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From one-time actions to regular routine: A guide to strengthening habits

Why is it important to consider habits?  

In a nutshell

  1. Habits are automatic and repeated behaviours. If we can switch a one-time behaviour into an ongoing habit, then we can achieve a longer-lasting behaviour change. 
  2. Habits are loops comprised of a cue, a behaviour and a reward.
  3. The Strengthing Habits framework provides a checklist of different cues and rewards to consider when establishing habitual behaviour 

The beauty of habits is they happen without us fully registering our actions – they are automatic, subconscious and repetitive. If you’re in the habit of brushing your teeth or driving to work, then that is an ongoing, enduring behaviour.  

If we can switch one-time behaviours into automatic and repeated habits then we’re on the road to long-lasting behaviour change.  

This is crucial, as many organisations have goals and targets for ongoing and enduring behaviour change – we don’t just want people to cycle to work once and never do it again, we don’t want people to quit smoking for just one day, or file their taxes correctly for just one financial year.    

We’re looking for an enduring and ongoing change over time.   


The habit loop  

The habit loop was first established by Charles DuHigg, based off the findings from MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences. The habit loop outlines a simple process for how habits work: a cue in our environment prompts the desired behaviour and the behaviour is then rewarded.  

existing habit framework

You may have seen references and variations of the model in James Clear’s Atomic Habits, Nir Eyal’s ‘Hooked – How to build habit-forming products’ and Wendy Wood’s Good Habits, Bad Habits, but at their core, they all follow the same structure: cue > behaviour > reward. 

But what makes for an effective cue and reward? 

TRA has added a layer of thinking to the well-established habit loop – can we think beyond push notifications for cues and think beyond a discount as a reward? 

We analysed five different habit models and over 60 case studies in order to understand the breadth and depth of cues and rewards.  

Our framework takes these learnings and provides a thorough checklist for the cue, the behaviour and reward for strengthening habits.

When you’re working on strengthening a one-time behaviour into a routine habit, consider the various options for each stage. 

existing habit examples

Cues that can prompt the desired habitual behaviour – your checklist: 

☑ Contextual cues: Consider the environment the desired behaviour occurs in, the items, the space, and the surroundings. What physical prompts or timely reminders can we dial-up? 

☑ Occasional cues: What regular occasions can help cue the desired behaviour? Think about reoccurring moments or events, for instance, learning, sporting, socialising, dining, travelling, work, health, and administrative occasions. 

☑ Social cues: How might we use key people to help prompt the desired behaviour? Consider friends, family, colleagues, past users/customers, people of authority or influence, and other people that are in the same environment.  

☑ Emotional cues: What emotional state are people in prior to the desired behaviour? Think about the customer journey, what are the emotional peaks that can cue the next desired behaviour? 

☑ Sensory cues: What sounds, smells, and sensations can help cue the desired behaviour?   

☑ Behavioural cues: What existing behaviours and habits can we piggyback on? Think about what actions might precede the desired behaviour. 

The habitual behaviour checklist:   

☑ Make it easy: How can we reduce effort and perceived effort involved? Consider reducing the steps involved, completing the first step, or framing the behaviour as easy.   

☑ Make it visible: To normalize the behaviour, how might we leave visible 'behavioural traces' for others to see. Consider visual symbols or items, referrals or testimonials.   

☑ Some are better than none: Keeping the habit loop in motion is important to prevent habits from degrading, even if the full behaviour is not completed (e.g. continuing to go to the gym, even to just stretch). If the motivation for the behaviour is dropping or disrupted, how might we keep the wheels in motion with only a partial amount of the behaviour completed? 

Rewarding the desired habitual behaviour checklist:  

☑ Extrinsic rewards: Extrinsic rewards (and punishments) come from external sources. How might we use external rewards such as incentives? Discounts, external praise and recognition, and avoiding fines or penalties to reward the desired behaviour?   

☑ Intrinsic rewards: Intrinsic motivation and rewards come from within. How might we use internal drivers that reaffirm our identity? Personal fulfilment, desire to explore, be independent or feel joy, or being a good parent/partner/colleague/citizen.  

☑ Reinforcers: Repetition is key to habitual behaviour, how might we reinforce and set up the next behaviour? Consider pre-commitment prompts, completing the first step in advance, reminders, discounts and incentives for the next behaviour. 

Reach out to us today to hear more about how we can help you tackle big challenges with our understanding of human behaviour.


Lindsey Horne
Behavioural Insights Lead
With a background in neuroscience and applied behavioural science, Lindsey works across behaviour change projects with social and government clients. Her approach to behaviour change is holistic, from broader cultural and social change through to behavioural economics and nudges.

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