The 3 R’s of Habit Change: How To Start New Habits That Actually Stick

Your life today is essentially the sum of your habits.

How in shape or out of shape you are? A result of your habits.

How happy or unhappy you are? A result of your habits.

How successful or unsuccessful you are? A result of your habits.

What you repeatedly do (i.e. what you spend time thinking about and doing each day) ultimately forms the person you are, the things you believe, and the personality that you portray.

But what if you want to improve? What if you want to form new habits? How would you go about it?

Turns out, there’s a helpful framework that can make it easier to stick to new habits so that you can improve your health, your work, and your life in general.

Let’s talk about that framework now…

The 3 R’s of Habit Change

Every habit you have — good or bad — follows the same 3–step pattern.

  1. Reminder (the trigger that initiates the behavior)
  2. Routine (the behavior itself; the action you take)
  3. Reward (the benefit you gain from doing the behavior)

I call this framework “The 3 R’s of Habit Change,” but I didn’t come up with this pattern on my own. It’s been proven over and over again by behavioral psychology researchers.

I first learned about the process of habit formation from Stanford professor, BJ Fogg. More recently, I read about it in Charles Duhigg’s best–selling book, The Power of Habit.

Duhigg’s book refers to the three steps of the “Habit Loop” as cue, routine, reward. BJ Fogg uses the word trigger instead of cue. And I prefer reminder since it gives us the memorable “3 R’s.”

Regardless, don’t get hung up on the terminology. It’s more important to realize that there’s a lot of science behind the process of habit formation, and so we can be relatively confident that your habits follow the same cycle, whatever you choose to call it.

What a Habit Looks Like When Broken Down

Before we get into each step, let’s use the 3 R’s to break down a typical habit. For example, answering a phone call…

  1. Your phone rings (reminder). This is the reminder that initiates the behavior. The ring acts as a trigger or cue to tell you to answer the phone. It is the prompt that starts the behavior.
  2. You answer your phone (routine). This is the actual behavior. When your phone rings, you answer the phone.
  3. You find out who is calling (reward). This is the reward (or punishment, depending on who is calling). The reward is the benefit gained from doing the behavior. You wanted to find out why the person on the other end was calling you and discovering that piece of information is the reward for completing the habit.

If the reward is positive, then you’ll want to repeat the routine again the next time the reminder happens. Repeat the same action enough times and it becomes a habit. Every habit follows this basic 3–step structure.

The 3 R's of Habit Change
All habits form by the same 3–step process. Here’s an example: the traffic light turns green, you drive through the intersection, you make it closer to your destination. Reminder, routine, reward. (Graphic based on Charles Duhigg’s “Habit Loop” in The Power of Habit. Created by James Clear.)

How can you use this structure to create new habits and actually stick to them?

Here’s how…

Step 1: Set a Reminder for Your New Habit

If you talk to your friends about starting a new habit, they might tell you that you need to exercise self–control or that you need to find a new dose of willpower.

I disagree.

Getting motivated and trying to remember to do a new behavior is the exact wrong way to go about it. If you’re a human, then your memory and your motivation will fail you. It’s just a fact.

This is why the reminder is such a critical part of forming new habits. A good reminder does not rely on motivation and it doesn’t require you to remember to do your new habit.

A good reminder makes it easy to start by encoding your new behavior in something that you already do.

For example, when I wrote about the secret to sticking to little healthy habits, I said that I created a new habit of flossing by always doing it after brushing my teeth. The act of brushing my teeth was something that I already did and it acted as the reminder to do my new behavior.

To make things even easier and prevent myself from having to remember to floss, I bought a bowl, placed it next to my toothbrush, and put a handful of pre–made flossers in it. Now I see the floss every time I reach for my toothbrush.

Setting up a visible reminder and linking my new habit with a current behavior made it much easier to change. No need to be motivated. No need to remember.

It doesn’t matter if it’s working out or eating healthy or creating art, you can’t expect yourself to magically stick to a new habit without setting up a system that makes it easier to start.

How to Choose Your Reminder

Picking the correct reminder for your new habit is the first step to making change easier.

The best way I know to discover a good reminder for your new habit is to write down two lists. In the first list, write down the things that you do each day without fail.

For example…

  • Get in the shower.
  • Put your shoes on.
  • Brush your teeth.
  • Flush the toilet.
  • Sit down for dinner.
  • Turn the lights off.
  • Get into bed.

You’ll often find that many of these items are daily health habits like washing your face, drinking morning tea, brushing your teeth, and so on. Those actions can act as reminders for new health habits. For example, “After I drink my morning tea, I mediate for 60 seconds.”

In the second list, write down the things that happen to you each day without fail.

For example…

  • Traffic light turns red.
  • You get a text message.
  • A commercial comes on TV.
  • A song ends.
  • The sun sets.

With these two lists, you’ll have a wide range of things that you already do and already respond to each day. Those are the perfect reminders for new habits.

For example, let’s say you want to feel happier. Expressing gratitude is one proven way to boost happiness. Using the list above, you could pick the reminder “sit down for dinner” and use it as a cue to say one thing that you’re grateful for today.

“When I sit down for dinner, I say one thing that I’m grateful for today.”

That’s the type of small behavior that could blossom into a more grateful outlook on life in general.

Step 2: Choose a Habit That’s Incredibly Easy to Start

Make it so easy you can’t say no.
Leo Babauta

I’ve written about this before, but your life goals are not your habits.

It’s easy to get caught up in the desire to make massive changes in your life. We watch incredible weight loss transformations and think that we need to lose 30 pounds in the next 4 weeks. We see elite athletes on TV and wish that we could run faster and jump higher tomorrow. We want to earn more, do more, and be more … right now.

I’ve felt those things too, so I get it. And in general, I applaud the enthusiasm. I’m glad that you want great things for your life and I want to do what I can to help you achieve them. But it’s important to remember that lasting change is a product of daily habits, not once–in–a–lifetime transformations.

If you want to start a new habit and begin living healthier and happier, then I have one suggestion that I cannot emphasis enough: start small. In the words of Leo Babauta, “make it so easy that you can’t say no.”

How small? BJ Fogg suggests that people who want to start flossing begin by only flossing one tooth. Just one.

In the beginning, performance doesn’t matter. Become the type of person who always sticks to your new habit. You can build up to the level of performance that you want once the behavior becomes consistent.

Here’s your action step: Decide what want your new habit to be. Now ask yourself, “How can I make this new behavior so easy to do that I can’t say no?”

What is Your Reward?

It’s important to celebrate. (I think that’s just as true in life as it is with habits.)

We want to continue doing things that make us feel good. And because an action needs to be repeated for it to become a habit, it’s especially important that you reward yourself each time you practice your new habit.

For example, if I’m working towards a new fitness goal, then I’ll often tell myself at the end of a workout, “That was good day.” Or, “Good job. You made progress today.”

If you feel like it, you could even tell yourself “Victory!” or “Success!” each time you do your new habit.

I haven’t done this myself, but some people swear by it.

  • Floss one tooth. “Victory!”
  • Eat a healthy meal. “Success!”
  • Do five pushups. “Good work!”

Give yourself some credit and enjoy each success.

Related note: Only go after habits that are important to you. It’s tough to find a reward when you’re simply doing things because other people say they are important.

Where to Go From Here

In general, you’ll find that these three steps fit almost any habit. The specifics, however, may take some work.

You might have to experiment before you find the right cue that reminds you to start a new habit. You might have to think a bit before figuring out how to make your new habit so easy that you can’t say no. And rewarding yourself with positive self–talk can take some getting used to if you’re not someone who typically does that.

It’s all a process, my friend.

The good news? Our community of superhumans is walking the slow march towards greatness together. If you have questions about starting a new habit, then feel free to leave a comment below.

I’ve always got your back and I’ll do my best to help out.

References
1. BJ Fogg has excellent material on habit formation. I recommend his Tiny Habits course, which is free.
2. Leo Babauta often writes very useful posts on habits.
3. Charles Duhigg’s book is a good summary of a lot of habit formation research.

19 Comments

  1. Hi James. I came across your blog by way of The Fat Burning Man podcast. Your interview inspired me and I’ve really enjoyed everything of yours that I’ve read so far. This post is no exception. I’m actually reading The Power of Habit right now, and I think it’s absolutely fascinating!! I have been looking for where I can apply the habit loop to my own life with things that I want to change. Good stuff!

    • Very cool. I’d love to hear about your experiences with starting new habits. I hope you enjoyed the interview on the FBM podcast!

  2. Hey James. I definitely agree with the three R’s in this article. I’ve been trying to create new habits for the past 5 years, with little success.. The only thing that it seems I was lacking was ‘Reward’. Since I’m not use to acknowledging a reward to myself, especially if it’s not major or if I don’t see instant change. For example, I want to start weight lifting again. Years ago, back in high school, it was much easier because of the three R’s.

    Reminder – the class bell rang/friends met in the weight room
    Routine – I got dressed and worked out
    Reward – high grade on report card (at the beginning), desirable attention from female classmates lol (over time)

    I’ve tried picking it back up recently after my incident and physical therapy, but something was missing: Reward. I didn’t realize that, subconsciously, I just wanted major results… right now. Pathetic right?

    Anyway, thanks to you, I think I know how to fix it now.

    • Rob — I’m glad you enjoyed the article. And thanks for sharing your experiences too. That’s a great example of how most habits can be broken down into this cycle.

      And you’re absolutely right, the reward is a critical piece. As far as weight lifting goes, I’ve noticed a few “rewards” that might help you as you get back in the habit of working out.

      1. Connection — I’ve lifted with some great people and many times just coming into the gym to hang out with them was a reward.
      2. Tracking Progress — I record all of my workouts. (It’s pretty simple. Just write down the set and weight after doing each one. It takes about 5 seconds.) The result is that I can literally see the progress I make from week to week. That is a big motivator and a reward for working out.
      3. The 3 benefits mentioned here: http://jamesclear.com/why-lift-weights

      Hopefully that helps you get going. Good luck! Feel free to drop in and share your thoughts here anytime.

  3. My question as I embark on a new ‘habit’ is whether I should take the ‘sprint’ approach and get ‘er done…as we say back east…or take it slow and steady…marathon style.

    Thanks for being one of my first Twitter followers.

    • Hi Ed — I’m glad you enjoyed the article.

      I sort of understand what you’re asking, but I want to clarify something: you can’t “sprint” to a habit. An action only becomes a habit when you repeat it enough times and get a positive reward from it to create the habit loop. It’s not the same as trying to get to a deadline (like getting a report done on time or something of that sort).

      Also, a habit isn’t something that you can “get done” … it’s something that continues over time. So, I guess I’ll say go with the marathon approach. Good habits are something that you want to be practicing years from now, not something that you want to get done in the next 3 weeks.

      That said, I feel like you might be referring to a goal (like “lose 20 pounds”), which isn’t the same as a habit. The habit for losing weight would be “working out 3 days per week” or “eat a healthy meal for dinner”. Typically, I think it’s best to start with habits instead of focusing on goals. More on that idea here: http://jamesclear.com/identity-based-habits

      Hopefully that helps guide your process. Good luck!

    • By sprint do you mean just jump to it without thinking it through? Because if so, you missed James’ whole point. To create the habit loop you have to at least have an overview, I think, of the process.

  4. All the YES in the universe to this! Automate, automate, automate. All these wonderful tips lead to automating good habits. Then you can spend the precious brain cells left over to pursue creative endeavors. Thanks for a fine post, James!

  5. Hey James,

    Great article, love your content, the way it flows and good information. Definitely can see the 3R’s being a benefit for everyone in eliciting a positive change in their lives.

    v/r

    Jess Howland

    Be Strong, Be Fast, Be Resilient

    • Thanks Jess. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

      If you enjoyed that post on habits, then you can find some other articles on habit formation and how it relates to health and fitness here: http://jamesclear.com/archives

      p.s. Thanks for taking the time to read. Feel free to share your thoughts and ideas here anytime.

  6. Only recently came across your work and so far I’m loving it. I like how you provide a high level theory on something but then get down to the details that so many other people overlook. This is real, practical, actionable advice!

    I have my own flossing story. At a time in my life that I felt like I was undisciplined I was thinking of ways that I could get back on track. Long story short – I made a commitment to start flossing every single day. I thought, this is something that takes 15 seconds but if I keep at it – it will have a material impact. My goal was to start small, do it every day, and “learn” to be more disciplined. Whether I got home exhausted, drunk, whatever – I was not going to miss flossing. My visual cue, like yours, was simply leaving the flossing thingy within sight. I kept telling myself “if you don’t have the discipline to do something this easy – you’re a %$#@”. Four years later – I’m still flossing every day. Over time, I’ve layered in other habits.

    Start with something small, do it every day, layer other things in from there.

  7. Hello,

    I’ve tried and failed to form two habits of reading more and exercising my mind through lumonsity. I really want to better myself but I find myself afraid to even try because I dont want to fail again. How can I motivate myself to even try?

  8. James,

    The way you explain powerful and complex stuff in such a simple way that is easy to understand and follow is just simply amazing. Being an ambitious procrastinator, this post really helps me to develop the necessary habits to overcome my procrastination and fulfill my goals. I believe the information in this post can help thrust my development from being an ‘ambitious procrastinator’ to being an ‘ambitious go-getter’.

  9. Wow this was super helpful! I used a lot of this info for my French speech! I also learned a lot for my personal life. You have done a great job. :D

  10. Hi James,

    Really enjoyed reading this, I Google searched “breaking bad habits” to come across this and I am going to use it to help me break my bad habit of bending and lifting as I have had back injuries recently from a previous one a year ago. My job requires me to bend and lift constantly and although I am aware of correct techniques I become absent-minded and possibly the pressure is the stress factor that causes it. I feel as though I have developed these bad habits over my lifetime and am hoping that the 3 Rs can help reverse what I have been doing for so long.

    Wish me luck. Will let ya know if it works. Any advice is welcome.

  11. James,

    I love all of your amazing research and advice on creating new habits. It is so spot on. I recently interview Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz, the world’s leading expert on the science of neuroplasticity (brain change), and he gave some great information on how the steps you outline can actually create new neural pathways in the brain to support a new habit. What you are sharing has a real foundation in science.