The Auto-Pilot Part of Your Life and What Goes Into It

Habitual behavior is like auto-pilot for your brain in many ways. Understanding how habits work is an integral step to building healthy ones

Like clockwork, every January gym memberships surge. People are set on their New Year’s resolutions to get fit, and stick with it. They swear that they won’t be the ones that fall off this time. But as we know, gyms start thinning out shortly after February.

Why does this happen? People obviously want to get healthy. They are at the very least financially committed to a membership, and at most, have an intrinsic motivation to live a healthier lifestyle.

The answer to this cyclical pattern is simple. Building habits is challenging. To effectively build healthy habits, it helps to understand how they work first.

Think about your daily habits. Off the top of your head, it’s hard to think of them, let alone think of how they work. This is largely due to the fact that habits are more or less just automatic processes that we don’t even think about anymore.

As it turns out, many of our habits are not conscience decisions but rather the result of cues triggering a responsive behavior according to Dr. Charles Duhigg and his research team at MIT. We’ll break it down more simply here in a three-step process; the cue, the routine, and the reward.

The Cue is the first part of habit formation. In order for habits to be built, there has to be a trigger for the behavior. A cue is an environmental or contextual factor. It can be linked to who you’re with, where you are, or even what time it is. For example, a sunny day might be a cue that triggers the action of walking around the lake for some people.

For habit formation, the action must produce a reward. In this example the reward might be the sense enjoyment and warmth taken from being in the sun. This reward is essential to behavioral change, because without it, there is no motivation to continue the routine.

The direct connection between the cue and the reward is what allows for the routine to become habitual.

Think of it this way, if you don’t get a reward for acting on your cue, why would you continue to do it? For long-term behavioral change, we have to get something out of our routine, whether it be enjoyment, fulfillment, or happiness. Once established, the connection between the action and the reward becomes engrained in your behavior. This behavior becomes automatic and habitual. Before you know it, you’re not even thinking about your healthy behaviors or why you do them, you just simply do them.

Now let’s take a second to think back on the fall-off of gym goers in March. The pattern of gyms thinning out happens because people are simply not getting a reward out of their new behavior. Living a healthier lifestyle is important, but often times these rewards take a longer period of time to see.

In next week’s post, we’ll take a look into how we can help build healthier habits, and how we can make them last.


If a healthy lifestyle is something you believe would benefit your co-workers or employees, don’t hesitate to request Perk Health’s free, four-week fitness challenge. Perk Health believes exercise should engage everybody, from marathoners to parents playing tag with their kids.

For more information on Perk Health and the free four week fitness challenge, check out www.getperkhealth.com