Understanding the Anatomy of a Habit: How to Make or Break It | Hacker Noon

Habits are healing poison, as habits can work for us (energy savers) or against us (destructive behaviors). Through practical steps, we can create or break habits so that we adapt our lifestyles to include new habits and get rid of old habits. To create a habit, we can start by adopting a belief, creating a cue, making a response that follows the cue, and getting a reward after the response. To break a habit, we need to inverse habit creating laws.


Habits are behaviors we repeat regularly or automatically. The good side of habits is that they can act as energy savers. We don’t focus on them while performing them. Take, for example, brushing teeth: we have to remind ourselves to be mindful of this action. Change your hand, and suddenly, brushing teeth becomes something novel and no longer a habitual activity. Imagine the mental load of getting ready in the morning if we hadn’t encoded each step of the morning schedule as a habit.

Nevertheless, habits are healing poison, as they can work for us (energy savers) or against us (destructive behaviors). Too many times, we tend to overlook the power of habits. Over time, habits will compound into excellent or disastrous answers to our daily entropy. Because when, and it is a matter of when, not if, life crashes upon us, it is those tiny, unremarkable habits we picked along the way that can either get us back on track or keep us in the dark. 

There are different schools of thought regarding the anatomy of a habit.  

Charles Duhigg, in his book Power of Habit, sees habits as a three-step loop with cue, routine, and reward as actors. 


Image credit: Charles Duhigg

In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear sees habits as a four-stage neurological feedback loop with cue, craving, response, and reward as actors.


Image credit: James Clear

Barbara Oakley sees habits with other actors such as cue, routine, rewards, belief.  

The cue triggers the habit: a phone notification, an item on a to-do list, the smell of a cookie, etc. The cue is neither good nor bad because it is our response after the cue that carries weight in the habit process. 

Craving gives us the energy to act and pursue our habits. Craving only happens if a cue is meaningful to us. For example, a cigarette triggers a craving in a person, while the smell repulses another. 

What you crave is not the habit itself but the change in state it delivers. You do not crave smoking a cigarette, you crave the feeling of relief it provides. You are not motivated by brushing your teeth but rather by the feeling of a clean mouth. You do not want to turn on the television, you want to be entertained. – James Clear

Response is the actual habit we make. 

Reward is the objective of every habit, the pleasure that satisfies our craving: a piece of chocolate after lunch, a glass of wine to unwind at evenings, the high of clicking buy if feeling down.   

Beliefs – habits hold immense power because of our subconscious beliefs in them. Take, for example, the self-defeating negative thinking, such as “I will never be able to change” or “When will I ever learn?”. This way of thinking blocks the development of good habits. Thus, reframing these harmful thoughts in a positive light (“I’ve learned from this failed experience and because of that, I might succeed in the future”) can retrain our beliefs. Beliefs sit behind the Nietzschian “why” (One who has a ‘why’ to live for can endure almost any ‘how’.)

I see habits in the way Clear defined them, with belief morphed inside rewards. It is the fact that rewards should evolve from extrinsic (external treats) to intrinsic (the way we frame our thinking or adapt our mindset to our new life realities) that make a behavior automatic or habitual. We believe in the habit until we become the habit.

Avoid either the cue or the craving or the response, and there will be no behavior. 

Avoid the reward, and we will not repeat the behavior.


Cue: I wake up.   

Craving: I want to feel alert.   

Response: I drink coffee.  

Reward: I feel alert. I associate drinking coffee with feeling alert.  

Cue: I feel overwhelmed by my current project.   

Craving: I want to feel in control and reduce stress.   

Response: I shop online or offline.   

Reward: I feel less stressed. I associate shopping with lower stress levels.

Cue: I feel bored.   

Craving: I want to relieve my frustration.   

Response: I check social media.   

Reward: My craving is satisfied. I associate checking social media with feeling entertained. 

How to add a habit 

To create a habit, we can start by adopting a belief, creating a cue, making a response that follows the cue, and getting a reward after the response.

The method of building better habits becomes extremely satisfying and self-reinforcing. The more we repeat habits, the more we enjoy the process of repeating them (remember the rewards part of a habit – behaviors that get rewarded get repeated). The more we enjoy the habits, the more we repeat them and believe in our newly acquired habits.   

Clear defines the following laws for habit-building processes: 

  • The 1st law (Cue): Make it obvious. 
  • The 2nd law (Craving): Make it attractive. 
  • The 3rd law (Response): Make it easy. 
  • The 4th law (Reward): Make it satisfying. 

The 1st Law: Make It Obvious 

Every habit starts with a cue. We are more likely to notice cues that stand out. Thus, we should design our environment so that cues of new habits are visible. 

Being more specific about our cues will eliminate ambiguity. The most common cues are time and location. Thus, we can set implementation intentions (self-regulatory strategies in the form of an “if-then” plan) using time and location:

I will [BEHAVIOR] at [TIME] in [LOCATION]. If [OBSTACLE] happens, then I will do [ALTERNATE HABIT]. 

Example: I will go for a walk at lunchtime around the block. If it is raining, I will take my raincoat.  

Or we can use habit stacking as a strategy to pair a new habit with a current habit, where we use a so-called anchor habit as the cue for the new habit. An anchor habit is any habit we already use, e.g. brushing teeth, making coffee, eating, etc. The habit stacking formula created by BJ Fogg is:


Example: After brushing my teeth, I will meditate for a few minutes. 

The 2nd law (Craving): Make it attractive. 

The more attractive an option, the more we are likely to act on it. By identifying the value of a habit before starting, we make it easier for the brain to see the reward.

Temptation bundling is one way to make our habits more attractive by pairing an action we want to do with an activity we need to do. 

The habit stacking + temptation bundling formula is: 


For example:

After working, I will write my articles. After writing, I will watch youtube videos. Thus, writing has become more attractive. 

The 3rd Law: Make It Easy 

Instead of focusing on daunting actions, we can break these targets into small activities that we will try to hit consistently. The brain tends to resist change and favors the sweet equilibrium of homeostasis. But easy actions do not look dangerous, so we are more likely to start or repeat them. 

Whenever we repeat a new behavior, even for just a few seconds, eventually, the brain will stamp those actions as meaningful. As a result, the brain will create new neural pathways to reinforce those new behaviors. 

This process of repetition is called habit formation when behavior becomes more automatic or habitual through regular repetition. As we know, repetition does not make it perfect but permanent. Thus, we can hit a new homeostatic state where we fully incorporate and maintain new habits. 

We can make a habit easy not only by splitting it into absurdly tiny steps (think of the 2-minute rule – when we start a new habit, it should take less than 2 minutes to do. We could start a habit of writing by simply opening a draft) but also by dividing it into manageable chunks (after opening the draft, we could write 200 words daily).

The 4th Law: Make It Satisfying 

Clear formulated the Cardinal Rule of Behavior Change as such:

What is immediately rewarded is repeated.

What is immediately punished is avoided.

Or, as Mary Poppins sang it, just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down in a most delightful way.

Making a habit attractive ( the second law) gets us to make it for the first time, but the satisfaction (the fourth law) sustains, repeats, and builds a habit.

How to break a habit

To break a habit, we can switch habit-creating laws as such:  

  • Inversion of the 1st law (Cue): Make it invisible. 
  • Inversion of the 2nd law (Craving): Make it unattractive. 
  • Inversion of the 3rd law (Response): Make it difficult. 
  • Inversion of the 4th law (Reward): Make it unsatisfying. 

We start with the reaction to the cue, develop a new response, overcome neurological cravings with a reward and maintain the belief that the new plan will work. We trust the process, and we focus on the input variables that we can control, not on the output results out of our control. We should strive to become input-driven rather than output-driven. 

Remember what our parents used to say? Try your best. The difference between trying our best and adopting a stoic mindset where we employ the dichotomy of control (some things are in our control, while others are not) is that we do not let the outcome define us. Instead, there is gentle wisdom in acceptance of things not going our way. Otherwise, we might lose ourselves when the result is not what we wanted.

Inversion of the 1st law (Cue): Make it invisible

As habits start with a cue, one of the most practical ways to eliminate a habit is to remove the cue.

It is easier to avoid temptations altogether than to resist them. To stop using the phone too much, we could put the phone in another room. To stop overspending, we could avoid going to shops.

Sometimes, a new environment is better to help break old habits as we are not fighting against old cues.

Inversion of the 2nd law (Craving): Make it unattractive

We can break the spell of old habits by highlighting the benefits of avoiding them.

In a Ted talk, psychiatrist Judson Brewer talks about how one of his patients became disenchanted with smoking. Using mindfulness, the patient started being curious about what it is like to be smoking. By admitting more and more the repulsion she felt when smoking, the patient moved from knowledge to wisdom, from knowing in her mind that she should quit smoking to knowing in her bones. Smoking became unattractive, and thus the illusion of smoking was shattered.

Inversion of the 3rd law (Response): Make it difficult

To make a habit difficult, we can use commitment devices (ways to lock us into following a plan of action that we might not want to do but which we know are good for us).

For example, we might purchase individual packages instead of bulk sizes to make it difficult to overeat.

Think of Odysseus’ plan to survive the siren song. Nowadays, we can make it difficult to hear the siren song of social media by logging out of our accounts or using website blockers.  

Inversion of the 4th law (Reward): Make it unsatisfying 

Pain is an effective teacher, and we soon learn not to repeat behaviors that have painful consequences. Thus, we could add a cost or punishment if we repeat those habits we want to avoid.

Another option is to use habit contracts (verbal or written agreements in which we state our commitment and eventual consequences) or accountability partners, which can be powerful motivators.  

How to create an exercising habit 

As the saying goes, in theory, there is no difference between theory in practice. In practice, there is. All habit rules have little value if we don’t put them to practice. 

Let’s say we want to start an exercising habit. How can we create an exercising habit? By building a routine that will become a habit. The difference between habits and routines is that routines are intentional, whereas habits are actions done with little or no thought (autopilot). Routines need awareness, and habits need almost no conscious thought. Only after a routine has been repeated regularly does it become a habit. Think of the first driving lessons versus driving after a few years of practice. If we wake up and start exercising without thinking about it one day, exercising would be a habit. 

The 1st law (Cue): Make it obvious.  

Implementation intentions such as I will go for a run in my lunch break around the block. If it is raining, I will exercise in the living room.  

Habit stacking with anchor habits such as: After brushing my teeth, I will exercise. After dinner, I will go for a light jog. 

These intentions can act as triggers by writing them on paper (sticky notes on mirrors or laptops) or digitally (alarms of reminders). 

In my case, a trigger that went well was planning the next day’s tasks the night before. Using Todoist, I created a recurrent daily task with the highest priority for my todo-list. Every night, the last thing that I read is the to-do list, and every morning the first thing that I read is again the to-do list. The next day, I do my exercises — the Zeigarnik effect in action. 

We can restructure our environment by preparing the exercising outfit the night before. This acts as mental preparation to fight our internal resistance and start exercising.

The 2nd law (Craving): Make it attractive.  

Temptation bundling by clumping an instant-gratification behavior (listening to music, enjoying podcasts or audiobooks) with exercising.  As James Clear writes,

We tend to imitate the habits of three social groups: the close (family and friends), the many (the tribe), and the powerful (those with status and prestige).

One of the most effective things you can do to build better habits is to join a culture where (1) your desired behaviour is the normal behaviour and (2) you already have something in common with the group.

As such, it would be a good idea to find our tribe of like-minded people that we could use as buddies to sustain confidence. Having a buddy can keep us motivated when, inevitably, we will feel like quitting. 

The 3rd law (Response): Make it easy.  

Instead of relying on motivation that can have its ebbs and flows, we could exercise for such a tiny amount that we can’t miss a practice. This step heavily resembles the kaizen mindset, and I wrote more about kaizen here

Start tiny (the 2-minute rule). Rather than doing 50 daily pushups, start with one pushup. Instead of running for half an hour, run for two or five minutes. Remember that a five-minute running session is still miles better than a zero-minute running session. Better to exercise daily, even for a few minutes, than adopt an all-or-nothing mentality with a few sessions sprinkled across weeks. 

Continue with tiny increments. As we build mental endurance and our friction against exercising starts to fade, we should gradually improve our sessions. But, if at any point we find ourselves dreading exercising or making excuses to get rid of it, we should acknowledge that it is time to reduce the size of the step. Fall back from running for 30 minutes to only 10 minutes or so, something that should be so small it is practically impossible not to do it. Making exercising look easy is a crucial part of consistency.

When we know even a few minutes can count as exercise, it should be convenient to exercise daily

The 4th law (Reward): Make it satisfying. 

The difference between satisfying rewards and attractive cravings is that rewards are the “why” of the routine, and cravings are part of the “how” of the routine.

So, let’s find the why of exercising. Is it for better health? Better mood? Energy booster? Weight control?

For me, a pivotal moment was when I discovered that exercising, alongside meditation, promotes neuroplasticity (easier to grow new neural connections). Also, we can use exercising as a diffuse mode of thinking to have aha! moments to our life questions. We will no longer avoid intense cardio sessions if we know more about sports benefits.

Thus, reframing our beliefs or changing our perception of a situation is crucial in considering exercise pleasant.  

Consequence mapping is a technique that can help with the perceived value of a reward, and it consists of answering: what are the consequences if I do this, and what are the effects if I don’t? After all, it could become relatively easy to skip another exercise session tomorrow if we miss exercising today.

We should also explain on paper why we want to skip exercising and what it is so urgent that we can’t find time for a few minutes of sport. I got this tip from Andy Puddicombe’s Get Some Headspace book.

Compassion and patience toward ourselves, as we most definitely will fail on some days. As Beckett said, “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”, with an improved mindset and belief, failures are valuable teaching tools. 

Tracking progress by either using applications or paper can boost morale and reinforce our beliefs in our system. 

Picking a reward doesn’t have to be expensive (indulging in our favorite leisure activities such as a movie night, gaming sessions, etc.) For a routine to become a habit, rewards will eventually have to shift from extrinsic (what we give ourselves as treats) to intrinsic (how it makes us feel). At the end of a gruesome video cardio session and while picking myself from the floor, one of the girls from the video was asked how she felt, and she replied: I feel alive! For that girl, cardio was no longer tied to a physical reward but bound to her identity. 

Lasting change is a lifestyle change, so it would be wise to adapt our lifestyles to include exercising no matter the circumstances. Like we find time to brush our teeth, we could find time for a five-minute sport session.

Breaking old habits and building new ones are tremendous tasks that we might need to endure because there will be a time in our life where we reach a crossroads, and we realize that going backward is not an option and staying the same is not enough.  

Previously published at https://www.roxanamurariu.com/a-practical-framework-to-create-and-break-habits/


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