How to change a habit | Psychology for Marketers

How to change a habit

Have you ever tried quitting smoking, exercise more, eat less, read more – but haven’t had much success?

We all have habits we’d like to add to our lives as we know they would significantly improve it. And then there are those habits that are sabotaging us, and we wish we could break them. But we all know – changing a habit is not that easy.

In his book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, Charles Duhigg dissects habits to find an answer to one of the most commonly asked question: How to change a habit?. He looks at its building part, which allows to understand how to create a new or change an existing habit.

Let’s have a look at a habit through a microscope:

How to change a habit

Though we mostly associate habit with a particular behaviour, it is more than that. There is a cue that leads to this behaviour and a reward which is a result of it.
This coherent view of a habit allows us to understand psychological connotation.
People usually focus on changing th behavior, but as long as the cue and reward remain unchanged, you will shortly fall back to your old pattern.
The key to success is to understand and change the cue and reward – and the change of behavior will follow naturally, without any effort from our side.


The cue is the cause of our behavior, it is the trigger.
Let’s take as an example smoking. What could be some of the cues for this behaviour? If you like to start your day with a cigarette – that is your cue. Morning, after you wake up.
You’re more of a social smoker? Your cue can be a club with your friends.
A cue is a condition or a combination of them, in which your behaviour usually takes place.
If you don’t know what the cue for your habit is, just observe your behavior for patterns. If you are trying to stop smoking, note in which situations you reach for a cigarette. If you want to stop snacking, note when you reach for that cracker.
Once you do it, you have identified your cues. And good news – you’re half way to changing your habit!


Reward is the reason for our behavior. It s different from the cue, as it is the final result of the behavior. It is what comes after you engage in behaviour, whereas cue is what happens right before.
It is crucial to understand your rewards. Many smokers say they want to quit smoking, while in reality it is not true. They want the reward. They might not be aware of what that reward is, but the feel it, they get satisfaction from smoking, so they will not be able to quit.
Let’s look at some of the examples.
You want to start exercising, and you promised yourself you’ll hit the gym after work. Work finishes, but instead you go home, have dinner and watch some TV. What could be a reward in this situation? Relax. You’re probably tired, have low energy, you’re exhausted mentally – you just need a break.
Be honest about it. If you keep pretending there is no reward in your behavior, you will never be able to change it. Besides, if there is no reward, you would not engage in this behavior. Whatever you do in your life – you do it, because you’re getting something out of it.
Ok, now that you understand your rewards – you’re almost there!

So you have your cue, and you have your reward. What’s next?

7 steps to finally and permanently change your unwanted habit or build a new one:

1. Identify a cue – and pay extra attention when you next encounter it. You know this is a moment when your body and mind automatically wants to follow the patter of unwanted behaviour. If possible, try to eliminate the cue, if not – stay alert. Awareness is often half the job.

2. Understand what you’re getting out of the unwanted behaviour. What is your reward?

3. Think of other ways (behaviors) that could give you the same reward. There is more than way way to reach what you want. That will allow you to change the behaviour.

4. If you want to create a totally new habit – focus on a new reward, not the behavior. Create that reward, and think of how much you want it. make it a goal for yourself.

5. Start small. Any new habit is hard on our strong will. If you overuse it, it will be easier for you to break. So take it slowly, gradually. Break the new habit into steps, and start by just taking the first one.

6. Add positive reinforcements. Every small step is a victory. Celebrate it. You need to believe that you can do it, and by splitting the whole behavior into smaller parts that are easy to achieve, you will be making the progress. That is essential for the final success. Too often people try to dramatically change, they strain themselves, and soon fail.

7. Make it a routine. Every step you manage to implement – make it a routine. Something you don’t need to think about. Your goal is to eat healthy? Your first step might be to stop using sugar, and instead use honey. Create a routine, for example: tea=honey. There is no discussion, no contemplating if you should use honey or sugar. It’s your ritual, your rule. Blindly follow. Why is it so important? Because a habit will stay with you for long, only when it feels natural and effortless. You can’t fight your free will forever. A habit is strong when breaking it would mean going against your will. Think of brushing your teeth. As a kid you hated it. But over years you created a new habit. Now you don’t even think of brushing your teeth in the morning. It’s a part of your morning ritual.

To understand this process better, watch Charles Duhigg’s video on breaking the habits:

Now that you have the knowledge how to change a habit, I want you to use.
Start by answering these 2 questions:

  1. What would be the one thing that if I started doing now, would significantly improve my life?
  2. What would be the one thing that if I stopped doing now, would significantly improve my life?

It is much more difficult to change or create new habits on your own. Good news – we are all here for you and to help each other.
So in the comments section below share with the community what habit you’s like to start or stop. If you have a successful stories from your life, share with us as well. We all would love to hear about that!

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