The Science Behind Making Habits Stick

The Science Behind Making Habits Stick

December 21, 20236 min read

The Science Behind Making Habits Stick

Habits are patterns of feelings, thoughts and behaviours that have become subconscious. These patterns can be divided into four elements that play a role in the success of making new habits stick: trigger, desire, response, and reward. 

The trigger, or cue, acts as the catalyst. The desire phase involves our emotional or psychological needs, the response is the behaviour itself, and the reward serves as the reinforcement mechanism. 

Understanding these four elements provides a roadmap for habit formation and modification, offering insights into how habits are triggered and why they persist, so that you can intentionally leverage that knowledge to reshape your habits for personal development and well-being.

Keep reading to discover the science behind making habits stick!

The Trigger (cue)

When wondering how to make healthy habits stick, you first have to understand the trigger.

The trigger, or cue, plays a pivotal role in the formation and sustenance of habits. It is what initiates the pattern.

Strategically setting up our environment to contain cues for new habits is critical to success.
Our surroundings serve as constant reminders that influence our behaviour. 

By intentionally crafting an environment that supports the initiation of desired habits, we create a conducive space for behavioural change. 

Whether it's placing workout gear by the bed for a morning exercise routine or placing a book on your bed for a nightly reading, environmental cues act as powerful triggers for habit initiation. 

This proactive approach aligns our surroundings with our aspirations, minimising reliance on willpower alone. It is all about making the cue visible and the response as easy as possible, removing all hurdles in the way.

As we optimise our environment to include cues for positive habits, we enhance the likelihood of seamlessly integrating these behaviours into our daily lives, fostering a path to successful habit formation.

The Desire (emotion)

Emotions, often described as feelings that "get us in motion," are integral drivers of creating a new habit.

Acting as messengers, emotions propel us either away from discomfort or toward comfort. Whether it's the instinctive urge to escape a threatening situation or the pursuit of joy and fulfilment, emotions serve as catalysts for our thoughts and actions. Having awareness of our emotional responses allows us to understand the underlying motivations behind our actions. 

By acknowledging, studying, and understanding these emotional reactions, we gain insight into our desires, fears, and needs. In essence, emotions are the compass that influence us positively or negatively to take action.

For example, a positive way that your emotions may influence you is that you may feel a desire to challenge yourself to boost your self-worth and try cold water therapy. These emotions will help you walk into the freezing water. 

A negative way that your emotions can influence you is choosing to post a filtered picture on social media instead to answer a need for social validation.

To make habits stick, you should try to anchor the positive emotions to fuel your decisions, and look deeper when the negative emotions arise to understand the needs behind them.

The Response

The response is the crucial link in the chain of habit formation, encapsulates the thoughts and behaviours that follow the trigger and emotional cue. It is the manifestation of our inner processes and sets the habit into action. 

Responses can take various forms, ranging from specific behaviours to cognitive patterns, and often involve a combination of both. 

Whether it's the way we shut ourselves off when someone upsets us, the decision to go for a run the moment we see our running trainers as we come in the door after work, or choosing to pick up our phone when feeling stressed to distract ourselves from our situation, our responses are the outward expressions of our internal habits. 

Tracking our habits and reflecting about the patterns we observe is the first step toward awareness, and understanding these responses is key to shaping them to influence our overall habits positively.

By cultivating mindful awareness of our thoughts and actions, we gain the ability to modify and direct our responses in a manner that aligns with our goals and well-being. 

The Reward

The reward component of habit formation is intricately tied to the neurochemical messenger dopamine, a key player in our motivation and maintaining a healthy habit.

When we feel rewarded, such as when we successfully complete a task, or receive an accolade at work, our brain releases dopamine, creating a sense of satisfaction and reinforcing the behaviour. This way, your reward becomes intricately linked to your brain’s reward (the dopamine).

Importantly, dopamine is not only released as an actual reward but also in anticipation of it. 

This anticipation creates a positive association with the habit, motivating us to repeat the behaviour. This is why you feel more excited at the prospect of an incoming holiday than when you are actually there!

To continue a habit, make sure to consciously reflect on the positive feelings associated with completing a habit.

By acknowledging the sense of accomplishment and well-being, we enhance the release of dopamine in anticipation of future rewards, thereby strengthening the motivation to stick with the habit. 

This mindful approach taps into the brain's reward system, transforming the habit from a task to be completed into a source of intrinsic satisfaction, making it more likely to become a lasting and fulfilling part of our routine.

Protecting your identity

95% of our everyday thoughts, feelings, behaviours are repeated patterns. This means, 95% of who you are is the sum of habits. They become your identity.

Creating a new habit is creating a deviation from your current identity, which the ego wants to protect. It’s for this reason that, to make new habits stick, it’s important to take baby steps and not to try too much at once, or the gap created between the current identity and this new one would be too large. It would mean too much resistance from the ego and we’ll simply fail.

In summary

Establishing habits that align with our goals requires a thoughtful approach that incorporates environmental cues and emotional awareness. Leaving obvious cues in our surroundings serves as a powerful trigger for the habits we aim to cultivate. Simultaneously, tracking our emotional responses to existing habits allows us to identify obstacles and leverage positive emotions to encourage the desired behaviour.

Leveraging the dopamine reward feedback loop plays a pivotal role in sustaining habits. Reminding ourselves of the anticipated rewards associated with a habit enhances the release of dopamine, reinforcing our motivation to repeat the behaviour. This mindful approach transforms habits from “something we need to do” into a source of intrinsic satisfaction, increasing the likelihood of sustaining them in the long-term.

Recognising that habits form our identity highlights the importance of taking gradual steps. Attempting to change too much at once creates resistance from the ego, therefore it is crucial to approach the creation of new habits with patience and incremental adjustments.

If you can take away only 3 things from this blog, then let them be these: cues, reward, and baby steps!

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