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  • teresamckee

Habits, habits, habits.

Did you know that 40% of the actions you take each day are purely habit?

What is a habit? Technically speaking, it’s a combination of psychology and neurology, resulting in a behavior pattern. Decisions become automatic behavior. At some point in your history, you made a deliberate choice to do something. Then you repeated it on a regular basis. Our neurology is designed to save brain power, so at some point, you stopped consciously choosing to do the thing and instead, it became an automatic behavior.

We may think that most of the choices we make throughout our days are based on thoughtful decision-making, but according to a study conducted at Duke University, 40% of our actions aren’t decisions, but habits. We could say that a habit is the peak example of mindlessness.

Although mindless, habits support us in a multitude of ways and can be positive, motivating and constructive. Habits can also be negative, irritating and destructive. Driving is a good example of a positive habit – you don’t have to think about how to make your vehicle move and the habit itself can speed up your reaction time when something goes wrong. Emotional eating is a good example of a negative habit – you automatically soothe yourself with some sort of (usually) unhealthy food when upset.

Interestingly, you can’t actually get rid of a habit. Habits create neurological patterns in the brain that scientists can not only see, but if you change a habit, the neurological pattern of the original habit can still be seen. The new pattern overrides the old, but the old pattern is still there – just less active.

This could explain why if you give up smoking, a part of you still misses it for years (or forever). Or once you give up drinking, you can never have even one drink – because it can reactivate that neurological pattern in the brain.

The more automatic an action becomes, the less you think. Mental activity continues to decrease the more times you repeat the same activity. This occurs through a process called “chunking” and is at the root of how habits form. We rely on dozens if not hundreds of behavioral chunks every day: Putting toothpaste on your toothbrush before putting it in your mouth. Getting dressed. Backing out of your driveway.

driving, steering wheel

Stop and think about how many steps are involved in these behaviors. If we had to consciously think about all of the steps involved in just getting dressed, we’d be late getting out the door every day. You consciously decide what to wear, hopefully. But then habits take over. What piece of clothing to put on first, then each piece after. Which shoe goes on which foot, which button goes in which hole, which wrist the watch goes on. And on and on! The routine occurs by habit. You don’t consciously think about all of these steps, you just automatically do them. Your conscious brain powers down as you go into auto-mode, saving valuable energy for other thoughts, like what to make for dinner or how to save the world.

The brain has a system to determine whenever a chunk of behavior (a habit) starts or ends.

A cue is the first step in the habit process. It tells the brain to turn on a certain “chunking” process. When you pick up your keys as you’re leaving your house, the “backing out of the driveway” habit begins. Picking up the keys is the cue.

According to Charles Duhigg, the author of The Power of Habit, there is a 3-Step habit loop. The first step is the cue. This is the trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. The second step is the routine, which can be physical, mental or emotional. The third step is the reward, which helps your brain determine if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future. Over time, this continuing loop of cue, routine, reward, becomes more and more automatic and a habit is born.

Now while we can’t get rid of habits, they can be overwritten. When a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision-making. It either stops working so hard or diverts focus to other tasks. Simply understanding how habits work makes them easier to control.

As I mentioned, habits are encoded in the structures of our brains, so they never really disappear, which is actually a good thing. Imagine having to re-learn to drive every time you returned from vacation! Or having to learn how to cook a meal, at every meal! Habits can benefit us tremendously.

The challenge is that our brains can’t tell the difference between a good habit and a bad habit, so if you have a bad one, it’s always there, waiting for the right cues and rewards. If you have created a habit of sitting on the couch, snacking and watching television, it’s always there, waiting for the cue. You have to be diligent at first in creating a new habit, like exercising instead of going to the couch, to override the original habit.

chips and beer, unhealthy snack

Let’s assume your habit is that you arrive home after a long day at work, put on comfortable clothes, grab the bag of Lays, plop on the couch and turn on Netflix. The cue could be putting on the comfortable clothes. The routine is eating chips while watching TV on the couch. The reward is the pleasure senses in your brain going crazy over the potato chips, while feeling relaxed because TV is keeping you distracted from thinking about other things, like life. Cue, Routine, Reward.

Research shows that cues can be almost anything. A visual trigger such as a candy bar, a television commercial, a place, a time of day, an emotion, a sequence of thoughts, a particular person. Routines can be extremely complex or ridiculously simple. Emotional routines are measured in milliseconds. Rewards can range from food or drugs that cause physical sensations, to emotional payoffs, such as the feelings of pride that accompany praise.

Habits are extremely powerful. Consider fast food. It is perfectly logical that occasionally, when you’re busy and starving, an easy fix is to hit the drive-through. The meals are inexpensive, it smells and tastes fantastic and one dose of processed meat, salty fries and sugary soda isn’t going to kill you or your family, right? Studies show that families usually don’t intend to eat fast food on a regular basis. What happens is that a once-a-month pattern slowly becomes once a week, then twice a week, as the cues and rewards create a habit, until you and your family are consuming an unhealthy amount of burgers and fries.

Researchers found a series of cues and rewards that most customers never knew were influencing their behaviors. It turns out sellers understand and use the habit loop. Ever notice how every McDonald’s or Starbucks looks exactly the same? Companies deliberately try to standardize stores’ appearance and what employees say to customers, so everything is a consistent cue to trigger consumption routines.

Some foods are specifically engineered to deliver immediate rewards, like French fries for example. They are designed to begin disintegrating the moment they hit your tongue, in order to deliver a hit of salt and grease as fast as possible, causing your pleasure centers to light up and your brain to lock in the pattern. Once you’re caught up in the loop, once the habit has been created, you have to consciously override it.

The good news is, even these powerful habits are pretty delicate. Studies show that when a fast food restaurant closes down, for example, the families that previously ate there will often start having dinner at home, rather than seek out a different fast food restaurant. Small shifts can end the pattern, but since we don’t often recognize these habit loops as they grow, we are blind to our ability to control them. By learning to observe the cues and rewards, we can change the routines.

I’m not trying to pick on Starbucks or McDonalds, by the way. All companies now do this, from services, think Amazon Prime or Netflix, to insurance companies to cleaning products. They all understand the habit loop and how influential it is. And now, so do you!

To create a habit, simply identify a cue, create a routine and identify or create a reward. Want to exercise more? Choose a cue, such as going to the gym as soon as you wake up, and a reward, such as a smoothie after each workout. Then think about that smoothie, or about the endorphin rush you’ll feel. Allow yourself to anticipate the reward.

gym, people working out

Want to create a better eating habit? 78% of successful dieters eat breakfast every morning, a meal cued by a time of day. But most of the successful dieters studied also envisioned a specific reward for sticking with their diet, like a bikini they wanted to wear or the sense of pride they felt when they stepped on the scale each day. They focused on the craving for that reward when temptations arose. Researchers found that their cravings for the reward crowded out the temptation to drop the diet.

To override an existing habit, it’s the same loop. Keep the same cue and some version of the reward, but change the routine. How about snacking at work. What’s the cue? Is it a time of day, like every afternoon around 2pm? Is it really to satisfy hunger or perhaps to interrupt boredom? What’s the reward? Try swapping out the routine – eating the snack – with taking a quick walk, going on the internet for 5 minutes, or calling a friend to see if you can fulfill the craving without food.

The key to habits is understanding the loop. There’s always a cue, the behavior which is the routine, and a reward. Consider social media or other handheld device activities. Do you really need to check it? What was the cue that prompted you to pick it up? What’s the reward? Social interaction, feeling included, boredom, distraction from something else you “should” be doing? What’s a different routine you could insert after the cue that will result in a similar reward?

Duhigg points out that keystone habits lead to the development of multiple good habits. They start a chain effect in your life that produces a number of positive outcomes. Daily exercise is an example of a keystone habit. This one habit can lead to other beneficial habits such as eating healthy foods, avoiding junk food and becoming more efficient at work because you need that extra hour to work out.

That one exercise habit can form major breakthroughs in other areas of your life. You started with a single goal that caused other habits to develop. Sleeping 8 hours a night is another example of a keystone habit. It sets off a chain reaction leading to becoming more productive, reducing junk food consumption, and improved communications. Keystone habits are beneficial because when they start to shift, they dislodge and remake other patterns.

If you’re trying to create healthier habits, instead of tackling 5 new habits, create a keystone habit and the rest fall into line a lot easier. Keystone habits create small wins and that’s part of how they create widespread changes. Research shows that small wins have enormous power, an influence disproportionate to the accomplishments of the victories themselves. Small wins fuel transformative changes by leveraging tiny advantages into patterns that convince people that bigger achievements are within reach.

Another three-step process to create or override a habit, according to B.J. Fogg, Ph.D. from the Stanford University Persuasive Tech Lab, is to simplify and shrink the behavior, find a spot in your existing routine where this tiny new behavior can fit in, and then focus on the behavior as part of your routine every day. So for example, if you want to get into the habit of flossing your teeth, start with flossing just one tooth. Add that tooth floss to an existing habit, like immediately before or after brushing your teeth. Do it every day until it becomes a habit. The idea is to start creating the habit at a tiny level, fast and easy. You’ll expand over time.

It’s not always easy or quick to create or change a habit. But we now know it’s possible because we understand how habits get created in the brain and the knowledge to override any negative habits we might have. Take a few moments this week to think about a habit you would like to change or a habit you would like to create. Then identify the cue, routine and reward, replace the routine with something quick and easy to start, and watch as your habit transforms. Don’t forget to try inserting a few keystone habits as well, to boost your success in creating healthy, positive habits.

Stay mindful,


For a podcast version of this post, listen here.

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