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Introduction to habits

How habits are formed • 3 min read

Research shows that approximately half of our daily actions are driven by repetition. Stanford University’s leading behavior scientist BJ Fogg, who has coached more than 40,000 people for his research, has found that taking tiny steps is the key to successfully embedding a new behaviour.

We are more likely to keep a habit if it doesn’t require a lot of motivation at first. And importantly, we don’t rely on willpower to perform the habit.



Habits are routines of behaviour that are repeated regularly and happen with little or no conscious thought. They are mental shortcuts that are designed to reduce levels of activity in our brain, reducing our cognitive load.

Put simply, they free up mental capacity. This means that we are not constantly thinking about basic behaviours such as tying our shoelaces or putting toothpaste on our toothbrush. Actions and choices that once required effort become automatic.

"How are they formed?" you ask.

Great question, let’s find out.

Trigger, action and reward

1. Trigger

Well, it begins with a TRIGGER e.g. picking up our toothbrush - this is a hint as to what we should do next to get a reward. This is the cue that tells our brain to go into automatic mode.

2. Action

Our brain now knows there is a potential prize at stake. We crave this prize, it’s the motivational force that gets us to act and it leads us to this second stage.

We are not motivated by brushing our teeth, we are motivated by having a clean mouth, and it's the reason we perform the ACTION itself (brushing our teeth in this example).

3. Reward

Finally, this ACTION delivers us a REWARD (a clean mouth) which is the 3rd and final stage of the habit chain. The REWARD then becomes associated with the TRIGGER.

A habit will only form if all 3 elements of the chain are strong. So for example, if we remove the TRIGGER, a habit will not be formed. If the REWARD does not motivate us, we will not have the motivation to perform the ACTION.

Let's look at some simple examples.

Habits in practice

The neurological loop that occurs in our brain is widely known as the 'habit loop'. This is an endless cycle where the brain continuously scans our environment to figure out what different actions will bring about the next juicy reward.

Checking a SMS

TRIGGER: your phone pings when a new text comes in.

ACTION: you pick your phone up to read the message because you want to know who sent it and the contents of the message.

REWARD: you read the message, satisfying your craving.

Task switching

TRIGGER: you receive an email from a colleague asking for help with something.

ACTION: you switch tasks to offer assistance.

REWARD: you feel good for helping your colleague.


Key takeaways

  1. Habits are formed when a TRIGGER causes us to perform an ACTION which delivers us a REWARD.

  2. We are not motivated by the ACTION itself but the REWARD that follows.

  3. The best chance of embedding a new habit is by starting with baby steps. For example, start by switching off your email for 15 minutes every day as opposed to 2 hours.


Think big. act small

Think about your own routines of behaviour - is there a TRIGGER (e.g. your phone pinging) that leads to an ACTION that leads to...a DISTRACTION from what matters most?!

Identify the TRIGGER and to begin with, look to remove it for small periods of time.


Content sources

  • Atomic Habits, James Clear

  • CNBC, 12 Tiny Habits That Will Instantaneously Make You More Productive, Jade Scipioni

  • Current Directions in Psychological Sciences, Habits - A Repeat Performance, David T. Neal, Wendy Wood, and Jeffrey M. Quinn

  • Harvard Business Review, What Makes Some People More Productive Than Others, Robert C. Pozen and Kevin Downey

  • Psychology Today, The Science of Habits, Susan Weinschenk

  • The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg

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