How to change habits

How to change habits (tutorial + free tool)

Considering how hard it is to adopt healthy behaviors and how easy it is to keep bad ones, I bet you wish you could transform your bad habits into good ones.

We all wish we knew how to change habits. Charles Duhigg provides a framework to do so in the appendix of his book.

In this article, you’ll learn:

  • What habits are
  • Why changing them matters
  • How to change them using the Golden rule and Charles Duhigg’s framework

What are habits?

They’re the behaviors and actions you perform on auto-pilot. They’re automated responses you develop to specific situations. They are background programs running so that your brain can operate efficiently.

They run using this formula:

The habit formula

It’s the formula that your brain executes on auto-pilot. It also represents the habit loop. 

What is the habit loop?

It’s the structure of a habit. It’s a process.

The habit loop

The cue, the routine, and the reward are its parts. The craving that develops with time and repetition fuels the entire process. It makes the process work. It should be considered the fourth element of the loop.

  1. The cue triggers the craving and the routine. 
  2. The craving comes from the anticipation of the reward. The urge you feel provides the subconscious motivation that triggers the routine once you spot the cue.
  3. The series of actions and behaviors you perform form the routine. 
  4. The reward is what your brain expects to get after performing the routine.

Here’s a visual representation of the loop.

Flowchart representation of the habit loop

Here’s the way I see it.

The 4 steps of the habit loop. Cue, craving, routine, reward

Why does changing your habits matter?

They say you only get one chance to make a first impression. Your bad habits can make a lasting impression on people before you do so intentionally.

People judge you based on what you consistently do. Judgment is an automatic behavior.

People’s snap judgments depend on the nature of your habit. You can break down the process with the habit formula:

  • When I see CUE (your behavior)
  • I will do ROUTINE (judge you based on the nature of your behavior: good or bad)
  • To get a REWARD (avoid decision-making about taking you seriously)


When I see your behavior, I’ll judge you based on its nature (good or bad). I’ll automatically know if you’re worth my time.

Your bad behavior may be a cue that triggers a prospect’s “I won’t do business with you” response.

Your reputation rests on your habits.
You build a good reputation on a solid foundation of good habits.
You can destroy your reputation and anything you want to build with your bad habits.

That’s precisely why you need to know how to change your habits.

The way people react to your behavior impacts the quality of your social interactions in all spheres of life. Your social interactions play a huge role in your well-being.

However you choose to look at it, your habits affect your future. How they do so is up to you.

What is the Golden rule of habit change?

Work with what you got. Take advantage of the fact that you already have a network of well-established connections in your brain. You have an automatic response to cues. A craving already exists. Your reward works.

The only undesirable part of the habit loop is your routine.

Flowchart representation of a bad routine before it's substituted inside the habit loop. Inspired by The power of habit
The bad routine

To change a habit: 

  • Take advantage of an existing habit. 
  • Keep the same cues, cravings, and rewards. 
  • Change the routine for a better one.
Flowchart representation of the substitution of a routine inside the habit loop. Inspired by The power of habit
The routine substitution
Flowchart representation of a successfully substituted routine inside the habit loop. Inspired by The power of habit
The loop with the desired routine

Make sure the new routine fuels the urge.

The golden Rule of habit change

What is the framework for habit change?

It is the method Charles Duhigg devised for habit change:

  1. Identify the ROUTINE
  2. Experiment with REWARDS
  3. Isolate the CUE
  4. Have a PLAN
The Framework for habit change

How to change habits

How to change habits

Identify the ROUTINE

That’s the easy part. You already know the routine you want to change.

Experiment with REWARDS

Cravings drive your routine. They power the habit loop.

You want to determine which reward satisfies your cravings.
That requires you to perform your routine with different rewards at the end of the habit loop.

Cravings are hard to pinpoint. Identifying them is like trying to solve a murder. There are many suspects. You have to investigate to find the culprit. This part of the process feels like a procedural TV show.

You have assumptions and want to test them out.
You have to set traps to determine which craving kills your productivity. Build a case to prove which urge is behind your routines.

You need to document your hypothesis, experiments, and results.
To help you do that, I created a Notion template that will help you document and track everything. It’s a journal that can help you identify each component of the habit loop.

The experiment:

  • Perform the routine
  • Reward yourself
  • Note how you feel 15 minutes after
  • Do you still feel an urge?
    • If you do, keep experimenting
    • If you don’t, you found the reward

It may help to test rewards by type (intrinsic and extrinsic). 

  • An intrinsic reward is intangible. It’s rewarding for personal reasons like pride or a sense of accomplishment.
  • An extrinsic reward is financial or tangible. It could be money, a treat, a prize, etc.
Types of REWARDS

Isolate the CUE

You can group most cues into one of these five categories:

  • Your location (where)
  • The time (when)
  • Your emotional state (what you’re feeling)
  • Other people (who’s around you)
  • Your previous action (what you just did)
Categories of CUES

Have a PLAN

Now that you have all the simple components of the loop, you can modify your behavior.

You have to decide to improve or change your routine and devise a plan to implement the changes.

A habit goes from conscious effort to subconscious automation. It’ll feel like you’re starting from scratch.

Your plan is the conscious effort to execute the new routine. It can be as simple as writing the habit formula.

When I see the CUE, I’ll do the new ROUTINE to get the REWARD.

You can use your smartphone to send notifications and reminders that help you stick to the new routine. The way you hold yourself accountable is your choice.

As mentioned in the previous article, you need belief and the Golden rule to make new habits stick. It’s easier to believe when you have a support system. A community of like-minded people can be helpful regardless of its size.

Final thoughts

The behavior-changing process requires self-awareness to identify all the parts of the habit loop. I strongly recommend you get the Habit Journal to conduct a time study. It’ll help you on your transformative journey.

This article is the tutorial portion of my series on part one of The power of habit by  Charles Duhigg.

Related articles

The power of habit (Summary)

How habits work

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