Understanding Habits*

Thursday, 15 August 2019, By Sam Muraoka

Everybody has countless habits they have built. Some have been cemented over the years, and others come and go in a short duration. Human behaviour is heavily influenced by habit. Not to say that we don't make the decisions ourselves. Our habits influence the choices we make. For example, if you go for a run every morning at 7 am, the decision to run this morning at seven was made by you, but the habit influenced you to do it. The more you repeat an action, the stronger that habit will be and therefore, more challenging to break. This can be either a positive or a negative thing.


All our habits follow a general pattern:

  • Cue: Some form of stimulation occurs to trigger the action that has been habituated. Identifying this cue is often half the battle.
  • Routine: The cue has prompted us to take the action which has given us the reward we have noticed in the past.
  • Reward: The routine activity has given the expected or desired reward; thus, the habit loop has been completed.


Here is an example, for using minty toothpaste, which is a habit many of us share.

  1. CUE - furry teeth
  2. ROUTINE - brush teeth with toothpaste
  3. REWARD - minty, clean teeth


The more times these loops are repeated, the stronger the cue will be, and the more difficult it will be to avoid the routine activities.


It is the reason why fad diets don't work in the long run. Weight loss strategies which reply on drastic changes to a person lifestyle don't provide us with a strong enough 'reward'. This means that there is no discernible loop being completed, so habits are not formed. The persons "4-week detox" is completed, previous habits will still have the same cue, routine and reward thus the same result will occur over x amount of time.


The way we establish long-lasting results lies in our ability to be consistent when setting up our new habits. The consistency we're discussing here isn't "a few weeks" or "a few months". It's the ability to identify the cue, routine and reward we would like to achieve. If the reward is satisfactory, when we are cued again, the same routine will be a viable choice.


Since we are not robots, the road is not necessarily straightforward. It can be bumpy, and that is okay. Having a good long term goal goes a long way to motivate us in the here and now. That way, we can start building on the small habits we begin making, and as we become comfortable with the right habits we make, we add on to these habits or adjust them as we go, depending on our situation.


An example of this can be seen in my meal prepping over the years. When I began meal prepping, it was challenging to motivate myself to do something I was not very good at, but I understood that it would be a handy tool to get me to my long term goals. So, I stuck with it, amending my meals, occasionally missing meal prepping but always kept it going as my primary source of nutrition and weekly meals. Through achieving my reward (quick and easy access to food, coupled with good results with my nutrition), the routine action is no longer a decision to make, but a simple choice to ensure the same reward. The same can be said for many other habits, and I'm sure if you consider what strong habits you have set up for yourself over the years, you will see similarities.


It is vital to allow some flexibility with sticking to your habits, as the flexibility will allow the habits to be ingrained over a long period. We have all had the feeling of deviating from a plan or process and feeling like we've failed. That negative emotion that comes from altering our behaviour can lead us down a slippery slope. If we allow ourselves some flexibility, it allows us to succeed in the long term.


If you would like to learn more about habits and how to control them, I strongly recommend reading the book "The power of HABIT" by Charles Duhigg.


*Disclaimer: Individual results vary based on agreed goals. Click here for details.

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