27 Oct 2021

Creature of habit? Understanding the cues, rewards and routines that form the habits of a lifetime

‘All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits.’

– William James, 1892

Our habits are fascinating. Even more so, when times are uncertain and ever-changing. 

In the Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg defines habits as: “The choices that all of us deliberately make at some point, and then stop thinking about, but continue doing, often every day.”

Almost half of our behaviours occur in the same place every day and are cued by our environment. Yes, that’s right – 40% of the actions people perform each day aren’t actual decisions, they’re habits. You might think you’re going about your day intentionally, making choices – but about half the time, you’re just acting out of habit. Habits emerge because our brains are looking to save effort, and take a break from decision-making. 

Duhigg talks about the three-step habit loop:

  1. A cue or trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use (e.g. new email notification pops up)
  2. The routine (check email) – the routine can be be physical, mental or emotional
  3. The reward (possibility of exciting message, feeling of accomplishment that email has been checked / dealt with) – helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future

Over time, this loop becomes automatic. The cue and reward become intertwined. A powerful sense of anticipation and craving emerges. Without thinking, we check our emails as soon as the notification prompts us to – even if we have lots of other more important stuff to be doing.

When a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision-making. It stops working so hard, or diverts focus to other tasks. So unless you deliberately fight a habit – unless you find a new routine – the pattern will unfold automatically.

Habits typically emerge without our permission. It was probably never our deliberate intention to eat fast food regularly – but it has somehow become a regular habit. We can easily fall into bad habits, but if we stop and reflect on what we’re doing, we can change our behaviour. We just need to unpick the bad habit by examining the cue, the routine and the reward and, in turn, create new, more positive habit loops.  

In response to COVID-19, many of us are being forced to adopt new habits, as our working routines change. Looking at things positively, we have an opportunity here. We can reflect on past and current habits – ones that we’re not particularly fond of – and use this new phase in our lives as a chance to change ourselves and our organisations for the better: Which new habits would you like to adopt? Which new behaviours would we like our employees to adopt?

Read April’s blog post ‘Making resilience routine‘ to find out more about organisational habits and how we can create a culture of willpower for all employees.