How Are Habits Formed In The Brain (3 R’s of Habit Formation)

Habits are automatic behaviors formed via a complex mechanism in our brains. So changing habits takes more than just willpower.

Willpower or self-control is either about stopping yourself from doing things you would later regret, or forcing yourself to do things you will later be proud of.

The problem is, willpower comes in limited supply. Moreover, when we feel we are not living up to our self-control standards, we often feel guilty and ashamed.

Video by HIP.

Of course, hindsight makes it easier to judge whether we lacked willpower or did less than we could have.

However, self-control cannot always help us break a bad habit that has already formed.

How Are Habits Formed In Brain

How Are Habits Formed In The Brain?

Habit formation is not a standalone behavior. It starts with our brains seeking dopamine boosts. When a behavior is rewarded, it gets linked to the reward-dopamine-pleasure loop in the brain. Thereafter, a sequence of a cue, an action, and a reward reinforces the formation of the habit.

Habit Formation Cycle

The habit formation cycle goes through:

  1. Cue (a trigger in our environment that fires the desire/action),
  2. Continuation (daily or more frequent repetition of the behavior),
  3. Carrot (giving or receiving a reward for completing the behavior).
Habit- cue-continue-carrot
The Cycle of A Bad (Or Good) Habit

Any new behavior begins with conscious deliberation and intention, under the control of our brain’s executive function or ‘System 2’ — the prefrontal cortex section of our brain.

It is the part of the brain that handles our deep thinking, such as helping us solve math equations, learn a foreign language, or map our way to a new location.

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However, as we repeat the behavior over time, our brain bypasses our executive function.

Instead, it relies on the basal ganglia, a more primitive area of the brain.

Thereafter, we are no longer conscious of the behavior and carry it out without thinking about starting or continuing it.

Habit Modification Strategies

Two primary strategies that modify our habits are:

  1. Reinforcement by Reward: In this, we give a reward to instill any good behavior.
  2. Prevention by Punishment: In this, we give punishment to stop any unacceptable behavior.

The punishment strategy is something we all know of. When we were kids, our parents or teachers may have used this on many of us.

However, the punishment strategy doesn’t work as well as the reward system. Rewards are more effective than punishment, suggest researchers (Dreber & Rand, Winners don’t punish. Nature, 2008).

The more effective reward-reinforcement method can help both establish and break bad habits.

It works around the idea that we set up many goalposts on our way to reaching the final point of our desired behavior change. And reward ourselves each time we reach these goalposts.

3 R’s of Habit Formation

The 3 R’s of habit formation are:

  1. Resolve: Make a firm commitment to pursuing the new habit.
  2. Rehearse: Set yourself up for success by practicing the new habit.
  3. Repeat: Rehash the new habit enough times for it to become automatic.

Every habit, according to James Clear, follows the same three-step pattern known as the “3 R’s”:

  1. Reminder — event that sets off the behavior
  2. Routine — the behavior itself; the action taken
  3. Reward — the benefit you gain from doing the behavior

The problem with habits is, we are incompetent and underperformer at forming good new habits as well as breaking old bad habits.

People may therefore continue to perform a habitual action even when they lack the motivation to do it.

Similarly, people often fail to maintain behavior changes because they lose motivation.

  1. The first problem is, most of us have nasty habits we want to get rid of forever, but find too difficult.
  2. The second problem is, many of us adopt new behaviors well, but fail to maintain them over time.

Psychologists offer a solution: modify your behavior around it.

And one of the most effective ways of modifying a set behavior (that is, making or breaking a habit) is through an incremental use of self-control and reward reinforcement.

It’s easy to go for the throat, but it’s hard to pull your hand back after adjusting their tie. That’s mostly what self-control is all about.

Habit Theory: Psychology of Habits

Habit theory explores the psychology of habits making up human behavior.

In psychology, habitual behaviors are automatically triggered actions that people perform while in situations that are the same as what they have encountered before and have learned to do the same action.

Repeating a behavior in the same situation or context reinforces mental associations between the context and the behavior.

Habits form when repeated exposure to the same setting triggers a preexisting mental association. This evokes an urge to act as learned in the past, unconsciously and with minimal conscious forethought.

What is a habit?

A habit is a sequence of tasks that we learn to perform unconsciously and automatically in response to certain cues or triggers. There are 3 things to note in that definition:
1. It’s not a single task, but a series of interrelated activities.
2. We do it automatically, mostly without any conscious intervention.
3. We perform habitual actions in reaction to triggers in our environment, much like Pavlov’s dogs.

Habits can be best explained as learned automatic responses with specific features (Wood et al., 2014).

Like other automatic responses, habits get activated in memory autonomously without needing any executive control from the higher brain (Evans & Stanovich 2013).

Final Words

Habits can cause us to eat unhealthy foods mindlessly.

In a study conducted at a local cinema, participants with stronger habits of eating popcorn at the movies ate more than those with weak habits, even when they disliked the popcorn because it was stale and unpalatable. (The Pull of The Past, Neal et al., 2011).

Finally, if you fail at something, like breaking a bad habit because you think you lack self-control or self-discipline, take heart.

  • Just because you failed a few times, you need not stop trying to get back to a disciplined routine.
  • Even if you don’t return to strict discipline, know that your failed attempts have only fine-tuned your result-achieving mechanism (psycho-cybernetics).

You can change your life with lessons from any failure. Remember, no failure is final until you stop trying.

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If you’re finding it too difficult to break a certain behavior, learn the 7 steps to change any habit using psychology.

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Author Bio: Written and reviewed by Sandip Roy — medical doctor, psychology writer, and happiness researcher. Founder and Chief Editor of The Happiness Blog. Writes on mental well-being, happiness, positive psychology, and philosophy (especially Stoicism).


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