Are You a “Habiter” or an “Unhabiter?”

What is a habit? Are you what Michelle Segar, a University of Michigan researcher and long-time health coach, calls a “habiter” or “unhabiter?” Read on to discover why it matters for long-term self-care success.

When it comes to making thoughtful lifestyle changes in how we take care of ourselves, Michelle Segar, a University of Michigan researcher and long-time health coach, shares how helpful it is to understand why habits might not really play a leading role in our long-term success.

A habit is “performing an action reflexively without the need to think or exert self-control.” It has a foundation built on atomicity allowing us to save our brain power and energy for more complex activities. It seems to work well for small actions: think flossing or taking daily meds consistently. Habits also work well for “habiters.”

Habit Loop:

Cue (trigger – calendar reminder) > Behavior (desired action – exercise) > Reward (positive feeling – refreshed)

“Habiter” vs. “Unhabiter”

The characteristic of atomicity might sound enticing then, for making complex lifestyle changes like eating healthier and exercising – make the action reflexive so we never fall victim to the internal debate of the action; make it a win without thinking about it!

But atomicity is deeply dependent on a controlled, unchanging environment or stable context.  And life is rarely such. “Real life easily upsets the program,” Segar says it best. “Change is the enemy of reflexive habits.”

“Consider the almost daily schedule upheavals that require us to drop what we are doing or had planned to do and choose the best response right now.”

So, most often, autopilot mode won’t help us here – “we need conscious awareness to optimally solve the challenges we and our eating and exercise plans face…to pivot, problem-solve, and be sufficiently flexible to change course in the moment.”

Segar shares there is little research supporting the notion that habits can power lasting change in lifestyle behaviors specifically like eating or exercise.

Not everyone can form habits. Even in a study of highly motivated college participants (with fewer life demands/responsibilities than most working adults), roughly half still “did not perform the behavior consistently enough to achieve habit status.”

Internal conflicts about attempting to change eating or exercise behavior pits us against our very core selves and leads us to “sabotage rather than support sustainable behavior change.” Even when we are the ones who initiate a change, the reactance theory highlights how feeling pressured to make changes motivates our deeper selves to rebel and do the very opposite of our intended action! Just the feeling that “we should be doing something” makes us likely to derail our very own progress.

These are some of the leading reasons why Segar and her research support that “habiters” and “unhabiters” might benefit from different behavior change solutions. Check back in the coming months for more insights from her findings!


“The Joy Choice,” Michelle Segar, published 2022.