Habits are by definition automatic. Once established they take no (or very little) processing power or self control but have a very important role in our day to day life. Habits are a great servant but a lousy master.
If we want to better understand habit formation and how we can use habits to improve our lives, rather than falling into their trap, it helps to understand the different categories of habits.
Commonly, we think of habits as good or bad in our every day life but different schools of thought classify habits into different categories. Below I explain the most common types of habits.
Good and bad habits
When we talk about habits, the two most common types of habits we refer to are good habits and bad habits. Good are the habits we’re trying to adopt or want to keep, and bad are the habits we’re trying to drop or and stay clear of.
This differentiation is very subjective and depends on your values and goals. What one person perceives as a good habit, the next person might perceive as a bad habit. This is especially true when it comes to eating and buying habits. Someone who is trying to gain muscle might want to get into the habit of eating meat with every meal and buying single serving packages of snacks. While someone who values sustainability might consider these habits bad and wasteful.
Perhaps, there’s more to habits and good or bad are not the only two types.
Conscious and unconscious habits
Every day we perform a multitude of habitual actions. By definition, habits happen on auto pilot, however, some of them we’re aware of, and others we’re completely oblivious to.
Conscious habits vs unconscious habits is the most important distinction when trying to change our habits.
Behavioral change and life design require a certain degree of self knowledge and identifying all our habits is the first step.
You’re probably very much aware of your habit to brush your teeth every morning, as well as starting the day with a cup of coffee. These are your conscious habits.
Unconscious habits might be a bit trickier to identify. You’ll often need other people’s feedback or some serious self-reflection in order to identify them. It could be things like the tendency to check your phone while you talk to people, negative self talk when nervous or sticking your tongue out when focusing.
Just because some habits are unconscious it doesn’t mean they are bad. Perhaps you have the tendency to always see the good in people, take the stairs instead of the elevator and always put things back in their place. These are good habits many would like to adopt.
Instigating, avoiding, regimental and unconscious habits
Based on the intent and context, all habits can be divided into four types:
Instigating habits are your measured actions. You understand why they benefit you and you put effort into sticking to them. You’ve put these habits in pace because you believe they benefit you and will make your life better.
These habits tend to take us on a path that is rewarding on its own, and while they might have a goal attached to them, this goal is not as important as the journey is. Instigating habits are open ended and are not focused on a result.
Avoiding habits are the ones you try to break. To some extent they’re your coping mechanism and they’re often the bad habits you resort to when stressed, overwhelmed or lazy.
Because we tend to feel deprived when we tell ourselves no and we hate to feel deprived, a good workaround to breaking these habits is to replace them with good instigating habits.
These are the habits you’ve been doing for a very long time and have never questioned. Regimental habits are what you always do, regardless of wether it benefits you or not.
Regimental habits can be good or bad depending on the situation. Sometimes they start as good habits and as your life changes they stop serving you.
Some of them you might have picked up as a kid by mimicking the behavior of your parents, older siblings or other role models. Some might have started as instigating habits and became second nature but you never stopped to think wether they still serve you well.
While regimental habits make life a lot easier with automatic actions like showering or brushing our teeth, they can also rob us of the present moment. Because they are so automatic we’re often not living in the moment when performing them and if we’re not careful they can quickly become unconscious.
You can move these habits towards instigating habits by mentally reframing them and intentionally being more mindful when practicing them. For example, practice mindful eating and really focus on the flavors and texture when having lunch.
As already discussed, these are the habits you do without realizing. The first step in moving them towards instigating habits is to become aware of them, only then you can reframe them and slowly move them towards instigating or avoiding habits.
Motor habits, intellectual habits and habits of character
Habits can also be categorized into three categories based on the nature of the activity:
Motor habits relate to our physical actions like the way we walk, gesticulating when we talk or picking our nose.
Intellectual habits relate to the way we think and our psychological processes like negative self talk, good observation or pausing to think before we answer.
The way we think is partially shaped by our personalities but a big part is shaped by our education and environment. Our thought patterns are indeed a habit and as such they can be broken and reshaped.
Habits of character
Habits of character relate to the way we act like trusting people, tidying up or lying.
Physical, cognitive, emotional and social habits
When categorizing habits based on the nature of the activity they can be broken down further into the following four types:
These are the motor habits we’ve discussed above.
These are the intellectual habits we’ve discussed above.
Emotional habits are one part of the habits of character we’ve discussed above. They not only relate to the way we feel but also to how aware we are of our feelings and how we frame them.
Emotional habits shape our emotional intelligence. By improving our emotional habits we can also improve our EQ.
Some emotional habits we might want to work on are our emotional availability or the way we react to unpleasant feelings.
Social habits are the other part of the habits of character but may also involve physical and cognitive habits. Social habits are basically our social skills and relate tot he ways of thinking, feeling and behaving in relation to others.
Social skills, as any other skills, can be improved when we work on them, which means we need to work on our social habits.
Some social habits we might want to adopt can be as simple as repeating the name when we get introduced to someone or as complex as learning to be a better leader.
Keystone or foundation habits
Keystone habits are sometimes also referred to as foundation habits and are the kind of habits that often create a domino effect and influence other good habits. They set you up for success.
These keystone habits usually fall in one of these 5 categories:
- healthy eating
The idea is that when we’re rested, well feed, healthy, have the right mindset and a pleasant environment we’re more likely to stick to our good habits and refrain from bad ones. Similarly these habits reinforce each other and even themselves.
For example, when we sleep well we’re more likely to keep our home clean. A clean kitchen might make us more likely to cook a healthy meal. Eating a healthy meal will make us more likely to exercise. Exercise will reduce our stress levels which in turn will make it easier for us to fall asleep and repeat this cycle again tomorrow.
These are tiny micro versions of a habit that you can do no matter how busy, stressed or tired you are. They save the mental space and time slot so that you always show up and keep the habit of the habit, even when sick, on vacation or when life gets in the way. They help us never break the chain.
These bookmark habits also work as our instigation habits (not to be confused with instigating habits) and initiate a behavioral sequence or chain of habits. For example, if we get into the habit of rolling our our yoga mat we’re more likely to do the yoga practice.
While some of the above classifications and types of habits originate from a widespread theory of psychology, some are just an individual’s musings that have spread through the internet. I don’t believe there’s a right or wrong way to classify the different types of habits but being aware of the different kinds of habits we may or may no have, can help us gain perspective and self knowledge.
Only by being aware of our own habits and nature can we break the bad habits we don’t want to have and foster good habits we want to keep and adopt.