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What do we mean by Behavior Patterns?

We often do things automatically with little or no conscious intent. When other things take up our attention, we are more likely to fall back on what we usually do, whether the behavior is good or bad. Establishing new behavior patterns and dropping old behavior patterns can be difficult, even when we feel motivated to change. It is easier to change behaviors when our environments support our goals (e.g., having healthier food options more prominently displayed), or when we take small steps towards our desired behavior (e.g., trying to walk just ten minutes a day, or trying to go an extra hour between cigarettes). While a change in environment (e.g., new housing, new job, lost relationships) could disrupt old desired behavior patterns, it can also be an opportunity to establish new desired behavior patterns.


The difficulty in forming or breaking behavior patterns, or habits, may show up in surprising ways: People may not follow through with goals they set themselves even when they are really invested in adopting new behaviors. People may lose healthy habits after they move to a new home or school, face an illness or job loss, or lose people they spend a lot of time with.


Surprising Fact!

Researchers studying habits found that about 43 percent of what people do daily is repeated in the same setting, usually while they are thinking about something else.

How can behavior patterns affect health equity?

Being healthier often involves developing new patterns of behaviors such as handwashing and regular exercise. It also often involves breaking old patterns of behaviors, such as reducing sugar intake and not going back to toxic relationships. Take regular exercise as an example: It is easier to build this routine when we have control over our schedules and can make sure to have an exercise break at 5pm everyday; it is also easier when we have a stable environment where we can always go to the same basketball court with the same friends. But these conditions are often not as available to clients who may work several jobs, rely on public transportation, or not have stable housing. 


By recognizing how environmental factors can make forming or breaking behavior patterns extra difficult for our clients, we can help create situations that better support habit change that people desire.

Actionable Examples


Setting small, actionable goals

In Massachusetts, a nonprofit piloted an at-home reading program informed by behavioral science. The nonprofit staff understood that parents are busy and need flexibility, so they asked the parents each month to simply set how many times they will read with their children each week. This simple goal is much easier to meet than a daily commitment or a target number of pages, making it less likely for families to get discouraged. In addition, asking the parents each month gave them fresh starts and helped serve as a constant reminder. The program staff also sent additional texts each week to give tips, reminders, and encouragement. These were appreciated by the parents not just as reminders but as signs that people paid attention and cared.

Using the S.M.A.R.T. approach to behavior change in depression

A major university depression center highlights the role that changing behavior patterns can have in managing depression. It recommends identifying small, short-term goals, like being out of bed by a certain time, and longer term goals, like completing a training program or degree. The center recommends the S.M.A.R.T. approach to goal setting, which encourages people to be sure that their goals are;

  1. Specific - answers who, which, when, where, why, or which behaviors you aim to change

  2. Measurable - defines how much or how many

  3. Achievable - ensures that goals are challenging, but not too ambitious

  4. Relevant - makes sure behavior change goals are aligned with what you value

  5. Time-based - specifies a time limit and specific deadlines

The center also recommends sharing goals with your support network, identifying potential barriers ahead of time, finding an accountability partner to help you stick to goals and celebrate successes, tracking your progress, and trying to stay positive in the face of small setbacks along the way. 


habit – APA Dictionary of Psychology 

This webpage provides a definition of habit. From the American Psychological Association. 


Building Reading Habits at Home with Behavioral Insights 

This article summarizes design principles for an at-home reading program that arose from a collaboration between Stand for Children, a non-profit education advocacy organization, and ideas42, a behavioral science nonprofit. From ideas42.

Good Habits, Bad Habits: A Conversation with Wendy Wood 

This article is a conversation with psychologist Wendy Wood and highlights surprising research findings that help reframe how we think about habits. From Behavioral Scientist.  


Habits in everyday life: Thought, emotion, and action. (referenced above in the surprising fact)

This academic paper quantified how much of our daily behaviors are habits and investigated what we are thinking and feeling during habitual versus non-habitual behaviors. From the peer-reviewed academic journal Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.


Habit formation and change 

This academic paper reviews research on what influences habit formation and highlights how engineering the environment can help. From the peer-reviewed academic journal Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences.


How To Start A New Habit: Think Small : Life Kit

This article talks about tiny habits as building blocks for behavioral change. From the National Public Radio.


To Change a Habit, Get Extreme. Progressively.

This article discusses how to break an existing habit with progressive extremism. From Behavioral Scientist.

Depression Toolkit | Depression Center | Michigan Medicine

This website has actionable resources for people who want to be or support someone to be mentally healthy. From the University of Michigan Eisenberg Family Depression Center.


Dr. Jiaying Zhao
Associate Professor, Department of Psychology and the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability, University of British Columbia; Canada Research Chair in Behavioural Sustainability

Dr. Gilberto Lopez
Assistant Professor, School of Transborder Studies, Arizona State University

Wendy Westby
Director of the Housing Choice Voucher Program, Everett Housing Authority

Vanessa Figueroa
Housing Choice Voucher Manager & Project Based Voucher Program Administrator, Everett Housing Authority

© Copyright 2022 Worldview Studio

A project by 
Worldview Studio

Support for this project was provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the Foundation.

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