The Science Of How Your Habits Work (The 3 R's Of Habit Change)

There is a simple 3-step pattern that every habit follows. I call this pattern the "3 R's of Habit Change" and it goes like this...

  1. Reminder (the trigger that initiates the behavior)
  2. Routine (the behavior itself; the action you take)
  3. Reward (the benefit you gain from doing the behavior)

This sequence has been proven over and over again by behavioral psychology researchers. I originally learned of this cycle from Stanford professor, BJ Fogg. And more recently, I read about it in Charles Duhigg's best-selling book, The Power of Habit.

(Duhigg's book refers to the three steps as cue, routine, reward. Regardless of how it's phrased, the point is that there is a lot of science behind the process of habit formation, and so we can be relatively confident that your habits follow the same cycle.)

Let me show you what the 3 R's look like in real life by applying the framework to a typical habit. (In this case, answering a phone call.)

Step One: Your phone rings (reminder). This is the reminder that initiates the behavior. The ring acts as a trigger or cue to tell you to answer the phone. It is the prompt that starts the behavior.

Step Two: You answer your phone (routine). This is the actual behavior. When your phone rings, you have a habit of answering it.

Step Three: You find out who is calling (reward). The reward is the benefit gained from doing the behavior. In this case, the reward for completing the habit was satisfying your curiosity to find out why the other person was calling you.

Result: If the reward is positive, then the cycle forms a positive feedback loop that tells your brain, "Next time this reminder happens, do the same thing." (i.e. When the phone rings again, answer it.)

Follow this same cycle enough times and you'll stop thinking about it. Your behavior will just become a habit.

All habits form by the same 3-step process. (Graphic based on Charles Duhigg's "Habit Loop" in The Power of Habit. Created by James Clear.)

How can you use this structure to create new habits and actually stick to them? Here's how...