Habits: How and why they form (Blog and Podcast)

This podcast forms part of the “Goals and Habits Series” on the Big Happy Life Podcast. It is Episode 3 of 6. Click here to listen.

If you missed episodes 1 and 2 in the series, here are the links:

Episode 1: Goal: How to set good ones

Episode 2: Values: Why they matter

In Short:

Although habits are usually unconscious, starting new ones or changing old ones is a conscious process. It is also possible to have conscious or intentional habits – things you do specifically because you know they are useful practices for creating flow in your life and helping you achieve the things you’d like to achieve.

Unconscious habits are made up of three parts – cue, routine and reward – and these three things end up packaged together in the subconscious mind. Once that happens, it’s difficult to change a habit but it can be done by paying attention tot he cues and rewards so you’re able to work out how a specific behaviour is triggered and what you get out of it. When you know these things, it becomes easier to make conscious choices around how you might substitute the old routine for a new one whilst maintaining the same cue and reward. This is covered in detail in Charles Duhigg’s brilliantly insightful book, “The Power of Habits”.

In Detail:

Everything is a consequence of what you choose to do or not do.

“Mentorbox Memorisation Booklet – The Power of Habit”

The lives we create for ourselves are the results of our habits. When we pay attention to the things we do every day, we can create flow in the direction of our goals and dreams.

This episode is about understanding how our habits come to be and how we can change them if they’re creating resistance rather than flow.

Habits and the Brain

In the early 1990’s, researchers at MIT looked at the neural activity in the brains of rats, watching what happened as they learned to naviagate a maze and find a piece of chocolate. At first, the rats’ behaviour seemed haphazard and sometimes pointless. They would stand still, apparently doing nothing and then move in the wrong direction, double back on themselves or stay motionless for even longer periods of time. What the researchers noticed, however, is that while this haphazard behaviour took place, neural activity spiked. The rats were thinking hard!

The maze was T shaped and the chocolate was always placed in the same area. Gradually, the rats learned how to naviagate the maze easily and find the chocolate. Their movements became purposeful; faster, more confident – exactly what you’d expect from an experienced expert. However, it’s what happened in their brains that is fascinating. Neural activity decreased dramatically – to the point where their brain waves replicated sleep at some points. They hardly had to think at all.

The information they needed had been stored in memory so, as soon as they entered the maze, they instantly knew what to do and could perform their task quickly and easily without much thought. They had formed a habit.


It is believed that the memories associated with habits are “chunked” – the relevant pieces of information are bundled together and stored as one thing.

I imagine it to be a bit like ingredients of a cake – you have sugar, flour, eggs, baking powder etc. and once you combine those things and bake them together, you end up with a cake – a single thing with all the elements in it.

In the cake example, you can never retrieve the original ingredients once baking has occurred so that’s where the analogy falls down a bit. Retrieving and changing the individual ingredients of a habit is difficult, but it can be done.

The ingredients of a Habit

According to Duhigg, the “chunks” that make up a habit are comprised of 3 parts:

  1. Cue
  2. Routine
  3. Reward
The Cue

This is another word for “trigger”. It’s the thing that starts the chain of events. There are several different types of cues, including:

  • Time
  • Emotional State
  • Location
  • Other people
  • Things you experience through your senses
  • Immediately preceding activities

This is the habitual behaviour – smoking the cigarette, brushing teeth, drinking a glass of wine, leaving for work, packing up at the end of the work day, starting to cook dinner etc.


This is what you ‘get’ as a result of running the routine. The reward might be a feeling, a particular result, a sugar rush, a nicotine hit, time and space to think etc.

Changing a Habit

Changing habits is notoriously difficult but that might be because many of us only look at the routine part of it. We don’t always pay attention to the cues or rewards and since these are the most valuable parts when it comes to programming the subconscious, we have to pay attention to those if we’re to change habits.

By paying attention to the cues that trigger a particular habit, you gather valuable intel about:

  • when to step in and circumvent a ‘bad’ routine
  • which cues to use to promote ‘good’ routines

By paying attention to the rewards, you learn what’s driving your behaviour. You might uncover counter intuitive rewards, for example, ‘numbness’ or ‘distraction’ and by paying attention to these and working out why they are rewarding, you:

  • strengthen your ability to replace the ‘bad’ routine with a ‘good’ one and experience a different or better reward.
  • uncover underlying reasons for the reward being valuable to you

Conscious Habits

I have focused quite a lot on ‘bad’ habits – the ones that create resistance in your life, steal your energy and focus and keep you from achieving the things you’d like to achieve. Of course not all habits are like that. We all have plenty of great habits too. Many of those are identical to the poor habits I’ve already described but not all habits have to be unconscious loops. It is possible to have conscious or intentional habits as well.

Arguably, all habits have a conscious element – when you first learn the habit, conscious thought and decisions power the process form part of that process and when you change a habit, you have to lift it into consciousness and make intentional changes. But that’s not the kind of conscious habit I’m talking about.

In his book, “High Performance Habits”, Brendan Burchard talks about conscious habits of high performers – the habits they select and deliberately employ in order to perform at the highest level.  To employ these sorts of habits in your life, you’re not looking to make them run automatically because the conscious mind responds to different rewards than the subconscious mind.

The conscious mind likes novelty and challenge so it’s good to keep changing things up, inspiring yourself, inching the goal posts forward a little so you have to reach further to get there. It is still possible to use the cue-routine-reward structure but there has to be an added element of conscious reward in the mix.

So What?

This one is kind of a no-brainer. The tagline of Big Happy Life is, “Habits form the tides of your life. Make yours flow in the right direction.”

So it’s that – using this information helps you uproot bad habits and lay down the foundations for good habits, which ultimately create flow in your life and make it easier to achieve your goals and enjoy the process along the way.

Related Podcast Episodes referenced in this episode:

Earlier episodes in the “Goals and Habits Series”

Episode 1: Goal: How to set good ones

Episode 2: Values: Why they matter

Earlier podcasts episodes (not part of the “Goals and Habits Series”)

“We know what to do so why don’t we do it?”

“Team You – Why it’s important to know yourself”

Resources and Research

Online resources:

  • Early research into Habits – The story of “EP” – lost the ability to make new memories but was able to learn new habits
  • MIT News – Habit Research
  • The Power of Habit – Extract on by Digital Matters on Medium

Academic Papers (May require login or payment to view full details)

The role of the basal ganglia in learning and memory

Mechanisms and Assessment of Hippocampal-Dependent Learning and Memory


Photo by Philipp Mandler on Unsplash




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