When I first began researching and reading habits, I believed it took just a few weeks of practice to implement certain behaviours into my life. The common theory going around was that it took 21 days to turn conscious thoughts into subconscious behaviours. I would attempt to align my behaviours with this thinking, but they would only last for so long before I was back to square one. Nowadays, the more I learn, the more I understand that to get optimal benefit from new habits, we need to understand the simple science when trying to create new behaviours. Of course, repetition is necessary, but to think we must act a certain way for 21 days before it becomes automatic sets us up for repeat failure. When building habits, we must make it as easy as possible to continue forward. The key to achieve this is by understanding the three stages of how building habits work.
Building Habits: The Three Stages
When building any habit, there are three formidable stages we go through: The cue, the routine, and the reward. Think of each of these stages as an essential pillar in the structure of how we behave.
Stage 1: The Cue (Trigger)
The trigger to our behaviour. A cue gives our brain the signals required to initiate a behaviour that predicts our reward. There are five primary ways a cue presents itself. If we can grasp each of them, we can select the right trigger for a particular habit we want to implement or remove.
1. Time. When a new habit is triggered, the most common cues usually come from the time of day. For example, waking up in the morning usually triggers a domino effect of habits. We go to the bathroom, brush our teeth, have a shower, eat breakfast and continue with our day. Our time-based cues can be used to stick to basic routines or rituals over and over again.
2. Location. Where we perform a behaviour is one of the biggest drivers in mindless habits. Most of the time, our behaviours are simply a response to the environment we surround ourselves in. For example, getting a morning coffee across the road from work each morning is essentially a pre-determined behaviour. We’ve mentally assigned getting a coffee to a specific location each morning. If instead we want to take coffee from home, we need to mentally assign a trigger to a new location. Because there’s no existing cue to pour a coffee into a travel mug before work, we can create one in a new location.
3. Previous Event. Many habits we apply are a response to an event previously experienced. These minor events are as small as a notification lighting our phone up, so we check it, having an extra glass of wine after a bad day, or checking our checking emails right after meetings. All of these habits are caused by preceding events that have triggered a behaviour. This can be one of the hardest to overcome because sometimes we have no control over what has transpired. However, we can limit mindless responsive behaviours by habit stacking. Originally coined by Stanford professor B.J Fogg, habit stacking occurs when we add extra positive responses to a specific event. Here’s how:
After [CURRENT HABIT], I will [NEW HABIT]
Current Habit: After I brush my teeth in the evening > New Positive Response: I will read for half an hour.
Current Habit: After I get home from work > New Positive Response: I will clean the kitchen.
Current Habit: After I exercise in the morning > New Positive Response: I will make a smoothie.
Habit stacking is an effective strategy to implement new routines because we link them to a current habit pattern. When we connect the two together, we will likely stick to a new behaviour because we are doing it alongside what’s already consistent. But all of this is null and void unless we are receiving suitable rewards for our efforts.
4. Emotional State. Our emotional state is perhaps the most dangerous form of producing bad habits. If we’re emotional, our automatic responses tend to be filled with regret. Our feelings can be hard to control, and without sound awareness of the emotions we have, it becomes harder to respond to a trigger healthily. We need to slow down. We should think and assess what is happening around us. By applying logical and rational thinking, we will be able to judge situations more effectively. This happens with conscious practice of analyzing how we respond to our feelings.
5. Other People. Like our environment, those around us can influence how we behave. and vice versa. If we seek good habits, It’s important to surround ourselves with those that positively affect how we show up each day. If we spend too much time with toxic, pessimistic people, it becomes a trait of our own.
Selecting Your Cue
Think of a habit you would like to implement and which cue you can identify as specific and readily actionable. Here are some examples:
Reading a book
Time > What time of the day? Can you read at 6 am, five days a week?
Location > Can you read in bed? Or on public transport?
Preceding event > Will you read straight after breakfast?
Emotional state > Would you read-only when you’re feeling good?
Other People > Will you read only when a book is recommended to you?
Time > Will you exercise in the morning or afternoon?
Location > Will you exercise at a gym or home?
Preceding event > Will you exercise after work or when you wake up?
Emotional state > Will you exercise just when you’re feeling happy?
Other People > Do you have friends to exercise with? Will they show up?
Spending quality time with a loved one
Time > Will you commit to a set night/day for quality time? Is there a time of the week that is easy to commit for both partners?
Location > Will the location be the same or different each time?
Preceding event > Would you spend time together after exercising? Is there a preceding event that makes spending time together easier
Other People > Will your quality time depend on one another? Will you communicate and commit to quality time with your loved one?
To be effective in selecting the most effective cue to implement a habit, it takes some amount of trial and error. A trigger must fit in with your current way of living. Once you lock down a viable trigger for a behaviour, you can begin implementing a routine.
Stage 2: Routine
A routine is a mental or physical behaviour we take when presented with a trigger. We should be aware that a routine shouldn’t be considered a habit. Although habits offer the same in regular and repeated actions, a routine requires a higher degree of effort, whereas a habit offers unconscious thought in performing a behaviour. Routines also vary not only in type but also in frequency. They may be fixed or flexible and you can constantly adjust them to succeed in evolving into a habit. The most challenging aspect is to continually execute the routine right after the cue. This is where habit stacking becomes an effective tool to smoothly transition from trigger to routine, and do it consistently.
Stage 3: Rewards
A reward gives our brain an incentive to continue performing the routine. It’s the final stage in habit formation, providing a neuronal pathway between habit and cue. But it’s also the stage that keeps momentum and motivation ticking at optimal levels. We need to ensure that the rewards we receive from our routine are both; relevant to the desired habit and rewarding. They need to be satisfying enough to trigger your behaviour and routine.
For example, every morning at 5 am I wake up, drive to my local cafe, order a coffee and sit down to write for three hours. I receive positive reinforcement each writing session, which provides consistent motivation. Further benefits mean I satisfy the cravings of: A morning coffee, activating my mind for the day, producing content, and missing peak hour traffic. There are several small wins I earn from my routine.
Your reward can be anything that provides an end goal of every habit. Find your reward which will either satisfy you, or teach you.
Here’s the breakdown of how I’ve built a writing habit:
Cue: Waking up at 5am (Time is the trigger).
Routine: Driving to the cafe, ordering a coffee, writing for a few hours.
Reward: Positive reinforcement, morning coffee, missing peak hour traffic, activating my mind.
Note: I have adjusted my routine over time. I tried writing at all different times of the day, but I wasn’t getting the rewards I wanted. I found optimal rewards through trial and error, where writing in the morning works best for me.
There’s no one specific formula for implementing habits or breaking bad ones. We need to recognise the habit formation stages and acknowledge that there are thousands of ways building habits can help us succeed. As individuals, we all have different cravings, responses and behaviours. Trying not to binge eat is different to wanting to exercise more, which is different to waking up at a set time each morning. Some habits are more difficult to change than others. And sometimes, change takes a long time. The key is to focus on the three stages and experiment with your routine and how you respond.