The Science of Making Habits Stick

blonde straight hair woman happily stands smiles enjoys nice foggy weather
by Helena Popovic
by Dr Helena Popovic and The Blisspot Team

Your life is essentially the sum of your habits. These are the repeated small decisions and actions we make every day throughout our lives.

How we are as an individual reflects our habits. The results of our habits can impact many things, from our fitness levels to our happiness to our success. Everything begins with habits. If you want to improve on a particular ability or to pick up a particular hobby, you need to have good habits to reach your end goal.

Establishing healthy habits can enhance your physical and mental health and transform your life, but how do we go about it? Often we can feel its easier said than done!

Why is it so Hard to Change Our Habits?

Because habits are behaviours we do on autopilot—without thinking—and without effort. In contrast, changing our habits requires us to pause, think about what we’re doing, exert extra energy and often feel uncomfortable in the process. And no one wants to add something hard to an already hard day.  

The other reason we find it difficult to change is that we’re not taught how to do it. We have the expectation that it will be hard—often because we’ve tried in the past and failed — and we think we must rely on motivation and willpower—neither of which work. Instead, we need to understand that adopting a new habit is a skill that can be learned, just like any other skill. And once you know the how of habits, it’s a lot of fun. Here is the science of how habits work.

Woman eating unhealthily by sneaking into the fridge

The Science of Habits

There is an extremely helpful framework to understand how habits work. Using this framework can make it easier to stick to new habits that can improve your relationships, work, health and just life in general!

The process of habit building can be divided into four steps: cue, craving, response, and reward.

According to James Clear, New York Times bestselling author of Atomic Habits, the process of building a habit can be divided into the following four steps:

  1. Cue
  2. Craving
  3. Response
  4. Reward.

When you build a habit, these are the steps that run through your brain. Understanding the fundamental components to the process will help us better know what a habit is, how it works, and how to improve it.

1. Cue

This first step is a trigger to your brain that begins a behaviour. The trigger comes from a prediction of a reward from the behaviour. We are constantly looking for cues of a reward by analysing our internal and external environment. To put it into context, we spend most of our time learning cues that predict secondary rewards like money and fame, power and status, praise and approval, love and friendship, or a sense of personal satisfaction.

2. Craving

The cue indicates the possibility of a reward, which leads to its craving. This is essentially the motivational force behind every habit. When we act, it is because we have the motivation and desire for the outcome. What I mean by outcome is the change of state it delivers. A person does not crave alcohol, they crave the feeling of relief and relaxation it provides. A person is not motivated to clean their room, but the feeling of cleanliness and organisation.

3. Response

This is the actual habit you do. It can take the form of a thought or an action. Acting on the response depends on how motivated you are and how much exertion is associated with it. Usually if it requires more physical or mental effort than you are willing to spend, you won’t do it.

4. Reward

Rewards are the end goal of every habit. There are two reasons we chase rewards:

  • To satisfy your craving. They also provide benefits on their own, for example: food and water deliver energy you need to survive; a promotion brings more money and respect; getting in shape improves your health and your dating opportunities. The rewards deliver satisfaction and relief from craving.
  • To teach us which actions are important to remember in the future. Your brain is a reward detector. As you progress through life, your brain continuously examines which actions satisfies your desires and delivers pleasure. The feeling of pleasure and disappointment you get from performing an action is part of a feedback mechanism, helping your brain identify useful actions and useless actions.

If the behaviour does not undergo any of these four stages sufficiently, it will not become a habit. Without the first three steps, the behaviour will not occur. Without all four, a behaviour will not be repeated.

Healthy young man eating a delicious red apple

The Habit Loop

The stages of habits are a feedback loop because it is an ongoing process you do throughout your life. You continually scan the environment, predict what happens next, try out different responses and learn from the results.  This loop is what ultimately allows you to create automatic habits.

Two Phases in the Feedback Loop are:

  1. The Problem Phase
    The problem phase is when you realise change is needed. It includes the cue and the craving
  2. The Solution Phase
    While the solution phase is when you act and achieve the change you desire. This is the response and the reward.

All behaviour is driven by the desire to solve a problem. Therefore, the purpose of every habit is to solve the problems you face.

Here are some examples of what this looks like in real life:

Problem PhaseProblem PhaseSolution PhaseSolution Phase
You wake up.You want to feel alert.You drink a cup of coffee.You satisfy your craving to feel alert. Drinking coffee becomes associated with waking up.
You are overwhelmed with projects at work.You feel suffocated and stressed. You want to relieve your anxiety.You pull out your phone and check social media.You satisfy your craving to feel relieved. Checking social media and using your phone becomes associated with feeling stalled at work.

Where to Go From Here

We can use this practical framework to design good habits, while inversely eliminating bad ones. It provides a simple set of rules for creating good habits and breaking habits. It will make creating good habits effortless and cease acting on bad ones.

The Four Stages of HabitsRules for Creating a Good HabitRules for Breaking a Bad Habit
CueMake it obviousMake it invisible
CravingMake it attractiveMake it unattractive
ResponseMake the actions easy to doMake the actions difficult to do
RewardMake the reward satisfying and fulfillingMake the reward unsatisfying

Whenever you want to change your behaviour, you can ask yourself:

  1. How can I make it obvious/invisible?
  2. How can I make it attractive/unattractive?
  3. How can I make it easy/difficult?
  4. How can I make it satisfying/unsatisfying?
great habits: Jogging

How Long Does it Take to Make or Break a Habit?

Everyone seems to think the magic number is 21 days. Is that correct?

No. The notion of 21 days originated from a plastic surgeon called Maxwell Maltz who observed that it took around 21 days for his patients to adjust to their new nose after surgery—or whatever body part he had operated on. He then went on to write a best-selling self-help book in which he stated that it took a minimum of 21 days for people to change their self-image or their behaviour. Over time the word minimum was lost, and 21 days stuck.

It wasn’t until the year 2000 when researchers at University College London tested 96 people with a variety of habits, that they discovered it took an average of 66 days—just over 2 months—to adopt a new habit. But the range was 18 days to 254 days, depending on the person and the habit. The worst-case scenario is that it will take eight months. 

But if you know how your brain works, it can be much quicker. 

Creating new habits can be a fun and exciting process. Understanding habits and their science makes it easier to develop better habits and eliminate bad ones.

Though thinking about habits can be a little overwhelming, a small action or decision you make to build a habit is a great start. Developing these actions and decisions little by little will help you ease into the habit and be comfortable with it in your everyday routine. By the time you know it, it will feel as if you have been performing the habit your entire life!

Habits can ultimately transform a person and their life. As we become conscious of our unconscious behaviours, we can take control of our lives and design a life as we want.

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