One area of debate in the behavior-research community is the interaction between habits and goals. Wood and Neal (2007) proposes an interesting model (above) that depends on three principles that have been fairly well established in prior research: 1) “Habits are cued by context,” 2) “Habit context–response associations are not mediated by goals,” and 3) “habits interface with goals.” The process of learning habits and the motivation to do so are independent and take place through different processes in the brain, but interact when we have cognitive awareness of our habits and how that behavior is interpreted as getting us closer or further from our goals. Since the bulk of our behavior takes place in these automatic contexts, it’s important to tailor any intervention to the context in which habits take place since the goal interaction is more rare and always more effortful. This means coaches should explore the contexts in which people perform desired or undesired habits. This can be done with the simple, “Five W’s and an H” (“Why do you think you make bad food choices late at night? Where are you? Who are you with? When? What do you eat? How do you make these food choices?”). All effort should then be placed on new, simple, short-term, goal-consistent actions that can take place in that context. Alternatively, all effort can be placed on avoiding the contexts, although this might not be possible and has it’s own drawbacks.

Wood, W. & Neal, D.T. (2007). A New Look at Habits and the Habit–Goal Interface. Psychological Review, 114(4). Retrieved from: http://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/features/rev-1144843.pdf



Neal, Wood, & Drolet (2013) is a collection of 5 studies that demonstrate what happens to habits when willpower runs dry. They found that in willpower-limited conditions, all habits (goal-consistent and inconsistent) get cranked up. This “habit boost” was observed in the lab and in the field as well as in a correlational study. The mechanism for the habit boost is that willpower fuels a different process of the brain that Dolan and Dyan (2013) call “reflective decision making.” However habit loops are “reflexive decision making” that is automatic and does not use up the same resources. So if a client is working on a new habit that is well-crafted to the right context and rewards, they might experience a boost in adherence when the willpower runs out. They will also experience a boost in goal-inconsistent habits, but if you can warn clients ahead of time that this phenomena might take place late in the day when the willpower stores are low, they are more likely to be encouraged by the habit-based approach and more likely to continue pursuing it.

Neal, D. T., Wood, W., & Drolet, A. (2013). How do people adhere to goals when willpower is low? The profits (and pitfalls) of strong habits. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 104(6), 959–975.


Competition can be a great motivator, but social scientists have long tracked the downside to competition: keeping losers motivated. Vansteenkiste and Deci (2003) conducts a fantastic meta-analysis broken down in the SDT framework which highlights the problem as one of feedback. People enter competition in order to get feedback on their competence, so even the losers must feel that they are increasing their competence in order to feel motivated. Czaja and Cummings (2011) take this analysis to heart and design competitions that maximize motivation across the board by matching ability levels and promoting the competition as a way for all participants to learn.

Czaja, R. J., & Cummings, R. G. (2011). Designing Competitions: How To Maintain Motivation For Losers. American Journal of Business Education (AJBE), 2(9), 91–98.

Vansteenkiste, M., & Deci, E. L. (2003). Competitively contingent rewards and intrinsic motivation: Can losers remain motivated? Motivation and emotion, 27(4), 273–299.