How and Why 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.

Like this article?

Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
Share on Linkdin
Share on Pinterest

Leave a comment