The Science Behind Building Habits

For the last two weeks, we talked about the importance of the small, simple habits – both in nutrition and training. But what is the science behind building these habits?

Luck for us, there’s a large body of research behind this work and once we break it down, it can be both easy to understand and use to build habits that support any goal we may have.

First, it’s important to recognize the four steps in building a habit: cue, craving, response, and reward.

Step one: Cue

Our mind is constantly analyzing the world around us for cues. These cues, in historic times, signaled a reward of food or water (our primary needs). But, today, we’re more often signaled into secondary rewards: money, power, praise, approval, comfort, etc.

STEP two: craving

Cravings are the motivation behind every habit. But we often confuse what we are craving:

The think you crave is not the habit itself, but the change in state it delivers.

James Clear, “Atomic Habits:

What does that mean? When you wake up in the morning and are CRAVING that first cup of coffee – it’s not the coffee that you actually want. You’re craving the desire to feel awake and alert. When you’re craving those sweets at the end of the night, it’s not the cookies you want. It’s the pleasure you get from consuming them.

These cravings can be largely different from person to person and are meaningless until they are interpreted. Our individual thoughts, feelings, and emotions are what transform a craving into an action.


This is the habit. What action is taken as a result of the craving? How often we respond to a craving depends on how motivated you are and how much friction is associated with the behavior. (Remember this, we’ll come back to is when we’re talking about changing our habits.) It seems so simple, but the habits ONLY occur if we’re actually capable of performing them…


There are two purposes to a reward:

  1. Rewards satisfy the craving and complete the habit cycle.
  2. Teaches us which actions are worth remembering in the future. We can think of our brain as a reward detector, with those feelings of pleasure and disappointment providing feedback for behaviors to be performed in the future. This feedback allows us to distinguish useful actions from those that are not.

How can we change our habits?

So, this is great; we understand the steps to the habit cycle and the thoughts or actions associated with them. But what can we do with this information? Well, if we’re trying to build a new habit, we can use the four laws of behavior change.

Boom, done. Off the races, right? …okay, okay. Maybe not so much. Let’s break down the rules in an example.

  1. Make it obvious. We want the action we desire to be obvious. Say you’re trying to build the habit of training in the morning. This may mean laying out your clothes on top of the dresser so you see them first thing when you wake up.
  2. Make it attractive. We want the desired action (habit) something we actually want to do. So, to stick with our training example, we want our training sessions to be something we actually enjoy! Waking up for an early morning class can be tough…and it can be tougher when it’s something we don’t want to do in the first place, regardless of the time of day!
  3. Make it easy. Set yourself up for success ahead of time. We want our actions to be easy to accomplish. Know your training program ahead of time, have a plan when you walk into the gym, etc. If you’re training at home, make sure your gym space is set up the night before so you’re rocking and rolling when you get out of bed!
  4. Make it satisfying. Similar to making it attractive, but this time we want to have the outcome be satisfying. This can be ending the session on a high note, setting ourselves up for success the rest of the day and into the next training session. Remember, if it’s not satisfying, we won’t want to complete the action that will complete the habit loop…and THAT is the body’s ultimate goal.

There you have it – four steps to creating lasting habits. So what if we want to break a habit? Well, we simply invert the laws!

  1. Cue – Make it obvious. >>> Make it invisible.
  2. Craving – Make it attractive. >>> Make it unattractive.
  3. Response – Make it easy. >>> Make it difficult.
  4. Reward – Make it satisfying. >>> Make it unsatisfying.

Changing our behaviors, and by extension our habits, boils down to these laws. When we’re better able to manipulate our environment, we can control the cues and subsequent cravings that the body perceives. Without the cue, there is no craving. Without a craving, the body doesn’t yearn for a response. No response, no reward.

Are you looking to read more about the science behind habits? I highly recommend the book “Atomic Habits” by James Clear. It breaks down the science into simple, easily applicable strategies that you can implement into your life immediately… and you KNOW that is my jam 😉

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