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Three Techniques to Create New Habits

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Bad habits stick with us because they offer a temporary reward (procrastinating), satisfy a physical craving (smoking), feel good (that extra scoop of ice cream), and can be fun (video games). In fact, given the appeal of bad habits, why would good habits ever win out?

Good habits have few if any bad side effects, they improve our relationships, and—yes—they can be fun as they morph into something we enjoy: an organized desk, a brisk daily walk, more time for friends and family. They relieve stress and make us feel better in way that bad habits achieve only temporarily.

The Techniques

According to Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, both good and bad habits have the same structure: a cue, a routine, and a reward. He suggests that if you keep the cue and the reward but change the routine, you will be able to create new habits and better habits. 

Another way of approaching habits is through habit stacking: pairing the habit you want to change or create with another habit already well ingrained. Author James Clear explains that process in his book, Atomic Habits. Habit stacking is based on and enhanced by using the checklist approach introduced by Dr. Atul Gawande in his book, The Checklist.

Understanding the Cue

Why do you procrastinate even though you know that it annoys other people, you will still have to do what you’ve put off, and that delaying gives you less time for what you truly want to do? Researchers have found that indecision, fear of criticism, and the drama of a tight deadline (that rush of adrenalin to finish) have primary roles in procrastination. You may be cued to procrastinate by a tight deadline, a major decision, a feeling of inadequacy, or anticipation of discomfort.

Knowing the cue allows you find alternatives to the bad habit. If you procrastinate every time you encounter a deadline, you may need help improving your executive functioning or your focus and concentration. Fear of criticism may come from a lack of skills to complete a task; in that case, taking classes to improve your skills would help. That adrenalin rush may, in fact, be your reward for procrastinating, and you may need help to find you why you need to add drama to your life.

SMaRT techniques for mindfulness and emotional intelligence will give you greater insight into your motivations and help promote the growth mindset that is essential to developing new habits.

TIP: Until you understand what cues a bad habit, you will struggle to change your routine and you may not seek the help you need.

Changing the Routine

Whether your clue is embedded in a place, time, emotion, another person, or some other factor, by establishing a plan for how to get past it, you strengthen your ability to change your routine and create a new habit. Smokers, drinkers, gamblers, and other addicts, for example, change their routine by watching for the cue—the craving—and then substituting a different routine—go to a meeting, suck on a lollypop, call a sponsor. Anything that breaks the routine of a bad habit lessens its hold.

As you interrupt the cue-routine-reward cycle, you create new habits to replace old habits. You may need to replace some habits in steps. Rather than, for example, expecting to stop procrastinating all at once, you might set yourself more achievable, less critical deadlines at regular intervals. If you balk at having to pack on time for a trip, you might find it easier to complete one small intermediate task each day: make a list of objects you are taking; gather the objects in one spot; find your suitcase; and finally pack the suitcase.

Getting the Reward

You continue a bad habit because, in some way, it rewards you. Therefore, you need to establish a reward for a good habit that equals or at least replaces the reward for the bad habit. As an example, when your concentration lags at work (the cue), you regularly sweets (the routine). You substitute a brisk 5 minute walk and find that the mental spark returns. You get the same reward (renewed concentration) in a healthier way.

Sometimes an external reward works. You eat a pint of ice cream every night because you are lonely. If you give up eating ice cream, you will use the money you save to buy a new outfit to fit your new weight. However, breaking a bad habit requires a more immediate and regular reward. Since the cue is loneliness, you schedule a Zoom meeting with a friend as you each eat just one scoop of ice cream.

TIP: Reward is an essential part of confirming a new habit. The reward for more exercise might be the endorphins or the lost weight or the social aspect of walking with a friend. Choose a reward that motivates you.


When you are more interested in creating habits than replacing them, habit stacking is quite effective. The formula is:

After/Before [current habit], I will [new habit].

For example, before I breakfast every morning, I will go out for a walk; after I eat dinner, I will call my parents; after I finish work, I will meditate for 5 minutes. Once a new habit is ingrained, you can stack another new habit on top of it.

The theory works because the cue you depend on is a good (or neutral) habit you already engage in. You also gain the power of repetition, since the two habits are now linked.

As you gradually increase abit stacking, you affect more areas of your life. Let’s say that now you cook dinners that are not healthy, and you procrastinate calling your parents. You begin by deciding: before dinner, I will read one healthy recipe from a cookbook. As time goes on, you add: I will cook one of the healthy recipes from my latest cookbook. Then you decide: after a healthy dinner, I will call my parents.

You should fit the new habit in where it makes the most sense. For example, you call your parents after you eat because you will have something new to talk to them about (your success with the recipe) and because you would likely skip calling before dinner when you are hungry.

Making a Checklist

The checklist is a way to find clues and adjust your routine. If you track what you are doing now and make a checklist of your current routine, you will discover what triggers a bad habit and how often you indulge in it. For overeaters, keeping a food diary (basically, a checklist of what they eat each day) helps to reign in overeating.

When you want to confirm a habit, having a checklist is a major help. It may reveal gaps in your ability to introduce a new habit. In the example above, before you can cook healthier, you need the right ingredients. Therefore, you may need to add a stop at the supermarket to your stack.

Crossing off items on a checklist creates its own reward, a sense of accomplishment and a job well done, which enables you to continue to create new habits.

Key Takeaways

By combining the cue-routine-reward theory with habit stacking and checklists, you gain the power to create new and better habits and abandon bad habits.

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