Breaking bad habits: Routines trump willpower

A common explanation among avid coffee drinkers is that we drink coffee to wake ourselves up and alleviate fatigue.

That’s one question we set out to answer in our recent research. The answer has far-reaching implications for the way we approach major societal challenges such as diet and climate change.

As behavioral scientists, we’ve learned that people often repeat everyday behaviors out of habit. If you regularly drink coffee, you likely do so automatically as part of your habitual routine — not just out of tiredness.

But habit just doesn’t feel like a good explanation — it’s unsatisfying to say that we do something just because it’s what we’re used to doing. Instead, we concoct more compelling explanations, like saying we drink coffee to ease our morning fog.

This reluctance means that we fail to recognize many habits, even as they permeate our daily lives.

Unpacking what lies behind habits

To test whether people underestimate the role that habit plays in their lives, we asked more than 100 coffee drinkers what they think drives their coffee consumption. They estimated that tiredness was about twice as important as habit in driving them to drink coffee. To benchmark these assumptions against reality, we then tracked these people’s coffee drinking and fatigue over the course of one week.

Enthusiasm about starting a new workout regimen may falter if you fall back on  habits that nix exercise.

The results starkly diverged from our research participants’ explanations. Yes, they were somewhat more likely to drink coffee…

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