How to make habits work for you

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First published by Magda Tabac.

We all have them, good or bad. But how can you make habits work for you?

They can help us with certain things we need to do on a daily basis. By automating these things, we get faster and can use our brain power to think about other things, like what’s for dinner or who is picking up the kids.

When they are bad, they might cause us health problems or arguments.

So, what if I told you that it is actually fairly easy to change your habits? What if I told you that you hold the power in your own hands, and you can make them work for you?

What are habits?

To do this, we first need to know what habits consist of. We can break them down into three steps:

How to make habits work for you - a woman meditating.
  1. A cue: an event triggering a response or routine.
  2. A routine: an automated reaction that you need to complete in order to receive a reward.
  3. A reward: something your brain anticipates and wants after receiving the cue, and that also reinforces the routine.

Here is an example: brushing your teeth. When we think about brushing our teeth as the routine, what could a possible cue or trigger be?

Well, the cue could be that it’s morning and you just woke up, after lunch or before going to bed.

What is the reward? Your teeth feel clean, your breath smells fresh, you can now go visit your dentist again without fear of them yelling at you.


We could ask ourselves how this habit of brushing your teeth, especially with toothpaste, came about. When toothpaste was invented in the late 1800s, hardly anyone used it. But a guy called Claude Hopkins created an advert that promised to remove the film that is left on your teeth during the day and leave them clean and pearly white. Try it, run your tongue over your teeth – feel what I mean?

With this, Claude created a craving, the craving to have clean teeth. And millions of people started buying and using toothpaste. The thing is, that film is actually there to protect your teeth… But don’t use that as an excuse because brushing your teeth, with toothpaste, still needs to be done. Particularly because the amount of sugar we have in our food today is a lot higher than the amount of sugar in our food just 200 years ago.

So, there is a fourth part of the habit loop: cravings. Cravings for your reward at the end are what power it.

Do you know how long it takes to form a habit? It depends on many things, like the person and the kind of habit they would like to reinforce. Studies say it’s anywhere between 30-120 days. But more importantly to remember is that it’s not about how many days, but actually about how many times you repeat the process. Because the definition of a habit is a process repeated long and often enough until it becomes automatic.

Famous habit enthusiasts

Let me share some other examples with you, so you can really internalise how you can make habits work for you. Many of them we can find in the world of sports, but there are other examples that reach from individuals to teams and whole societies.

My favourite is the story of Michael Phelps, the American Olympic swimmer. During the 200-meter butterfly at the Bejing Olympics in 2008, his goggles filled with water. He swam the race blind. When he looked up at the clock, he had not only won the gold medal, but broken the world record.

Michael Phelps makes habits work and wins more Olympic Gold medals than anyone before him.

How? Michael has a habit that he performs before every race. He:

  • Closes his eyes and envisions the entire race, stroke by stroke, from start to finish.
  • Pictures himself making the perfect stroke every time.
  • Sees exactly how many strokes he will need to get from one wall to the next. He plays a mental video of the “perfect race.”

Your brain actually does not know the difference between imagining doing something and doing it, in terms of building these neuropathways that reinforce routines and habits. So, in his mind, Michael had already won the race.

Making habits work to win

Another great example is the American Football team from Florida, the Buccaneers. In 1996, they were at the bottom of the league.

Their coach, Dungy, used a controversial training method that got them to win the division championship and even the Super Bowl. What he did was teach them habits, automated routines and responses to cues in the game. This way, they did not have to waste time to think about what might happen next in the game but were always a split second ahead of their opponent because they worked so well as a team. Moves happened automatically and that’s how they were able to win.

Use habits to create social change

On a bigger scale, you can make habits work for you and others to create social change. Prime example here is the Civil Rights movement. Protests had been going on for a long time but were never organised enough to have a real impact. In 1955, a black woman called Rosa Parks started a bus boycott, by simply staying seated on a bus in Alabama when some white people boarded and demanded the seat, as was the law at the time. Rosa was arrested. But she was also well connected within the black community in her town, and people that knew her knew a young man called Martin Luther King Jr.

King was a pastor at the time and was asked to lend his church as a meeting place for people to start further boycotts. These meetings and boycotts became a habit for more and more people and eventually spiralled out into more and more people taking charge of their own meetings and organising a whole country into changing the laws. Pretty powerful stuff!

Extinction Rebellion are challenging the status quo and are on the way to form new environmental habits.

From habits to system changes

A similar and most recent example is the environmental movement Extinction Rebellion. Sure, there were environmental movements since the 80s, maybe even earlier. We all know Greenpeace and WWF.

But this seems different. Same as with the Civil Rights movement, there is one person that set a whole lot of events into place: Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg. She has a dream. And from her actions have emerged groups that self-organise around the world, hoping to bring on a system change that stops the world from being destroyed for our and future generations.

3 easy steps how to make habits work for you

So, here are some things you can do to really make habits work for you.

Learning; reading; coffee;

1.Think about its four parts:

  • What is your cue for doing a specific thing? You can create your own cue, but make it very specific. The easiest way to do this is by using a time and a place.
  • What is the immediate reward you’re craving with that cue? It needs to be satisfying enough for you to complete the routine.
  • The craving needs to be attractive to you, so this is going to be personally tailored to what you want.
  • And what is the routine you complete to get it? Make this as easy as possible in the beginning, so you can’t fail to get started.

Example: Every day at 2pm in the hallway (specific time and place cue), I will do 5 push ups (easy routine to start with) to feel energised after lunch (short-term, immediate reward) and work towards my long-term goal of losing 10 pounds by the end of the month (craving).


2. Use a familiar routine to build on and bridge over to a new behaviour. Example: if you usually have a cigarette or food when you get stressed, or bored, or tired, you need to get up to go to the kitchen or outside. So, getting up is something you already do. Now, get up and just take a walk. Even for 5 minutes, which is about the same amount of time you’d usually take to smoke a cigarette or eat a snack. This way you don’t need to learn to do something completely new and it will be easier to transfer. And because you don’t need to change much, you can’t use the excuse that you have no time. The reward of being able to unwind or distract yourself stays the same.


3. Reinforce the routine by practising it often and a little bit at a time. Don’t overdo it, or you might think it’s too much and give up. You can top it up with bigger sessions as you go on, for example running, meditating or reading for 30 minutes during the evenings.

I hope you enjoyed this read. Let me know in the comments what habits you are currently working on ;).

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