How to build habits that last

Almost every day after work, I went to the gym from 6.30 to 8.30 every weekday. Right after the gym, I’d settle down and watch TV for a few hours before going to sleep. I went through a busy period at work, and I noticed I went to the gym less frequently. However, I was watching the same amount of TV or more per week.

I became curious. Why did the frequency of me going to gym decrease, and why was I watching the same amount of TV, or more, per week? I knew it had something to do with my habits and I expected to learn a few things. However, after researching habits, what I found blew my mind and changed my life!

I went from watching more than 20 hours of TV shows a week, to less than 20 minutes of TV show a week. I did this by understanding how habits work,and I’d like to share with you my findings.

Principle 1: Habits aren’t eliminated, they’re replaced

I didn’t just cut down on TV time, I replaced it with reading time.


So what is a habit?

According to Charles Duhig, author of “The Power of Habit”, a habit is composed of 3 parts:

  1. The cue
  2. The routine
  3. The reward

Habit Loop


Figure 1: The Habit Loop

The Cue

A cue is a trigger for your brain that tells your body which actions it should perform. A cue is affected by 5 factors:

  1. Location – e.g. home, work, mall, etc.
  2. Emotional state – e.g. happy, sad, bored, etc.
  3. Immediately preceding action – e.g. just finished eating, just left work, etc.
  4. Time of day – e.g. 8.30 a.m, 9.00 p.m, etc.
  5. Other people – Alone, with close friends, with work friends, with family, etc.

5 Factors of a cue

Figure 2: 5 Factors of a Cue

The Routine

A routine is a set of actions that define the ‘doing’ part of a habit.

E.g. Smoking routine:

  1. Taking cigarette out of packet
  2. Lighting cigarette
  3. Smoking cigarette
  4. Throwing cigarette in bin

The Reward

A reward is the feeling that follows the end of a routine that helps your brain determine whether this particular cue-routine-reward loop is worth remembering.

It is intuitive to believe if you want to build a habit, you should focus on the actions (routine) that make up the habit. However, the truth is the most effective way to build a habit is to focus on the cues that trigger the routine, and the rewards that solidify the entire loop in your memory.

Principle 2: Focus on the reward and then program a cue

When I wanted to reduce my habit of watching TV, I knew I had to replace it with another habit. I chose reading because I knew that reading increases knowledge and will broaden my perspective. It had always been a desirable habit I wanted to build, but I had never made an effort to learn how.

After some introspection I realized that my habit of over indulgence in watching TV shows started when I came to Canada. Whenever I was bored, TV shows were my refuge and entertainment. I realized I couldn’t just eliminate this habit, because I had tried and failed many times. I followed the two principles (mentioned above) and successfully weaned myself off of my reliance on TV.

I focused on the reward, which was increasing knowledge and broadening my perspective. Once the reward was worthy in my mind, I constructed the cue as follows:

Cue for me to read more:

  1. Location: Home
  2. Emotional state: bored
  3. Immediately preceding action: Just finished eating dinner
  4. Time of day: Night
  5. Other people: Alone

I set this as my cue to read, instead of watching TV. At first, it was difficult, and the action (routine) of reading was forced. As I finished my dinner, I would automatically feel like I should be watching TV. I fought the urge and read instead.

The habit of reading after dinner gradually became easier and the forced aspect of it diminished. Now, the cue has become sub-conscious and I feel like reading right after dinner.

This method of building habits by focusing on the rewards and cues, can be used in the scenarios below:

  1. If you want to go to the gym more:
    1. Remind yourself of the reward: having more energy, building muscle, being healthy etc.
    2. Construct a cue: pack your gym bag the night before and place it at the entrance of your home
  2. If you want to eat healthy:
    1. Remind yourself of the reward: improving your health, feeling great and full of life, etc.
    2. Construct a cue: create a healthy grocery list or date a vegan (they’ll constantly remind you)

“The way you learn a habit will be the way you live that habit”

I encourage you to take some time this week to reflect on your goals and dreams. Decide if your habits are building you towards achieving your goals and dreams or if they are taking you down a path to a destination you don’t want to be in.

To quote Mahatma Ghandi:

“Your beliefs become your thoughts,

Your thoughts become your words,

Your words become your actions,

Your actions become your habits,

Your habits become your values,

Your values become your destiny.”

I invite you to ask yourself the question I ask myself everyday:

“If I live everyday the same way I did today, what kind of future would that create?”

and remember:

“Build your habits in the beginning, and your habits will build and carry you through to the end; whatever that may be”


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2 Comments, RSS

  1. Razi August 12, 2016 @ 12:34

    Vegan is a controversial subject i think you should leave that out.
    Are you trying to imply eating vegan healthy and other foods aren’t. I don’t think so.
    Anyway it’s a nice article.

    • Azfan Jaffeer August 12, 2016 @ 16:34

      True. It’s a joke, I guess that doesn’t translate in writing. thanks for the feedback.

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