Learning Lab

How Do Habits Work?

By Amy Brann

Creatures of Habit

Did you make a new year’s resolution this year? Or more importantly, did you manage to stick with it? Maybe you decided to take up running or to eat more healthily. Some kind of relatively “minor” lifestyle change.

It might have seemed quite straightforward on paper. Something that you thought was within your reach. And it’s good for your health. Surely that is enough motivation?

But the problem is, it isn’t just about motivation. It is about habits. And that is a whole other ball game. A whole different neural circuitry that you have to break into. Rewire.

And this neural habit circuitry to you has to modify- located in a part of your brain called the basal ganglia – is hard-wired for automaticity. It is your automatic pilot circuit. The one that goes about its daily business without you needing to think much about it. Something that is incredibly useful on one hand as it frees up your thinking time for other more important considerations of the day. But incredibly frustrating on the other hand because it makes these habits really difficult to change.

How do habits work?

Scientists have identified a “habit cycle” which helps explain how habits work. There are three elements to the cycle – a cue, a routine and a reward. Your brain sees a cue, maybe something in your surroundings, and this sets off a particular routine. An action or behavior that you carry out. Engaging in this routine gives you some kind of pleasurable experience. A reward to your brain. 

As an example, maybe your morning route to work takes you past a particular cafe (the cue).

Each time you see the cafe, you go in a buy a coffee and a (delicious but unhealthy) muffin (the routine).

Yummy. (the reward).

Repeat over the days, weeks ahead and hey presto you have a habit. A habit that is potentially hard to break. A muffin and coffee craving that starts the minute you anticipate your journey to work.

And it is your basal ganglia which are involved with linking your actions with these rewards over time. It takes over from other parts of your brain which were involved in the initial decision-making process to go and buy that first coffee and muffin.

And once it is handed over to the basal ganglia, that is when it has stopped becoming a “just this once” kind of action and instead is on the road to becoming a fully formed habit. Automatic. Ingrained into your neural wiring. And occurring without proper consultation with other regions of your brain, such as your prefrontal cortex, as to whether this really is the best course of action.

And all this makes habits hard to break.

Redesigning habits

But one trick with trying to break a bad habit is in fact not to try and stop doing it. It is to redesign it.

If you just stop it, then you are preventing the brain getting the reward it wants. And that creates cravings which are hard to ignore. Causing you to relapse.

Redesigning the habit is a subtle approach. Less cold turkey. More baby steps.

Take the above example of grabbing and coffee and (unhealthy) muffin on the way to work. You could redesign the cue by taking a different route to work. Redesign the routine by having a cup of coffee before you go to work, or when you get to work so you don’t pick one up (and the associated muffin) on the way to work. Change the reward, so you include something tasty (but healthier) for your desk-breakfast to compensate for the lack of early morning muffin.

Your body and brain are still getting what they want, but in a way that is better for you. Satisfies that New Year’s resolution which is still just about clinging on. And you didn’t even really have to give up anything.

Of course, some habits are easier to break than others. And when they involve physiological responses which edge closer to addiction (alcohol, nicotine, sugar, caffeine) you are likely to be in for a tough ride. Having to deal with the associated withdrawal symptoms. Definitely not a change which can happen overnight.

And there is no formula for how long it takes people to change a habit. Some researchers say it take 66 days to form a new habit. But it is personal. And it depends on the habit you are trying to change. So take the time that you need.

But that’s enough about personal habits. What about consumer habits?

Good for business

Well, habits make consumers predictable. They are powerful drivers of repeat behavior. And they occur all day, every day. Not quite mind reading. But the next best thing – behavior reading.

Habits mean you can work out people’s patterns of behavior. Predict how they will act in the future. And design your products accordingly.

Tailoring them to the place, the time and the mindset of the consumer you are trying to appeal to. Maximizing the likelihood that they will engage. Purchase. Sign up.

Habit disruption

But if you are wanting to release a new product into the market which may require consumers to change a habit, you also need to think carefully.

Take the example of the recent introduction of in-shower moisturizers where you have to moisturize in the shower, rather than after it. Yes, it’s a new product which requires a change of habit, but it also fits in with a current habit (taking a shower) so the cue and the routine are already formed. Plus the reward is potentially greater by saving you time and effort.

Hence it’s a relatively easy habit change to introduce. Disruptive. But not too disruptive.

But beware. Even if you manage to get people to form a new habit you have to remember that the old one isn’t erased. It is still lurking there in the background. Waiting for that moment of weakness to rear it’s ugly head.

A new product launch from a competitor tempting your consumers back.

Or a tasty new muffin flavor to try.

If you want to know more about how you can utilize the power of habits in your business, then please just get in touch us at with Synaptic Potential.

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