When you walk into your bedroom at night, your hand will automatically reach for the light switch. You don’t have to think about it; in fact, you probably won’t be aware that you’re doing it. You’ll do it every time, even if there’s a power outage, or if you’re entering the bedroom specifically to change the burned-out light bulb on the room’s only lamp. You’ve achieved “automaticity,” which is what neuroscientists say when they mean “a habit.”
The light switch habit illuminates several basic hallmarks of habit acquisition:
- A cue that triggers a behavior—in this case, walking into a dark, familiar room triggers reaching for the light switch
- Behavioral frequency
Not every habit is as simple and clear-cut as this one. The more complex the action, the less likely you are to perform it unintentionally and without awareness. For example, if you go to the gym every day after work, you’re not suddenly going to find yourself on a treadmill in workout clothes and think, “Wait—how did I get here?” You’re not unaware of what you’re doing, you just do it without internal debate. There’s no need to think, “Do I really want to work out today?” When an action becomes habitual, you’re acting on a decision that has already been made.
It’s a good idea to take a few moments on a regular basis—weekly or monthly, for example—to assess your progress toward automaticity. Here are a few questions to ask:
- Do I do this automatically, without a mental debate or deliberate decision?
- Does it feel strange to NOT do this?
- Do I do this in response to a strong situational cue, and if so, how strong is the association between cue and action? Rate frequency from 1-12, with 1 being “Seldom” and 12 “every time.” Since 100% association is unrealistic, a score of 10 or 11 is a strong indication that you’ve got yourself a habit.
Some habit assessment metrics also rate an action’s relevance to self-identity. For example, if a high school student’s attitude toward tennis club is, “This will look good on my college applications,” she’s less likely to acquire the habit of regular exercise than if she thinks in these terms: “I am a competitive tennis player. I’m an active, athletic person who loves to be outdoors.” Self-identity isn’t absolutely necessary to habit formation—you don’t need to be deeply invested in flipping a light switch before it can become a habit—but personal relevance has a big impact on the strength of complex habits and the speed at which you acquire them.