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Hacking Habits: How To Make New Behaviors Last For Good

Want to write everyday? Start exercising? Quit smoking? We look at how to hack our brains' hard-wired habit loops to change our lives for the better.

In the workplace and in life, we are little more than the sum of our habits. Who we are and what we accomplish depends largely on a vast network of routines and behaviors that we carry out with little to no thought whatsoever. As neuroscientist David Eagleman writes in Incognito, “Brains are in the business of gathering information and steering behavior appropriately. It doesn’t matter whether consciousness is involved in the decision making. And most of the time, it’s not.”

Habits are the brain’s own internal productivity drivers. Constantly striving for more efficiency, the brain quickly transforms as many tasks and behaviors as possible into habits so that we can do them without thinking, thus freeing up more brainpower to tackle new challenges. In general, this modus operandi of our minds leads to incredible benefits. But, on occasion, it makes it seem nearly impossible to break bad habits—or integrate new ones—when we don’t know what’s happening inside the black box of the unconscious.

In The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, writer Charles Duhigg does a deep dive into the science of habits to explain how they work and how we can change them. It’s a fascinating read that crisply breaks down the habit-formation process, and—perhaps more importantly—the habit-changing process.

How Habits Get Formed.

When we first engage in a new task, our brains are working hard—processing tons of new information as we find our way. But, as soon as we understand how a task works, the behavior starts becoming automatic and the mental activity required to do the task decreases dramatically.

Think about how much brainpower and concentration you had to use the first time you parallel parked or even the first time you tied your shoelaces. Then compare that to the amount of mental effort you exert doing those activities now.

Duhigg writes, “This process—in which the brain converts a sequence of actions into an automatic routine—is known as “chunking,” and it’s at the root of how habits form. There are dozens—if not hundreds—of behavioral chunks that we rely on every day.”

How Habit Loops Work.

Habits consist of a simple, but extremely powerful, three-step loop. Here’s Duhigg:

First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future. Over time, this loop… becomes more and more automatic. The cue and reward become intertwined until a powerful sense of anticipation and craving emerges. How to Change a Habit.

The first rule of habit-changing is that you have to play by the rules. That is, there’s no escaping the three-step loop (e.g. cue, routine, reward) because it’s hard-wired into our brains.


If you want to get rid of a bad habit, you have to find out how to implement a healthier routine to yield the same reward. Let’s say you like to go out with your coworkers at the end of a long day and have a few drinks. In this situation, there are actually two rewards: (1) the socializing that inevitably occurs, and (2) the relaxing effects of the alcohol on your nervous system.

Both of those rewards are valid and necessary. If you remove drinking from your life, but replace it with nothing else, you’ll likely be unhappy. The trick is to keep the cue (e.g. tired after a long day) and the rewards (e.g. social time, relaxation) while changing the routine (e.g. drinking).

An alternative routine could be to convince a co-worker or friend to start exercising with you after work—running, yoga, rock climbing, or whatever works for you. Then you have a healthy routine (exercise) that replaces the negative routine (drinking) while yielding the same rewards (social time, relaxation).

If you want to get rid of a bad habit, you have to find out how to implement a healthier routine to yield the same reward.

When you’re trying to get the new routine integrated into your life, don’t be afraid to dwell on the rewards. It’s actually a good thing. Duhigg writes:

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. Eventually that craving will make it easier to push throughout the gym doors every day.

Of course, it’s not quite that simple. As we all know, forming new habits is hard. Just because you’re telling your brain that there’s a reward, doesn’t meant the habit will stick. It only really sinks in when—through enough repetition—your brain comes to crave the reward.

Countless studies have shown that a cue and a reward, on their own, aren’t enough for a new habit to last. Only when your brain starts expecting the reward—craving the endorphins or sense of accomplishment-—will it become automatic to lace up your jogging shoes each morning. The cue, in addition to triggering a routine, must also trigger a craving for the reward to come.

But that’s still not everything. We’ve all managed to implement new habits for a month or two, only to have them compromised when we’re under extreme stress. If we truly want to avoid backsliding into our old ways, there’s a final key ingredient: Belief. “For a habit to stay changed, people must believe that change is possible. And most often, that belief only emerges with the help of a group,” says Duhigg. Taking the classic example of one of the most effective habit-changing organizations ever, Alcoholics Anonymous, Duhigg continues:

Those alcoholics who believed… that some higher power had entered their lives were more likely to make it through the stressful periods with their sobriety intact.

It wasn’t God that mattered, the researchers figured out. It was belief itself that made a difference. Once people learned how to believe in something, that skill started spilling over to other parts of their lives until they started believing they could change. Belief was the ingredient that made a reworked habit loop into a permanent behavior.

Groups create accountability and belief—key ingredients in helping us stick with new habits. Thus, if you want to write more, consider joining a writing group. If you want to run more, consider joining a running club. The more positive reinforcement you can surround yourself with, the easier it will be to make difficult changes.

For a more in-depth look at how habits underpin the success of individuals from Michael Phelps to Martin Luther King and companies like Target and P&G, check out The Power of Habit. Being aware of how our habits work is the first step.

What’s Your Approach To Habits?

How have you found success implementing new habits or getting rid of old ones?

More Posts by Jocelyn K. Glei

A writer and the founding editor of 99U, Jocelyn K. Glei is obsessed with how to make great creative work in the Age of Distraction. Her latest book is Unsubscribe: How to Kill Email Anxiety, Avoid Distraction, and Get Real Work Done. Her previous works include the 99U’s own bestselling book series: Manage Your Day-to-Day, Maximize Your Potential, and Make Your Mark. Follow her @jkglei.

Comments (37)
  • Will Power

    There’s “a” cue? Nah, I don’t thinks so. Too simple of an explanation obviously. I have some habits that I’d like to change but there is a multi-factorial set of triggers including my energy, stress (of which their are a variety of types), ingrained coping mechanisms, habits of inward conversations and influence of others to name just a few.

    (Interestingly, his example of the juice reward for exercising has been implicated in another study as a reason why exercise often does not result in weight loss.)

    Two books that have helped me are written by Ph.D’s. They are ” Succeed, How We Reach Are Goals” and ” The Willpower Instinct.” Both are entertaining, accessible and forward scientific conclusions regarding both the limitations of our ability to change and effective strategies to do so.

  • Sam Isaacson

    Hmm…I’m not sure it’s quite as simple as that…tonnes of people know that smoking will result in early death (an undesirable result for them), but still give in to the lie of the instant reward of relaxation; coming up with an equivalent relaxing exercise that won’t result in premature death (say, reading a chapter of a good book) won’t stop the craving for a cigarette.

    So does changing a habit not rather come from:
    (1) mind over matter (convincing yourself that living longer is a better reward than satisfying the craving for a cigarette)
    (2) routine, routine, routine (booking cigarette breaks into the calendar would give you power over them rather than letting the habit rule you)
    (3) overcoming a habit with a group (the example of AA above is a great one)

  • Elizabeth Saunders

    Coming off of your point.

    Here are a few other potential ideas for helping with the habit retraining process:
    -start to emotionally connect something like smoking with the negative feeling of sickness/death etc. so that it no longer has positive connotations. That’s the point of the non-smoking ads that show you people in hospitals.

    -make the right routine the path of least resistance, i.e. whatever you don’t want to do being really hard to access and what you do want to do as effortless as possible. One very simple technique I use is to always put my water glass in front of my coffee mug on my desk so it’s much easier to reach for more water first.

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • Adam K

    Something relevant to the problem of the nicotine craving is the TIME difference between the positive (satisfying craving) and the negative (health effects). Dan Ariely, one of my favourite behavioural economists explores this a bit in a variety of ways. He truly believe that we cannot use the long-term negative effects as a motivator, since it is so much harder to see at the moment of making the decision. And so, you must substitute one positive emotion for another; replace smoking with another positive.

    His specific example was for his liver disease, the treatment gave 16 hours of sickness. As a result, most people skipped out on taking treatments, and did not heal. He loves movies, and so he provided a short-term reward of movie-watching (positive) after taking the shot (negative) to provide incentive to continue treatment. The result was that in his test-group of ~30 people, he was the only one that was healed.

  • Bodhisattva

    meditation. allows you to meta-program your brain. that’s the secret.

  • Kjg

    I think is partially spot on. the severity of the punishment and the level of the reward has to be huge in order for me to make a change. If only a smoothie is the reward I’m looking forward to after working out then I’m 100% sure that my habit will not stick. But if I have a health issue and saving my life or getting well is the reward then I’m 100% in. so a lot of times I really have to think about an extreme benefit and connect it to a greater life goal in order to make it stick.

  • Jack Peterson

    I used this daily planner to encourage me to make exercise a habit

  • tom

    The website is vary positive.Being in sobriety and going back to stress full habits I do understand. Being born with my type of thinking is not good for anyone.I was adopted and can’t look back.The loop ! Again I will try. Thanks.

  • Robin S

    excellent, new slant on an old subject.

  • Robin S

    Habits and addictions are similar but different.

  • Emily

    The important thing about forming habits is that you need to do something consistently. The myth apparently is that habits form in under a month. Science tells us otherwise. As a matter of fact, it takes an average of 66 days to form a new habit. So if you are wondering why habits don’t stick….that might be why. Here is a good article on forming new habits and talks about the 66 days:

  • mattyBsc

    My gosh, what a fantastic article. Crisp and to the point. I like how relatable the examples were.

  • Idontbuyit

    Um, so let me get this right, in your example, you suggest that, when you’re tired and you need downtime and you like to drink alcohol and hang out with friends to relax you should exercise with them instead?

    Clearly, the author doesn’t know how to relax. Exercise usually requires a significant expenditure of energy and is about the last thing that I would find appealing when I’m tired and want to relax.

    • Mitch Hayes

      I believe the author was sighting scientific work, not imposing his own theory.

    • Daniel Sanchez

      You are forgetting about the “believing” part of all this. If you believe exercising will drain your energy and give you nothing in exchange, you will ultimately fail. Believing is the key to success.

  • Dan

    Wait a minute, you mean to tell me that researchers figured out that God didn’t matter?!

  • PRagmaticGuy2

    Read “Switch” by Chip and Dan Heath. It’s a more useful description of how environment, willpower, and emotion interact and how you can use all three to get you to change. Simple reward psychology will either not be effective over the long run or will require higher and higher levels of awards to get the same level satisfaction from the task.

  • shahzeb

    good website to solve problems

  • SAP Training

    Nice way to understand the habit formation sequences.
    The basic of the long term habits is that they do not form
    in day or two.
    Infect they are benign
    long term formations.
    That’s why it takes similar amount of practice on the new
    replacement habit formation
    Which is the key why
    this is very cumbersome process.

  • Emmanuelle Roques

    First we have to be “ready” to change 🙂

    1/ see our reality
    2/ accept it
    3/ set your goals
    4/ aim to it
    5/ starting now !

    I wish you all a victorious 2013 🙂

    • Dani Dstew Stewart

      this did more for me then the actual article. thank you.

      • Emmanuelle Roques

        Thanks Dani 🙂

  • Rossen

    The first step to habit change and in fact to any personal transformation, is motivation strong enough to overcome inertia. The proper incentive might come in almost any form and there are even quite unconventional approaches such as the one described at which uses the notion of “do not miss go get the benefit of what you paid for” 🙂

  • Dani Dstew Stewart

    🙁 this did absolutely nothing for me, and didn’t help me at all. I’m hopelesssssss.

    • Avia

      Just believe it.

    • Tomassina

      If that’s what you believe ,then you’ll always BE hopeless!

  • Barrie/The Life Passion Coach

    One of the most important keys to creating habits is starting very small — five minutes a day in the beginning to make it really easy and to establish the routine of the habit. Then you can work up to more time slowly. Also, don’t underestimate the power of accountability when working on a habit. You should go public with it and report back daily on your success or failure. Check out my habit creation program for more specifics:

    • mustafa

      Thanks for a spammy link

  • easylog

    To build habits I use my own app to track my daily activities:

    I’ve initially built it for myself, then my friends wanted to use it, too.

    I think it helps a lot to keep track of your progress and it’s free to download, so give it a try 😉

  • PrettyLight
  • Edward Beckett

    @ Typo “The Power of Habit: Whey We Do What We Do in Life and Business”

  • Vinay Dean Cardwell

    This was a great article. Habits are: Beliefs (Cue + Routines=Rewards). Thanks so much for sharing, I am writing this up on my wall to look at and memorize.

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