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Benjamin Gardner and Amanda L. Rebar

Within psychology, the term habit refers to a process whereby contexts prompt action automatically, through activation of mental context–action associations learned through prior performances. Habitual behavior is regulated by an impulsive process, and so can be elicited with minimal cognitive effort, awareness, control, or intention. When an initially goal-directed behavior becomes habitual, action initiation transfers from conscious motivational processes to context-cued impulse-driven mechanisms. Regulation of action becomes detached from motivational or volitional control. Upon encountering the associated context, the urge to enact the habitual behavior is spontaneously triggered and alternative behavioral responses become less cognitively accessible. By virtue of its cue-dependent automatic nature, theory proposes that habit strength will predict the likelihood of enactment of habitual behavior, and that strong habitual tendencies will tend to dominate over motivational tendencies. Support for these effects has been found for many health-related behaviors, such as healthy eating, physical activity, and medication adherence. This has stimulated interest in habit formation as a behavior change mechanism: It has been argued that adding habit formation components into behavior change interventions should shield new behaviors against motivational lapses, making them more sustainable in the long-term. Interventions based on the habit-formation model differ from non-habit-based interventions in that they include elements that promote reliable context-dependent repetition of the target behavior, with the aim of establishing learned context–action associations that manifest in automatically cued behavioral responses. Interventions may also seek to harness these processes to displace an existing “bad” habit with a “good” habit. Research around the application of habit formation to health behavior change interventions is reviewed, drawn from two sources: extant theory and evidence regarding how habit forms, and previous interventions that have used habit formation principles and techniques to change behavior. Behavior change techniques that may facilitate movement through discrete phases in the habit formation trajectory are highlighted, and techniques that have been used in previous interventions are explored based on a habit formation framework. Although these interventions have mostly shown promising effects on behavior, the unique impact on behavior of habit-focused components and the longevity of such effects are not yet known. As an intervention strategy, habit formation has been shown to be acceptable to intervention recipients, who report that through repetition, behaviors gradually become routinized. Whether habit formation interventions truly offer a route to long-lasting behavior change, however, remains unclear.