Understanding the Science Behind How Habits are Formed and How to Make Them Stick

First off, Happy New Year! I hope that you celebrated in a safe and healthy way, with rest and relaxation thrown in.

I also hope you are ready to get moving on those goals you’ve set to create throughout this coming year. Taking action and creating new habits are needed.

Forming a new habit is not easy, but we know that creating a new habit or breaking a bad one is crucial if we want to improve ourselves. If you’re going to create a new habit in your life successfully, then you need to understand how habits are formed.

According to Charles Duhigg, a Pulitzer-prize winning reporter and author of  the book, The Power of Habits (2012),  the creation of habits is a ‘formula” our brain makes and  involves three components: a cue, a routine, and a reward:

The Cue

The cue is what triggers you to carry out your habit. Cues typically fall into five different categories:

* Emotional state

* Time of day

* Sight

* Location

* Another person

The cue is an incredibly important part of the habit loop because our subconscious mind responds to it automatically. Unfortunately, it takes a lot of effort to counteract this response, which is part of the reason why it is so challenging to change our habits. Most of the time, we are entirely oblivious of the cue that triggers our habits. In reality, the emotional state is the basis for all we do, so the more you understand yours and the why behind it, the better you’re chances of creating new habits.

The Routine

The routine is the action that you carry out when the cue has been triggered. It is part of the habit that you want to encourage or replace. When it comes to your bad habits, many experts think that replacing the bad routine with a healthier one is a lot more effective in breaking the habit than trying to eliminate the routine. This means that you will have an easier time removing the routines that lead to bad habits if you have something to fill the void.

So how does our brain either help or sabotage us? Well, as humans, we like to be in the state of homeostasis or doing the same things over and over. When we desire to move out of that state and do something new, the fight or flight activates and senses a threat to that balance; it will fight against it unless you have ways to minimize or eliminate the perceived threat. Getting into a new routine needs to start with small steps to minimize the perceived threat and to begin to create new habits. The more you do – and with consistency – the easier it becomes.  

The Reward

While it might not seem obvious, every habit that you have ended in a reward. Even the habit of brushing your teeth every night has a reward, which is the freshness you feel in your mouth. If a reward is positive, your mind will remember the habit and want to repeat it. A reward can be anything but is most commonly associated with a feeling, milestone, or something else tangible.

Our brain likes to work towards something but it also craves being rewarded for that effort. Rewards don’t have to be major things, such as something that costs money; it can be allowing yourself to read a book or go for walk. However, focusing on the benefit you get from that new goal is more motivating to keep on.

The Craving, or Desire

When you repeat a habit over and over again and are consistently rewarded, your brain will start to develop a craving. The craving is essentially the fuel for the habit loop and is what makes the habit stick for the long term. When the habit loop isn’t receiving the craving, it requires more effort for it to be completed.

Keeping the desire in front of you will ensure it is not lost; this is why vision boards are useful as your brain is reminded daily while giving you motivation to do the work needed. I once had a client who had numerous pictures of a house in her office, saying that she never wanted to forgot why she was doing the work she did (she did get that house). We are visual creatures so use the senses to their fullest in regards to new habit

Action Phases to Make Habits Stick

Now that you understand what is behind forming a new habit, it’s important to understand how to make them stick. I mentioned consistency, focusing on the benefit of the end-result, and visualization as techniques.

But, just having a goal does not mean immediately diving into it or it could mean ebbing off quickly (which is why 80% of people who set goals in January don’t follow through in February). If we look at Prochaska and Di Clemente’s  6 Step Model of Change (1984), which include: Precontemplation * Contemplation * Preparation * Action * Maintenance * Termination

Taking action, as you can see, is not 1, 2, or 3 – it is the 4th step. Preparation is the most critical to success. Once you are aware of the problem and decide on solutions to solve it, then you must prepare so your actions succeed. This can involve planning, making lists, calendars, people for support, finances, etc. Giving yourself all avenues will lead to taking daily actions that will achieve your goals.

You can use this habit loop framework to deconstruct any habit that you have, both good and bad, and use the information to either eliminate the bad ones or create new good ones. Use the power of preparation so your actions are more purposeful this year. Remember that consistency is what leads to mastery so the more you use them, the more they will ‘stick.’

Visit our website and blog to get more tips – we are committed to helping you succeed.

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