Why Does Repetition Create Habits?

Did you know that choosing good habits can make you healthy, keep you from losing your keys, and maintain your sanity when life goes sideways?

A habit is a behavior or activity we perform without thinking, such as brushing our teeth after eating and looking both ways before crossing the street. You make the decision once when you choose the habit; then, it's relegated to your inner pilot. Good habits save brain energy and free up mental capacity so your mind can focus on other tasks. Bad habits, such as smoking and overeating, may cost us our health or enjoyment of life.

Do you ever wonder how to make a new habit and discard an old one? It comes down to one determining factor—repetition.

What Role Does Repetition Play In Developing Habits?

Repetition makes an action become a habit. Creating a pattern is a stimulus-response activity; the strongest habits are the ones with the most repetition. The process is relatively simple: Goal—Cue—Reward—Repeat. Here is the process in more detail:

1. Set a goal. 

The first step in beginning a habit is to set a goal and one daily action toward this goal. If your goal is healthy eating, you may choose to consume an orange each day. In her book, Better Than Before, Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives, popular author and podcast host Gretchen Rubin advises us to "make one healthy choice, not many healthy choices." You will also be more successful if there is consistency in your choice. It must be an orange or another designated fruit, not just any fruit you choose for that day. You can reach your healthy eating goal, one habit at a time.

2. Choose a cue. 

The next thing you must do is select a stimulus or a cue—something that prompts you to eat the orange every day. Sitting down for breakfast is an excellent cue to remind you to eat your orange. If you remove the cue, your habit will be broken. That's why we get flustered when we travel or our routine changes. We forget to eat our daily orange or take our morning pills and vitamins. 

3. Reward yourself. 

Remember to reward yourself each time you follow through. Once you establish your habit, you won't need to reward yourself anymore, and you will follow through even when your routine causes discomfort. Professors Amitai Shenhav from Brown University and Elliot Ludvig from the University of Warwick experimented with digital rodents using a computer simulation program. The digital mice were given the option of two levers, one with a reward and the other without. When researchers trained the mice to choose only one lever—a habit—they continued to select this lever even when the reward was removed. Like the mice, you will run in the rain and snow without thinking because your action is now a habit. 

4. Repeat. 

Repetition is what makes the habit. The more repetition, the stronger the practice becomes. Do you remember that I told you habits can keep you from losing your keys? Set your goal of not losing your keys. Each time you walk in the door is your cue to hang your keys on a hook. Repeat this for a few weeks, and searching for your keys will become a distant memory. Two things you should know are that simple actions become habits more quickly, and some people develop habits faster than others.

How Does Repetition Help Create Lasting Habits?

So, exactly how does repetition create a lasting habit? Charles Duhig recounts how researchers figured it out in his book The Power of Habit. Eugene was a brain-injured man whose nervous system and habits were left intact after having viral encephalitis. His story inspired a study using rats with brain probes hooked to monitors to observe their brain activity while negotiating a maze. The first time the mice performed the maze, a neural pathway was established in their brain. With each repetition, the connection grew stronger, and their brain activity decreased. This reaction demonstrated that a habit was formed. They no longer needed to think through their actions.

Researchers also learned that our habits are nestled deep within our brains in an area close to the brainstem called the basal ganglia. Eugene's brain injury was in his temporal lobe, not his basal ganglia. He couldn't remember his friends' names or his own address, but his habits were intact.

The first time you act, a pathway is established between your brain processing and your motor control centers. Each time you repeat the action, the neural pathway becomes stronger—somewhat like the ruts in a dirt road. Unfortunately, these ruts also make it difficult to change direction.

Ways to Use Repetition to Create Habits?

The wonderful thing about habits is they help you maintain your sanity and stability when life goes sideways. When your dog dies, or you’re stressing about an upcoming work presentation, you rely more heavily on the habits and routines you’ve formed. You get up in the morning, eat your orange, and drink coffee.

You can utilize different strategies to create a habit. Gretchen Rubin has 21 of them listed on her website. They include putting your new habits on your schedule, keeping track of them by journaling, and ensuring your patterns are easy and convenient. If your new routine is too difficult to follow, you might kick it to the side before you even get started.

Remember that time and location are excellent cues since our environment is already structured around these two occurrences.

Is There a Limit to the Amount of Repetition Needed to Create a Habit?

If you've heard that you can create habits in 21 days, don’t believe this myth. Although the time to develop a habit differs between individuals, researchers agree that it takes around 66 days to build a habit.

When you develop a new habit, the old ones don’t just evaporate or disintegrate. Instead, they lurk below the newly formed habits. If a cue changes or disappears, the old patterns quickly reappear.

Risks Associated with Relying Too Heavily on Repetition to Create Habits

Making a new habit seems like a positive choice. However, there are some risks associated with repetition. Habits can make you inflexible and resistant to change. Don’t we all relate to this in some capacity? Your habits make you feel safe and secure. Nevertheless, you must be open to changing some of your habits if you wish to be successful in a new job or move to a new city.

Repetition can be dreary and take too much willpower to persevere. Reassess your habits regularly and make new ones that excite or propel you to new horizons.

Psychologists also wonder how or if habitual behaviors play a role in some behavioral disorders such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, Tourette syndrome, and addictions.

The facts are out there. Repetition makes strong habits that enhance brain efficiency. However, getting into the rut of some habits may make it difficult to change and adapt to new situations. Make habits that support a healthy lifestyle and edge towards new goals and success.


Brown University. (2019, January 28). You can train the brain to form good habits through repetition, new study finds. Robert J. & Nancy D. Carney Institute for Brain Science.

Duhig, C. (2012). The Power of Habit. Why We Do and What We Do in Life And Business. Anchor Canada, Division of Random House of Canada, Ltd.

Gardner, B., Lally, P., & Wardle, J. (2012). Making health habitual: the psychology of ‘habit-formation’ and general practice. British Journal of General Practice, 62(605), 664–666. 

Mendelsohn, A. I. (2019). Creatures of Habit: The Neuroscience of Habit and Purposeful Behavior. Biological Psychiatry, 85(11), e49–e51.

Rubin, G. (2014, July 9). The 21 Strategies for Habit Formation. Gretchen Rubin.

Rubin, G. (2015). Better Than Before. Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives. Doubleday Canada.

Alice Blackmore


Alice Blackmore, MN, RN, Content Writer

Alice Blackmore is a freelance writer, registered nurse, and owner of  She has expertise in pediatrics, maternal health, critical care, and long-term care. She now shares her years of experience through writing.