change your habits

5 Ways To Change A Habit

Habits make up 40 percent of our daily behaviors, according to studies. And yet, because habits unfold within our basal ganglia – one of the oldest parts of the brain – they often feel nearly unconscious. So how do you change a habit? By diagnosing it’s components, and reprograming the behavior. Here’s how to do just that:

1. Identify your habit’s routine

There is a basic pattern at the core of every habit, a kind of neurological loop that has three parts: A cue, a routine and a reward.

To understand your habit, you need to identify the components of your loop. The easiest place to start is with the routine: what behavior do you want to change? (For instance, I once had a bad habit of eating a cookie from the cafeteria every afternoon.)

2. Experiment with different rewards

Rewards are powerful because they satisfying cravings. But we’re often not conscious of the cravings that drive our behaviors. To figure out which cravings are driving particular habits, it’s useful to experiment with different rewards. For instance, on the first day of my experiment to figure out what was driving my cookie habit, when I felt the urge to go to the cafeteria and buy a cookie, I instead went outside, walked around the block, and then went back to my desk without eating anything. The next day, I went to the cafeteria and bought a donut, and ate it at my desk. The next day, I bought an apple and ate it while chatting with my friends. Eventually I figure out that what I was really craving wasn’t cookies, but socialization: Whenever I went to the cafeteria, I saw my friends.

3. Isolate the cue

Every habit has a cue, and experiments have shown that almost all habitual cues fit into one of five categories:



Emotional State

Other People

Immediately preceding action

So, if you’re trying to figure out the cue for the ‘going to the cafeteria and buying a chocolate chip cookie’ habit, you write down five things the moment the urge hits (these are my actual notes from when I was trying to diagnose my habit):

Where are you? (sitting at my desk)

What time is it? (3:36 pm)

What’s your emotional state? (bored)

Who else is around? (no one)

What action preceded the urge? (answered an email)

After just a few days, it was pretty clear which cue was triggering my cookie habit — I felt an urge to get a snack at a certain time of day. The habit, I had figured out, was triggered between 3:00 and 4:00.

4. Have a plan

Once you’ve figured out your habit loop — you’ve identified the reward driving your behavior, the cue triggering it, and the routine itself — you can begin to shift the behavior. You can change to a better routine by planning for the cue, and choosing a behavior that delivers the reward you are craving. What you need is a plan.

A habit is a formula our brain automatically follows:


When I see CUE, I will do ROUTINE in order to get a REWARD.

So, I wrote a plan of my own:

At 3:30, every day, I will walk to a friend’s desk and talk for 10 minutes.


It didn’t work immediately. But, eventually, it got be automatic. Now, at about 3:30 everyday, I absentmindedly stand up, look around for someone to talk to, spend 10 minutes gossiping, and then go back to my desk. It occurs almost without me thinking about it. It has become a habit.

5. Look for ‘keystone habits’

But where should a would-be habit master start?

Our lives are filled with habits, and time is limited. Knowing how to improve behaviors doesn’t resolve a central question: where to begin? Is it better to create an exercise habit, or reform eating patterns? Should someone focus on procrastination? Or biting their fingernails? Or both at the same time?

The answer is to focus on ‘keystone habits.’ Some habits, say researchers, are more important than others because they have the power to start a chain reaction, shifting other patterns as they move through our lives.  Keystone habits influence how we work, eat, play, live, spend, and communicate. Keystone habits start a process that, over time, transforms everything.

Identifying keystone habits, however, is tricky. To find them, you have to know where to look. To begin, ask yourself a central question: which habits are most core to my self image? Does exercise make you think about yourself in a different – and better – way? Then exercise might be your keystone habit. Or is it how you communicate with your spouse and kids? That might be your keystone habit. Or, how you get work done?

There are dozens of potential keystone habits, and my book spends significant time explaining how to identify and change them. But, at their core, they all share something in common: keystone habits shape how we think about ourselves. And all of them can be changed, once you know how to diagnose and influence the habit loop.


By Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business



Photo credit: ‘Business Clones,’ by Big Stock


26 Responses to 5 Ways To Change A Habit

  1. This shows how much work it really takes to make a change (even such a simple thing as eating a cookie too much).
    So it is vital to ask yourself what you really want to focus on changing and then try to accept everything else as it is. I said try…
    Learning to accept and appreciate what you have and what you are is often the best bet for many things in life.
    Thanks for a refreshing contrast to all the simplistic ”Do this and you will get that”- posts that are flooding the net.
    My suggestion for a really important change project: Get enough good quality sleep!

  2. The Vizier says:

     Hi Charles,

    Changing a habit is not easy.  But it can and should be done especially if the habit in question is detrimental to us.  Thus, I like the 5 ways you have listed to change our habits.  Here are the thoughts that crossed my mind as I read through them.  

    1.  Identify your habit’s routine

    This is important.  Unless you are aware of the complete routine, you will not be able to take the appropriate steps to eradicate the habit fully.  Being aware of the various components in your habits and the reasons behind them will give you some ideas on what you have to do to change your habit.  

    4.  Have a plan

    Having a plan helps you to focus your efforts on key areas when it comes to changing your habits.  Often, things may not turn out as planned.  But with a plan, you will be able to adjust more quickly to the circumstances than if you did not have one.  Also, you know what you need to do to change the habit.

    I also think it is important to go with the flow.  If you are unable to change your habit immediately, do not give up.  Adjust your actions since habits take a long time to form and therefore requires time to change.  As long as you persevere while remaining flexible in your methods, you will be able to change your habits.  

    Thank you for sharing this lovely article!

    Irving the Vizier

  3. Gildardo Suastegui says:

    Very informative! Actually, I am quitting smoking again, my first time was kind of easy to do it because I used all of these steps, but my second time is getting harder, beacause I feel not ready, but I want to do it since I found passion for running and these two habits  don’t get alone together. All in all, I want to say THANKS for you information. I really love the web site….. I am becoming you fan now.

    Thanks, gracias and grazie!!!



  4. Charlotte says:

    Oh my gosh. I wonder what’s causing me to chew on my nails. I’ve been doing it for the past 18 or so years! Doctors have told me it’s generalized anxiety,others just anxiety. But I don’t do it ALL of the time. Only sometimes. I hope to have “regular” nails one day. :/ Thanks for the tips!!

  5. Richie Saunders says:

    Change can be so simple when allow ourselves to except the need to change is inevitable. You position this so well, very impressive and I genuinely hope anyone else reading this realises that reading about change is a good start but actually doing it and achieving it is where the real joy comes from.


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  7. Tameka says:

    Awesome article – thanks!

  8. Anonymous says:

    I’ve found this helpful for many years.  I call it the “20-minute rule.”  

    Whenever I’m out of the house (where we eat only very healthy things in very healthy amounts), I follow this rule.  However hungry I may be, I order or buy a sensibly sized, healthy lunch or snack.  Part of me is very unhappy indeed with doing this, so I promise that unhappy part that if, twenty minutes after having finished my meal or snack, I still am hungry, I can eat WHATEVER I WANT!!  French fries.  Hamburgers.  Fried chicken. Whatever.  And that’s a really serious self-promise.  

    But (big but), in the nine years I’ve been following this rule, I’VE NEVER ONCE, NOT ONE SINGLE TIME, HAD TO ACT ON IT.  Because, despite the doubts of the unhappy part of me, twenty minutes after my healthy meal or snack, I’M NEVER STILL HUNGRY. 

    I’m just an average person.  I’m not peddling or selling anything.  I haven’t written a book or set up a website.  This is just something that helps me a lot and I wanted to share it.  Good luck!  

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  12. You can also deliberately create cues to trigger desired new behavior. A clinical psychologist and inventor who specializes in helping people follow through on their own good intentions, I often help people build positive new habits by making sure that they’ll be exposed to enough of the right cues.    

  13. You can also deliberately create cues to trigger desired new behavior. A clinical psychologist and inventor who specializes in helping people follow through on their own good intentions, I often help people build positive new habits by making sure that they’ll be exposed to enough of the right cues.    

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  18. Sammy says:

    Oh’s 3:30 and here comes that dooshbag from the corner cube to
    talk to me”

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  20. Wow, that’s great. Thanks for sharing about “5 Ways To
    Change A Habit”. I think you’ve made some truly interesting points. Not too
    many people would actually think about this the way you just did.

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  24. Jake from State Farm says:

    Your link gave me diabetes.

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