The Basics of Habit Forming

The Basics of Habit Forming


Over the past year or so I have formed some great habits and replaced some bad habits and I am applying my learnings to coaching other people. Here are some things I’ve learned that you might find useful.

According to research on habits cited by Charles Duhigg in his excellent book The Power of Habit, habits always consist of cues, action or behavior and a reward. If you have a habit you want to get control over, the most effective thing is to identify those three things.


Habits rely on cues. My cue for meditation is currently getting on the Metrolink train to work. This is also my cue for writing. My cue for working out is a daily appointment in my outlook calendar on my work computer.

These have been very effective but there is a problem. When I am on vacation or working from home I don’t get on the train so I often don’t meditate or write. I also don’t open Outlook if I’m not working so that workout cue doesn’t get triggered. I have other goal structures in place to get me to do those things but the main habit that works so well on workdays is not available.

Here’s a great example of the power of habit. I got on the train and started writing this. Typically I meditate for the first 20 minutes of the train ride. I started writing and instead and I’m feeling very antsy. I have to meditate.

You don’t have to stop reading for 20 minutes but I’m going to stop writing.

Please imagine a time lapse of me sitting on a train apparently doing nothing.

I’m back. Sorry for the pause.

(Did you notice? No? Did you imagine me on the train doing nothing? No? When you read something do you imagine a person writing? I don’t. It’s a strange relationship when you think about it, writer to reader. To me it feels more like a brain to brain communication than a face-to-face conversation does. It can be more intimate and, at the same time, less personal. That’s something to explore on another day.)

Back to habits.


The action or behavior is really what we think of as the habit. That’s what we want to start (or stop) doing.

One of the best ways to change a bad habit is to change the action while keeping the cue and the reward. There is a groove in your brain already to start doing something when you are in some place or situation or when something happens. If you notice that and choose a different action rather than try to ignore the cue you’ll tend to be more successful.

When the cue comes up do something else rather than ignoring the cue. Getting on the train to go to work used to be a cue for me to pull out my phone and play Words With Friends, Two Dots and Angry Birds. I replaced the action with meditation and writing. When I stopped drinking alcohol I replaced the action of buying wine with buying decaf coffee. If you don’t replace the action the cue will start an tickle in your brain and you’ll want to do something. It’s actually easier to do something else and satisfy the brain’s need to scratch that itch rather than to try to ignore it. The groove is carved, might as well use it.

By the way, the action may be “quietly fume resentfully” or “feel helpless and sorry for myself” or “get pissed off and yell.” Changing habits may help you change relationships.


Actions are usually very obvious. Cues are usually less obvious but once the habitual action is identified it’s not that hard to pick it out. (Hint: It’s the thing that happens before the habitual action. If nothing happens then it’s probably boredom or anxiety.)

The rewards are usually gross and squirmy and hidden under a rock. They may require a Flashlight Of Honesty (+3 wisdom modifier) and the Scalpel of Self-Examination (usually used with the Shield of Objectivity which can provide +4 protection against self-disgust if used correctly).* You might also enlist the help of a therapist, a coach, a good friend or a support group.

Obviously rewards include hits of sugar, dopomine, adreneline and personal satisfaction. There’s also approval, accolades and love. These may be easy to spot.

Less obvious are things that don’t seem like rewards but are extremely common and very motivating. Many of these fall into the category of BEING RIGHT. Being the ‘quietly righteous victim’ is a strangely common and attractive reward. Another gross reward is the thrill of getting something you’re not supposed to have. Many adults have secret vices only because they are getting back at dead parents for not letting them stay up to watch The Six Million Dollar Man when they were 8. Avoiding anxiety is a strange reward for procrastination since it often causes anxiety later but it seems like that’s the jackpot for goofing off.

The very worst are zombie rewards. These are rewards that have died long ago but their corpses are rattling around eating that grove in your brain even deeper. This is an extended—and I think entertaining—metaphor for actual neuroscience. Mice that have been rewarded over and over again for doing something that will hurt them (like hitting an electrified plate) keep hurting themselves even after the reward stops coming. This is obviously true of addicts and even normals (as we addicts call people who haven’t yet admitted that they are addicts).

So if you want to replace a habit it’s important to figure out what your reward is and how the new action will reward you.

Here’s a habit that I want to replace. In the morning I usually lie in bed half awake and half dozing for 15-30 minutes. I set an alarm and then hit the snooze. This is not a good habit. Interrupted dozing might feel nicer than getting up but it doesn’t do anything for you. If you’re not going to sleep you may as well get up and start a productive, relaxed day with a shower and breakfast and a little time with the family. Maybe even exercise or meditate. I produced an interview with Ariana Huffington who is now on a mission to get everyone to get enough sleep and she hates the snooze button.


I just have to say that if you have a bad habit that you can’t kick it’s possible that you have an addiction. I would advise you to get help. I did. It’s worth it.

Your Turn

Pick a habit to replace one you want to get rid of. If you can’t think of a good one here’s a list of good ones:

  • Meditate 10 minutes a day
  • Walk for 20 minutes
  • Drink water
  • Smile at a stranger

Let me know how it goes!

*I apologize for the Dungeon and Dragon references. I can’t help myself. They’re habitual.

Let’s make this a habit!

I’ll send out a weekly email directing you to new posts and new ideas. If you want to find out more about one-on-one and group coaching, send me an email at It may go with out saying but I promise I will never give anyone your email address.

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