The Psychology of Habit Formation

Understanding the Science Behind Building and Breaking Habits for Lasting Change

The Psychology of Habit Formation
The Psychology of Habit Formation

Understanding the Science Behind Building and Breaking Habits for Lasting Change

I’ll never forget my session with Lisa, a busy working mom who felt overwhelmed trying to lead a healthier lifestyle. “I just can’t seem to make these changes stick,” she told me, exhausted. Finding time for exercise or cooking healthy meals seemed impossible between work, parenting duties, and other obligations.

“It’s not about finding more time,” I explained. “It’s about understanding your habits.” 

I introduced Lisa to groundbreaking research on the underlying psychology driving our habitual behaviours—both good and bad. By learning science-based strategies to build positive habits while breaking negative ones, Lisa would discover that lasting changes come from small but consistent steps aligned with how the brain actually works.

The Habit Loop: What’s Really Going On

Behind every habit, an intricate brain process occurs, explaining why these behaviours become so automatic. MIT researcher Ann Graybiel identified a three-step “habit loop” through her work with lab mice: 

The Cue: A trigger telling your brain to initiate the habit. This might be a time of day, location, action from someone else, or a combination of these factors. 

The Routine: The actual habit itself, whether snacking when stressed or checking your phone during meetings. This tends to be the behaviour we focus on most when trying to change habits.

The Reward: Something positive, even if small, that your brain receives from the habit. The reward reinforces the loop, embedding the habit. 

Understanding this neurological loop helps explain why habits feel so automatic — your brain has actually wired itself to crave whatever reward it receives from the routine once given the associated cue.

Let’s break down a common habit to better understand it. Consider how frequently people check their phones, even when their intentions are set not to. 

The cue might be hearing a notification or having a spare moment. The routine follows almost automatically: pick up your phone and check messages or apps. The reward? A sense of connection or being “in the know” about what friends and family are up to. 

Our brains associate this tiny rush of dopamine, even if unconscious, with the action of phone checking. Over time, as the habit repeats, the basal ganglia portion of the brain handles executing it, freeing your prefrontal cortex to focus elsewhere. A habit is literally wired!

Building Positive Habits with Small Wins  

Understanding how habits operate neurologically makes clear that brute willpower and big, sweeping changes often fail. Our brains simply don’t work that way. Instead, lasting positive habits form through small but consistent actions supporting new neural pathways. Some research-backed tips:

Start tiny: Commit to a habit micro step so small it seems trivial, like doing one pushup or reading one paragraph each morning. Tiny successes build your confidence and associative reward. 

Stack habits: Link a new habit to an existing one by piggybacking onto its cue and reward, making it easier for your brain. For example, put on your running shoes right after your morning coffee to associate the alertness and energy with exercise.

Remove friction: Make desired habits easy and undesirable ones difficult. Put gym clothes by your bed and sugar treats out of sight in the pantry. The easier choice aligns with the habit you want. 

Plan for exceptions: When habit cues fall apart, like when travelling or during the holidays, have a backup so one change doesn’t derail you. Preparing healthy snacks for busy days keeps your brain’s reward association intact.  

Rewards are powerful: Celebrate reaching habit milestones with small but meaningful treats to yourself, further connecting positive associations. Our brains love rewards!

Breaking Negative Habits: Replace, Don’t Just Resist

What about abandoning negative habits? Understanding cues and rewards remain critical, but prevention matters more than willpower. Try these steps:

Get mindful of triggers: Notice cues triggering unwanted habits without judgment and name them. Just observing activates different neural networks.

Unpack the reward: Ask what desire the habit meets, even if it no longer serves you, so an alternative provides something beneficial. 

Redirect and replace: Once you identify cues and rewards, intentionally redirect attention and choose replacement behaviours to meet underlying needs. 

Make friction your friend: Add barriers that make bad habits inconvenient and good habits easy. Apps that limit screen time introduce enough friction to disrupt negative loops. 

Use implementation intentions: “If X cue happens, then I will perform Y replacement habit” statements prime your brain for positive automaticity.

With awareness, planning and practice, replacement habits slowly wire in redirecting cues and offering useful rewards. Attempting to resist negative habits often fails by ignoring brain wiring.

The Power of Tiny Habit Changes 

Small shifts compound over time into incredible transformations. Lisa, overwhelmed by the obstacles she faced improving her health, reframed forming habits through tiny changes. 

She set a goal of one intentional minute of exercise each day after lunch, knowing how hard it is to skip just one minute. Then Lisa planned backups on busy days, like a quick living room dance party with her kids. To celebrate milestones, she and her husband enjoyed special desserts as rewards.

Over time, one minute grew to three, then to ten. After several months, Lisa worked out most days, lost weight and had the energy to be fully present with her family. Those precious moments connecting with her kids became their habit rewards.

As Lisa’s story illustrates, the brain possesses incredible potential for positive change if we work with, not against, our habitual wiring. Tiny steps create small wins, building the neural pathways and making progress stick.

Moving Forward with Possibility

I encourage you to approach habits with curiosity about what cues trigger your behaviours and how to redirect them toward growth and meaning. Diets crash when willpower attempts to override neurological patterns. Lasting change emerges from mindful tweaks that support our brains' natural behaviour loops.

What tiny step could create positive ripples for you today? What old habit no longer fits the person you want to become? How might you celebrate progress as you wire in new habits?

Don't hesitate to reach out if habit change feels daunting or confusing. I’d be happy to help uncover your habit loops and develop science-backed strategies tailored to how your unique brain operates. Lasting change absolutely awaits when you work alongside yourself.

Unlock Your Potential