This Is How Your Habits Are Formed

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Much of our daily life is permeated by behaviors we are so used to we hardly consider them individually anymore. Do you get hungry and eat dinner at around the same time every night? Do you brush your teeth every morning when you wake up? What makes these patterned behaviors habits and how do they form?

Paul O’Neill was determined to create a safer worker atmosphere at Alcoa when he joined the metals and manufacturing company in 1987. In order to accomplish this, O’Neill modeled his plan after the habit loop, a three-step loop explained by Charles Duhigg in his best-selling investigation into habit formation, The Power Of Habit. According to Duhigg, the three-step loop begins with a cue that triggers your brain to act. The second step is the routine, which could be going to the gym or meditating in the morning. Finally, there is a reward, which is what guides your brain to discover if this particular loop is worth keeping.

In O’Neill’s case, the cue was an employee injury which led to him implementing a routine that required the unit president to report the injury to him within one day and create a plan for solving the problem so it would not happen again. Finally, the reward was that only people who followed this system would get promoted.

What followed was an incredible transformation in which Alcoa has now come to be recognized as one of the safest company in the world, and its company profits have risen five times over.

Like a trickle down system, O’Neill’s new process ultimately affects the entire company culture. This is because, in order for the unit presidents to report the injury, they need to hear it from the vice president. The VP would need to be communicating with the floor managers, who needed to be in contact with the workers, who would need to bring up any safety problems they witnessed. In order to accommodate to the habit loop, the whole company had to change.

Funnily enough, these habits became so ingrained in the employees of the company that one employee found himself automatically speaking up and reporting an incident when he saw workers breaking safety regulations from another company years later without even thinking about it. This is why O’Neill was so successful in his venture, and illustrates the power of the habit loop, as it encourages behavior to become a deeply established habit.

How can we apply this to our everyday lives? Let’s use my driving skills as an example.  

When I first learned how to drive, I recall struggling with making left turns in particular. I used every single ounce of brainpower I had on signaling, slowing down, looking around me and turning the wheel. Fast forward to now, the part of my brain that activates habits automatically recalls the actions needed to make a turn and allows me to act on them without the brain power I used to require.

When I am in the left-hand lane and I see the traffic light, that is my cue. This activates my routine which is turning on the signal light, checking my blind spots, looking at oncoming traffic and making the turn. Finally, the reward is that I have safely made the turn.  

It is also important to take cravings into consideration because the expectation and craving for the reward is the drive behind the habit formation.

Cravings can be many things from a craving for that chocolate bar you get to eat later if you go to the gym right now or even an emotional feeling.

On the road, I crave the stress-free feeling of safety. Therefore, in order to feel that way, my body knows the steps I need to perform in order to make that happen. That is what drives my body to form the habit of making a left turn.

All these elements drive habit formation but the amount of time it takes for a habit to be fully integrated into your life is another question.

Studies have shown that it can take more than two months before a new behavior is fully integrated and if we were to be more exact 66 days. However, it is incredibly important to note that it does not mean that at the 66-day mark, your habit becomes permanent. It all depends on the person, situation and the circumstances. Repetition is key and you have to utilize the correct tools to guide your brain towards the habit.

This all implies that the more aware we are of our behaviors, the more control we can have over our habits both good and bad. Take a minute to notice your behavioral routines, why you start them in the first place, and why you stick to them. It might be interesting to see what you find.

Written By:

Cindy Song


Duhigg, Charles. The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. New York: Random House, 2012. Print.

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