What Is a Habitual Behavior?

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Habitual behaviour, commonly called routines, is behaviour that is regularly repeated and tends to occur subconsciously. Habitual behaviour is learnt behaviour that becomes so automatic that the person exhibiting the behaviour isn't aware she is doing it. It is often used to create order or structure in everyday life. While most habitual behaviours, such as drinking your morning cup of coffee, are harmless, negative habitual behaviours, such as smoking, can be detrimental to physical and mental health.

Causes of Habitual Behavior

Habitual behaviour is learnt behaviour. Humans learn and acquire new behaviour patterns in response to particular stimuli. The reaction to the stimuli might not be immediately obvious to the individual, but once the same response to the stimuli is repeated several times, the process is learnt and the behaviour becomes second nature, as instinctive to us as breathing and requiring little conscious thought. Think about when you first learnt to ride a bike. Once the process of pedalling was learnt and repeated, this pattern became second nature.

Types of Habitual Behavior

While some habitual behaviour such as our morning exercise routine can be positive, others such as such as cigarette smoking can cause long-term emotional, physical and psychological harm and can be very difficult to overcome. Once the behaviour has become too harmful, it might be helpful to visit a trained professional who can assist you in overcoming the negative habitual behaviour.


Habitual behaviours can turn into addictions. What differentiates a bad habit from becoming an addiction is the existence of willpower. Once a person has control over the behaviour, and can change it at will, then it is just a habit.

Overcoming Bad Habitual Behavior

Bad habitual behaviour such as smoking or overeating can be extremely difficult to overcome because these behaviours have become automatic, unconscious forms of memory. Willpower may help an individual to overcome these bad habits, however, factors such as stress can cause individuals to return to their negative habitual behaviour. According to John Grobal, CEO and founder of Psych Central, stress weakens our control over memory and behaviour, allowing automatic or habitual behaviours from the past to become more influential and override our good intentions and willpower.

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