Not ready to leave your house? Virtual training available now!
Not ready to leave your house? Virtual training available now!
February 26, 2013

How to Start a New Habit

By Allison

“All our life so far as it has definite form is but a mass of habits.”  William James


What’s the first thing you did when you woke up this morning? Did you brush your teeth, go to the bathroom or reach for a glass of water?

How did your day start when you got to the office? Did you immediately start checking email or start working on your most important project?

What about when you got home? Did you run to see what your kids were doing, give your spouse a hug, or just plop down on the couch and turn on the news?

Most of the choices we make each day may feel like the result of well-reasoned decision making, but that’s not actually the case. They’re habits. In 2006 a Duke university researcher found that more than 40 percent of the actions of people performed each day weren’t actual decisions, but habits.

Habits are the choices all of us deliberately make at some point, and then we stop thinking about but continue doing, often everyday. Habits are decisions that have become automatic behavior.

While each habit means relatively little on its own—over time—the meals we order, what we say to our kids each night, whether we save or spend, how often we exercise, and the way we organize our thoughts and work routines have an enormous impact on our health, productivity, financial security, and happiness.

At one point we all consciously decided how much to eat and what to focus on when we got to the office, how often to have a drink or when to go for a walk. Then we stopped making a choice and the behavior became automatic. It’s a natural consequence of our neurology and by understanding how it happens, you can rebuild those patterns (habits) in any way you choose.

Researchers at MIT have been working to understand the science of habits since the early 1990’s. Their goal has been to figure out how habits work on a neurological level—and what it takes to make them change.

Deep inside the brain, close to the brain stem is a primitive part of the brain called the basal ganglia. It controls our automatic behaviors, such as breathing or swallowing, or the startle response we feel when someone jumps out of a bush to scare us. Conscious thinking takes place in the outer, less primitive region of the brain called the cerebral cortex. The cerebral cortex is the region of our brain where we would laugh at a joke, develop a business plan or write an article about habits.

The MIT researchers began wondering if the basal ganglia might play a role in habit development as well. They noticed that animals with injured basal ganglia suddenly developed problems with tasks such as learning how to run through mazes. To understand the role of the basal ganglia in learning, they implanted probes in the brains of rats to monitor brain activity as the rats learned how to run through a maze.

The rats were placed in a maze behind a behind a closed door. When the rats heard a clicking sound, the door opened to the maze where a piece of chocolate was waiting at the end of the maze. In the beginning when a rat heard the clicking sound and saw the door open, it would wander up and down the maze scratching the corners and sniffing the walls. The rats really had to think about which way to go because the maze was new. Eventually most of the rats made it through the maze and found the chocolate, but there was no pattern to their meanderings.

The probes in the rats’ heads indicated that while the rats were meandering through the maze their brains—particularly their basal ganglia—worked furiously. Each time a rat sniffed the air or scratched a wall, its brain exploded with activity. The rat was processing information the entire time it meandered.

As the scientists repeated their experiment, again and again the rats zipped through the maze faster and faster. As each rat became better at navigating the maze, its mental activity in the cerebral cortex (the thinking part of the brain) decreased. As the route became more automatic, each rat was thinking less and less. Within a week the rats had internalized how to sprint through the maze so well they hardly had to think at all to reach the end of the maze and get the reward—chocolate. The probes indicated that the internalization relied on the basal ganglia. The basal ganglia stored habits while the thinking part of the brain went to sleep.

The MIT researchers concluded the brain essentially off-loaded the maze-running sequence from the cerebral cortex to the basal ganglia where it was stored as a habit. The “maze running” habit was initiated whenever the mice heard a certain clicking noise. The “click” acted as cue to the basal ganglia to run the maze-running routine.

Researchers have found that habits work pretty much the same way with humans. Whenever we go into “habit mode,” our brain activity shifts from our higher-thinking cerebral cortex to our more primitive-thinking basal ganglia. By freeing up mental RAM from our cerebral cortex, our brains can use that mental energy for more important stuff like writing or talking to our kids.

The process in which the brain converts a sequence of actions into an automatic routine is known a chunking. There are hundreds of behavioral chunks that we rely on ever day. Some are simple: putting toothpaste on the toothbrush before sticking it in your mouth. Others, such as getting the kids dressed, are a little more complex.

A good deal of the most recent research about habits is outlined in a 2012 book written by Charles Duhigg called The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.

Habits emerge, states Duhigg, because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort. Left to its own devices the brain will make almost any routine into a habit, because habits allow our minds to ramp down more often. An efficient brain allows us to stop thinking constantly about basic behaviors, such as walking and choosing what to eat, so we can devote mental energy to inventing irrigation systems, airplanes and even video games.

This process can be tricky because if our brains power down at the wrong moment we might miss something important, like a lion hiding in the bushes or a speeding car as we pull onto the street. So our basal ganglia have devised a clever system to determine when to let habits take over. At the beginning of a habit, our brains spend a lot of effort looking for a cue that tells us which pattern to use. When a rat is behind a door, if it hears a click, it knows to follow the maze habit. If it hears a meow, it chooses a different pattern.


Duhigg has defined what takes place in our brains as The Habit Loop—a very simple process consisting of three parts:

  1. Cue. According to Duhigg, a cue is “a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use.” For the mice in the MIT experiment, the cue was a “click” sound; for us a cue could be “sitting down at the computer” or “boredom” or “lunch time.”
  2. Routine. The routine is the activity that you perform almost automatically after you encounter the cue. A routine can be physical, mental, or emotional.
  3. Reward. The reward is what helps our “brain figure out if [a] particular loop is worth remembering for the future.” A reward can be anything. For the mice in the MIT experiment the reward was chocolate. For us it could be the feeling we get after eating an apple, going for a walk, or doing the leg press to complete exhaustion.

When something is a habit, our brain strongly associates certain cues with certain rewards. In the case of the MIT mice, the “clicking” noise cue was strongly associated with the reward of chocolate. Just by hearing the click, the mice began experiencing the pleasure of eating the chocolate, which created a craving to actually eat the chocolate. That craving then compelled the mice to go into automatic mode and run through the maze in the pursuit of chocolate without even thinking about it.

Okay, so that was a lot of science to help us understand how habits work. What’s amazing is how much more science there is on this topic today compared to 10 years ago.

So how do you put the habit loop to work in your life? Decide what new habit you want to start. You could pick walking every night after dinner. Pick a reward that will get you motivated like 30 minutes of guiltless video game time. Make sure the reward is strong enough to get you motivated to do the routine. Next pick a cue that will initiate the routine. A possible cue could be washing your dishes after dinner.

If you run this habit loop enough, the sequence should become automatic after some time (wash dishes, go for a walk, play video games). Remember from our last article that it takes about 66 days to form a habit.

So whatever new habit you are working on—eating more fruit, drinking more water or walking after dinner—pick a cue and a reward that will motivate you to get it done.

There’s nothing you can’t do if you get the habits right.


Stay Strong,

Bo Railey