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Did I mention that I’m writing a book about how we make and break habits? Oh yes, I think I did. It’s called Before and After, and it will be out next spring.

Here’s a habit-related issue that I’ve been pondering lately: the need to pay, or the ability to get something for free. I think that these conditions can affect our habits.

First, paying.

When forming habits, we’re surprisingly affected by how convenient an activity is.
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We can harness this, with the Strategies of Convenience and Inconvenience, to foster good habits.  One person changes into exercise clothes as soon as he comes home from work, to make it easier to exercise; another person puts the TV remote-control on a high shelf, to make it a bit harder to turn on the TV.

When we have to pay for something, it feels less convenient. For instance, for most people, it would be cheaper to pay for the gym on a per-visit basis instead of forking over a monthly fee (70% of people rarely use their long-term gym memberships), but although a monthly system may not make financial sense, it makes psychological sense; paying per visit feels less convenient, and means that each work-out means an additional cost, while paying by the month makes each visit feel free.

Also, for many people, paying for something makes them more likely to do it. If they pay for a work-out with a trainer, they’re more likely to go, rather than spend the money on nothing. For some (though not all) Obligers, having to pay is a form of external accountability. For them, therefore, late fees, penalties, paying for a class, hiring professionals, etc., can be very important for sticking to a good habit.

On the other hand, it seems that for some people, paying for something like a training session makes them feel as though they’ve actually done it, even if they haven’t. Paying for a gym membership makes it seem like they’re “going to the gym,” even if they never actually go. Have you ever experienced this?

Perhaps this is related to the “pay or pray” phenomenon: it turns out that when people donate to religious institutions, they’re less likely to attend religious services. Paying acts as a substitute for showing up.

Second, freebies.

Getting something for free also affects our habits. This comes up a lot with food. Many people can’t turn down a free sample — it’s free! But no surprise,  research shows that getting a food or drink sample makes shoppers feel hungrier and thirstier, and puts them in reward-seeking state.

An important strategy for habit-formation is the Strategy of Loophole-Spotting, and getting something for free can provide loopholes. For example, we can use it to argue that “this doesn’t count,” as in “These cookies are compliments of the chef, they’re free, they don’t count.” But everything counts.

Another complicating factor: we tend to value things more when we pay for them. But we also love scoring free stuff. And we’re more likely to do something, like go to the doctor, if we don’t have to pay. These different frames of mind come into play with habits in many different variations.

Have you noticed how the need to pay, or the ability to get something for free, affects your habits?


Gretchen Rubin is the author of the #1 New York Times Bestseller The Happiness Project—an account of the year she spent test-driving the wisdom of the ages, current scientific studies, and lessons from popular culture about how to be happier—and the recently released Happier at Home. On her popular blog, The Happiness Project, she reports on her daily adventures in the pursuit of happiness. For more doses of happiness and other happenings, follow Gretchen on Facebook and Twitter.

Image courtesy of Historias Visuales.