The Anatomy of a Habit: Cue, Routine, and Reward

What habits are, and how they work.

By strengthening certain neural pathways
Social proof

What is a Habit?

Ever found yourself seemingly on autopilot, carrying out the same actions day after day? Mindlessly scrolling through social media once more when you just checked everything fifteen minutes ago? The reason behind this subconscious behavior is the power of habits. Habits shape our lives, from the simple things like drinking our morning coffee or tea to the complex like playing a musical instrument.


A habit is a learned behavior that has become automatic over time. From a neuroscientific perspective, habits form when certain neural pathways in the brain become strengthened. As we repeat an action, our brain creates new and stronger connections between neurons associated with that activity. This has a clear evolutionary benefit – it allows us to keep performing behaviours that reward us in some way.

Unfortunately, this process works both ways. If we repeatedly engage in unhealthy patterns, such as smoking or negative thinking, then those same neural pathways can also be reinforced.

Understanding the Three Components of a Habit

A habit consists of three components: the cue, the routine, and the reward.

The cue is the trigger that initiates the behavior. This can be an external stimulus such as seeing a certain food or an internal one like feeling bored.

The routine is the actual behavior itself—the action taken in response to the cue.

Finally, the reward is what reinforces this behavior so that it becomes habitual.


To better understand how these components work together, let’s look at an example: when you finish a stressful workday, your cue might be arriving home and grabbing your favorite snack that is laying on the kitchen counter. Your routine would then be eating that snack while watching TV. And finally, your reward could be feeling calmer and less anxious after indulging in something comforting. If repeated regularly, this cycle will become stronger over time until it becomes automatic—a habit!

The Role of Cues in Triggering Habits


Cues play a critical role in triggering habits, as they are the initial stimulus that sets off the behavior.

Cues can be both external and internal. Seeing an advertisement for a certain food or hearing a particular song may trigger cravings. These are external cues. Feeling stressed or bored, on the other hand, are internal ones.

Cues vary greatly. They can be anything from a specific time of day, location, emotion, or even a particular person. They activate the habit loop – cue, routine, reward – in our brain and trigger the behavior without conscious thought.

For example, if you have developed a habit of going for a run every morning after waking up, the sound of the alarm clock ringing could trigger the behavior of putting on your workout clothes. Similarly, seeing an advertisement for junk food might trigger cravings and lead to snacking.

The Role of Routine in Habit Formation

When we look at what a habit is made of, namely a cue, a routine, and a reward, the word ‘routine’ refers to the actual behavior or action that happens in response to a cue.

In this sense, routines are an essential part of habit formation, as they are the actual behavior that is repeatedly performed.

Or to put it more simply: the routine is the habit itself.

Routines can be physical actions such as brushing your teeth, mental events like having a thought or an emotion, or a combination of both. They can be simple and short, like biting your nails when you are nervous or making coffee in the morning, or they can be more complex, like a pre-work exercise routine or preparing your favorite comfort meal.

Besides being triggered by cues, routines are also reinforced by rewards.

How Rewards Reinforce Habits


Rewards are an essential part of habit formation, as they reinforce the behavior and make it more likely to be repeated.

Rewards come in many forms, from internal versus external to tangible versus intangible. They can also be immediate or delayed.

For example, the satisfied feeling after finishing something is an immediate, intangible, and internal reward. On the other hand, receiving your paycheck after going to work for a whole month, is a delayed, tangible, and external reward.

Not all rewards are equal, though – some may be more effective than others depending on individual preferences and lifestyle factors. Additionally, research has shown that when we use tangible rewards we tend to stick with our habits longer than when we rely on intrinsic ones alone.

In that sense, if you want to start exercising regularly then rewarding yourself with a healthy snack afterward might be more motivating than simply patting yourself on the back.

The Power of Cravings in Strengthening Habits


According to Charles Duhigg, the author of *The Power of Habit*, the concept of ‘craving’ plays a crucial role in the formation and reinforcement of habits. A craving is the anticipation of the reward when you perceive the cue.

Cravings are rooted in your brain’s reward system. Every time you receive a reward after doing something, your brain experiences a release of dopamine. Each time this happens, a strong association is created in your brain that links the behavior’s cue with the subsequent reward. The more you engage in it, the stronger the association between the cue and the reward becomes, reinforcing the habit even more.

For instance, if you have a habit of having a sweetened coffee every morning, your brain will start to associate the smell of coffee with the sweet taste, causing a dopamine spike every time you smell it. This craving reinforces the habit as it leads you to feel the anticipation of the reward before you even take a sip.

The Problem and Solution Phase

The author of *Atomic Habits*, James Clear, expands on the role that cues, routines, and rewards play in habit formation by categorizing these individual components into two distinct phases: problem and solution.


The problem phase goes as follows: The cue, such as seeing a can of soda triggers your urge to drink it. Then, during the solution phase, your routine, in this case drinking the soda, resolves the problem and provides a reward, namely a sugar rush.

Clear also explains that habits rely on three things: obvious cues, easy routines, and satisfying rewards.

This explains why we don’t develop habits that are linked to infrequent or demanding tasks, like fixing a leaking pipe. Broken pipes are a semi-rare thing so your brain doesn’t develop an automatic response to the cue. The routine to fix them requires effort. And the satisfaction you receive from fixing the pipe may not seem worth the hassle.

The Connection Between Habits and the Brain


Studying the connection between habits and the brain helps understand why certain behaviors become automatic.

When a cue triggers a habit, it activates neural pathways that have been previously established through repetition.

Neuroplasticity is a key factor in habit formation. Each time you repeat a certain behavior or think a specific thought, neural pathways are strengthened. This process of repetition eventually makes these neural connections so strong that we no longer need to think as much about what we are doing – it just happens automatically.

Different parts of the brain are involved in different types of habits. For example, the basal ganglia plays an important role in forming motor-based habits such as brushing your teeth or tying your shoes; meanwhile, other areas like the prefrontal cortex are more active when forming cognitive-based habits such as studying for exams or budgeting money.

The Role of Classical Conditioning in Habit Formation

In the late 1800s, Russian psychologist, Ivan Pavlov, noticed an unusual thing. After doing tests with dogs in which he would ring a bell to announce their food, he surprisingly observed that they would eventually salivate when they heard the bell, even when there was no food present. This showed that the dogs had learned to associate the bell’s sound with the expectation of food, and their bodies had become conditioned to react accordingly by salivating.

Pavlov called this phenomenon ‘classical conditioning’. Classical conditioning is a type of learning. The basic idea behind it is that a formerly neutral stimulus becomes associated with an unconditioned stimulus, or UCS. A UCS naturally and automatically triggers a response without needing any prior learning.

In this case, the bell is the neutral stimulus, the food is the UCS, and the saliva is the response.

The same principle applies to habit formation: over time, the cue is linked with the reward and evokes the behavior. As this process is repeated, the behavior becomes more automatic and less conscious.

For example, a cue, such as feeling stressed, can bring about the behavior of browsing social media through repeated pairing with a reward, such as a temporary distraction from stress and a sense of entertainment.

The Relationship Between Habits and Memory

When you perform an action, your brain uses a previously stored pattern of neural activity – a ‘memory trace’ – to guide the behavior. Each time you practice a habit, this process is repeated, strengthening the neural connections and making the behavior increasingly automatic and less conscious.

The interaction between habits and memory traces is also influenced by rewards. When you associate a behavior with a pleasurable experience, the neural pathway is further strengthened.

On the other hand, if you stop doing something, the memory trace gradually loses its strength, and the behavior will become less automatic. This is why consistency is so important in forming a new habit.

Memory traces fade over time, but they are never completely extinguished. While this is good news for re-learning an old, healthy habit, it can make completely unlearning bad habits challenging.

The Impact of Environment on Habits


On a social level, we are incredibly influenced by the people around us. When we are surrounded by others who practice a certain set of habits, we are more likely to do them ourselves. This is because of something called ‘social proof’.

Consider the popularity of certain restaurants. Many people are more likely to choose a restaurant with a long line or a full dining room because they perceive it as a popular and high-quality choice, even if they have no personal experience with the food or service.

Of course, our physical environment also plays a major role in habit formation. Environmental cues such as visual reminders, sounds, and smells can trigger memories associated with particular habits.

Think of craving coffee after a whiff of freshly ground beans enters your nose or the sound of a funky ice cream truck jingle evoking a craving for an ice cream treat.

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