Life Hacks

The Power Of Habit [4 Steps to Replace the Bad Habit with a Healthier Routine]

Understanding Habits and How to Change Them

Habits are at the core of everything we do. In The Power of Habit, award-winning New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg brings to life a whole new understanding of human nature and its potential for transformation. The key to exercising regularly, losing weight, becoming more productive is understanding how habits work. Read on to find out how to change your life for better.


We truly are creatures of habit. In fact, according to a study from Duke University in 2006 found that more than 40% of our daily actions are not actual decisions; they are habits.

Your brain is the most efficient processor on the planet and habits are a way for your brain to save energy. We have the ability to operate on automatic pilot, performing complex behaviors without any conscious thought at all. In many cases, these habits are useful. We don’t need to decide every day how to put toothpaste on our toothbrush, saving us mental energy. However, not all habits are created equal. Some habits are much more complex. They can emerge without our permission and cause us trouble.


In the 1990s, researchers at MIT discovered a neurological loop at the core of every habit. This loop consists of three parts and all habits – no matter how large or small – have the following three components:

  1. Cue:  A trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode, and which habit to use.
  2. Routine: This is the behavior itself. This can be an emotional, mental or physical behavior that follows the cue.
  3. Reward: This is the reason you’re motivated to do the behavior. It is a positive stimulus which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future.

The habit loop

Over time, this loop becomes more and more automatic. The cue and reward become intertwined until a powerful sense of anticipation emerges.  Your brain begins to crave the reward, and eventually, a habit s born. When a habit emerges, your brain stops participating fully in decision making, and the pattern then unfolds automatically.


The craving brain

Craving is what makes cues and rewards work. As we associate cues with certain rewards, a subconscious craving emerges in our brain. This craving, or the anticipation of the reward,  powers the habit loop.

“There is nothing programmed into our brains that makes us see a box of doughnuts and automatically want a sugary treat,” “But once our brain learns that a doughnut box contains yummy sugar and other carbohydrates, it will start anticipating the sugar high. Our brains will push us toward the box. Then, if we don’t eat the doughnut, we’ll feel disappointed.”


Even though habits are automatic, and to some extent unconscious actions, it is possible to change them.  The trick to changing a habit, or forming a new habit, is to switch the routine. You can transform any behavior if you keep the same old cue and deliver the old reward, but insert a new routine.

Let’s go back to my coffee addiction. If you’re trying to get off caffeine, simply switch to decaf. You will still have the entire experience from A to Z, but you’ll be drinking decaf instead. By using the same cue and providing the same reward, you can shift the routine of drinking caffeine and change the habit.

“And once someone creates a new pattern, studies have demonstrated, going for a jog or ignoring the doughnuts becomes as automatic as any other habit.”



Simply understanding how habits work make them much easier to control. To understand your own habits, you need to learn to observe the components of your loops. Once you have identified the cue and reward of a particular behavior, you can look for ways to replace the bad habit with a healthier routine.

Step One: Identify the Routine

The first step is to identify the routine. The routine is the most obvious aspect: It’s the behavior you want to change.

Step Two: Experiment with Rewards

Rewards are powerful. They satisfy our cravings. But what cravings drive our particular habit? Are you really craving those cookies, or is it a break from work? If it’s the cookies, is it because you are hungry? ( In which case, an apple would work just as well). Or is it just an excuse to take a break from work and socialize? If so, chatting with your colleague for a few minutes may satisfy the urge.

It is useful to experiment with different rewards. As you test them, write down your thoughts, emotions, feelings and look for patterns. This will help you to isolate what you are actually craving. This in turn will help you to change your habit.

Habits quote

Step Three: Isolate the Cue

The next step is to identify the cue. This is the most tricky part. It can be hard to spot a single cue that leads to a particular behavior. Instead, try to identify categories of behaviors. Experiments have shown that almost all habitual cues fit into one of five categories: location, time, emotional state, other people, and immediately preceding action.

Ask yourself: Where were you when you exhibited the behavior you want to change? What time was it? What did you feel? Who else was with you or around you? What had to occur prior to your behavior?

Step Four: Have a Plan

Now that you identified all elements of your habit loop, you can start to shift the behavior. You can change to a better routine by planning for the cue and choosing a behavior that delivers the reward you are craving.


When Duhigg finished his study of his chocolate cookie habit, he discovered that his cue was the time of roughly 3:30 pm, his routine was to go to the cafeteria, buy a cookie, and chat with friends. The reward, he discovered, was not the cookie itself, but the opportunity to socialize. Thus, he created a plan for working around his habit:. He set an alarm clock on his watch for 3:30, and every day, at that time, he walked to a friend’s desk and talked for 10 minutes. After a few weeks of paying careful attention to his new routine, he now does it unconsciously, as a habit. Just one that’s better for him.


Changing habits can difficult. Sometimes change takes a long time and may require repeated experiments and failures. This framework is a place to start. Once you understand how a habit operates, you gain power over it. And then you’re on your way.


Want to learn more about habits? We are giving away Duhigg’s book to 2 lucky winners. All you need to do is comment a habit you want to establish or change and share this article on Facebook. Good luck!


PS: Also, we provide 4 tips on how to get out of bed every morning on our blog.

Wiktoria Banda

Wiktoria is a content writer and illustrator at Shape.