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Building Habits That Stick | What Research Tells Us

Liz Peintner profile image

Liz Peintner

A person showing their wrist watch.

There’s a lot of information swirling around these days about how to create (and stick with) healthy habits. Some techniques you come across may be backed by research, while others may simply be what’s worked for one person.

But brain science has advanced significantly in the past several years, and we now know more than ever about how we form habits. Here are some tips on how to integrate these findings into your routine so that your good habits stick and your bad habits fade away.

Identify habits that aren’t serving you

When considering the brain science behind why we do what we do, it’s often easier to internalize the concepts with your own example in mind. So let’s pick one.

Think about your habits for a moment, and make a list. What are the things you do that are almost automatic for you? Perhaps it’s your morning cup of coffee, daily journaling, or that sweet snack that always seems to make it to your desk around three o’clock each afternoon. Which are positive, and which are not? Which are neither positive or negative and don’t require your attention or maintenance?

Now select something about your routine that you’d like to change. Visualize what your life will be like once you adjust or drop this behavior. For example, if the unhealthy afternoon snack is detracting from your energy level, visualize yourself with a bowl of your favorite veggies and hummus instead. If you’re constantly concerned about finances because you like to purchase the newest gadgets or accessories, then visualize the impact of making purchases more mindfully, or visualize your savings account growing month by month.

In a work setting, you might want to curb your propensity to arrive late to meetings or eliminate your tendency to bring negativity to staff meetings. Visualize the impacts here, too. This exercise gives you a better sense of your overall goal.

What science says about habits: cue, action, reward

Now that you’ve got a habit that you’d like to change in mind, let’s get to the science. When we think of habits, we often consider only the action itself. But according to a study from the MIT McGovern Institute for Brain Research, there are three components that make up a habit loop:

  • The cue is an environmental trigger that prompts you to take a specific action. Let’s say you always arrive late to meetings. In this case, the cue might be that you see a calendar reminder appear in your desktop that tells you there’s a meeting starting in 10 minutes.
  • The action itself is what you do as a result of the cue. When you receive the reminder, do you start getting ready for your meeting? Or do you try to get that one last email sent before the meeting?
  • The reward is what comes as a result of taking the action. Here, you stay too late at your desk, yet find joy in checking that email off your list. Thus the bad habit of arriving late to meetings.

What’s most fascinating about this trio is that you have the power to detach the components from one another to build a new routine or change up an unhealthy pattern. In essence, you can “derail existing habits and create a window of opportunity to act on new intentions,” as Wendy Wood, a researcher at the University of Southern California, explained at the American Psychological Association's 122nd annual convention in 2014.

Take the example of being late to meetings. It’s better to identify a more enjoyable reward that you’ll get when you leave your desk with a few minutes to spare; for instance, you could arrive to the meeting early enough to share a funny story with a close colleague before the agenda kicks off, or you could drop by the kitchen to refresh your coffee first. These are positive rewards of leaving your desk that can overpower the desire to send an email.

Rethinking your habit loop

Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, notes that “once you have diagnosed the habit loop of a particular behavior, you can look for ways to supplant old vices with new routines.” In this helpful guide he’s identified four steps that can be used to differentiate the three parts of the habit loop in order to make lasting positive change in your actions.

  • Identify the routine
  • Experiment with rewards
  •  Isolate the cue
  •  Have a plan

Soon, you’ll be moving toward your goal as a result of new, more positive habits. And by “soon”, I mean anywhere from 18 days to 254 days, as determined by one study. Don’t worry—the average worked out to be only 66 days. That means you can kick your “late to meetings” habit and start tackling another one within the quarter.

Change it up frequently for the most impact over time

Yes, you’ve got a new behavior in your life that supports your well-being, but this is not a “fix it and forget it” situation. Research on how to combat boredom has shown that it’s not enough to simply put yourself in a new mode of getting up from your desk five minutes before a meeting begins, and then leave that habit for months. You might start to see your energy toward the goal of being on time dwindling.

This means that in order to be drawn to the desired action time and time again, we might need to spice up the reward a bit; for example, give yourself seven minutes to arrive at the meeting and take a pit stop by the coffee maker instead, or take the “scenic route” to the meeting by giving yourself a full 10 minutes to spare. Only if your reward truly makes you happy will you feel compelled to continue performing the routine—and sticking to the habit for good.

Pro Tip: Want to integrate brain science into your life for multiple habits? Don’t overwhelm yourself. Start out by tackling just one habit. Give yourself sufficient time to make a shift. This offers enough time to break unhelpful patterns, experiment with new ways to make new behaviors stick, and enjoy the results of your hard work. With a new status quo, you can then take a look at other areas of your life where changing a habit might be transformational for you.

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Liz Peintner profile image

Liz Peintner

Liz S. Peintner is a leadership coach and consultant based in Denver, Colorado who has spent her entire career in the social impact field. She helps people to better understand what drives them so they can choose careers they love and ultimately make positive social impact in ways that speak to their talents and passions.

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