MDHCo - Little Habits Big Difference

On Good Habits – Mastering Little Habits for Big Results

This is Part 3 of our series On Good Habits.  In this section, you will learn how to create new habits, as well as how to hack The Habit Loop to change any habit you desire. Part 1 of this series described what a habit is and why good habits are vital to personal growth.  Part 2 discussed the science behind habit formation and the neurological process of habit formation called, The Habit Loop. If you are unfamiliar with any of these concepts, you may want to check them out now.

The Power of Cravings

We’ve already looked at why habits are essential to your personal success, and the neurological pattern called the Habits Loop which governs all habits.  Now recall that there is a fourth force at work here, known as craving.  Cravings are the result of repeating the cue, routine, reward loop in the same context enough times that the brain reorganizes the information and associates the cue directly with the reward, instead of the routine (often the original goal of the behavior).

Rewards satisfy cravings.  Cravings emanate from reward-processing activity in the brain.  When they take hold, you develop a feeling of longing and desire, which gets mixed into your conscious thoughts.  At this stage, you cannot help but seek the reward.[1]

Without some feeling of craving, a habit will not take hold.  Think of the craving as the fuel for the habit loop.  It is only when our brain expects the reward as when triggered by the cue, that we can expect a routine to become habitual.  Thus, the cue actually has two important functions in habit formation: to initiate the routine as well as to foster a sense of craving.

Example of the Power of Cravings

Claude Hopkins, Copywriter

The Power of Habit contains an interesting example of the psychological repercussions of cravings. Duhigg discusses Claude Hopkins and the birth of the toothpaste industry:  Up until the early 1900’s, toothpaste was not a staple of personal hygiene.  It’s crazy to think – but people really didn’t brush their teeth, so toothpaste was simply not needed.  It was such a pervasive problem, that the U.S. government deemed poor oral hygiene a national security risk during WWI. Hopkins – a well-known advertising executive – had a problem on his hands.  Claude was hired by The Pepsodent Company of Chicago to promote the eponymous line of toothpaste, Pepsodent.  Other toothpaste advertising campaigns at that time (which focused on tartar and health) all failed to gain traction in the market.   Claude took a different approach: he claimed that Pepsodent removed the film on your teeth.  While that certainly is true, you can also remove the film simply by swiping your finger over your teeth. It was also pretty ingenious: using the cue, teeth film, was something that happens to everyone. This was enough to get people to try Pepsodent and it eventually became a huge hit – far surpassing all other brands of toothpaste for 30 years.

But that’s not the whole story.  You see, Hopkins didn’t realize the full explanation for his campaign’s success.  While the cue (film on teeth) and routine (brush teeth with Pepsodent) were clear, the reward (no film on teeth) was not sufficient to create a habit out of brushing teeth.  Instead, it was unique ingredients in Pepsodent – citric acid and mint oil – which turned teeth brushing into a habit.  Citric acid and mint oil cause minor irritation in the mouth, which is perceived as a cool, tingling sensation.  It’s that sensation, serving as a palpable reward signifying “your mouth is clean.”  Thus, it was Pepsodent’s unique ingredients that created a craving that no other brand of toothpaste could satisfy. Remarkable, even if it wasn’t on purpose.

How to Develop Good Habits

So how do you develop a habit? First, you need to identify the routine you would like to make habitual. Let’s use exercise as an example.  In our Cue-Routine-Reward circuit, then, exercise is the routine.  Remember that habits are formed when the behavior is repeated in the same context, so we need to go a little farther in defining the routine.  Let’s say instead, “I want to exercise immediately after waking up.” The context – immediately after waking up – is important to having the habit stick more quickly.

Next, pick your cue.  Remember, the cue is the reminder or trigger for you to engage in the specific behavior, in our case exercise.  The cue should be both relevant and memorable to be effective. For exercising in the morning, a good cue would be to have your gym clothes and sneakers next to the bed when you wake up.  That way, as soon as you wake up, you’ll see the cue and get into your routine immediately – as you wanted.

Now, you might be thinking, isn’t “waking up” the cue? Once the habit takes hold, merely waking up could trigger the habit.  However, remember our two keys for successful cues: they must be relevant and memorable.  While “waking up” is highly relevant to the routine of “working out immediately after waking up,” it is not memorable.  You’ve woken up every morning for your entire life.  Each day heretofore were you reminded to exercise? Probably not.  I find visual triggers to be the most helpful in trying to start a new routine, as many people do.[2]  But, obviously, do what works for you.  Another added benefit of using your gym clothes as a cue is that it makes things easy.  There’s no time needed between seeing the clothes and putting them on – thus, you are preparing for your routine immediately.  If you had to go to your closet to pick out something to wear, find your shoes, and so on, you’d be more likely to get frustrated with the routine and give up.  Especially at the beginning of trying to create a new routine, make it as easy as possible to follow throughMake it so there is no time for excuses.

Third, you need to pick a reward.  Chocolate often works: The Compound Effect highlights one experiment where 2 groups of runners were asked run daily.  One group was given chocolate after their run as a reward; the other wasn’t.   Not surprisingly, the group who ate the chocolate was more likely to have made running a daily habit.  However, what is surprising, is that after six months a large portion of the participants who were given chocolate had given up that reward – but they continued running.   Their bodies started craving the natural endorphins released during exercise more than the chocolate. Pretty neat, but since we’re trying to exercise first thing in the morning, let’s use a tall iced coffee as our reward instead.  That should do the trick.


How Long Does It Take to Form a New Habit?

Now that you’ve designed the Habit Circuit, “see gym clothes in morning : go workout : drink coffee,” you must repeat it over and over again.  This takes time.  How long, you ask?  Three weeks? A month? Actually, there is no set time for a habit to take hold – it varies greatly depending a multidude of factors, including consistency, the individual, and the complexity of the habit involved.  That being said, research indicates that it takes somewhere between 18 and 254 days to reach “automaticity” of a habit –  the point where the routine is made habitual. The study concluded, however, that on average, it took about 65 days. Importantly, the study also noted that missing out on one opportunity to perform the desired behavior was not material to the success of the habit taking hold. So don’t get down on yourself if you aren’t able to repeat behavior successfully all of the time. However, “[w]ith repetition of a behaviour in a consistent context, automaticity increases following an asymptotic curve which can be modelled at the individual level.”[3] Thus, the more often you do repeat the behavior in the same context, the more likely the habit will take hold and the sooner that time will come.

Why Habit Design Fails (Often) & What You Can Do About It

Starting a new habit can be a daunting task.  Think of your New Year’s resolutions – how many were successful?  Probably not many – more than 3 out of every 4 New Year’s resolutions fail.  There are many reasons why you might not stick to the plan.  Maybe you took on too much, too quickly – don’t expect to cut out all sugars overnight if you’re used to drinking soda and eating dessert every single day.  Or maybe there is an old cue in your environment that you just cannot escape.  I know when there is an open bowl of snack food, my first inclination is still to reach for it no matter how hard I try. Or maybe you don’t feel like your progressing fast enough, that the progress isn’t amounting to anything, and it’s not worth your time or effort to continue.  You’ve lost your motivation.  These are all common place.  The good news is that there are tactics which you can employ to counteract each:



Fogg championed the technique known as “tiny habits” (or little habits). This technique has been shown to be an extremely effective way to develop a new habit.  It goes something like this: tap the power of environment and use baby steps to make the routine so impossibly small and easy, that you have no excuse to avoid the routine. Break your routine down to as small as you can get – something that will take you no more than 30 seconds to complete, if possible.  Be sure that it takes as little effort as possible to get started. Have the gear you need set up in advance so there is no barrier between you and the routine.  Then repeat this routine at least daily for five consecutive days.  You’ll be amazed at what develops.  The  Tiny Habits website offers free weekly training classes in the little habits method. You should have a look.

A common example developed by Fogg is flossing.  Start by flossing just one tooth.  That’s basically two swipes with the floss (one on either side of the particular tooth).  You probably brush your teeth at least twice a day, so that’s a good time to do the flossing each day.  Make it as easy as possible – put the floss out with the toothbrush, or better yet, buy a pack of the floss picks and leave them out. Once a day, after brushing your teeth, floss that one tooth. Repeat for five days and you might just have developed your first little habit.  Unless you could get someone else to floss for you, this literally could not get any easier.



What’s the point of flossing one tooth, you ask?  It allows you to form a small base habit which you can improve upon. You’ll probably realize that one tooth is easy by the end of the five day.  So you move up to two teeth – that’s only three swipes if the teeth are adjacent. [Hint: they should be] Now you’ve doubled your productivity with only 50% more effort.  That’s pretty sweet.  Also, it’s still very easy.  Five days later, maybe you’re flossing a whole row of teeth.  But don’t increase too quickly – when things get “hard” is when you break down. You run the risk of giving up or falling back on “old habits.”  Keep the progression slow and steady and you’ll be able to do anything in time!  And if you do overdo it and break down, don’t get discouraged.  Instead, get back on the horse as soon as you can.  Don’t let one failure beget another.  Restart the habit and dial it back to where you were successful, or even one iteration before that and try again.  You can do it!



Brian Tracey has good advice on developing a new habit:  “visualize yourself performing or behaving in a particular way in a particular situation. The more often you visualize and imagine yourself acting as if you already had the new habit, the more rapidly the new behavior will be accepted by your subconscious mind and be automatic.”  I’d go farther though: visualize yourself putting in the time and effort it takes to develop the habit also – you’re seeing yourself putting out your clothes each night in addition to the workout.  This should greatly increase your odds of successfully making a behavior automatic.


MDHCo - Don't Break the Chain


Tracking your consistency with any new routine is key to getting it to the point of automaticity.  Makes sense, right? “What gets measured gets managed” as Peter Drucker said.  Measuring allows you to see how you are doing over time – which can have an inspirational effect.  It also allows you to see where you went wrong and diagnose the issue.  Finally, measuring makes you focus on the routine just a little bit longer, increasing the likelihood of your success. 

There are lots of ways to track your habits, including some very good apps.  But we prefer the old-school method popularized by Jerry Seinfeld called, Don’t Break the Chain (DBtC).  DBtC is about as single as it gets: you need only a piece of paper and a writing utensil.  Using a calendar works well, but is not strictly necessary.  Draw a box with seven columns and four or five rows within it.  Label each box with the day of the month.  Or start small with few boxes if that’s too intimidating. Now, each time you complete the habit, draw a big, thick “X” through the box with the corresponding date.  Repeat daily. If you want, use a pen or marker that stands out, like a big red sharpie, so your progress really stands out.  You’ll start to see the X’s form a chain.  The object is aptly don’t break the chain! Try to place the paper somewhere prominent, especially when you’re starting a new routine, so it can serve as a further reminder to engage in the new routine.  That’s it! Simple, right? This gives you a little kick in the butt when you need it because as the chain grows longer you will increasingly want to keep it alive.




Developing habits takes time and patience.  Using the little habit method with visualization techniques goes a long way – but it is not alone sufficient.  You need to stick with your new routine as best you can until it sticks. Going back to our exercise example: there are going to be days when you don’t want to exercise. You’re too tired, you say.  You’re too busy, you say.  Or you’re sick — so what.  You must push on.  And to do that, you need to believe in yourself.  You need to believe you can follow through.  You need to know in your heart that you can do it. This may be the single most important factor to your success.  If you don’t believe you can do it, you’ll give up the first second it gets difficult or inconvenient.  That’s when the excuses start cropping up and before you know it, it’s been a month since you were at the gym last.  Yes, I’m speaking from personal experience.  Once I put all those excuses aside, and began to believe that I could do it, both my motivation and willpower were restored.   As Napoleon Hill said, “Whatever your mind conceives and believes, it can achieve.



When you’ve successfully performed your routine enough times, you should reward yourself with something special for your hard work.  This is something in addition to the piece of chocolate after the run, or whatever it may be.  For instance, if you successfully run each morning for 90 days, you might decide to treat yourself to a new pair of running shoes or new workout gear.  It doesn’t have to be expensive, or even cost money, but it should be special.  You could decide that if you go running for two weeks straight, you can have an extra helping of dessert. Figure out what would provide additional motivation.  Also, you decide these milestones in advance. Have a plan:  What are the terms? How long must this go on? Will you allow yourself some margin of error? What is the reward?  Figuring this out now helps you visualize where you want to be and helps make the desire of “running more” to a SMART goal, like “running each morning for two weeks” – meaning, you’ll be far more likely to follow through with the routine.

Hacking the Habit Loop

You’ve learned how to start a new habit—but what about those bad habits you want to break? You can’t just will them away. Remember that habits are basically hard-coded into our brains, meaning habits never really die.  All is not lost, however.  While you can’t necessarily stop a bad habit, you change one.  You can replace the old, bad routine with a new, better one – designed by you! The process is familiar, but requires more effort and some experimentation.  Here’s how it works:

Let’s suppose you want to stop biting your nails.  First, you need to identify the cue which triggers the craving to bite your nails.  Do you bite your nails in the morning? Do you bite them when you’ve received bad news? Or when you’re stressed? For simplicity sake, let’s say that you’ve identified that you bite your nails in the afternoon at work.  But that’s not specific enough.  Remember from Part 2, there are basically five categories of cues: (1) time of day; (2) a location or environment; (3) a temporally preceding event; (4) an emotional state, or (5) the company of a specific person or people.  If you don’t know what the particular cue is, determine the state of each of these every time you feel the craving.  For instance, on a particular day I bit my nails at 4:15pm (time) alone (people) while at work (location) after I’ve had a cup of coffee (preceding event).   Record these answers as well as your emotional state.  Repeat this every time you feel the urge.  Patterns will emerge and you’ll be able to isolate the cue.

Next, you will need to identify the reward you get from biting your nails.  Is it the taste of your nails that you crave? Unlikely.  How about the way your nails look after you bite them, is that the reward?  Doubt it.  Is it a manifestation of jitters from drinking too much caffeine? Maybe.  To identify what the reward your body is craving, you need to do some experimenting.  Next time you feel the urge to bite your nails, try substituting rewards.  Instead of biting your nails, clip them and put them in your mouth.  Do you still want to bite them? [Just kidding, don’t do this.  I’m almost certain the taste is not why you do it] The point is to experiment. Ask yourself, “Does this satiate my craving?” If you can go 15 minutes without thinking about, it probably has.  And you’ve got your reward.

We’ve identified the cue, the routine, and the reward.  What’s next? One way to approach this would be to try to remove the cue – stop drinking coffee in the afternoon.  Fine. That is necessary, but not sufficient.  Even if you remove that cue, at some point you might overdo it accidently and the urge will reappear. Or maybe something else triggers the routine and you fall back into old habits.  You need more than just removing the cue.  You need a plan.

MDHCo - Habit Plan

I wisely started with a map. J. R. R. Tolkien.

As with everything – wherever you are going, whatever you are doing – you need a Habit Plan.  The plan allows you to know in advance what the right decision is for you, so that when you’re not in the right frame of mind to make the decision, you’ll have the answer anyway.  Further, the plan creates “implementation intentions” which can assist in short-circuiting the Habit Loop – allowing you start thinking again instead of being caught in an automaton response.  When you encounter the cue in the future, you’ll be able to use your decision-making brain to determine your response.  Note that your Habit Plan can’t be something you simply think about a say, “yeah, I’ll do that.”  No—you must commit your Habit Plan to writing.  You must review the plan, and then make changes as necessary to make sure you stay the course.  You might not be able to plan for every eventuality, but the act of making the plan prepares you for what lies ahead.  As Eisenhower is quoted as saying, “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”  Don’t fool yourself – this is going to be a battle.  Changing a bad habit requires hard work and time.  But be persistent, manage your habits daily, and know that you can do it.  There’s no telling how high you can climb.

In Part 4 of our series On Good Habits, you’ll learn how some habits are so powerful they can have a compounding effect in your life as well as the essential habits for developing personal excellence and growth.

Habit Homework

Last time, you were asked to write down all the habits you witnessed in yourself.  Pick three of your best habits and three of your worst habits (completely subjective) and diagram them in terms of cue, routine, reward, and try to identify the specific craving you associate with each habit.



[1] See, e.g., Hack Your Brain to Use Cravings to Your Advantage on

[2] This is a reminder to start the routine, though not falling in the five general categories of cues.

[3] Lally, van Jaarsveld, Potts, & Wardle, How Habits are Formed: Modelling Habit Formation in the Real World, European J. Soc. Psy. (July 16, 2009) available here.

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