How All Habits Are Formed
Before we learn how to create a new happy habit, it helps to know how every habit develops:
All habits form gradually until we don’t really notice we’re doing them anymore. Some habits are positive and health promoting. Other habits, that we often pick up unintentionally, have unknown or unhealthy consequences.
According to current research in neuroscience, every habit (positive or negative) is developed through a process called habit formation, which is a 3-part loop of trigger-action-reward. The trigger is something that starts the action, the action is the behaviour itself and the reward is the benefit we get from doing the action.
Here’s an example of the Habit Formation Loop:
Before going to bed you (hopefully!) brush your teeth. You don’t have to remember to do this. It’s automatic. The trigger is going to bed, the action is brushing your teeth and the reward is, say, a happier dentist visit.
Let's break it down...
The Trigger tells the brain to check if there is an existing routine and, if so, sets it into motion:
Just before I go to bed I…
The Action is what occurs after the trigger. It often consists of a series of steps.
…Brush my teeth.
Which includes these steps:
Load my brush with paste, brush for 3 minutes and so on.
The Reward is what leads the brain to determine if an action is worth committing to memory. There are two phases to rewards; the external reward that motivates us in the beginning and the internal reward that replaces the external reward over time.
In the beginning, an external reward makes us repeat the action over and over. External rewards are things like encouragement, insistence and praise from a parent.
Mom and dad always check that I’ve brushed and are happy when I have.
This makes me feel good.
Over time, the reward becomes internal when the the positive feelings associated with the action, AND the repetition of doing it, plant it in the brain's memory. Internal rewards are things like recalling praise from a parent, being independent and feeling proud of oneself.
I can take care of my own teeth and I like not having cavities when I go to the dentist.
So, essentially, every habit forms this way:
A clear trigger cues the action
The action occurs (often including a few simple steps)
In the beginning, an external reward leads to repetition of the action
With time and repetition, the external reward is replaced by an internal reward and the action becomes a habit
Here’s how we take this knowledge about the formation of any habit and help kids form positive, healthy, happy habits