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What is a Habit, and How do You Form One?

Author Robert Collier once said that, “success is the sum of small efforts, repeated day in and day out.” Whether you want to eat more veggies, hit the gym, or stop gossiping, your daily efforts are where the rubber meets the road. These daily efforts are your habits. But what is a habit, exactly, and why does it matter?

A habit is simply a behavior that’s repeated. It can be a good behavior, like brushing your teeth each morning, or a bad one like picking your nose while driving.

Everyone has at least a couple good habits. If you have no bad habits, then I call bullshit (ahem) good for you. Good habits and bad habits have very different effects on our lives, but they share a couple of common traits.

A habit may begin with a conscious choice (“I’m going to do crunches every night”) or it may start with very little thought (like making an annoying mouth noise before speaking). Either way, a habit becomes more effortless and less intentional over time.

When’s the last time you really thought hard about throwing a piece of trash in the garbage or recycling? Most of us do this hundreds of times per day. We open a piece of mail, and we throw the envelope in the trash.

As the mama of a couple of messy little monkeys, I can say with confidence that you haven’t always done this. I tell my kids to throw their trash away roughly 85 billion times per day. Eventually, it’ll click for them (just as it clicked for me and it hopefully clicked for you).

There is also a common system for how habits form, called a habit loop.

The Habit Loop

A habit loop is a cyclical process that automates a behavior. The idea was popularized by author Charles Duhigg, in his book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.

At the center of the loop is a craving—a desire to change something about your life. The process of habit formation involves a cue (sometimes called a reminder or a trigger), a routine, and a reward.

circle diagram of a habit loop with cue, routine, and reward around a craving

The cue is the catalyst for action. Do you know anyone who cracks their knuckles when sitting down to type? The cue is sitting down to type.

The routine is cracking the knuckles. The routine simply describes the behavior that’s repeated—the one that becomes a habit.

The reward is the benefit that we get from performing the routine. I’m not a knuckle cracker, so I can’t say for sure what people get from it. But I imagine this behavior brings some degree of comfort, or maybe some people find the noise pleasant? Either way, rewards fulfill cravings.

Repeating this habit loop over and over makes it more automatic. Studies suggest it actually rewires the brain to behave in certain ways over time.

Understanding this process can help you to break bad habits, and also to establish good ones. Breaking bad habits involves replacing the routine (I.e., taking a deep breath instead of cracking your knuckles). There are a couple of different ways to approach a new healthy habit. You can either manipulate the cue with strategies like habit stacking, or you can try out different rewards.

Just remember, the idea is to make it automatic over time.

Ready to become healthier? Sign up for my email list for a free guide to habit formation. And please, if you’re a knuckle cracker, I’d love to know what reward you get from it in the comments.  

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