Breaking Habits: Psychology of Lasting Behavior Change

Models of Behavior Change

In both personal and professional realms, we often experience desires to kick habits and improve certain behaviors and cognitions. Many of us, however, may find it difficult to feel motivated or committed enough to both initiate change and see it through. Psychologists have studied the mechanisms of behavioral change for years, resulting in a number of theories behind the process by which we make changes to our behavior. Although these theories are distinct from one another, each offers useful insight into the crucial aspects of behavioral changes. 

Stages of change model

Also known as the transtheoretical model of behavior change, the stages of change theory proposes that five distinct stages take place during the process of behavior change: precontemplation, contemplation, preparation for action, action, and maintenance (Keller, Gollwitzer, & Sheeran, 2019). For example, a person experiencing weight gain as a result of a more sedentary lifestyle due to COVID-19 might begin in the precontemplation stage, unaware of the gain or with no desire to make a change to their exercise routine or diet. After a visit to the doctor and a weight-in, they might begin contemplation, feeling concerned for their health and considering working out more often. This individual could then come up with an idea of when and how they might like to exercise, engaging in the preparation for action stage. Once this plan has been put into place and the regular workouts begin, the action stage is in motion. The final stage of this model, maintenance, is perhaps the most difficult. To create lasting change to behavior, we must constantly maintain the habit. But how?

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Social learning theory

Socio-cognitive models of behavior change such as social learning theory are based in the idea that environmental, personal, and behavioral traits reciprocally influence action, and, consequently, change to actions (Luszczynska & Schwarzer, 2019). In other words, the world around us influences our thoughts and behavior. In turn, our thoughts and behaviors influence one another as well as the environment around us. Social learning theory, then, proposes that in order to change behaviors, each of these levels of influence must be considered and addressed; changing up your environment, altering your mindset, and forming new behavioral patterns can all contribute to lasting behavioral change. 

Reasoned action approach

Similar to social learning theories, the reasoned action approach integrates a number of related influences to behavior change. This theory states that behavior is determined by intention and moderated by actual control over a situation—that is, the actions we take result from a combination of our motivation to perform and our control of the outcome (Nisson & Earl, 2020). Our intentions in any situation represent our attitudes about certain behaviors, perceived social norms within a given context, and the evaluation of our personal control over both a behavior and its consequences. As we gain knowledge about our actions and how they are perceived by others as well as whether the outcome is consistent with our intentions, a sort of feedback loop is created to influence future behaviors. Based on the reasoned action approach, social pressures and reinforcements are instrumental in the longevity of efforts to make changes to behavior.

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Fogg model of behavior 

This model introduced by B.J. Fogg proposes three main elements of behavior change: motivation, ability, and triggers (2009). Fogg asserts that for any successful behavior change, a person must be motivated, capable of performing, and prompted to continue. Some motivating factors, according to Fogg, include seeking pleasure/avoiding pain, finding hope/reducing fear, and striving for acceptance/minimizing rejection. Following from this model, one might feel motivated to clean the house more often because the result brings them joy or relief and it is more acceptable to have a tidy space than a messy one. Ability involves both the physical capacity to perform a behavior (such as an exercise plan) as well as the mental capacity to keep up with the commitment to create a habit. The time, cost, effort, and convenience of behaviors are influential to our ability to perform and maintain them; in other words, a time-consuming, expensive, difficult, task that interrupts our normal routines are harder to maintain than quick, inexpensive, simple, routine-friendly activities. Fogg’s final element, the trigger, represents an internal or external reminder to complete a task or engage in a behavior. Many diet-tracking apps, for example, improve user participation by sending a notification to log food around mealtimes. Utilizing effective and well-timed reminders is beneficial when trying to consistently remember to engage in an activity or behavior—a crucial component of habit formation.

How to maintain habits

Based on the theories above, there are a few key components of initiating and maintaining changes to our behavior. One overarching piece of adherence to our strategies for change involves self-regulation—a combination of motivational, performance, and social factors that play an important role in our ability to stick to our commitments (Nielsen, 2017. Given the themes of behavioral change theories, here are four integral aspects of successful changes to behavior. 

1. Have a goal

As stated within many behavioral change theories, motivation is an important factor in continued behavior change. Knowing not only what you want to change, but also why this change is meaningful to you acts as a rewarding encouragement to initiate and continue a change in behavior—therefore, striving for self-expansion and improvement is a powerful motivating force (Xu, 2020). For example, a 2021 study examining the adherence to handwashing recommendations following the outbreak of COVID-19 found that constructs of participatory dialogue, behavioral confidence, and emotional transformation significantly predicted the likelihood of initiating and sustaining handwashing behaviors (Sharma, Batra, Davis, & Wilkerson). In other words, feeling capable of change and desiring transformation positively impact our ability to maintain a change in behavior. Sometimes, these goals may arise due to the acquisition of new information that can also act as a motivator to change, such as health recommendations or environmental conservation. The stronger your beliefs about the importance of your own health or that of your community or environment, the more likely you are to make a change and continue that behavior; for example, a study of community effort to reduce smoke emissions using biomass stovetops found that those with stronger beliefs about the importance of emission reductions displayed intentions 3.3 times stronger than the group average (Pakravan & MacCarty, 2020). This indicates that our own connection to the motivation behind our goals is crucial for cultivating the necessary intention to both begin and sustain changes to behavior.

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2. Track your progress

Another way to find motivation to continue pursuing a change in behavior is to keep track of your activity and progress. Whether your goals involve dietary or exercise changes, productivity and time management, or social behaviors, following your adherence and progress toward improvement can help keep you accountable as you work toward your goals. In an examination of health change support systems, research has shown that engagement with services like apps and websites is much more predictive of behavior goal success than lifestyle habits themselves—that is, making use of these support systems as a way to improve behavioral accountability is effective regardless of how drastically you change your lifestyle itself (Karppinen et al., 2018). Following from these findings, setting small milestones for yourself as progress points towards a larger end goal may be an effective strategy to make your goals more manageable and keep you moving forwards, no matter what your pace may look like. Other benefits of progress monitoring include providing opportunity for reflection, identification of problem-behaviors, and increasing responsibility and self-awareness (Orji et al., 2018).

3. Consistency is key

Similar to the impact of progress-tracking, implementing consistent and routine-based elements to your behavior change goals and plans can also improve your maintenance abilities and behavior change success. As covered above in Fogg’s model, triggers and reminders that are timely and effective are crucial to continuing a change in behavior. We are all quite aware of the necessity of practice in forming a habit, so creating a change that is not only conducive to, but also part of your routine will contribute to a positive outcome. An examination of energy-saving behaviors underscores these points, emphasizing the importance of “habit-loops” and “micro-moments” in creating a lasting change to behavior, suggesting that consistent and timely reminders (as proposed by Fogg) as well as minor rewards significantly improve the success of  behavioral goal achievement (Alsalemi et al., 2019). Neurologically speaking, these attempts at change follow two distinct processes that involve will (motivation) and way (action and cognition) (Berkman, 2018). Many cognitive aspects of behavioral change are heavily influenced by our neural reward networks, so finding ways to trigger behavior and experience reward (whether internal or external) can be useful in establishing consistent and continuous change. 

4. Social support networks

All the way from social learning theory to B.J. Fogg, behavioral traits are largely social—after all, we don’t exist in a vacuum. Most (if not all) of our habits and actions have socio-environmental impacts, no matter how small. Humans are inherently social beings, so we often choose behaviors that lead to acceptance from others and general improvement of social relationships in place of those that do not. For these reasons, having supportive social interactions and groups can help seal the deal in sticking with changes to behavior. These days especially, many of these social networks exist at least partially online. Studies have shown that the language and norms of these online communities is directly related to the outcomes of behavior change; for example, online health communities surrounding weight loss often employ rhetoric that implicitly or explicitly supports disordered eating patterns (Chancellor, Hu, & de Choudhury, 2018). Social comparison can also be a strong contributor to both motivation and outcomes related to behavior change—a 2021 study found that even artificial social comparison additions to physical activity apps increased motivation for behavioral change (Zhu et al.).  In these ways, striving to be more like or better than another can encourage modeling of certain behaviors. However, not all behaviors are necessarily healthy or contextually desirable in the long-term. Being aware of what is seen as normal, acceptable, and desirable within your social communities can in turn produce more positive outcomes in your behavior change goals—surround yourself with people who motivate you to change for the better while using healthy strategies. 

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Change habits with LIFE Intelligence

No matter what your behavioral change goals are, self therapy app LIFE Intelligence can help. LIFE offers a plethora of science-based resources to promote positive cognitive change, which can be incredibly helpful when working to adopt or reduce behaviors.

LIFE's personal growth system covers 9 core Missions, or topics. In Mission 3, you’ll learn strategies for setting and meeting goals such as identifying your motivation behind your goals, measuring progress and planning for the future, and reflecting on harmful vs helpful habits. In Mission 2, you'll also learn about self-awareness and consider the challenges you'll face in reaching your goals for behavior change. This helps you plan for pitfalls and commit to persistence, in all of your pursuits for growth and change. Beyond habit tracking apps and mood tracking apps, LIFE is one app to manage it all - getting to the bottom of your personality, traits, habits, and goals. So you can change from a deeper, more impactful place.

Johanna Caskey
March 6, 2021


Alsalemi, A., Sardianos, C., Bensaali, F., Varlamis, I., Amira. A., & Dimitrakopoulos, G. (2019). The Role of Micro-Moments: A Survey of Habitual Behavior Change and Recommender Systems for Energy Saving. IEEE Systems Journal. 13(3). 3376-3387. doi: 10.1109/JSYST.2019.2899832.

Berkman, E. T. (2018). The neuroscience of goals and behavior change. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 70(1), 28–44.

Chancellor, S., Hu, A., & de Choudhury, M. (2018). Norms Matter: Contrasting Social Support Around Behavior Change in Online Weight Loss Communities. CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems; Association for Computing Machinery. doi: 10.1145/3173574.3174240

Fogg, B.J. (2009). A Behavior Model for Persuasive Design. 4th International Conference on Persuasive Technology. 40:1–40:7. doi:10.1145/1541948.1541999.

Karppinen, P., Oinas-Kukkonen, H., Alahäivälä, T., Jokelainen, T., Teeriniemi, A., Salonurmi, T., Savolainen, M.J. (2018). Opportunities and challenges of behavior change support systems for enhancing habit formation: A qualitative study. Journal of Biomedical Informatics. 84. 82-92. doi: 10.1016/j.jbi.2018.06.012.

Nielsen, K.S. (2017). From prediction to process: A self-regulation account of environmental behavior change. Journal of Environmental Psychology. 51. 189-198. doi: 10.1016/j.jenvp.2017.04.002.

Keller, L., Gollwitzer, P.M., & Sheeran, P. (2019). Changing Behavior Using the Model of Action Phases. Handbook of Behavior Change. 77-88. Cambridge University Press.

Luszczynska, A., & Schwarzer, R. (2019). Changing Behavior Using Social Cognitive Theory. Handbook of Behavior Change. 32-45. Cambridge University Press.

Nisson, C. and Earl, A. (2020). The Theories of Reasoned Action and Planned Behavior. The Wiley Encyclopedia of Health Psychology. doi: 10.1002/9781119057840.ch129 

Orji, R., Lomotey, R., Oyibo, K., Orji, F., Blustein, J., & Shahid, S. (2018). Tracking feels oppressive and 'punishy': Exploring the costs and benefits of self-monitoring for health and wellness. Digital health. 4. doi: 10.1177/2055207618797554

Pakravan, M.H., MacCarty, N. (2020). What Motivates Behavior Change? Analyzing User Intentions to Adopt Clean Technologies in Low-Resource Settings Using the Theory of Planned Behavior. Energies. 13. 3021. doi: 10.3390/en13113021

Sharma, M., Batra, K., Davis, R.E., Wilkerson, A.H. (2021). Explaining Handwashing Behavior in a Sample of College Students during COVID-19 Pandemic Using the Multi-Theory Model (MTM) of Health Behavior Change: A Single Institutional Cross-Sectional Survey. Healthcare. 9. 55. doi: 10.3390/healthcare9010055

Xu X. (2020). The Importance of Self-concept and Self-expansion in Understanding Health and Behavior Change. Interpersonal Relationships and the Self-Concept. doi: 10.1007/978-3-030-43747-3_10

Zhu, J., Dallal, D.H., Gray, R.C., Villareale, J., Ontañón, S., Forman, E.M., Arigo, D. (2021). Personalization Paradox in Behavior Change Apps: Lessons from a Social Comparison-Based Personalized App for Physical Activity. Cornell University. 

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