Habits Explained Simply

Habits – All You Need To Know

In this post, we’ll unpack all you need to know about habits, defining exactly what they are, why we form them, their evolutionary role, how they form in the brain, how to leverage them and more.

What Are Habits?

Habits are learned behaviours that are wired so deeply into our brain and nervous system that we perform them without the need for conscious thought.

More simply, habits are behaviours that we perform automatically.

Why We Form Habits

Habits allow us to automate behaviours which reduces cognitive load and frees up mental capacity so you can allocate your attention to other tasks.

Therefore, the more we automate behaviours, known as automaticity, the more our brain is free to focus on other things. This ultimately allows us to do more using less brain power.

Once we habituate a behaviour, it becomes part of the Subconscious Mind, allowing us to carry it out without conscious awareness.

It’s important to recognise that every habit, even “bad” ones, serve us in some way. For example, overeating eases anxiety while smoking calms nerves.

The Evolutionary Perspective

From an evolutionary perspective, habits are adaptive behaviours that have been favoured through natural selection because they enhanced our ability to survive and reproduce by reducing the need for conscious decision-making in recurrent situations.

“Habits are reliable solutions to recurring problems in our environment.” ― Jason Hrera

How Habits Form In The Brain

Everything we do triggers a network of associated neurons (cells that transfer information) in the brain. Through the process of neuroplasticity, the more we repeat a specific behaviour, the more we trigger the same network of neurons, the stronger those networks become and the quicker information can be processed.

Eventually, after enough repetition, the networks become that strong that signals can be processed almost instantly. This is when the behaviour becomes part of our subconscious and so we do it automatically without the need for conscious thought. This is what we call a habit. It’s important to note that conscious attention is only required until it is embedded neurologically and becomes automatic.

Habits require more energy to obtain but less energy to maintain.

How Long Does It Take To Build A Habit?

Studies conducted at the University College London show that the point of automaticity (when a habit becomes automatic) takes on average around 66 days, although the full range spanned from 18-254 days.

However, it’s not so much as how long it takes, it’s more of a question of how many repetitions. The more you repeat a particular behaviour, the more you wire it into your brain and nervous system.

The Habit Loop

Inspired by James Clear’s book Atomic Habits, there is a structure behind every habit referred to as a “Habit Loop” which can be divided into four simple stages: Cue, Desire, Response and Reward. By breaking the process down into these fundamental stages, we can better understand what a habit is, how it works and ultimately how to improve them.


Cues are what trigger your brain into autopilot.

There are 2 types of cues; internal and external.

Your brain is constantly analysing your internal and external environment for clues to where rewards (defined as anything that is going to enhance your survival) are located. The cue is the first indication that there’s potential for a reward.

Your thoughts and feelings determine whether a cue turns into a desire.


Desires are the motivational force behind all habits.

Desires are the predictions and meanings assigned to cues. More simply, how the brain interprets cues. It uses past experiences to predict the most rewarding response in the present.

For a gambler, the sound of slot machines is a potent trigger that sparks an intense wave of desire. For someone who doesn’t gamble, the sound is merely background noise. Therefore, cues are meaningless until they are interpreted.

Note, it is not the habit itself that you desire ― it is the change of internal state it provides. For example, you do not desire brushing your teeth ― you desire the feeling of a clean and fresh mouth you have afterwards.

How motivated you are and how much friction there is associated with the behaviour determines whether a desire turns into a response.


The response is the behaviour itself ― the mental, emotional or physical action.

When you think of response, think of consistency. The best book is the one you can’t put down. The best exercise is the one you enjoy doing every day.

Behaviours that feel rewarding in the moment are more likely to be adopted. For example, exercising to look better is hard to sustain as the daily effect is extremely small. However, exercising to feel better works every day.

The motive behind the response is about obtaining the reward.


The reward is what informs the brain whether or not the habit is worth remembering.

Feelings of pain or pleasure are part of the feedback mechanism that helps your brain decide.

The reward is the end goal of every habit. The cue is about noticing the reward. The desire is about wanting the reward. The response is about obtaining the reward.

Habit Loop Summary

The cue triggers a desire. The desire motivates a response. The response provides a reward. The reward satisfies the desire and ultimately becomes associated with the cue. Together, these four steps form a neurological feedback loop that allow you to create automatic habits.

When a behaviour is insufficient in any of the four stages, it will not become a habit. If you remove the cue, then your habit will never start. If you reduce the desire, then you won’t experience enough motivation to perform the behaviour. Finally, if the reward fails to satisfy your desire then you’ll have no reason to do it again in the future.

Habit Loop Example

  • Cue: You wake up.
  • Desire: You want to feel alert.
  • Response: You drink a cup of coffee.
  • Reward: You satisfy your desire to feel alert. Drinking coffee then becomes associated with waking up.

Principles For Cultivating Good & Bad Habits

Below is a table with the principles on how to create good habits and how to break bad habits.

 How To Create A Good HabitHow To Break A Bad Habit
CueIncrease VisibilityDecrease Visibility
DesireIncrease AttractivenessDecrease Attractiveness
ResponseIncrease FrictionDecrease Friction
RewardIncrease PleasureIncrease Pain

Habits Compound

Just like anything, habits compound. For example, if you improve by just 1% every day, you’ll end up almost 37 times better after a year.

Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement. The same way that money multiplies through compound interest, the effects of your habits multiply as you repeat them ― for better or for worse.

Habits Determine Destiny

Our habits, for better or for worse, determine our destiny. They either drive us towards or away from our goals and the life we desire.

“People do not decide their futures, they decide their habits and their habits decide their futures.” ― F. M. Alexander

How To Leverage Habits

The key to leveraging habits is to develop habits that align with your goals and the life you desire.

In order to identify what habits you need to develop, ask yourself “What habits do I need to achieve the goals and life I desire?”

Furthermore, proximity is power. We imitate the behaviours of those around us. Therefore, surround yourself with people who embody the habits you want to develop and you will begin to imitate those behaviours.

Keystone habits positively impact multiple areas of your life, either over time or immediately. Identity-based habits reinforce the type of person you want to become.

“The quality of your life is determined by the quality of your habits.”

Summary (TL;DR)

Habits are behaviours that have been repeated enough times that they have become automatic.

We call the fundamental structure behind all habits the Habit Loop which involves four stages; cue, desire, response and reward. The cue triggers a desire, which motivates a response, which provides a reward, which satisfies the desire and ultimately becomes associated with the original cue, creating a neurological feedback loop.

The key to leveraging habits is to develop habits that align with your goals and the life you desire.


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