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How to make habits stick

By YOUFactors

By YOUFactors

4 Oct, 2023

Do’s and Don’ts for better habit building

According to Statistic Brain, less than ten percent of people actually achieve their goal when trying to create new habits.

Everyone knows that good habits are essential, whether at work or at home. Given that most of our actions are habitual, habit building should be a continuous part of improving your life: this guide shows how.

The habit loop

In his book The Power of Habit, author Charles Duhigg breaks habits down into three components:

  1. CUE: a reminder, or sensory trigger
  2. ROUTINE: the habitual response that we follow 
  3. REWARD: the personal payoff

This trio constitutes the habit loop, kicked off by a trigger that could be a combination of senses (sight, smell, sound, taste, touch) or a reminder (eg, a phone alarm). This Cue then sets up the habitual Routine that follows, leading to a Reward that is in effect an alteration in our feelings, emotions or thoughts – whether pleasant or unpleasant, increasing or decreasing.  

That outcome is powerful enough for our brains to treat the loop as worth remembering.

Here’s the key takeaway: if you want to reform a habit, you need to come up with a fresh reward that trumps the one associated with the habit you are trying to shake.

Rewiring the habit loop

A typical situation illustrates this dynamic. The Cue is the alarm clock, and the Routine (easy to fall into!) is hitting the snooze button. The Reward of course is another nine minutes in dreamland.

Say the desired new habit in this case is making our bed instead of indulging ourselves in a little lie-in. The cue remains the alarm but now the desired routine is getting up and attending to a micro-chore that nonetheless has a morale-boosting payoff for us. Now we have to find a reward that motivates the brain.

Well, one way is to remind ourselves of the sheer embarrassment of our room being in disorder whenever people stop by. The possibility of being spared unpleasant feelings is one of the strongest motivations there is.

Reminding ourselves just as the alarm goes off of the time a good friend came in with us after work to find our bed unmade alerts us to the possibility of a quick fix that can pre-empt a repeat. 

If we manage to do this over and over (reminding ourselves of a better reward than some stolen minutes of sleep), we will begin making our bed automatically without having to consciously remind ourselves of the reward.

This is how brains work. To succeed in rewiring our habit loops, we need to keep a meaningful reward front of mind. 

Keystone habits

If making beds seems trivial, you might be surprised to learn that it can serve as what Charles Duhigg calls a keystone habit. Keystone habits support the development of multiple good habits. 

Making your bed first thing can easily lead to giving your bedroom a quick tidy and then taking the dirty laundry out with you. Your little new habit now has you living in more pleasant surroundings.  

The same trick can be used to tackle error reduction in the workplace. Start with the habit of putting on your PPE before you begin work. A habit loop can be established that leads you to take a moment to think through the range of potential dangers. That keystone habit can then cause you to inspect tools before use, look for moving equipment and so on.

It is worth considering how little nudges can be built into your day that can either become, or lead to, positive keystone habits. For error reduction, digital-nudge platform YOUFactors has a suite of features from Rate-your-state (to reveal states of mind and body that might prove hazardous) through targeted Video Modules (explaining or reinforcing key concepts) to a Close-call Log (pinpointing meaningful factors and exposing patterns). 

A well-timed reminder, perhaps preset into your phone or coinciding with a daily action such as sitting at your desk or taking the wheel of the car, can gently lead the way towards behaviour that can become habitual. YOUFactors, for example, offers customised digital nudges to anticipate potential errors.

The takeaway? Even a little habit or nudge can leverage much more meaningful outcomes. All it takes is a little engineering of your thought process to get a positive chain reaction going.

Know your chronotype – and get the most from it

Writer Daniel Pink found that when assigning a special meaning to a day can also go a long way in habit formation. The first day of January is the universal example of course, but in Pink’s book When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, he identified no less than 86 days optimal for fresh starts. Examples include Mondays, the first day of a month, or the first day of a new season.

Times of day are also key, but here individuals differ. Each one of us has a ‘chronotype’ derived from our personal circadian rhythm that impacts how we feel and react to stimuli. This may sound arcane, but we all know ‘morning people’, larks who seem to operate better earlier in the day. Owls, by contrast, dislike early starts and seem to come to life in the evening. Most of us are somewhere in between, but knowing what time of day is naturally better for you is useful for task planning.

And not only planning: if you want to lay down the pathway for a new habit make it easier for yourself by picking your peak performance time!

Rinse and repeat

So how long will you have to repeat a new behaviour until it sticks? Researchers from University College London found that 66 days was the average, but that some people managed it in 18 days, while others took 254 days. However, it is ideal not to fixate on the number of days. Instead, pay attention to the cues and rewards associated with your habits. This awareness gives you the power to make conscious decisions to either reform an existing habit or create new, beneficial ones.

To end, let’s review:

  • It is helpful to view habits as a Cue-Routine-Reward sequence 
  • To make a change, focus on altering Cues and Rewards
  • Even a tiny new habit can leverage impactful change
  • Error-reduction can be transformed by better handling of habits
  • Digital nudges leverage opportune times for error-reduction reflexes
  • Take a savvy approach when making change: work with your personal chronotype
  • Repeat as regularly as possible: the new habit will in time become automatic


If you want to know more about the YOUFactors digital habit building journey, download our whitepaper.