Many health goals are only achieved through repetition of one or more behaviours; eating one piece of fruit does not make a healthy diet, nor will it have much impact on health outcomes. Health-promoting behaviour change interventions tend to have only short-term impacts, which erode over the long term. At the same time, many of the everyday behaviours that compromise our health are difficult to modify precisely because they are repetitive and well-ingrained. The concept of ‘habit’ can help to address both of these problems. Habitual actions are prompted automatically upon encountering situations in which the action has previously been performed. Repetition in the presence of stable contextual cues reinforces context-action associations, and habit is said to have formed when encountering the context is sufficient to prompt the action, outside of conscious control.
While many studies have used a habit lens to understand, predict and change health behaviours, habit research has generated as many questions and controversies as it has solved. What is the precise role of habit in ‘habitual behaviour’? How should we define habit? What is the best way to measure habit? In which settings are habits most relevant? What is the best way to intervene to create habits, and how do we hasten this process? How do we help people break habits when they cannot avoid the cues that support them?
The aim of this Expert Meeting is to identify the most important research questions and priorities that emerge from applying habit theory to understand, predict, and change health-related behaviours, and the approaches with most potential to answer these questions. While the schedule will be determined partly based on the expertise and interests of those attending, the meeting will begin with a brief overview of recent theoretical, conceptual and methodological developments in the habit field. These include a novel definition of habit, work to identify the role(s) of habit in facilitating behaviour, and methods for making and breaking habits, and observing fluctuations in habit strength over time. We anticipate that the workshop will generate a jointly-authored manuscript outlining a research agenda for applying habit to better understand and change health-related behaviours, though we also note the opportunity for promoting partnership and collaboration among attendees to lead to grant proposals and other scientific outputs.