How to Optimize Your Life with the Power of Habits

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.

 – Will Durant

Are you seeking to make some positive changes in your life? Research proves that while motivation and willpower are necessary and helpful, they can only take you so far. They work well in the short term, but they wane over time. If the goal you are striving for is a more complex or long-term one (like losing weight), building habits that serve that goal is a more durable approach that leads to success.

Habits are the repetitive actions that guide how we live our lives, usually without conscious thought. Neuroscience tells us that our brains seek to conserve energy, and a powerful way to do that is through routines that become our habits. According to researchers at Duke University, habits account for about 40% of our behaviors on any given day!

By creating deliberate habits for your life, you eliminate the need to make choices that challenge your willpower, sap your motivation and use your mental energy. When you always do things a certain way, they become automated. You don’t have to spend any time or energy thinking about what to do next or making a decision that requires willpower or motivation.

Because habits are such an effective way of empowering behaviors, we are going to use Fresh Start February to discuss three science-based approaches to creating or changing habits.

Charles Duhigg opened the conversation around habits about a decade ago with his book the Power of Habit (though Stephen Covey’s book refers to habits, it is in a value-specific way, not so much a conceptual way). Using research and case studies, he offers a framework for understanding how habits work and a guide to experimenting with how they can be changed.

MIT researchers defined 3 stages that are critical in forming any habit: a cue, a routine and a reward. The reward satisfies the craving that was prompted by the cue. This is called the ‘Habit Loop’, and Duhigg outlines how these elements are the key to understanding why we do what we do.

His Golden Rule of Habit Change is that you cannot eliminate a bad habit, you can only change it. It is much easier to redirect the craving than to resist it. This is accomplished by discovering the cue and the reward so you can change the routine in a way that satisfies the craving in a more positive way.

When it comes to changing a habit (rather than creating a new one) he breaks the process down into 4 steps:

  1. Notice your routine

The routine is the most obvious aspect of the habit loop – it’s the behavior you want to change. Your goal is to identify how you go from a cue to following the routine that leads to the reward.

  1. What is your reward?

Every habit has a specific reason behind it. Rewards are powerful because they satisfy the craving. These cravings are often unconscious, so it’s important to identify the actual need that drives the behavior. To do this, adjust your habit so it delivers a different result. The goal here is to figure out why you follow the routine:

  • Is it from a need to fit in?
  • Are you bored?
  • Do you get an emotional charge?
  • Are you trying to relax?

Experiment to discover the underlying reason for why you follow a habit.

  1. Find your cue

Every habit starts with a trigger that tells your brain that you want a specific reward. Your goal is to identify the cue for every action. Duhigg says the most common cues are location, time, your emotional state, and other people. He suggests that you can gain a lot of insight into your cue by answering these 5 questions:

  • Where are you?
  • What time is it?
  • What’s your emotional state?
  • Who else is around?
  • What action preceded the urge?

Noting and keeping a record of these 5 answers every time you experience a habit cue is the first step towards making a lasting change.

  1. Create your plan

You can’t control the cue and you can’t change the craving the reward is satisfying. But you can change the routine by following a new plan of action (that provides the same reward) whenever you experience a cue. Use the information gained from the 5 questions you just answered to create your specific plan.


Maybe you’re trying to change the habit of drinking a glass of wine every evening. In the research phase, you discovered this behavior is based on a need to relax after a stressful day. You also found that you get the same reward from doing yoga. Your new routine could be: At 8 PM every day (cue), I do yoga for at least 15 minutes (routine) because it relaxes me (reward).

Remember, a habit is a choice that we deliberately made at some point, then stop thinking about but continue doing. To re-engineer that formula, you need to make a choice again with a well-researched plan. Decide ahead of time what you’re going to do when you encounter the cue in order to reach the reward in a deliberate way.

Read the Power of Habit or watch Charles Duhigg’s TedX talk to learn more about his approach and harness the power of habit for yourself!

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