Ever find yourself with a bad habit like eating a cookie every day at lunch? Charles Duhigg did. And he set out on a research journey to break that habit in the book: The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. Despite the 8 pounds he had gained, Duhigg found himself in the cafeteria every afternoon eating another cookie. He tried reminder notes, but promptly ignored them. He discovered that a habit is actually a three-step loop:

Cue —> Habit routine —> Reward

There is a cue that prompts us to perform the habit, which is step two, and then there is the reward, or the reason we are doing that particular thing. The only real way to break a bad habit, Duhigg discovered, is to keep the cue and the reward the same while changing the habit routine. He analyzed the when the cookie craving happened, or the cue (bored, alone, at his desk in the afternoon) and what reward he got out of going to get the cookie (socializing in the cafeteria). So, he changed the habit routine to something that offered the same reward. The next time he got the cue (bored, at his desk, in the afternoon), he stood up and went to talk to some other people in the office for ten minutes. It worked like a charm and he stopped eating the cookies.

Habits are often discussed in terms of “consumption” in market research. Stores are thrilled with the fact that we have built-in purchasing habits and try to keep those going and attempt to create new ones for us. Think about your routine. Do you buy a coffee on the way to work? Peruse Target while your kid is at gymnastics next door? Purchase a new outfit when you get a raise? Add a small toy with your diaper purchase? Discovering and exploiting your consumption habits is a multi-billion dollar enterprise. Do yourself a favor and break any habit you have that is tied to “consumption.” Instead, automate your savings so your habits become living off of the remaining money after the savings has already been deducted.

Forming new habits occurs using the same three-step cycle. You need to set up a cue (setting your running shoes next to your bed) in order to perform the routine (running). (To be clear, I do not run. I prefer other forms of exercise, like Zumba.) So how do you know if you’ve made it a habit? I’ve seen numbers thrown around for the amount of days it takes to make/break habits, but I really think these are probably averages and can vary greatly from person to person. Habits are defined by being something ingrained, or automatic. The moment that thing becomes something you do without having to think about it or prepare for it, you’ve made it a habit. 

So let’s look at a few other studies to figure out some tricks on how to form a new habit:

  • Create an event-based cue rather than a reminder. In research done on how to create the most effective habit apps, cues associated with events rather than reminders were shown to be more useful. When you create a trigger-event, the action becomes more easily automatic (ie: after I eat dinner, I drink a glass of water). When study participants were instead building habits upon app reminders, they became dependent on the reminder.
  • If you already have a habit formed, use that as a cue for the new habit you’re trying to create. A study out of London attempted to get 50 people to form a flossing habit. They asked 25 people to floss before brushing their teeth and 25 to floss after. Then they assessed the habit 4 weeks and 8 months later. Only 29 responded at the final 8-month follow up, but within that small sample size, they found that the people that were directed to floss after teeth-brushing (using the existing habit of teeth-brushing as the cue) were more likely to floss automatically in the follow-ups.
  • Create a better attitude about it. In the same flossing study, the study participants that had a positive attitude about flossing flossed more. The people that reported greater potential outcomes associated with flossing were more motivated to floss more. If you’re trying to form a new habit, figure out why you’re doing it. The more positive outcomes you can associate with the action, the more likely you are to do it.
  • Bribe Yourself. Small incentives can help. Kids in Utah who were given $0.25 tokens for the school store for eating fruits and vegetables kept eating them when the incentives were finished. Kids who received the incentives for three weeks were 10% more likely to continue eating fruits and vegetables two months after those incentives ended. Kids who received the small incentives for a full five weeks were 16.4% more likely to keep eating them two months after those incentives stopped. These percentages equated to 21% and 44% above baseline respectively. Those are significant improvements. Figure out what works for you. What small incentive would motivate you?

Set a goal. Start small. And get going. Consistency is key. Let’s all start the formation of some new habits!