How Habits Work (And Why You Should Care)

How do habits work anyway?

They shouldn’t be so complicated, and yet…

Try as we may, getting the whole good habits/bad habits thing right can fear damn near impossible!

How many January 1st’s have come and gone with the absolute best of intentions? This the THE YEAR when I will finally get in shape, eat better, or start that business I’ve always dreamed about.

We know how this story ends.

In fact, for 80% of us, it ends the exact same way (so you’re in good company). We give up. Or we don’t stick with it past February.

Why does this happen?

Well, for one, we rely way too heavily on willpower to start a new habit. Willpower is a finite resource. It’s why enthusiasm for a new goal can fuel us for a week or two before we absolutely tank.

We get it in our head that if we just tough it out for 21 days, this new habit is going to magically become integrated into the fabric of our being!

If only.

Chances are we’ve gone too big too fast and don’t possess the necessary motivation to rise to the challenge consistently. Not many people can go from couch potato to waking up at 5AM to do a 90 minute HIIT routine five days per week and actually stick with it.

That’s NORMAL.

And we’ll talk about how to design habits in great detail in future posts. But for now, let’s look at the anatomy of a habit. And for this, we will turn to habits guru, Charles Duhigg.

How Habits Work

woman brushing her teeth and forming healthy habits
the anatomy of a habit

Habits are behaviors that, with time, have become automated in our lives. The mechanics of a habit goes like this:

1. There’s a cue.

Something triggers a behavior. Let’s take an easy example. Your alarm goes off and you wake up. There’s your trigger. What happens next is your routine.

2. Routine

Let’s say every day, without fail, the first thing you do after you wake up is go to the bathroom and splash your face with water and start the shower. The behavior is the routine.

3. Reward

The reward is a bit self-explanatory, but it’s whatever pleasure you get from completing your routine. Perhaps that first splash of water helps wake up your brain and feeling refreshed, which then motivates you to continue with your morning.

Eventually this process becomes automated. You don’t even think about getting up to go splash water on your face and start the shower. It’s just what you do.

Habit Loop via Charles Duhigg

Now this is a pretty simple example. It’s also really positive. Let’s look at a similar scenario for a negative habit.

1. Cue

Your alarm wakes you up in the morning.

2. Routine

You reach for your phone to check TikTok for the next thirty minutes.

3. Reward

You’ve just pumped your brain full of blissfully mindless entertainment and scratched whatever bedtime FOMO compelled you to start reaching for your phone first thing in the morning.

The second version is a habit you’re likely interested in breaking.

The entire process is what Charles Duhigg calls a “habit loop.” It is the foundation of all of our habits and habits are really the building blocks of our lives. Everything we do is directly connected to a habit we’ve picked up along the way, whether it’s brushing our teeth, eating (or skipping) breakfast, or checking social media 30 times per day.

James Clear, another exceptional habit guru, has a fourth step in his loop: craving.

His goes like this: cue, craving, response, reward.

It essentially breaks down the same. There’s a cue or trigger which makes you crave something. That craving creates a response or behavior which, upon completion, rewards or satisfies you in some way.

Let’s look at another example.

Let’s say every day when you get home from work (cue) you feel a rumble in your tummy (craving) which leads you to open up the freezer and grab some ice cream to eat (response). The sweet, sugary bliss that follows is your reward.

But let’s say you are also trying to eat healthier and shed a few pounds. You can see how this habit loop is going to cause problems if you don’t change it somehow.

Why should any of this matter to you?

Great question!

If you want to break or begin a new habit, you need to understand how habits work. Once you learn that, you can start to reverse engineer them.

There’s a science to how we form habits.

They’re useful!

Our brains crave efficiency, and what better way than to put 40% of our lives on autopilot! I mean who wants to actively think about every aspect of driving your car like some newb who just got her license last week? Habits are extremely helpful in that way!


They can also be destructive like smoking cigarettes, binging junk food in response to emotional triggers, or getting drunk after a difficult day.

That’s where we’ll be diving in a bit deeper in upcoming articles – how to break those bad habits and integrate healthier ones into our lives.

For now, here’s the man himself, Charles Duhigg, explaining how habits work!

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