Understanding The Power of Habit

Understand how habit formation works, what are its mechanisms, and how to use it in our advantage to build better habits.

Habits shape our lives. We are naturally creatures of habit, and we create routines in everything we do. From the way we treat others, to the way we tackle a new challenge. Even our thoughts have distinct patterns. How do you react when you fail at something? Do you put yourself down or you think “better luck next time, I’ll figure it out.”

It’s important to understand how we create our habits so we can be more effective at choosing which ones to develop and which ones to throw away. When we know the underlying process of developing and maintaining habits than we understand for example, why sometimes we fail to keep up with going to the gym and eating healthy every day.

To explore this topic, there is a fantastic book written by Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit. In this book, we come to understand the role and power of habits in our lives. We realise exactly how habits are formed and how we can change them individually as well as in groups and organisations.

Why do we Develop Habits?

The scientific reason why we develop habits and even certain biases is because the brain is always looking for ways to save energy. Imagine having to make all your decisions all over again every time you’re faced with a situation? That would be exhausting. We would pass our days figuring out how to do the simplest of things. To prevent this, our brain employs strategies that save us energy and make our life easier. One of them is developing habits and routines.

At the beginning of any activity the brain requires concentration, but the more you do it, the more effortless it becomes. Think about when you took your driver’s licence. At the beginning it felt slow and complex but after some months it becomes fast, simple and effortless. Research shows that up to 40% of your daily actions come from habits and not conscious decisions. That’s a lot of time the brain doesn’t need to make any decision, just blindly performing a routine.

How do Habits Work?

Habits work in a cue-routine-reward loop. First, we sense a cue. For example, your alarm clock rings. It activates a routine we perform whenever we’re faced with this particular signal. For example, brushing your teeth or making your morning coffee. This routine is done on auto-pilot. After the routine, you get a reward. A fresh sensation in your mouth or the taste of coffee and the energy spike you get as soon as you drink it.

When this loop ends, the brain registers the completion of this habit and reinforces the links in the brain between cues, routines, and rewards.

What’s impressive is that the brain’s pathways of habits are so powerful that even people who suffered brain damage and don’t remember anything can still perform the same old routines and learn new ones.

It’s because the part of the brain where habits and learning are developed is called the Basal Ganglia which works independently even if the rest of your brain is damaged. It also means that even if you kick a bad habit, you’re always at risk of going back since the neural pathways are so strong.

Why do Habits Stick?

Remember this: habits stick because they create a craving. Kicking a bad habit is often hard because of the reward you get after you’ve done it. This compensation creates a need at a physical level.

For example, you want to stop eating sugar and chocolate (one of my downfalls), but for awhile now, after lunch you eat a chocolate bar (what I do). What happens when you want to stop this habit? The first day you’re trying not to eat it, you’re body will develop a craving for the reward it gets (in my case, the heavenly taste of chocolate and the sugar) because it’s so used to eating a chocolate bar after lunch. It’s automatic. When you decide not to, your body is not getting its usual dose of sugar at that time.

The result? You become grumpy. This is also the basis of addiction. Addiction and habit are one and the same. The reward you get from whatever you do will keep you coming back to that same habit even if it’s not good for you.

To break the cycle, you have to go through a period of craving. It can be very uncomfortable depending on the level of addiction, but the process is always the same, no matter what habit you’re trying to break.

Another thing we should mention when talking about habits is conditioning. Research on animals shows that when they get used to the habit loop (cue-routine-reward), their brain starts to anticipate the reward before they get it. When you decide to deny the reward, they get sad or moody.

The core to build healthy habits is to create a craving for good things such as exercise. Once you do it regularly, your body will develop a desire for the endorphins release (the reward) while you’re exercising.

Who do you think studies these phenomena extensively? Marketers and advertisers. The best products are the ones that create a craving. A perfect example in today’s world is social media. You perform a routine (posting), and you get a reward (likes, follows…). This creates a loop that reinforces over time, the more you do it. This makes social networks potentially addictive.

Like we saw, addiction and habit go hand in hand. By recognising how habits are formed, you are more aware of how companies use this loop to sell their products or services. Another example is toothpaste. You brush your teeth, get a fresh feeling in your mouth and a tingling sensation. In your mind, this means the product worked, and it makes you feel good. Hence, reinforcing the cue-routine-reward loop.

Now that you understand why we develop habits (o save energy), how do they work (cue-routine-reward loop) and why they stick (because of craving), let’s find out how we can change them.

How to Change a Habit?

What is the golden rule for changing habits? Don’t resist the craving, instead respond to it by changing your routine. For example, you want to stop smoking, and whenever you try to stop, you get those nasty nicotine cravings. You’re not going to be very successful if you just try to ignore the craving day after day (it may work for some time, but it’s usually hard and often unsuccessful), you have to redirect it to another routine.

To do this, you have to ask yourself, why do you smoke? (this question applies to any habit you’re trying to change) Usually, people will say, “it relaxes me”. Well, there you have your solution! Substitute smoking by something that will relax you. Start meditation, exercise or a hobby that will make you relax. The key is to keep the cue and the reward but replace the routine!

Sometimes, when we’re under stress, we might relapse to bad habits (smoking, overeating…). Research shows that the main difference between not getting back to your bad habits is believing that you can change. In more extreme cases, this can mean believing in spirituality.

One example is how Alcoholics Anonymous uses the belief in God to make participants believe in themselves and their ability to change. This, in turn, creates a strong feeling of believing they can change for the better when facing stressful situations.

Now let’s look at two crucial concepts for creating change: keystone habits and small wins.

Keystone Habits & Small Wins

Some habits are more important than others. These are called keystone habits. These habits often create a chain reaction that makes it easier for other good habits to develop. One example is exercising. When you exercise regularly, you often start to eat healthy as well. You also start to feel less stressed, and your mood improves.

So you’re not only exercising, but you’re also making it easier for other habits to be created. The more of these keystone habits we can develop the more natural, it will be to build healthy habits all around. Other keystone habits are meditating or having family dinners. For more keystone habits, check out this list.

The reason why keystone habits work so well in driving change is that you achieve small wins. It’s not hard to go exercise one day or meditate in the morning. This, in turn, makes you believe that change in other areas of your life is possible. This creates a positive feeling that will create even more change.

Willpower: The Most Important Habit

An experiment conducted at Stanford University in 1972, involved kids being offered a marshmallow now or having to wait and getting two later. The kids who demonstrated willpower and delayed the gratification of eating now as ooposed of waiting and getting more later were proven to be more successful and healthier than the ones who ate it immediately.

The reason for this is that willpower is a keystone habit that can be applied practically to every area in our life. It’s also a skill that can be learned and strengthened by doing certain things.

To watch a funny remake of this experiment and see how kids react to this, watch the video below:

However, willpower can come and go. It can be very inconsistent. Why is that? It’s because will power is much like a muscle. If we exercise it too much, it gets tired and won’t perform as good. If we spend our days doing something that we consider boring or do not have much interest on, we won’t have much willpower left, to, for example, maintain our healthy eating habits and exercise.

Stressful situations can also impact willpower. It may make us act differently than the way we wanted to. A good tip to not let that happen is by planning ahead and preparing for possible obstacles that may arise. That way, when the stressful event comes, you will know how to handle it, and you will have the confidence to stick with the plan.

Another factor that tires your willpower “muscle” is a lack of autonomy. By doing something that you have been ordered instead of choosing, you drain your willpower much quicker.


“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” — Plato

Habits are what will ultimately decide where we end up in life. They have power over our health, finances, and relationships. If we understand how habits work, why do they stick and how can we change them, we have learned the knowledge to improve our lives. By consciously evaluating your habits, implementing good ones and throwing out the bad ones, we are actively developing ourselves, one step at a time.

I have a personal perspective on what it is that truly dictates our lives. I’ve written it down in an equation in which habits it’s only a part of it. It goes like this: Habits + Decisions + Mindstate = Life. The moment we understand these three components, we have all we need to achieve anything we want, and change will always be within our grasp.

Who would you recommend this Book Note to? Maybe you know a friend or family that is struggling with building better habits and defeating bad ones. Share this with them if you think it can help!