Force of habit

In my People Solutions Sourcebook I write about the ‘Three Hs’ that are powerful influences on behaviour: head (reason); heart (passion or emotion) and habit. Which is more powerful will depend on the circumstances at any given time. For example, following a major loss heart is likely to be to the fore.

It’s also fair to say that these three sets of influences will affect each other – for example, our reasoning may well be affected by emotional issues at times (and vice versa, of course). But one thing that tends to remain constant most of the time is the power of habit. A major part of the reason for this is that habits establish ‘neural pathways’. That is, we ‘train’ our brain to react in certain ways, according to certain predefined patterns of behaviour and response. So, in a sense, a habit becomes an automatic, pre-programmed response. We do something so often that it becomes an established part of our ‘repertoire’ – we just do it without thinking about it. And that is why the phrase ‘force of habit’ is such an appropriate one.

But, and it’s a big but, that does not mean that habits become forces beyond our control, parts of our behaviour that we can do nothing about. That is an unwarranted defeatist approach, one that oversimplifies a much more complex picture. Neural pathways can be changed. They will continue to apply if nothing happens to change them, but steps can be taken to change them, of course.

This is where reflective practice comes in. A key part of reflective practice is self-awareness, being able to ‘tune in’ to what effect we are having on a situation and what effect it is having on us. This can include being aware of our habits and evaluating whether they help or hinder. We can then leave the positive habits well alone and let them continue to do their good work and focus on changing those habits that may be problematic in some way.

So, how do you change a habit? Basically it involves taking a more conscious approach to certain behaviours. For example, if you know that you tend to speak too quickly when you are nervous, then you need to train yourself to speak at normal speed when you are nervous. This would involve being self-aware enough to recognise that you are starting to feel nervous and then consciously controllingthe speed at which you are speaking (without going to the other extreme and speaking too slowly!). What you need to do consciously, carefully and deliberately to begin with will soon become established as a new habit – you will establish a new neural pathway. This time, though, it will be a more positive and helpful habit.

This may all sound simple and straightforward at one level, but what makes it more complex (and difficult at times) is: (i) being tuned in to what our habits are is not always easy (by their very nature they tend to operate without our knowing they are happening); and (ii) it can take time before we have sufficient confidence in our ability to change habits to be able to discipline ourselves into behaving in new ways.

What adds to the complexity is that I have focused here on trying to change habits of behaviour, but there are also habits involved in our emotional responses and our thinking patterns. Like behavioural habits these too can help or hinder, but they too can be changed with the help of reflective practice.

What it boils down to then is that habits are very powerful influences on our thoughts, feeling and actions, but they are not all-powerful. Reflective practice has an important role to play in helping us take greater control over what influences us.


Thompson, N. (2012) The People Solutions Sourcebook, 2nd edn, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan. tsPSS 2e