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How are habits formed and how can they be changed
How are habits formed and how can they be changed

If you’re thinking about changing a habit, it would be very useful to know how habits are formed and how they can be changed, right? To know how habits are formed can be a big help in order to change them.

There are 2 kinds of habits: the good ones and the bad ones. If you want to become a better version of yourself, then you’d probably like to change those bad habits into good ones.

Changing a bad habit into a good one is almost the same as building a good habit from scratch. This is why it’s always helpful to know how habits are built.

So, in this post I’m showing you how habits are formed and how they can be changed. I’m also giving you an action plan so you know exactly how you can change a bad habit into a good one.

How are habits formed

Okay, so let’s start with the first part of this question: how are habits formed.

A habit is a routine behavior that happens subconsciously.

According to Charles Duhigg, author of the book The Power of Habit, habit formation starts with a habit loop. This loop consists of three parts: a cue/trigger that leads to a routine and then to a reward. We’ll get back to that in a minute.

How are habits formed in the brain?

Habits are formed in a part of the brain called basal ganglia. This area makes new neurons that connect a cue and a reward to execute a certain behavior – the habit. The more we repeat this behavior, the stronger these neuronal connections become until it’s literally carved into your brain.

Our brain is really flexible, though. So, even if you’re having a really strong neuronal connection for a habit you’ve done for a long time, it’s possible to break this connection and create a new one. This flexibility is called neuroplasticity.

This video explains it very well:

Psychology of how habits are formed

Now let’s look at the psychology of how habits are formed. The habit building process also has a psychological side to it. If you manage to get hold of the parts that make you execute the habit subconsciously, it will be far easier to build new habits or change old ones.

The psychology of habits is all about the 3-step process of cue/trigger – routine – reward.

The 3-step process of habit forming

As I’ve mentioned before, the habit loop consists of a cue or trigger, a routine and a reward. The thing that we think of as a habit is the routine. It’s the behavior that we do without thinking about it. However, a habit can only be developed with all 3 parts.


The cue or trigger tells the brain: ok, it’s time for automatic mode, bring the habit behavior on! This could be something like getting home as the cue which lets you immediately sit on the couch and watch TV (as the routine).

What’s important to know is that the triggers always have to be the same for the habit to be executed. If you’re going on holiday, for instance, it’s possible that you brush your teeth at different times or that you don’t watch any TV at all.

The habit is broken for this period. This is why holidays are so relaxing, it helps you to set free from all those routines. Don’t worry, most habits will come back immediately once you’re home again. But it’s a chance to break some bad habits. This is why it’s often recommended to quit smoking while you’re on holiday.


The trigger immediately sets the routine behavior in motion. As soon as the trigger appears, our brain sort of stops actively thinking and just executes the routine behavior.

This is actually really awesome because it means that your brain can focus on something completely different while executing the routine behavior. This is why you can talk while you tie your laces and put on your jacket! When you first learned to tie your shoes, it needed all of your concentration, though.


Now the last step is what makes habits stick: the reward.

Our brain likes habits so much because it feels good. The behavior makes us feel good in the short term, so dopamine is released and the brain wants more of it.

It’s very important to also use rewards when you’re changing habits, as you’ll see in a minute.

Here’s a more visual explanation:

Why is it so hard to change a habit?

As I’ve mentioned before, habits are literally pathways built into your brain. While it’s possible to change them, it takes some effort. And this effort needs a certain amount of willpower and concentration at the beginning.

It’s like when you learned to tie your laces. I still remember that day in kindergarten. It was so hard at first and it took forever until I got it done. But already a few weeks later I could do it without thinking much about it.

The only problem is that willpower isn’t an unlimited source and not every person has the same amount of it.

However, there are things you can do to help support this process. We’ll get to that in a minute.

Another important factor is that habits sort of feel like comfort zone. They happen automatically, and your brain can pretty much turn itself off. It’s easy and so your brain gets drawn to it.

Changing such a habit means you have to get out of your comfort zone. Once you managed to change it, it’s going to be awesome but the way to get there is pretty hard!

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How many days does it take to develop a habit?

First of all, the 21 day rule you sometimes read about as an answer to this question is wrong!

There’s no one fits all for habit development.

However, a newer study has shown that it takes an average of 66 days to build a new habit. There are numerous factors involved, though. An important one is the complexity of the habit: the more complex the habit, the longer it will take to build it. The study has further shown that it took the participant between 18 to 254 days to develop a habit. So, as you can see, there can be quite big differences.

If you want to learn more about this question, check out my article about the question how many days does it take to develop a habit.

How long does it take to break a habit?

This question ¨ has to be answered even more vaguely than the last one. It really depends on 3 factors, as neuroscientist Dr. Elliot Berkman says. These are: the availability of an alternative, the strength/motivation and the mental and physical ability to change the habit. To learn more click here.

How can habits be changed?

So, let’s look at how you can put this into practice. What we’ve talked about so far showed you how habits are actually wired in the brain. So, only using willpower to change them will make the process really hard.

Instead, I recommend setting a few things in place that will help and support you along the way.

Start small

This point is crucial. Many people feel like they have to change their whole life as a new year’s resolution. Well, that’s almost impossible and will only leave you frustrated. And in the end you won’t change anything at all because you’re just so overwhelmed!

Sound familiar?

I’ve certainly been there!

And what I’ve learned from it is very simple, yet crucial: start small.

Choose one little habit that you want to implement in your life. Something like drinking a glass of water with your breakfast, flossing after brushing your teeth or making your bed every morning.

If you’d like to change a bigger bad habit into a good one, then change only one aspect of it to start.

For instance if you want to start exercising every day that’s a pretty big leap if you’ve never exercised before. But, instead of starting small in the sense of only exercising once per week, it’s better to only do a very little amount every day. Remember, repetition is what builds a new habit. So, make sure you repeat it as often as possible, even if it’s only very short. Only do one pushup per day to start, for instance. The next week you do 5 and so on.

Set your own 3-step process

In addition to starting small it’s very important that you understand the 3-step process and can use it to your advantage.

Find a cue or a trigger

To make your habit changing process significantly easier you should find yourself a trigger that you can “attach” your new behavior to.

Let’s go back to our exercising habit. Think of an action after which you have enough time that you can eventually do the whole of your exercise plan. A good cue could be after you come home from work when you’d usually watch TV. Or after having lunch or after brushing your teeth before going to bed. It really doesn’t matter what it is.

The only important thing is that your cue has to be something you do or that happens to you every day, anyway.

Stick to it

Now that you’ve found your cue and you’ve chosen a habit or part of a habit to start small, it’s important to stick to it!

If you only do one part of a habit, increase it very little over time. The steps have to be so small that you don’t notice that it’s more than the day before. And then you really just have to stick to it!

If a step overwhelms you, go back and stick to the “lighter” version of your habit. Think about what I’ve said before: it can take up to 254 days to build a habit. So, don’t get discouraged if it still doesn’t feel automatic after a month.

Reward yourself

The last aspect is equally important than the 2 before but often gets forgotten.

Your brain needs a reward to build those new neurons. Otherwise the habit building loop is incomplete.

So, find something that you can reward yourself with. This can be something simple like praising yourself, or a TV break after exercising, or a walk around the block after working a lot.

Make sure the reward doesn’t become a new bad habit but also make it something that feels good.

Conclusion to the question: how are habits formed and how can they be changed?

So, let’s sum this up.

Habits are formed by repeating a 3-step loop: a trigger sets the behavior in motion that ends with a reward.

The link between the trigger and the reward builds a neuronal connection that gets stronger the more the habit is repeated.

To change a habit you need a certain amount of willpower to set it off. It becomes much easier if you start small and make use of the 3-step process. So, find a trigger to which you can attach your desired behavior to. And don’t forget to reward yourself.

If you follow this process for a couple of weeks (ideally at least 3 months), you’re on track for habits that will stick!

Also interested in boosting your productivity? Then make sure to get this free printable Pomodoro worksheet. Or click here to learn more about the Pomodoro Technique.

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