which also lets me post progress updates to Facebook and Twitter so I get feedback from my friends. All of them are very supportive and help keep me on track 🙂

Emily vanSonnenberg 3 February 2011 - 1:33 pm

@Oz, great point about exercise programs being more sustainable when positive emotions are associated with them. The basal ganglia, as I know you know from all your great neuro articles, lie just above the limbic system and these two brain regions do communicate with one another quite intricately. Now, when we are at the stage of learning a habit, and it is reinforced as something that feels good and the formation is then beginning to take place, if added stimuli of positive emotions are present they will contribute to the learning. For example, when I teach yoga I play very fun, loud music. Sometimes the music is fun but has no meaning to students, and other times a song may trigger a positive (or negative) memory in a student (i.e., the limbic system is involved when memory is triggered). A student approaches me after class and is excited about having heard Michael Jackson’s, “You Rock My World” because it reminds her (i.e., triggers the memory) of dressing up with her siblings when she was six years old. On the other hand, that same song could trigger the limbic system–where a negative memory is remembered of unkind kids making fun of this student when she was dancing to that song at a talent show at age 8. Hence, a negative association with that song exists in the second example. Point being, you are correct: the positive memory and emotion elicited by, for example, Jackson’s song during a yoga practice may indeed more quickly cement the new habit trying to be learned (say, practicing yoga every day), and foster its long-term sustainable practice.

@Laurie, Thanks for sharing the site you use with the PPND network! I’m glad you’ve found a routine of habit formation that works well for you. Hooray that it only takes you 60 days to form a habit; the 18-254, and 66-day numbers are figures discovered through hard empirical research, and that can be generalized to a large population of human beings, allowing researchers to make claims that are valid and can be trusted. So, you may be a quicker learner than most, and of course, the difficulty of the habit to be formed must be taken into account; looks like you’re sailing–keep up the great work! Thank you for sharing your success with everyone, and elucidating that really committing to forming a new habit you would like to possess can be achieved–it just takes willpower and discipline.

Rob 5 February 2011 - 8:15 pm

LOVE this article. The idea of using a trigger from a negative habit to reinforce a new positive habit had never occurred to me – shocker. Emily: your writing has an excellent voice – informed yet approachable, while authoritative without being contrived.

Very happy to have read this…might even have to go buy a gratitude journal. I probably won’t write “gratitude journal” on it, because then people may not think I’m cool. I’ll prob write Ninja Training Manual on it. Anywho…

Sajeev 22 February 2011 - 11:33 am

Hi Emily, Some people advocate awareness as a tool to break habits. For e.g if one can smoke with complete awareness (as if for the first time), eventually the hhabit would lose it’s grip on him. I have found this to be true. But I am wondering what happens in the brain when we do this? Is is that a different part of the brain is active when we are aware so that the habits are not reinforced (perhaps this neural network resides somewhere else)?

Emily vanSonnenberg 2 March 2011 - 3:32 am

@Sajeev, This was a wonderfully thought-provoking question you pose.

Your straightforward question, “…if one can smoke with complete awareness[….]I am wondering what happens in the brain when we do this? Is it that a different part of the brain is active when we are aware so that habits are not reinforced?”–is actually quit complex, and a profoundly good question! Thank you for asking this.

The answer is complex. I will do my best to give you the most comprehensive, intelligible answer to your specific question regarding becoming mindful of cigarette smoking to cease the habit.

First off, yes–utilizing awareness to kick a habit by becoming mindful of the act (as if for the first time) does take place in a different part of the brain. This is largely due to the loci in the brain where physiological and emotional dependencies of addiction reside (which is a whole other in-depth topic of discussion, involving numerous variables to consider), in addition to where mindfulness resides.

Based on research, it appears that functional neuroimaging suggests a central role for the anterior insula cortex (and somatosensory cortex) mediating subjective feeling states. Studies have used fMRI to examine how internal bodily responses and performance accuracy in an interoception mindfulness task are mapped in the brain. The right anterior insula cortex is critical in mediating awareness of interoceptive information contributing to emotional feeling states. Right anterior insular activity reflects interoceptive sensitivity, explicit awareness of bodily processes, and emotional feeling states.

Thus, if one simply engages in habitual activities (without awareness), the basal ganglia is generally responsible and activated. On the contrary, when a person engages in mindful attention to a habit they want to eradicate while performing the habitual act, the right anterior insula cortex is activated–this is where mindfulness and self-awareness reside in the brain.

I hope this is helpful. If you would like more information, please do let me know!



BIJENDER 28 August 2013 - 7:01 pm

@ Sanjeev: when fully aware the self at work is not the Less-self rather who we are in deep as Complete-self. the reward as a habit was only applicable for the less-self, once aware the reward cease to work and hence possibility of changing an unwanted habit is there.


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