Habits are essentially the automatic responses to specific cues or triggers in our environment. Habits can be behaviours, thoughts, or emotions that have been repeated frequently enough to the point where they become ingrained and require minimal conscious thought.
Habits can be beneficial (like exercising regularly or brushing teeth daily) or detrimental (like smoking or procrastinating). Because they are automatic, habits can be challenging to break, especially if they’ve been in place for a long time. However, understanding the habit loop (cue, routine, reward) can provide insights into how to change or replace undesired habits.
How often do you reflect on the habits that shape your daily life?
At the core of habit formation lies the habit loop, a concept introduced by Charles Duhigg in his book, ‘The Power of Habit.’ (1)This loop is the foundation upon which habits are built, and understanding it can be the key to forming new habits or breaking old ones. The habit loop consists of three key components:
Cue/Trigger—This is the initial signal that prompts the brain to initiate a particular habit. It can be a specific time of day, a location, an emotional state, or even the presence of certain people.
Routine/Behavior—The routine is the habitual behaviour itself, which is the action performed in response to the cue. This behaviour can be physical, mental, or emotional.
Reward—The reward is the positive outcome or reinforcement that follows the completion of the routine. It’s what reinforces the brain’s association between the cue and the behaviour, making the habit more likely to be repeated in the future.
Neuroscience of Habits
Habitual behaviours are closely tied to neural pathways in the brain. When a habit is formed, the brain creates strong connections between neurons, making it easier for the behaviour to be triggered and executed. Over time, this connection becomes stronger, and the behaviour becomes more automatic. Think of it like forging a path in a forest—the more frequently it’s travelled, the clearer and more established it becomes.
The brain’s basal ganglia, a region associated with habit formation and motor control, plays a significant role in this process. As habits are repeated, the basal ganglia become more active, reducing the involvement of the prefrontal cortex, the area responsible for conscious decision-making. This is why habits often feel automatic and require less cognitive effort. Over time, as these neural connections strengthen—what once needed conscious effort becomes almost second nature, underscoring the profound ways our actions shape our brains.
Creating and Changing Habits
Understanding the habit loop and the neurological basis of habits can help you to create and change your own habitual behaviours. For a habit to form, consistency is key. When a specific behaviour is consistently triggered by the same cue and followed by a reward, our brain strengthens its association with this loop. This is why habits often form when we’re in familiar environments, like our homes or workplaces.
If you wish to change an ingrained habit, a strategic approach is to keep the same cue and reward but alter the routine or behaviour in between. This method retains the brain’s existing cue-reward association but embeds a new routine. Gradually, this new behaviour will replace the old one in response to the triggering cue.
Insights Into Habit Formation And Breaking Bad Habits
According to neuroscientist Dr. Andrew Huberman, successful habit formation relies heavily on being in the right state of mind and having control over both your body and mind. (2) However, the length of time it takes to adapt to a habit can vary greatly depending on the individual and the habit itself. Some may find it takes as little as 18 days to form a habit, while others may require more than 200 days. The ultimate goal is to overcome limbic friction, the level of energy needed to engage in a habit, and achieve automaticity.
It is essential to leverage the natural rhythms of brain and body hormones to increase the likelihood of successfully engaging in or maintaining habits. During the first 0-8 hours after waking, the brain and body are more action- and focus-oriented, making it easier to overcome high limbic friction with the help of dopamine. Limbic friction describes the strain required to overcome anxiety and lack of motivation or fatigue related to building the new habit. During the 9-15 hours after waking, it is best to leverage high serotonin levels and engage in habits that do not require much limbic override effort to keep stress low.
One way to determine if a habit has truly formed is if it can be performed at any point in the day without much conscious thought. For example, exercising whenever time allows is a sign of a well-formed habit. The strength of a habit is determined by the level of limbic friction and context dependence.
Why does it seem that breaking bad habits is often more challenging than building a new one? Breaking a bad habit is more complicated than simply rewarding or punishing oneself for engaging in the behaviour. It is important to change the neural circuitry involved. To do this, conscious awareness should be brought to the habit in question, followed by immediately engaging in a positive replacement behaviour, which does not necessarily have to be related to the habit being changed.
Tips for Effective Habit Formation
Start small—Begin with easily achievable steps. If you want to increase your daily physical activity, for example, begin by adding in a walk after dinner.
Be consistent—Try to perform the new habit at the same time and in the same context every day.
Stack habits—Link a new habit to an existing one. For instance, you already brush your teeth every morning—you can use this time to do a couple minutes of squats or practice balancing on one leg while you brush.
Track your progress—Use habit-tracking apps or a simple calendar to mark off each successful day.
If you are looking to overhaul several habits, you may want to consider the following habit reset.
Choose six new habits to practice over the course of 21 days, with the goal of performing 4-5 of them each day. Don’t punish yourself if you miss a day; simply reset and start again.
After 21 days, stop deliberately engaging in the six habits and see which ones you naturally incorporate into your daily routine.
Take time to assess how deeply you’ve rewired your nervous system for these new habits. Once you’ve effortlessly incorporated all six habits into your routine, you can consider starting a new 21-day program to build additional habits.
Overcoming Challenges in Habit Formation
Adopting a new habit or breaking an old one is a journey that often presents numerous challenges. Among the most common obstacles are deeply ingrained behaviours and beliefs, environmental distractions, the temptation to revert to comfortable patterns, and the loss of motivation as initial enthusiasm wanes. As the novelty of a fresh start fades, it’s easy to feel discouraged, especially when results aren’t immediately apparent.
Staying motivated requires more than just sheer willpower; it demands strategy. It’s also vital to remember the ‘why’ behind the change: the underlying reasons and benefits that prompted the desire to establish a new habit. When faced with setbacks, embracing resilience and understanding that every misstep is a part of the growth process can be a powerful motivator. I wrote a blog on establishing a healthy morning routine, you can read it HERE.
Remember, you have the power to shape your life one habit at a time. Go for it!
- Duhigg, C. (2012). The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. Random House.
- Huberman, A. (2020). Neuroplasticity and optimal performance: Rewiring your brain for success. American Psychologist, 75(5), 615-624.