Skillsoft Blog

The Research Behind Building Better Habits

August 21, 2020 | by Alessandra Abelli
Above is an example of the habit feedback loop.

We are essentially our habits. The things we do, or choose not to do, on a daily basis shape us into who we are as humans, employees, friends, and family members. Many of our habits — approximately 45% — are automatic. Therefore, many of our habits are created subconsciously and executed automatically. However, this certainly does not mean that our habits are irreversible. As many employees continue to adjust to working remotely and as many students return to either in-person or online classes, many of us may want to consider developing better habits and routines. I myself am a college student who is taking five online courses in addition to continuing my summer internship part-time. I am also an introspective person who is constantly looking for ways to improve my personal and professional life. In order to develop better and more effective habits, I have recently spent time reading articles and books about habit formation including James Clears’ Atomic Habits and Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit.

In order to effectively change one’s current habits and/or develop new ones, it is essential to understand the “habit feedback loop.” Although levels of specificity vary between authors, researchers, and psychologists, the formula for habit formation is as follows:

Cue + Craving + Response/Routine + Reward = Habit

Cues can include location, time, emotional state, other people, or an immediately preceding action. Not everyone has the same reaction towards cues; an individuals’ feelings, emotions, and thoughts are what will ultimately turn the cue into the craving, or desire for the response. The cue is what triggers a craving for the response in the feedback loop. Cravings are one’s motivation for performing the response/routine. The response is the action of the habit itself. In order for a craving to turn into a response, there are two important factors: how motivated one is to perform the response and how much friction is associated with the behavior. Lastly, the reward teaches us, satisfies us, and causes us to repeat the behavior in response to the cue.

So, how can one go about effectively adopting a new habit? There are several key factors. Habits can be easier or more difficult to change/create depending on how effectively one goes about adopting a new habit. First, you want to make your cue obvious, your craving attractive, your response easy, and your reward satisfying. Second, the best way to change a habit is to replace an existing habit with a new one as opposed to attempting to create an entirely new habit. Third, your response should be small and specific, easy to execute, and incorporate physical movement and/or auditory or visual cues if applicable. With practice and consistency, the frontal lobe — or the decision-making part of your brain — ultimately becomes no longer required when executing the response/routine. This is what makes habits ultimately “automatic.”

Are you thinking, “Okay, cool…but what do these words actually mean?!” Let’s go through an example. Say that you have gotten into the habit of getting into your car at the end of the workday and driving to the nearest donut shop. The cue is you starting your car in the parking lot at 5:10 PM every day. While for some this may be meaningless, your mouth starts to salivate at the thought of your favorite chocolate frosted donut. You are stressed out and know that the donut helps you relax. Now you’re experiencing the craving for the sugary donut and are motivated to drive to the donut shop to purchase it. As if on autopilot, you are now at a Krispy Kreme close to your office where you purchase the donut. You sit down and feel a sense of comfort and relaxation while eating the donut followed by a boost of energy shortly afterward. These feelings are your reward and are what keep you coming back to the Krispy Kreme every afternoon after work.

Let’s say that you also want to get into the habit of exercising more regularly so that you are in better shape (not that the occasional donut is malicious, but current research proves the multitude of physical and mental benefits of regular exercise). The most effective way to go about adopting this habit would be to change an existing one. First, let’s make the action small, specific, and easy to do. You want to go to your local gym for an hour after every workday instead of getting the donut. You experience the same cue and craving — you get into your car after each workday feeling stressed. However, you now want to alter your response. As I previously mentioned, in order to reduce friction, you want to make the response easy, and, if possible, include physical movement and auditory or visual cues. You now put your gym bag and shoes in the passenger seat of your car. You know how good working out makes you feel. You are now more motivated to perform the action of driving to your gym; some friction (having to go home to change) has been eliminated. You perform the response of driving to the gym and going to work out. You experience the post-workout endorphins that more effectively reduce your stress and make you feel a sense of personal accomplishment. These feelings are the reward that makes you more inclined to perform this new post-work routine.

Sometimes, all it may take to develop better habits and reach your goals is one small change. In the example I provided, this was packing your workout clothes along with your lunch at night and placing them in the passenger seat in the morning (pairing a new habit with an existing good habit that you have established, such as packing your lunch, is also helpful). Eventually, this becomes your new routine and you automatically find yourself driving to the gym instead of choosing Krispy Kreme.

This process also requires honesty, self-reflection, and personal accountability. There are several apps that can help you to track your habits for accountability and motivation. I personally use Done:

While the pandemic has undeniably altered our regular habits and routines, it is still important to prioritize and form habits that are conducive to good physical and mental health. I encourage you to self-reflect and then identify one small change you can make to an existing routine today — with diligence, you might just form an entirely new habit. I myself am currently attempting to read more and spend less time on social media. I have placed books and magazines in places where I usually will go on my phone (my bedside table and the couch near the TV) and enabled notifications on my cell phone that notify me once I have spent a certain amount of time on social media applications.