How and Why Habits Form

how habits form

Episode 3 of 6 in the “Goals and Habits Series.


If you missed episodes 1 and 2 in the series, here are the links:

Episode 1: Goal: How to set good ones

Episode 2: Values: Why they matter

In Short:

Although habits are usually unconscious, starting new ones or changing old ones is a conscious process. It is also possible to have conscious or intentional habits – things you do specifically because you know they are useful practices for creating flow in your life and helping you achieve your goals.

Unconscious habits are made up of three parts – cue, routine and reward. These three things get “chunked” together in the subconscious mind. Once that happens, it’s difficult to change a habit but it can be done by paying attention to the cues and rewards. In doing so, you’re able to work out how a specific behaviour is triggered and what you get out of it. When you know these things, it’s easier to choose a substitute routine to replace the old one. 

In Detail:

Everything is a consequence of what you choose to do or not do.

“Mentorbox Memorisation Booklet – The Power of Habit”

The life we have is a product of your habits. By paying attention to the things you do every day, it’s possible to move your life in the direction of our goals and dreams.

This episode is about understanding how habits form and how we can change them if they’re causing more problems than they’re solving.

Habits and the Brain

In the early 1990’s, researchers at MIT studied neural activity in the brains of rats as they learned to navigate a maze to find chocolate. At first, the rats’ behaviour seemed haphazard and sometimes pointless. They would stand still, apparently doing nothing and then move in the wrong direction, double back or stay motionless for long periods of time. What the researchers noticed, however, is that while this haphazard behaviour took place, neural activity spiked. The rats were thinking hard!

The maze was T-shaped and the chocolate was always placed in the same area. Gradually, the rats learned how to naviagate the maze easily. Their movements became purposeful. They were faster and more confident – exactly what you’d expect from an experienced expert. But…neural activity decreased dramatically – almost replicating sleep. They were hardly thinking at all.

They had formed a habit.


It is believed that the memories associated with habits are “chunked” – the relevant pieces of information are bundled together and stored as one thing.

I imagine it to be a bit like ingredients of a cake – you have sugar, flour, eggs, baking powder etc. and once you combine those things and bake them together, you end up with a cake – a single thing with all the elements in it.

In the cake example, you can never retrieve the original ingredients so that’s where the analogy falls down a bit. Retrieving and changing the individual ingredients of a habit is difficult, but it can be done.

The ‘ingredients’ of a Habit

According to Duhigg, the “chunks” that make up a habit are comprised of 3 parts:

  1. Cue
  2. Routine
  3. Reward
The Cue

This is another word for “trigger”. It’s the thing that starts the chain of events. There are several different types of cues, including:

  • Time
  • Emotional State
  • Location
  • Other people
  • Things you experience through your senses
  • Immediately preceding activities

This is the habitual behaviour – brushing your teeth, having a shower, leaving for work, etc.


This is what you ‘get’ as a result of running the routine. The reward might be a feeling, a particular result – decreased stress, improved self-esteem, a sugar rush, a nicotine hit, etc.

Changing a Habit

Changing habits is notoriously difficult. Possibly because many of us only look at the routine part of it. We don’t always pay attention to the cues or rewards. Since these are the most valuable parts when it comes to programming the subconscious, we have to pay attention to them in order to change the habit.

By paying attention to the cues that trigger a particular habit, you gather valuable intel about:

  • when to step in and circumvent a ‘bad’ routine
  • which cues to use to promote ‘good’ routines

By paying attention to the rewards, you learn why you’re doing what you’re doing. You might uncover counter intuitive rewards, for example, ‘numbness’ or ‘distraction’ and by paying attention to these and working out why they feel rewarding, you:

  • strengthen your ability to replace the ‘bad’ routine with a ‘good’ one.
  • uncover deep-rooted values you might not have thought about consciously 

Conscious Habits

Until this point, I have focused quite a lot on ‘bad’ habits – the ones that create more problems than they solve. Of course not all habits are like that. We all have plenty of great habits too. Some of those are subconscious and have the same structure as ‘bad’ habits. Others are conscious and intentional.

Arguably, even subconscious habits are conscious to begin with – before they get ‘chunked’. But it’s also possible to have ‘conscious habits – the kind you keep changing up, deliberately so they don’t become unconscious. 

In his book, “High Performance Habits”, Brendan Burchard talks about conscious habits of high performers – the habits they select and deliberately employ in order to perform at the highest level.  To employ these habits in your life, you’re not looking to make them run automatically because the conscious mind responds to different rewards than the subconscious mind.

The conscious mind likes novelty and challenge so it’s good to keep changing things up, inspiring yourself, inching the goal posts forward a little so you have to reach further to get there. It is still possible to use the cue-routine-reward structure but there has to be an added element of conscious reward in the mix.

So What?

This one is kind of a no-brainer. When your habits build resilience, lead to personal growth and cause you to pay attention to the great things in your life, you feel happier.

That’s it. Using this information helps you uproot bad habits and lay down the foundations for good habits, which ultimately create flow in your life and make it easier to achieve your goals and enjoy the process along the way.

Why Values Matter


If the ladder is not leaning against the right wall, every step we take just gets us to the wrong place faster.


In short:

When you know why you’re doing something, which helps you make sure your ladder is against the right wall. Knowing your ‘why’ makes it easier to stay motivated, resist the temptation to give up or aim for a lesser goal and keeps you focused on what you set out to achieve. Knowing your values can make the difference between living an unsatisfying life and a satisfying, rewarding and happy life, so it’s really worth taking to the time to work out what your values are.

In detail:

Your values shape your decisions, how you choose to motivate yourself and what you’re willing to endure in your efforts to get where you want to go.

There are two kinds of values

When I ask people about their values – and when I first made an effort to uncover mine – the lists include things like “health”, “family”, “happiness”, “authenticity” and so on. These are great – but they’re not values – at least not the kind of values that will help you stay on the path towards your goals when the going gets tough.

There are two reasons for delving deeper, rather than stopping with a list such as this.

  1. These values don’t contain a “why”. For example: I value my health. Why? I value time with my family. Why? There is a reason you value those things and the reason is what you’d need to turn to for motivation when the temptation arises to give up.
  2. More often than not, these are aspirational values rather than actual values. In his book “Uncovering your authentic core values”, Marc Alan Schelske talks about the difference between aspirational core values and authentic core values – with aspirational values being the ones we want to have and authentic values being the ones we actually live by.

Schelske’s book was revelatory for me. My authentic core values – I like to call them my actual values – were far less sexy than my aspirational values. If anything, they felt slightly unpalatable but knowing them has changed how I tackle all kinds of goals in my life and, for the first time, I’m gathering the kind of momentum I’ve been dreaming about for over two decades.

I’d highly recommend reading “Uncovering your authentic core values” but as a way to get started on the journey in the meantime, consider some of the key moments in your life – when you’ve made important decisions or have strong memories about a particular event for one reason or another, things you regret, things you’re proud of etc. Write down as much as you can remember about what happened and why you made the decisions you made. When you review your writing, key themes will emerge. These are your core values – or will point you towards your core values.

Opportunity-Cost is a value decision

When I was studying economics at school, we learned about “opportunity cost” – the loss of all other alternatives once a single alternative is selected. You take one opportunity and it costs you all the others. Our decisions in these situations are based on where we see ourselves gaining the greatest value, but these decisions are often detrimental to our health and long term goals, because we end up placing greater value on something in the ‘here and now’. This is particularly true when we haven’t taken the time to work out what our actual core values are and we’re therefore unable to use them to override those  instant reactions.

Example: One of my parenting goals is to raise my children in a way that makes them feel seen, heard and accepted, no matter what. When I have time and space to consider my reactions, I interact with them in ways that contribute positively to this goal but when I’m in situations where one of my ‘actual’ values is in play, I sometimes make the wrong choice. A few months back, over lunch, I expressed my frustration about my children’s food choices to other adults with my kids right there at the table. My comments were met with laughter and agreement by the other adults who made similar comments and our children sat silently eating their lunch. You see, one of my ‘actual’ values is ‘validation’ and another is ‘belonging’ so when I have an opportunity to gain positive validation in the form of laughter and agreement, I am drawn to that option. When I have the chance to be a part of the group rather than the one on the outside, I am drawn to that option. Awareness makes it possible to catch those moments earlier and make more productive choices.

You can combine aspirational and actual values

When I listened to The Psychology of Performance by Eddie O’Connor, he suggested completing an exercise where you imagine yourself at your retirement dinner, surrounded by all the important people in your life – all the ones who feature in your goals right now. The exercise involved imagining what you’d like them to say about you and using that information to extrapolate your values; your WHY.

I would argue that the speeches you imagine will show you your aspirational values. For me, the speeches featured words such as ‘calm’, ‘patient’, ‘joyful’ and ‘inspiring’. By combining this information with my actual core value list, I have been able to create a realistic plan to get me moving towards my goals and offer really useful processes for keeping going when motivation flags.

Map your goals to your values

In episode 1 of this series, I talked about 3 types of goals:

  1. Outcome
  2. Performance
  3. Process

Outcome goals offer the big picture – what’s the result you’re aiming for. Tying your aspirational values to this is wise. You can grow into them as you go.

Performance goals are about skill development. They are about measuring your progress and keeping track of improvements. It’s ‘you against you’ and these goals help show you how far you’ve come so they’re great for building confidence and boosting motivation.

Process goals involve creating a plan for your skill development. This is where actual values come in. You can use your actual values to create a motivational process for skill development and ultimately for goal achievement.

Example: Since ‘validation’ is one of my actual values, I have a Process Goal to “write one personal blog per day”. In doing this, I develop my writing skills – useful for achieving my business outcome goals – as well as personal skills such as self-reflection and mindfulness – useful for achieving my marriage, parenting and health goals. The ‘likes’ and ‘comments’ spur me on and, since I blog on a daily basis, I get a little motivational boost every day.

So what?

Having goals is a good starting point but goals interact with other things in your life so it’s not always a simple case of setting them and moving forward. Your motivation waxes and wanes, things get in the way and paths to lesser goals emerge and entice you in.

Getting clear on your aspirational values gives you a map to your future. Getting clear on your actual values gives you the tools you need right now to get you moving – and also exposes how and why you might sabotage yourself on the way to your big outcome goals.  Armed with this knowledge, you stand a much better chance of achieving those big goals and creating your big happy life.

Earlier Episodes in this Series:

  1. Goal Setting