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Habit Formation

Bad Habits: How Some Routines Undermine Our Better Selves

Changing habits means confronting our justifications for them.

Key points

  • Habits are important to selfhood as they stabilize identity and provide a groundwork for creativity.
  • However, some routine commitments damage our relationships to others and our prospects for self-development.
  • Changing these habits involves confronting the justifications we make for those behaviors.
  • Four settings of our habits—ritual, work, play, and communion—are analyzed here.

All of us have daily routines we rely on. Getting out of bed each morning, we follow set procedures to cleanse and dress ourselves. Bleary-eyed, we pad out to the kitchen, make a cup of coffee or tea, and assemble, almost thoughtlessly, the foods we will eat. We sit in our accustomed spot at the counter or table. Perhaps we read a newspaper or cellphone screen. Bustling out the door, we make our way to the day’s next destination by following the same route we always take.

The succeeding hours—with their designated rooms and chairs, workplace regimens, break times, and even conversations—unfold in much the same way. Returning home, we anticipate seeing familiar faces, exchanging customary greetings, getting a favorite drink, and plopping down in the place we always do. At day’s end, there is the going-to-bed ritual, with its sequence of settling activities. Lights go out; we seek our “sleep position.”

Routines like these—commonly called “habits” when they become deeply established, repetitive, and largely unconscious—are important parts of life. Studies conducted by Wendy Wood and her colleagues found that 43 percent of daily behaviors can be described as habits. All of us have characteristic ways of thinking, feeling, and acting that we produce without conscious monitoring. To some extent, those habits of mind and body constitute our personal style.

Be clear that routines like these are, for the most part, a good thing. Routines free us from the need to constantly reinvent the moments of our lives. They empower us with feelings of security and confidence. They reaffirm our sense that the world is a solid place filled with familiar objects and people we can count on. Most importantly, those patterns allow us to center our attention on matters we care about. In that sense, they are the groundwork of creativity.

Sometimes, however, these repetitive behaviors are counterproductive. Instead of enabling us to engage with the world in interesting ways, they misdirect or even block our efforts. Our habits become ends in themselves, activities we pursue to give our lives feelings of continuity and completion. At worst, we lose the ability to see outside those frameworks, to appreciate that there are other meaningful possibilities for us. Habits become traps.

Breaking those habits is difficult. Although learned (and thereby changeable), habits become established in feeling-supported structures of the mid-brain. Brain-produced hormones, like dopamine, may reward their completion. Many are elements of broader situations and are set off by specific “cues” or “triggers.” Commonly, they are responses to psycho-physical stress. And some habits can become powerful compulsions—think of drinking, smoking, and binge eating—that are difficult to resist.

Psychotherapists, particularly those from the behaviorist tradition, emphasize the importance of disrupting the behavior chains that bad habits represent. That may mean eliminating obvious triggers (removing that candy box), changing situations (not frequenting bars or alcohol-based gatherings), and establishing immediate goals and steps (smoke one less cigarette today). Important also is the development of new plans for satisfying behavior (perhaps taking a yoga or cooking class) and of finding supportive friends.

Psychologist Judson Brewer has proposed a somewhat different approach, which is to use mindfulness techniques to contemplate the sensory and environmental impacts of the habit. Asking his subjects to contemplate the smells, tastes, and other sensations of cigarette smoking, he achieved some reductions in their commitment to this habit.

In this post, I advocate a related approach, which is to ask people to become mindful of both the behavior-settings in which their bad habits occur and the rationales for their behavior that these settings provide. Routines—both bad and good—are very much connected to our visions of self and the fundamental behaviors we employ to reinforce those visions. Those behaviors are ritual, work, play, and communion.

Bad ritual: “This is who I am.”

As individuals, we define ourselves as people who possess certain characteristics, practice certain behaviors, and belong to certain groups. Our rituals—essentially activities that reproduce or “groove” those patterns—make us familiar to others, and to ourselves.

At some point, some of our preferences become idiosyncrasies, things about us we consider “signature” or even “unique” qualities. Most people I know have “quirks” that they are happy to announce. Some avoid a wide range of foods; others must sit in a certain spot when dining out. Everyone, it seems, has their favorite restaurant, clothing brand, entertainment source, and automobile.

Most of us are proud of our consumption style, but this becomes problematic when it means resisting, or denigrating, the choices of others. Pity the poor host or traveling companion who must cater to these whims.

Bad rituals are those that are just empty forms, which do not promote the growth of persons but merely codify them. Being older myself, I can report that these rigidities do not soften with age. Young and old alike must guard against their self-centered habits becoming the characteristics they are known for.

Bad Work: “I need to do this.”

Because we need to provide for ourselves and the people we love, we work. Many of those tasks are arduous, time-consuming, and repetitive. Routines of that sort, whether at some paid employment or elsewhere, are the cost of maturity.

That said, one can raise questions about the kinds of jobs we do as well as how we do those jobs. I’ve known people who committed themselves, seemingly heroically, to 80-hour work weeks and extensive periods away from home. When their spouse or partner complains, the worker tells them they are doing all this for them. Moreover, this is what the partner “signed on for” when they entered the relationship.

Those responses aren’t good enough. Career success, or just compulsive work, may be an important part of identity. But that doesn’t evade the question of just what one is working for and whether there are other kinds of workand styles of working—that might better meet those purposes. One needn’t be a social scientist to ask how one’s work life is organized and who are the real beneficiaries of that labor.

More generally, there are a host of commitments I call “false necessities.” We tell ourselves we need to exercise for an hour each day, keep our house spotlessly clean, and have the most weed-free yard in the neighborhood. Do we?

Bad play: “This is how I enjoy myself.”

As a play scholar, I entirely support the idea that people should express themselves in exuberant and creative ways. They should have “fun”.

For the most part, American society accepts this credo. Indeed, what some writers call “fun morality” is the idea that people are now expected to be fun individuals who do fun things. This commitment receives encouragement from another belief: that most of us “work hard” and therefore deserve times of relaxation and pleasure. Play becomes not only an escape from ordinary stresses but also a focus for personal development.

Problematic, though, is the idea that any sort of play is admirable. Amusement-seeking that harms the self or others—think of online bullying, drug or alcohol abuse, or violent fantasizing—is a corrupt form of play. Questionable also is activity that is merely lazy indulgence, hours spent watching television, trolling social media sites, or surfing the web. These habits may be pleasing but they do little to challenge or rejuvenate the self.

Consider also that any habit, carried too far, infringes on the lives of one’s intimate companions and on other life commitments. Are the countless hours spent playing video games, online shopping, or gambling really a good use of time?

Bad communion: “It’s how I socialize.”

Many of the examples used above are things we do alone, perhaps hunched over a computer screen. However, a substantial portion of each day is spent in the company of others. Social creatures, we humans “commune” and bond, and through such joining, establish our identities as functioning members of society.

Not surprisingly, many of our habits have social origins and support systems. Drinking and smoking, or so we tell people, are things we do “socially.” Our video gaming requires the involvement of others. We work at a company where several people are just as committed to career advancement as we are. If we slow down, they’ll pass us.

Stated more positively, most favored activities—think of shopping, fishing, and other sports and hobbies—are more fulfilling when done in the company of others. The challenge is to decide which activities, and which companions, are worthwhile commitments. Is the activity itself a good use of time? Do your companions care about you in ways that transcend that activity? Do they make you a better person than you would be without them?

When our companions are highly valued, we should work together to alter the problematic settings and activities. When they are less important, we should think about altering those companions, settings, and activities. As in the cases of ritual, work, and play, communion of any sort is not an ideal. We owe it ourselves—and to others—to craft the best lives we can.


Brewer, J. (2019). Mindfulness Training for Addictions: Has Neuroscience Discovered a Brain Hack by Which Awareness Subverts the Addictive Process. Current Opinion in Psychology. 28: 198-203.


Dreher, D. (2020). Five ways to Break Your Habit Now: Powerful New Strategies from Brain Research. Psychology Today. October 27, 2020.

Gaines, J. (2021). How are habits Formed? The Psychology of Habit Formation. Positive Psychology. March 23, 2021.

Wood, W., Quinn, J.M., and Kashy, D.A. (2002). Habits in Everyday Life: Thought, Emotion, and Action. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 83(6): 1282-1297.

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