Picture yourself waking up every morning, going to the gym, showering, then leaving for work. You have created a habit out of going to the gym every morning, it’s automatic now, you don’t need to make an effort to decide what your morning will look like.

Now picture yourself in another scenario, you always study only one night before your exam and you only sleep 4 hours a night. While you might know this is not very healthy you feel as though you are just used to it.

Above are two examples of habits, one is healthy the other is not. In one you created a habit of working out every morning, while in the other you created a habit of cramming material one night before the exam.

Do you ever wonder where those habits came from? How can I create healthier habits? Why do I feel like it’s so hard to get out of unhealthy behaviors I am used to?

Let’s explore!

What are habits? How do they form?

Habits are behaviours that we adapt that eventually become subconscious or automatic. Habits become like part of a routine and they happen without conscious decisions and efforts.

Some researchers define habits as determinants for behaviors, this means they come before behaviors and help us control what comes next. Others define it as a context-response association that leads to certain behaviors. 

Habits make our life easier when they automate our behaviors since it makes the decision-making process easier and it saves us the mental capacity so we use it on more demanding tasks.

The Reward System

When habits are forming in the brain they function on a reward system made up of three parts, this is what we call the “habit loop”.

Above, is a figure that represents this process, so let’s look more in depth into the different elements of this process:

In the brain, where do habits exist?

There is a part in our brain called the basal ganglia, let’s picture this more easily, think of your brain as a big ball and inside that ball we have another smaller one in the center, this is your basal ganglia, below is a picture that highlights it in blue.

Habits exist here, in the center of the brain displayed in this image, the basal ganglia is also responsible for different functions such as emotions, memories and pattern recognition; but habits are very much like patterns, they are automatic, they happen consistently in similar situations when faced with similar triggers.

Before a behavior becomes habitual, you consciously think about it, which means you make an effort to make a decision. Doing that is not automatic, which is the opposite of the habit, this means we must be activating a different part of the brain, this part is called the “prefrontal cortex”, to imagine where this is, point to your forehead and just the beginning of the top of your head, underneath is where your prefrontal cortex sits, below is a picture that also highlights it in blue.


The first time you perform a certain behavior, this is the activated part of your brain, but once it gets automatic, it moves into the basal ganglia, this helps you save your metal capacity for other decisions that you want to make.

Let’s look at some real life examples that will put this more into perspective:

You are driving on a road for the first time, you have the radio on and you just cannot seem to focus well, your turn it off, the task feels easier for you and you navigate well.

Now picture yourself driving on the road for the 100th time, you have the radio on, it doesn’t seem like a problem you navigate effortlessly, you get to the place you want and you still focused on the radio and what was being said without a problem.

Why does this happen?

The 1st time The 100th time
You need to make a conscious effort to focus on the road and to listen to the radio, for both you are using the prefrontal cortex, multi-tasking is hard because you are using the same part of your brain for both, to save some mental activity, you turn the radio off, now your focus is on the road and your prefrontal cortex is focused on one thing, making it easier.
Your brain developed a habit, kind of an automated way to get to the place, so you driving on that road to your destination moved to the basal ganglia, now the radio you still need to focus on, these are things you are hearing for the first time, it’s in a different part of the brain, so you can easily do both. You are not exhausting one part with two tasks, each part of the brain is performing its task and all is well.

Onto breaking habits, if they are automated, can you reverse them?

When we talk automatic, we talk less control, so if we are not that much in control of our behaviors once they become habits, how are we to break them? Follow along.

Let’s introduce a new concept called “implementation intention”, what is this and how does it work?

Let’s take a quick example to understand this more, say you have a goal of increasing your water intake, so you are a person that does not drink enough water and you want to break that habit.

First, instead of waiting for enough motivation, you will create a plan and this plan is called an if-then plan, so in this case it can be, if I have a meal, then I will drink water. So here instead of waiting to feel thirsty or for some kind of motivation, you put a plan of when (meal time), where (the place you are having your meal), and how (increased water intake with every meal).

Here you are triggering your memory, because you are linking it to a critical situation, this will help you slowly automate this new behavior thus breaking your old habit and slowly developing this new one.

So now you realize that YES, you can actually break habits and especially when you realize they are bad habits or maladaptive ones!

This strategy has been found to work in different contexts, this example of water might be one but sit and think of a habit you have that you would like to break and perhaps create an if-then plan.

The first time you perform a certain behavior, this is the activated part of your brain, but once it gets automatic, it moves into the basal ganglia, this helps you save your metal capacity for other decisions that you want to make.


This reminds me of one of my favorite quotes, because sometimes we rely on motivation to change habits but this is not realistic in all cases, so the quote says

“You won’t always be motivated; you must learn to be disciplined”

Habits and Depression: Can they help?

Let’s divert away a little from the mechanisms of making and breaking habits into their presence in life situations and how they can be of help.

Since habits are automated behaviors, we established that they make our life easier by helping us think less of certain behaviors as they happen without conscious decision-making. But how are those habit to help us in something different, like depression? How can we help ourselves get through depression by forming certain habits?

Depression is a prevalent disorder, and even if not chronic, at least 50% of people have experienced a depressive episode in their lives. To help control this we look into the roles of habit.

Rumination Habits

Rumination is the tendency to keep thinking of our depressive symptoms and causes, it is something that happens consistently and adds to the feelings of depression you or anyone might be facing, so if we think of rumination as a habit of dwelling on our problems and on questions we cannot answer that make the situation worse, then we can also think of breaking that habit and replacing it with a new one.

To understand how we can do this, let’s first delve deeper into the different types of rumination and how they work:

Response Styles Theory Control Theory
Rumination is stable
It is not stable as it happens selectively
It is habitual
It is cognitive
It is triggered by the self into a repetitive focus on depressive mode
It is triggered by the need to resolve goals and doesn’t stop until the goal is achieved or abandoned
Rumination is dysfunctional
Rumination is instrumental
It is automated into triggering low mood
It is not automated and requires repetitive thinking

So in simple words, the response theory considers rumination and the dwelling over the depressive symptoms an automatic habit that needs breaking whereas the control theory considers it a process under our cognitive control but the reason it persists is because of a goal that is to be achieved or left behind.

When the response theory claims it is dysfunctional, this means that rumination is maladaptive and it does not allow us to function normally, however saying it is instrumental means it is actually helpful as it is there to help us achieve a certain goal.

How do we reverse rumination? Or treat it?

The goal here now is to treat rumination as this will eventually help us control depression and thus in turn, treat depression.

Mindfulness and Rumination

Therapy and technical ways to deal with rumination are helpful, but how can you help yourself efficiently?

Mindfulness has been found to be very effective in triggering relaxation and reducing the effects of rumination and this is seen through various ways:

Let’s look now into practicing mindfulness, what can you do?

Making healthy habits

Before you leave, a little piece of friendly advice is to push yourself towards healthy habits, now that you learned the ways we create habit and how we can break bad ones, try to cultivate healthier habits into your life, here are a couple reminders:


Researchers have found that habits take around 66 days after the first time they are performed, remember this is an average so there is always a give and take to the timeframe.

Before you leave, remember that you are okay, you are capable and that we all have bad habits. Having the intention to get better and being driven towards our goals and self-development is what’s most important.

So make habits, break habits and as James Clear said in his book Atomic Habits “Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become” so act wisely!

Until next time!

Written By :

December 12, 2022