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Written by: Doneé Barendze and Sille Sinor



Watch your thoughts; they become words. Watch your words; they become actions. Watch your actions; they become habits. Watch your habits; they become character. Watch your character; it becomes your destiny. – Frank Outlaw 


Habits are a bigger part of our life than we think of. But how much do we know about habits? To understand habits better, it is crucial to know the definition of a habit and where do habits come from. As well as how are habits formed and changed. What are atomic habits and why are they important? How does our surrounding and thoughts affect our habits? To understand habits better we need to start from the foundation. 

Definition for Habits

What do we mean when we talk about habits? What is a habit? Definition of habits according to Oxford language is; a settled or regular tendency or practice, especially one that is hard to give up. Meaning it is general practice or action that is strongly implied in our life. Changing it or quitting it would take a lot of effort for us. This kind of habit could be for example by smoking. This is the general understanding of habits that we have.   

But, Orbell and Verplanken view habits rather as an automatic evoked behavior that is triggered by particular cues. Meaning our habits that we have are behaviors that are wired inside of our mind and are activated when particular events occur.   

For example, let us observe drinking coffee in the morning through this. The particular cues that trigger this behavior can be the timing or the action waking up when the behavior is evoked making coffee and drinking it, are activated and put into practice. This behavior gets practiced automatically-unconsciously without consideration.   

In this kind of view on habits, they are seen as a pure mechanism and a routine, that doesn’t promote reflective thoughts (Malabou, 2008 & Carlisle 2010, Descartes & Kant). They have been learned and adapted to our life over time.  

In another hand, many psychologists suggest that habits should be viewed more central to everyday behavior and consider habits as the basis for reflective action (Dewey 1962 & Merleau-Ponty 1945). In a sense that habits are more than only responses to certain cues, they should be thought of as propensity or force (Bissell, 2011). Meaning a habit is not only behavior that you do when something triggers it, rather than it is a way of living a certain way. It doesn’t always only follow particular events but is more of practicing things in a certain way that reflects your thoughts on the world. As an example of this buying, more sustainability can be a habit. Because it is a way of living that determines your behavior. Also, it reflects your thoughts on the actions you take.   

There is a variation of ways to determine what a habit is and where does it come from. But all of them have the similarity that a habit is something that human beings do repeatedly throughout their life that affects their way of living notably. Acknowledging it and by overviewing our habits we can see the effect on them in our day-to-day life. Because the effect is big, changing a habit can be difficult and time-consuming.  

Habit Formation

Habits are formed throughout our life either unconsciously or by forming them. It is a result of our surroundings, thoughts, and life situation. They are a big part of our day-to-day life and identity. But how can we form and change a habit?  

Identify Your Habit  

First is needed to understand what are your habits, before you can change them or overlook where they have formed from. According to James Clear and Charles Duhigg’s habits follow a repeatable cycle of three Rs, which are Reminder, Routine, and Reward. The reminder is the trigger of the habit you practice. It is something that makes you want to do the activity. For example, your habit might be smoking when your drunk, the reminder that will make you desire and want to smoke would be alcohol and consuming it. The second R is the routine that indicates the action you do. For example from the previous setup, the routine would be having the cigarette and smoking it while you’re under the influence of alcohol. As what comes to the last R which is the reward, means the benefit you get from the action. To continue the example situation it would be the nicotine flowing through your body or the social interaction during the smoke.   

These three R’s help us identify our habits and review what is the trigger why we practice them and what is the reward we get from the habit. After identifying it we can think about where have we started the habit. Is it something we have done from childhood or is it something we have learned in our adulthood? What has been the trigger for starting the habit and does it serve us anymore or is it bad for us in the long term. Often we find our habits rooted in our childhood. For example, eating breakfast every morning. It can be a habit you have been practicing from an early age on. Maybe your parents have encouraged you and monitored you to eat breakfast before going to school and formed this habit to you, that you chose to practice all through your life. Usually, habits are something that has been thought to us, we have decided to practice our own or formed because of surrounding or life situation.   

How to Change a Habit  

After we can identify the habit and the three R’s in it, we can look at the usual steps for how we break the habit and create a new one instead. Mavis Snelson writes in her book Habit Formation how are we able to change a habit.  

We need to start with the foundation to ensure the habit change is long-term and wanted. For this, we need to measure individuals’ motivation and confidence regarding the habit change. This can be done by using the “Readiness to Change” chart, where you measure on a scale of 1-10 how motivated you are for the habit change and how confident you are about it. If both of these are higher than six, it is more likely to succeed. It is important to carry the motivation and confidence about the habit change with you throughout the whole process. Another big part of the foundation is commitment. On average to change a habit takes 21 days. The 21 days are chosen because it aligns with the western calendar and because it takes around 21 days for the human body to process the substances out of the body.   

After knowing the foundation it is possible to start building it thick and sturdy. Think about what do you want through the change. Viewed from the horizon to understand the big picture and your need for the change. It is needed to determine a vision for yourself to see what your life would look like after the change and what are the benefits on it compared to the old habit. To help it is good to work on a vision board or statement that motivates you throughout the process of change.   

After having a vision for your habit change and knowing the motives, it is time to work a game plan for the change. The idea of the game plan is to work as a tool and framework for your habit change. In the game plan, you plan the timeline, weekly goals, and milestones for your change. Also, it’s good to mark the good that comes out of the change you planned to achieve with the milestones, to promote a positive attitude. Positivity is something that should work as a motivator for your change, but for humans, it takes time and practice to use it that way. Iman Rategari and Leah Shafer propose in their article The Biology of Positive Habits that the human brain is wired to react to the negative surrounding factors easier because of humankind’s history of being hunters and surviving instinct. Because the brain is still “stuck” in our great ancestors’ way of thinking it needs to be rewired to react to the positive factors and promote them. Because when the brain reacts with positivity it more likely affects your mood positively, your thoughts, and your way of seeing your surrounding.   

It is important to realize to make your goals and milestones realistic and achievable. Hardly never does it work to quit hard turkey, but instead it is better to take small steps at a time for your goals. As an example for quitting smoking. You are not expected to quit in one day but rather you should set milestones where in the first week you only smoke one pack of cigarettes instead of two. It is also important to remember little stepbacks are normal and part of the process. After a step back you are able to continue where you left on and try again. Thanks to the game plan it is easy to keep track of the milestones for the goal. It is recommended to keep track of your process with a journal for inspiration, a reminder on where you are in the process, and to reflect later on.   

After establishing the foundation, vision, and game plan you can start the process for change. Sometimes it might be hard to start and people start to procrastinate about it, which is normal but will keep you not achieving the goal of the change in the habit. But do not let it hold you back and try focusing on the positivity. Failure is not something to be afraid of rather it is something to learn from.   

Snelson’s way of habit change teaches the basics needs for the change and how to prepare for it. It guarantees results if followed correctly and mostly focuses on building the foundation meaning motivation, confidence, and commitment through vision, game plan, and keeping a journal about the process. After the spadework, it is easy to accomplish the habit formation.   

Atomic Habits

Habits are the foundation of life as we know it. As humans, we strive for seeing good results, quickly and easily. It is easy to be blind to the input creating these results. In this current, digitally ruled world, new generations tend to expect results at the push of a button, this is no wonder why habit formation have been such a huge struggle. The idea of good habits is to shift one’s focus from the results rather to the system that produces the results automatically. This is where tiny, minor habits gain importance. A modern-day term known as “atomic habits” refer to these minor, tiny habits. These habits are consistent behavioural pattern that has huge impact, but also effortless and tiny. It is an aspect in the process of combined growth. According to James Clear, author of the international best seller “Atomic Habits” book, a person who can become 1% better at something every single day, can improve themselves 37.78% within only one year. This means that within a short time period such as only three years, any individual can improve themselves over 100% by simply focusing on becoming 1% better each and every day. Unfortunately, habits have both good and bad aspects to them, which means that the same statistics are liable for the opposite. One of the habits that I have been consciously practicing is the art of positive thinking, therefore the focused topics are leading more to positive habits rather than negative ones.

It is simple. Habits are a part of Science. It is based on the process the brain follows by continuously looking for alternative methods of taking the shortest way out of any given situation. This is an inevitable process that the brain follows, it is in our core instinct as humans. Due to this Scientific process that is automatically happening in the brain, it is natural to have Scientific Laws laid out to follow in order to make good habit formation as easy as possible. James Clear has stated four laws of habit formation in the same book as mentioned above. These laws are created to generate a better understanding of how habits exactly work.

The Laws of Habit Creation:

Before jumping into the laws of habit creation, it is of utter importance to understand the process of habit formation first. Habits are formed in the following four steps:

  1. Cue: This refers to a component that acts as a prompt for the brain to realize that there is a possible chance of obtaining a prize or happiness of some kind.
  2. Craving: After the cue has triggered the mind to be interested, the craving kicks in. This craving refers to the emotions involved and inclined to the specific cue.
  3. Response: A natural process of response to cure the craving happens right after. This response is the area where the real action takes place. It is the actions or habits carried that transforms the craving.
  4. Reward: The reward comes with the satisfied feeling that is obtained though the response to the craving that was triggered by the original cue.


There is a deeper, underlying law for each step in this habit formation process and these laws are the following:


  1. The first law is creating clarity. Habits happen automatically and humans are not and cannot be aware of all the cues that act as triggers on a daily basis. It is built into the system that helps humans function the way that they do. Imagine having to think about every single cue before acting on it. It would be very time and energy consuming, and completely impossible to think about every single habit that is involved in our daily existence. By creating clarity on certain habits, one can become aware of which habits are already existing automatically, which habits are good and which ones are bad and which ones are not present. One technique of creating habit clarity is to use a “habit scorecard” where everyday habits get jotted down on a list. This way, a person can see which habits can act as a cue for the next ones. Having consciousness about this, can serve as an advantage for the person. There are two identified techniques of how to use this consciousness to create more sustainable habits. The first one is known as the “implementation intention” and the second as “habit stacking”. The “implementation intention” is more focused on the time and place in which a habit is created, where the “habit stacking” technique is focused on adding habits on top of one another, in other words, having one habit act as a cue for the next one.
  2. The second law is to make the craving as appealing as possible. In order to turn a current craving into a behaviour, the prize must be appealing enough to act as a motivator for the behaviour. Cravings have two feelings present: “wanting” and “liking”. Both of these feelings cause an increase of dopamine in the brain, but sometimes the “wanting” creates more dopamine than the “liking” of the result. Therefore, it is important to make the result attractive enough, to ensure that the “liking” of the result can be big enough to motivate the actions of creating the habit sustainably and to get the necessary satisfaction from the result. One way of making a habit more appealing is by using “temptation bundling”. “Temptation bundling” has a similar meaning as “habit stacking”. The only difference is that instead of having one habit acting as a cue for the next, the ending of one habit excites you enough to start forming the next habit. The habits act as motivators to each other. The other way of making a habit more appealing is by revaluating a current one. This refers a lot to changing one’s thinking pattern, for example, instead of thinking you have to wake up at six in the morning, the thought can be changed to you get to wake up at six in the morning. The thankfulness that is generated when changing this behaviour, can increase motivation and drive for creating the good habit, which in the long run turns it into a good, automatic and sustainable habit
  3. Thirdly, the law of response is to make things as effortless as it can be made. It is proven that habits which are easiest and most effortless are the ones that are the most likely to succeed. Uncomplicating habits is a mind trick. Simply showing up to start a habit is easy, and most likely the action of the habit will automatically will follow afterwards. It is an illusion created by the person, to trap themselves into believing that a habit is effortless, which in the end, makes the habit easier. The “two-minute rule” is a technique that comes in quite handy right here. The common mistake many people make when creating a new habit is the mistake of starting out with too drastic and big changes. This is unsustainable and chances are good the habit will not last for more than a few weeks. The “two-minute rule” simply states that you do the actions required in the first 2 minutes of your new habit and the rest of the habit will easily follow. For example, putting on your gym clothes to go to the gym. This takes about two minutes to do, but after that, it is very likely for the person to go to the gym because the cue has already been established and the craving follows shortly after.
  4. The fourth and last law is: Make the reward fulfilling. The reward is one of the most important aspects of the habit creation process. Making the reward enjoyable, will create an increase in motivation to repeat the habit. In this modern world, people are constantly seeking immediate satisfaction, from answers to transportation, and the same thing goes with rewards. Therefore, it is utterly important to set up not only long-term rewards, but also many short-term ones in between the habit creation process. The ways in which immediate rewards towards good habits can be obtained are known as “reinforcements” or “habit trackings”. Reinforcements act as great incentives for sustained behaviours. It is proven that people remember the end of a behaviour the most clearly, which shows the importance of having a reward-based ending in order to sustain and continue a good habit. “Habit tracking” is a reward method focusing on the visualization of achievements, it is all about ticking boxes like to do lists, filling calendars, etc. and this creates a psychological fulfilment which motivates the person to repeat the current habit.


These laws are very essential to remember when forming any new habit, but it is just as essential to know how to use them practically. One of the most common problems that exist in the process of habit creation is trying to break bad habits. Controversially enough, these above-mentioned laws can be used not just for creating good habits, but also for breaking bad ones. Although, they need to be modified a bit to make that possible. The basic idea of breaking a bit habit is using the inverted version of these laws. For law number one (Making it clear), the inverted law, making it unclear/unseen would be used when breaking a habit. This inversion of laws count for all of these. Therefore, for law number two (Making it appealing) would invert to making it unappealing. Making things effortless would be inverted to making things hard. Creating a fulfilling reward would invert into making it insufficient.


As seen throughout this information gathered above, it is valid to conclude that our habits shape our reality. What we do in our daily lives, big or small, huge or atomic, defines our identity and makes us who we are. Habits are very complex actions that we as humans do every day, some good and some bad. We all have our good and bad habits, but luckily as James Clear (author of Atomic Habits) has explained to us, there are laws that we can use to manipulate and change our habits. Habits are a part of science, psychology and so much more. There is also a difference in forming a new habit and changing an old one, different systems are used for creating different results. It is clear to see that the topic around habits go much deeper than the surface level of “good” or “bad” habits. At the end of the day, it is most important to always remember that our habits make us who we are and we have the facilities to create our habits in a way that we want to create our identity.


Anable J. Banister D. & Schwanen T. 2012. Rethinking habits and their role in behavior change: The case of low-carbon mobility. Oxford University. 

Crawford I. 2008. Habits Revealed. Oxford University. 

Jones A. 2015. Reminder, Routine, Reward, Repeat: The Secrets to Sustained Innovation. Linkedin. 

Rastegari I. & Shafer L. 2016. The Biology of Positive Habits. Harvard Graduate School of Education. 

Harvard Health Publishing, 2016. Trade bad habits for good ones. Article. 

Clear J. The 3 R’s of habit change; how to start new habits that actually stick. Metrolina Martial Arts. 

Orbell, S & Verplanken, B. 2010. The automatic component of habit in health behavior: habit as cue-contingent automaticity. Health Psychology. 

Snelson M. 2020. Habit formation: The Ultimate Guide on How to Quit Bad Habits and Develop Good Ones In All Areas of Your Life.  

James Clear. 2018. Atomic Habits. Book.

Sam T. Davis. Atomic Habits book summary article. Book Summary: Atomic Habits by James Clear | Sam Thomas Davies (samuelthomasdavies.com)

Farnam Street. 2022. Website article. . The Science Of Habit Formation And Change (fs.blog)

Puck Fositivity. Website article. 2021. 4 Laws For Building Good Habits and Breaking Bad Ones – Atomic Habits by James Clear – Puck Fositivity (wordpress.com)

Darya Sinusoid. 2018. Website article. Atomic Habits: 4 Laws of Habit Formation | Shortform Books

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