Habit Formation
February 21, 2024

Decoding the Anatomy of Habits


With the New Year upon us, many are making resolutions and wanting to build better habits.  So what is a habit, and how is it formed?  Let’s take a brief look at the Anatomy of a Habit.  In future posts, we’ll discuss how habits are relevant to learning, where they fit, and how to use them to make performance permanent. But for now, let’s break it down:  what is a habit?

Our brains use what we can ‘habits’ to save energy, so we don’t have to figure out how to do new things every time, we simply do it like we’ve done it before.  How to get dressed.  How to make your coffee or tea.  How to login to your computer. But there was, at some point, a ‘first’ time you did these things, and over time, you built a habit so you don’t have to think about it anymore.

A habit is made up of three components: cue, behavior and reward.

Cuing or Triggering a Habit

The cue, or trigger that precedes the action you take.  A habit may be triggered or cued by a situation, the environment, a time of day or even an emotional state you happen to be in.  

The Things We Do:  Behavior

The behavior is the action you take or thing you do.  These could be eating something, thinking of something, becoming wary, following a particular route or taking a specific action or series of actions as a process.  

How Rewarding: Reinforcing a Habit

The reward you experience might be internal or external.  Internal rewards might be feeling good, feeling sated, feeling a release of stress (even short-term).  External rewards might be getting praise, money or physical reward, or even hearing a pleasing sound.  

Bringing It All Together

The Cue & Behavior are linked and recorded in the brain together as a ‘habit’.  It gets reinforced with dopamine when you experience the reward.

The three components of habit creation occur whether your habit is good for you, or bad for you.  Good habits, and bad habits, get built the same way.  Consider that, when you are deciding which habits to build (and break) this year!

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