Ask the Expert: The Mindset for Making Habits Stick

By Bill Hudenko
Medically reviewed checkmarkMedically reviewed
December 30, 2021

As you approach a new year, it’s common to think about resolutions. Perhaps you’d like to lose weight, exercise more, or stop procrastinating. While these resolutions are common, what is less common is sticking to a resolution! In this piece we’ll talk about the science behind habit formation to help you stick to your new goal.

Anatomy of forming a habit

It’s important to understand that every habit can be broken down into three elements: the cue, the action, and the reward. We’ll walk you through those elements here. Each holds a key to successful habit-creation.

The Cue: This is the starting point for the habit you hope to establish.

Your cue is your motivation. Why do you want to build this habit? What will life look like when your habit is part of your day? Will your new habit positively impact those who you care about? If you’d like to establish a new habit, make sure you have a clear understanding of your motivation for accomplishing it.

Tip: Know your cue. Say it out loud. Return to it. If you can sum up your cue in three words or less, you’ve armed yourself with a powerful habit-building tool. Say those three words out loud—really! Right now. Indoor voice, outdoor voice, even a mumble-whisper. Anything goes. Now, you’ve verbally committed; your motivation belongs to you. Do this again any time you feel your motivation falter.

Example: Let’s say you would really like to start exercising regularly. What might your cue be? Perhaps “I am strong.” For one, you want to build the habit because you believe that you can do it. You know that you’re mentally strong, and your determination will help you prove it. Secondly, you hope that regular exercise will help keep your body healthy and strong. In both regards, the cue “I am strong” provides a strong and succinct reminder of the motivation behind your habit.    

The Action: The physical movements or mental processes that make up your habit.  

Habits have to be associated with some form of action. The action is sneaky and critically important—sneaky because actions can seem so obvious that they’re often ill-defined, and important because establishing an easy-to-understand action can bridge the gap between an idealistic goal and an achievable step towards success.

Tip: Identify the action—the literal physical movement or mental operation—that you want to turn into a habit. Walk through that action in your mind, and take note of the very first step. Now, do at least one thing to make that first step easier. 

Example: Along the lines of our previous example, (30 minutes of exercise each morning), your very first step might be putting on your running clothes. How to make it easier? Lay them out right beside your bed the night before! 

The Reward: This is the glue that holds your habit together and makes it stick.

An action that’s followed by desirable consequences is likely to be repeated. This principle, known formally as Thorndike’s “Law of Effect,” is critical to habit-building. Generating a personal reward system is a simple and effective mechanism for easing yourself into a habit.

Tip: Treat yourself! Ideally, your habit will become self-perpetuating; the act has positive effects, so you continue to perform it. Sometimes, though, habits with  long-term positive effects might not produce immediate rewards (e.g., it may take a while to see the long-term benefit of working out). To get yourself started with a new habit, try creating small post-habit rewards. This is particularly important because big rewards are rarely sustainable. 

Example: Perhaps after a week of 30-minute workout sessions, you reward yourself with a small piece of chocolate. Or, for a more frequent reward, you enlist a supportive friend to send a quick text message thumbs-up each morning upon confirmation of your exercise session.


Takeaway Tips:

  • Take some time to clearly define the cue, action, and reward for your habit.
  • Say your cue (out loud!) at least once per day.
  • Take the first step of your physical habit action ahead of time—make the habit as simple as possible to complete.
  • Pick a simple treat to reward yourself for habit completion.

From all of us at K Health: You can do it! You know what to do—now go build that habit of yours.

K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

Bill Hudenko

Bill Hudenko, Ph.D. has significant experience in the fields of both mental health and technology. Dr. Hudenko is a licensed psychologist, a researcher, and a professor who holds a joint appointment as a faculty member at Dartmouth’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences and Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine.