Skip to main content

Hooked from the start - A guide to starting new habits

Habits are the holy grail of behaviour change  

In a nutshell

  1. Habits are automatic and repetitive, and often we do them without fully registering our actions. 
  2. There is a big difference between growing an existing habit compared to starting a new habit. 
  3. Harnessing a disruption, overcoming uncertainty and dialling up rewards are some key considerations and barriers to overcome.

Habits are automatic and repetitive – and we enact them without fully registering our actions. 

For organisations who are chasing long-lasting behaviour change, this is important. We don’t want people to stop speeding for a week,  or stop smoking for a night. We want to change behaviours for a lifetime.

That’s where habits come in. If we can switch one-off behaviours into automatic and repeated habits, we’re taking steps toward behaviour change that sticks.  

New users vs. Existing users 

When it comes to habitual behaviour, there’s a big difference between strengthening an existing habit, compared to getting someone to start a new habit. 

Picture yourself moving to a new city and you're trying to organise your first trip on their public transport network – you need to get a transport card, learn your route, how frequent it is, and where your stop is. It’s a very different proposition to increasing existing users who already have a card and already know their public transport routes in their area.  

Starting new habits 

When it comes to starting a new behaviour for first-time users, there are some key considerations and barriers to overcome. In particular: harnessing a disruption, overcoming uncertainty and dialling up the rewards.  

Based on the well-established habit loop by Charles Duhigg, TRA set out to add an additional layer of thinking to habits – how can the habit loop be adapted for first-time behaviours?  

We analysed five different habit models and over 60 case studies in order to understand how cues and rewards can be applied to first-time behaviours.  

Your checklist for starting new habits:  


☑ Disruption: Taking advantage of a disruption to the status quo is the prime time to instil a new habit. Consider key events that change how people live their lives – changes to employment, moving house, having a child/grandchild, health events, holidays or studying.  

☑ Social support: Seeing others doing the desired behaviour can help prompt that behaviour, especially if they have trusted messengers - such as, friends, family, and colleagues. How might we dial up referrals, ratings, recommendations or support and guidance from others? 


☑ Reduce uncertainty: Ambiguity aversion is our tendency to dislike uncertainty and prefer what is known. For first-time users, how might we signal what to expect, give them confidence, reassurance and reduce uncertainty? 

☑ Trial and practice: Give new users opportunities to trial and practice the new behaviour so they feel confident going forward. Consider trials, lessons, demonstrations, how-to-guides and tutorials.  


☑ Dial up the rewards: First-time users often need further incentives and rewards to commit to trying a new behaviour. How might we dial up the rewards and add further incentives for first-time users? 

☑ Immediacy: The timing of the reward is important – providing a reward immediately after the behaviour can forge a strong positive association. How might we bring the reward even closer to the behaviour? 

Reach out to us today to hear more about how we can help you tackle big challenges with our understanding of human behaviour. 

Lindsey Horne
Behavioural Insights Lead
With a background in neuroscience and applied behavioural science, Lindsey works across behaviour change projects with social and government clients. Her approach to behaviour change is holistic, from broader cultural and social change through to behavioural economics and nudges.

back to top

Discover more content

Stay in touch!

Sign up to receive our latest thinking straight to your inbox each month.