The secret to building better habits

Charles Duhigg had a cookie problem: He liked cookies, but his little habit of eating one every afternoon was beginning to “tilt the scale. So this New York Times reporter decided to investigate the science behind habits.

At the core of every habit, Duhigg learned, is a neurological loop with three parts: a cue, a routine and a reward. If you can set up a cue for a worthy routine and then provide a reward, you can re-wire your brain to actually crave better habits.

Simple? Yes.

Effective? Yes.

A habit begins with a cue, which is any kind of trigger. Maybe it’s your alarm, or the moment you finish breakfast. Maybe it’s 4 o’clock, or the strains of of Katy Perry’s “Roar.”

Pick a simple cue, like making your morning coffee to trigger your habit. Then provide a clear reward for the completion of that habit: a hot shower, 20 minutes of aimless social media, a favorite TV show.

The goal, Duhigg discovered, is to train your brain to associate a certain cue with a routine and a reward. Over time, your brain will start to crave the endorphins associated with completing the task and you won’t need the reward. But in the beginning, you have to jump-start that process.

The good news is that some habits are powerful enough to naturally bring about other positive changes, setting the stage for more success. Duhigg calls these “keystone habits” in his bestselling book, The Power of Habit.

Keystone habits don’t work in a cause-and-effect manner, but rather, they spark “chain reactions that help other good habits take hold,” Duhigg writes. An example is exercise: When you work out, you’re more likely to make smarter choices about food. You don’t want to undo your effort. You begin to evaluate a bowl of ice cream in terms of minutes on a treadmill.

Developing a daily routine is another keystone habit. If you wake up every morning at 6 a.m., make a smoothie and watch CNN, for instance, you’ve got a formula for success—a routine that eases you into the day, even when you feel half-awake, and sets you up for productivity.

It worked for Duhigg. He was finally able to beat his cookie habit. He realized that every afternoon, he would head to the cafeteria, buy a cookie and chat with friends.

He forced himself to change up his routine. One afternoon he went outside for a walk. Another afternoon he went to the cafeteria and bought a candy bar. Finally he uncovered the real reward he was craving was socializing, so he continued retreating to the cafeteria, as cued, to enjoy 10 minutes of conversation with friends—no cookie involved.

He lost 12 pounds and discovered the origins of a bestselling book. “If you can diagnose your habits,” he writes, “you can change them in whichever way you want.”

In my work in executive training, clients develop habits to be better communicators—from introductions at a cocktail party to the delivery of major public speeches. Learning to develop winning habits is worthwhile for all of us.  Set up cues, provide yourself with positive rewards  and see where those good habits take you!


Greg Dardis, the author, is the CEO of Dardis Communications. Visit our blog for more communications and professional presentation tips.