Behaviours and Habits


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Winston Churchill said “Watch your actions, they become your habits."  He was right; behaviours are actions, which when repeated, become habits.  These habits can eventually become automatised.  Gradually a single action can build, becoming a pattern of behaviour, developing neural pathways, becoming an automatic series of actions which once established, requires little cognitive effort to be maintained.  While initially establishing or changing a habit requires a lot of cognitive energy to alter a pattern of behaviour; once the series of actions is established and becomes automatised, little cognitive energy is required for maintenance.

​​​​​Students who decide to change behaviours often determine that the start of a new term is the time to make a change.  It can take a considerable effort at the beginning – with commitment and persistence throughout – to change a specific action or pattern of behaviours.  There may need to be a significant impetus or motivation to provide a reason for change; to create sufficient determination for a new pattern of behaviour to be created; to be reinforced for long enough to become an established new habit.  Once this new habit no longer requires conscious thought, but is automatically implemented, cognitive thought and effort is no longer required for the new behaviour or habit to occur.

Breaking a habit down to the smallest behaviour can make it easier to change a single action.  A series of individual actions together form a habit, and it is this habit that may need changing.  By making it clear why a habit should be changed and clarifying the explicit reason for the change, this engages the thought process that proceeds any conscious change; however, for this change to occur, action must be accompanied by a strong, persistent motivation.  Consistent, conscious effort will be required to implement these changed actions.

It seems that several actions link together to form patterns of behaviour and these become habits – as Churchill said. Mahatma Gandhi expanded on Churchill's concept when he stated: “… Your actions become your habits, your habits become your values, your values become your destiny."  The direct link between actions, habits, values and destiny is important.  The Greek philosopher, Aristotle, said “We are what we repeatedly do.  Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit." Once again, this links actions, the establishment of habits and values. 

The interaction and reciprocal dynamic are emphasised by John Dryden who claimed: “We first make our habits and then our habits make us", referring to the neural pathways that shape the brain and the behavioural ramifications of habit formation – whether these are positive or negative habits.  Actions, patterns of behaviour, habit formation – these all have a role in what we regularly do and who we become as a result of what we do.

© Michele Juratowitch   

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Last reviewed 23 April 2021
Last updated 23 April 2021