Our habits, good and bad, run our lives.

And we’ve all tried to change the bad ones. Sometimes we’ve been successful, but most of the time it’s been a struggle.

Why is this?

For a couple years now, I’ve been teaching out of Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit in my college study skills class. The book explains, better than anything else I’ve found, how habits work and how to change bad habits into good ones.

The Power of Habit is compelling—built around a series of true stories, it reads like a novel—but I thought I’d distill some of its essential lessons here so you can begin to experiment with them. If you find this post compelling, read the book for a much fuller understanding.

So, how do habits work?

How Habits Work

The terminology varies, but psychology breaks habits down into three component parts: the cue (or trigger), the routine (or behavior), and the reward. These three components form the habit loop.

The cue is something in our environment that initiates the habit. Think of your smartphone buzzing at you from your pocket, backpack, or purse.

The routine is the actual behavior that makes up the habit. In the case of your buzzing smartphone, the routine is simply picking up your phone and looking at the screen.

The reward is something pleasurable that comes about as a result of the routine (often, it’s an emotional state). A buzzing smartphone creates curiosity—Now, who could that be?—and when the mystery is solved, we get a little burst of the pleasant neurotransmitter dopamine.

Ahh, dopamine. I could go for a big dose of that stuff right now.

Anyway, if this process repeats itself often enough, a new habit is formed. Anyone who’s ever owned a smartphone has learned pretty quickly that reaching for a buzzing phone means a little burst of dopamine.

Or rather, our brains have learned.

Good and Bad Habits: It’s All the Same to the Brain

If my brain had a brain, I wouldn’t need a system. — David Allen

The problem is, our brains don’t know the difference between good and bad habits. They don’t know that the pleasant, loose feeling after a hard workout is preferable to the similar feeling after a few beers. They just know what they like. And bad habits reinforce themselves the same as good habits.

Let’s talk about how to break those bad habits. We know they’re made up of a cue, a routine, and a reward, right?

So, which one do we mess with to change the habit?

How to Change Bad Habits

Let’s get this out of the way first: there is no such thing as “breaking a habit.” Habits, good or bad, never go away—they are buried in our brains’ neural pathways for the rest of our lives.

Depressing, huh?

Fortunately, we can “pave over” bad habits. We can create similar, better habits with the same cue and the same reward. And to do this, we modify the routine.

Here’s an example: I’m currently taking a month off from drinking alcohol, which means no beer in the evenings (a habit I’m looking to change). If I want to “pave over” my habit of cracking open a beer after work (and have those changes last longer than a month), I need to explore the cue, routine and reward of this habit, and that can take some detective work.

My current theory is that my cue to crack open a beer might be the feeling of being done with my work obligations for the day, or maybe just the fact that it’s dinnertime.

The routine is the drinking of beer.

The reward is a couple things: there’s a feeling of relaxation and a pleasant feeling of separation from the day’s work.

Since I know that changing a habit is all about replacing the routine, I’ve found two different actions that should give me a similar reward: reading fiction and drinking canned sparkling water.

Since a can of sparkling water is similar to a can of beer in many ways, I’m betting that the similarities will satisfy the physical part of the habit. And for me, reading fiction creates the same feeling of separation from the day’s work that beer creates.

As Charles Duhigg mentions in The Power of Habit, figuring out the cue, routine, and reward of a given habit often takes a few tries. But knowing how habits work and how to change the bad ones gives you a huge advantage when it comes to modifying your own behavior.

Action Steps

Think about one of your habits, maybe one you’d like to change.

What’s the cue—what initiates the habit? What’s the routine—the behavior part of the habit? And what’s the reward—what’s the pleasurable effect following the routine?

If you wanted to replace the routine with something else, what’s something you could try?