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 (audiobook).

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 meditate 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.

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, The Power of Habit, is a good summary of a lot of habit formation research.