Want to Break a Bad Habit? Focus on the 3 "R's"

Got a bad habit? Welcome to the club. It's so easy to hit that snooze button, or reach for chocolate when you're stressed, or allow Netflix to keep feeding you episode after episode. What's not so easy is changing those undesirable habits for the better. The key to stamping out your late-night fridge raid is the same formula that started it in the first place.

Running on Routine

A whopping 40 percent of your life is routine, so you'd better make sure the habits you keep are good ones. The anatomy of any habit is made up of three parts. As described by author and self-proclaimed ideas advocate James Clear, they are the three R's: reminder, routine, and reward. The Stanford Ph.D. and creator of the Fogg Method productivity hack calls the reminder the trigger, and journalist and author Charles Duhigg calls it the cue. Call it what you want, but both your good habits and your not-so-great habits all come down to this three-part dance.

Duhigg's bestselling book, "The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business" points to these phases as steps in a habit loop. Think of the loop in an example: You hear the phone ring (reminder), you answer the phone (routine), and you talk to the person on the other end (reward). Huge chunks of your day-to-day life take direction from this loop without you needing to pay any mind. How convenient, until you realize your bad habits are all bundled up in there too. Well, crap.


According to Duhigg, the key to changing bad habits is swapping out the middle R: routine. For example, if you're trying to quit smoking cigarettes, good luck just shrugging off the urge (reminder) for a smoke after your lunch break. Instead, answer that reminder with a different routine. If you usually eat lunch at your desk, try eating in the kitchen or cafeteria instead to set up a new reminder that isn't associated with the routine of smoking. Duhigg insists that believing in the change is vital, and redirecting the reminder is the way to achieve the change.

For starting new, good habits, Clear recommends weaving your new habit into your everyday life. Do this by tacking it onto something familiar that will act as a reminder. That way, you don't have to rely on the faulty ol' human brain to remember your goal. Our brains are known to be unreliable, but habits are almost on autopilot in the brain's basal ganglia. A habit's reminder sets off an automatic domino in the brain, without requiring you to give it any thought. While this means old habits die hard, it implies good habits can last forever.

Get stories like this one in your inbox or your headphones: sign up for our daily email and subscribe to the Curiosity Daily podcast.

If you'd like to learn how we form habits and how best to break them and reform new ones, check out "The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business." The audiobook is free with a trial of Audible. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Joanie Faletto August 22, 2017

Curiosity uses cookies to improve site performance, for analytics and for advertising. By continuing to use our site, you accept our use of cookies, our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use.