Every habit consists of three elements: The cue, routine, and reward. Understanding how habits work can help you to create new or change existing ones.

We are all on auto-pilot most of the time. On auto-pilot, our actions are subconscious – these are our habits. Habits can be defined as the choices that we deliberately make at some point, and then stop thinking about but continue doing. Getting out of bed, taking a shower, going to work… The list goes on. They feel automatic, because they are. The neocortex (the conscious part of the brain) is not involved anymore. We don’t have to think about them, which makes that our brain can focus on other things.

When we think about a habit, we usually just consider the action itself. But there is more to it than just the behavior. Every habit has three elements:

  1. The cue – the automatic trigger
  2. The routine – the behavior itself, which is the reaction to the trigger
  3. The reward – the result, which helps you remember the pattern in the future

Many people want to stop a bad habit or start a new positive one. In doing so, they usually only think about the activity itself. But it’s much more effective to think about the cue and the reward as well. Cues can be a location, time, emotion, actions of other people, or the last action.

Let’s have a look at a personal example of a habit that I want to change. I feel that I’m using my phone too often. Checking my phone is often triggered by having to wait somewhere, being bored, or by receiving a notification (light, sound, vibrate). The easiest way to stop a negative habit is by avoiding the cue that triggers it. In my example, that is by turning off certain notifications on my phone.

But it’s not always possible or desirable to avoid all cues. I will sometimes still have to wait somewhere or be bored. If you can’t avoid the cue, you can try to change the (negative) routine. When I’m waiting somewhere, instead of checking my phone, I can take the time to think about something else or simply have the mind wander. Changing a routine takes some willpower as an old pattern in the brain needs to be changed. But changing an existing pattern is easier than erasing it at all. A lot of research is done on how long it takes to build or replace a habit. Unfortunately, there’s no single answer, as it depends on the individual and the activity. A new habit of having a cup of tea or coffee after dinner will probably only take a couple of days to build. But it takes much more willpower and time to quit smoking or exercise regularly. Researchers claim that on average it takes 2 months before a new behavior becomes automatic.

The reward is what helps your brain to remember the pattern in the future. In the example of not checking my phone, it can be a feeling of calmness. But you can also reward yourself with a small piece a chocolate after a run when you try to make this a habit. In that case, you’re tricking your brain for a short period of time. Eventually, the positive feelings of running (endorphins and overall fitness) take over as more permanent rewards. A lot of products that we use regularly are built to give us a reward. They are designed so that we keep using them. Think of the minty flavor and tingly feeling that brushing our teeth gives us. Shampoo doesn’t have to foam, but chemicals are added as it gives us a good feeling. Similarly, all the apps on your phone are programmed to make you come back.

Habits are unconscious actions, but – given their importance – you should be conscious about them. A tip is to start thinking about the most important ones, the so-called keystone habits. These have a tendency to spun other habits. Think about the cues and rewards, not just the routine itself. Set yourself up to win by not making it too difficult for yourself. Start with one run per week if you want to start running. Make sure to prioritize and don’t try to change or start all habits at once, because you only have so much willpower.

“We can use decision-making to choose the habits we want to form, use willpower to get the habit started, then – and this is the best part – we can allow the extraordinary power of habit to take over. At that point, we’re free from the need to decide and the need to use willpower.” [Gretchen Rubin]