Working on Habits

by David Koshinz, True Action Coaching 

Brain research has taken off in the 21st century and is expanding our understanding of how we experience ourselves as humans. Of particular interest is how regions of our brains work together to form who we are and how we act. Let's explore how this research informs an aspect of our experience: habit. And when we're done, I'll give you a method for working with habits in your life.

What are habits?

Habits are anything we do repeatedly based on a cue - routine - reward, loop. Habits support who we want to be and where we want to go, and habits can stand in the way.

Every habit is created through repetition and our existing habits have served our minds in some way, at some point in time.

Habits are supported by our procedural, also called implicit, memory which resides in our Basal Ganglia. Basal Ganglia are sometimes referred to as our reptilian brain.

Implicit memory is our back seat driver, and unless we consciously intervene it is happy to take control. It's not part of our conscious process but it fills the critical role of helping us master activities as it augments our conscious process with routines that free up our mind from repetitive tasks. Implicit memory uses less energy to complete a task so the brain defaults to implicit memory whenever possible. The brain is great at conserving energy.

An example of procedural routines is driving a car, when you were learning it required a lot of mental energy, as you mastered the process it required far less effort. When things change like driving in a new city more conscious effort and energy is required until new routines are created in implicit memory.

The Basal Ganglia are wired to our motor system and the Limbic System, our emotional center. They respond quicker to an event than our executive function in the frontal lobe. Many of us have experienced events where we reacted to danger but don't remember the point of reaction - that was most likely the Basal Ganglia in action.

The habit loop; cue - routine - reward was originally named by Charles Duhigg in The Power of Habit

Every habit starts with a cue, something that tells the Basal Ganglia near the center of your brain to run the routine. It could be the volley ball coming your way that triggers the "spike the ball" routine.

It could be an emotional cue, causing you to go to the freezer and get ice cream.

And it could be a thought cue such as "nobody is going to be interested in an article on habits" that triggers an avoidance routine. It could also be a habit that is the cue for another habit - for instance when I talk with people about doing a yoga practice at home, once they've finished telling me how hard it is, I suggest a cue and a habit that will support the habit of a home yoga practice. The cue is seeing the yoga mat, so I suggest finding a place where they can leave it out on the floor. The bridge habit is to commit to getting on that mat every day. When they are triggered by the cue (seeing the mat) they do the routine (getting on the mat). When they build the bridge habit of getting on the mat it can become the cue to the more difficult habit of doing yoga. The Basal Ganglia are connected to our emotional and reward systems, yes there is a physical structure in the brain that gives us good feelings as rewards. And every habit has a reward, generally either feeling a good emotion or avoiding an emotion that is considered bad. When creating new habits it's important to be clear on the cue, routine, and reward, so that you consistently practice it the same way. And always celebrate success thus creating the reward.


Changing habits

Change comes through maintaining the cue and the reward while interrupting the old routine and replacing it with a new one. Key to this is clarity on each step in the habit loop, we want the cue, routine, and reward to be well understood.


Now that we have a basic view of how habits work, let's put that knowledge into practice. You can use one of my habit cards or create your own habit card out of a 3x5 index card folded the long way so that it is easy to carry in your pocket or wallet, or you can stand it in a prominent place.


Here's an example of the TrueActionCoaching habit card:

To replace the "routine" in the cue - routine - reward loop

First observe yourself in this habit and figure out (or at least make a good guess) on what the components are. Say you discover the "cue" is the feeling of exhaustion after getting the kids into bed, the "routine" being watching TV, and what's the reward, perhaps resting your conscious brain (not having to think). Great, so what other routine would align better to your longer term goals, that would give you the same or similar reward? Maybe doing some massage with your significant other? Maybe getting on the floor and doing some unstructured gentle stretching? When you've decided on a new routine, you program your procedural memory through repetition and make it as easy as possible to do the new routine instead of the habitual one. In this case perhaps you clear a space on the floor before putting the kids to bed, or put out a yoga mat, or check in with your significant other so that you're both ready for your massage exchange. The tendency will be to follow the cue with the old routine until it is interrupted enough by either doing the new routine or solidifying the new habit of consciously choosing what will serve your greater goals.

As the procedural memory gets programmed your new habit will become easier.


Habit Start Date 
Write down the date when you will start your new habits. Start on a Monday.


Habit Completion Date 
Write down the date that is 7 weeks from your start date.


Tracking Grid 
Create a grid that is 7x7 which will make 49 squares. Mark the day of the week across the top, starting with Monday. Each day you successfully practice your habit put an X in the box. If you reach your completion date and there are more than 7 empty boxes, or if you know the behavior is not yet a habit, start over with a new card. With this method you can miss 7 days out of 49, you don't have to be perfect. It is extremely important to be honest with yourself on if you consistently practiced the habit on a given day and to avoid rationalization. Also when you complete the grid (if under 50 days) make an honest evaluation on how solid the habit is so that you can decide to start over if necessary.


*A habit generally takes from 18 to 254 days to solidify, depending on complexity, supporting environment, and your ability to build habits.

How to Use The Habit Card

Two Habits:

Think about the two habits you want to create. Spend some time thinking about them and get super clear. Create concise and accurate descriptions for your habit card. The reason to keep them simple and specific is so that there is no ambiguity (leads to rationalizing) on whether you did them or not. If you are having trouble making it simple look for what basic changes will lead to the outcome you want. You don't have to get it perfect right away; this is a process of learning and exploring.

Start with two habits that support each other 

Habits often live in an ecosystem where several habits support each other. Say you want to get more exercise, you could work on a habit of getting up 30 minutes earlier than normal (say 7:00) and work on another habit of going jogging at 7:30. That way they support each other. Getting up early enough to jog supports the jogging habit and the jogging habit probably supports the getting up at 7:00 habit by helping you sleep better.


If you want to stop doing something, you can create a habit that interrupts the cue - routine - reward loop or replaces the "routine" with a new one. For instance say you're in the habit of watching TV from 9:00 to 11:00 every night and you want to change that behavior. You could work on a habit: "At 8:55pm make myself a nice warm cup of tea with honey, while drinking my tea think of two alternatives to watching TV and choose one of the two." This method brings consciousness to the habit as well as options that would serve your larger goals better.


Create a place to write down a celebration; how you will reward yourself when you've successfully completed the two grids. It needs to be clear, of value, and the reward should not be "breaking the habit." If you decide to go through the habit creation process again because you feel it is not yet solid enough, still do the celebration. You did a great job and celebrating will strengthen your will. Always define a celebration and you can also define a reward that happens every time you practice the habit - this would be something small that acknowledges your success in practicing the new behavior.

A few other tips:

  • Partnering with someone to report in each day, could be a text or email, is a powerful practice. This is about transparency and self accountability, and is most powerful if the agreement is to simply read the text or email and respond, with something like "Thank You". If criticism, comparison, comment, or sometimes even encouragement are given, it can muddy the process and become a reason not to practice the habit.

  • Notice how you respond to every aspect of habit creation, notice your energy levels and enthusiasm. They will inform you of any blocks that get in the way of your new habit.

  • Realize this is hard work, generally we deny it but all of us have a hard time creating or changing habits. Habits can be very complex, in creating new habits we are often going against old deeply rooted habits that are part of an ecosystem of habits. 

  • When you enter the habit change process you will start noticing other existing habits that may detract from your success, these habits may need to be intentionally worked with on a habit card if they are getting in the way.

  • Be honest with yourself, avoid rationalization. It's easy to fudge but that undermines the process, the implicit memory is very literal and doesn't deal well with ambiguity.

  • Avoid seeking perfection but cultivate consistency and tenacity. Allowing imperfection reduces the tendency to rationalize. Consistency is required, not perfection.

  • Continuing through failure builds strength, when you miss a day start back up tomorrow.

  • *Phillippa Lally conducted a study in 2009 on habit formation, the results showed that it takes from 18 to 254 days to create a new habit.

I've created the habit cards pictured above. 

If you fill out the contact form below, 
I'll send you four habit cards by mail to get you started.

You can also join my "Working on Habits" group in Facebook where
you can interact with me and others around habit creation.

and start a new habit

Thanks! We'll be in touch with you soon!