Conscious Living: Three Keys to Making or Breaking a Habit

To change a habit we need to examine: 1) what is the cue for the habit to begin, and 2) what is the reward at the end

When we think of the many awesome things that the brain is capable of, one thing that stands out is its ability to analyze information, then store it as memories for retrieval when we need to recall that information. Every second, the brain sorts through billions of pieces of information, choosing what is important and what is not. It receives and interprets impulses from our senses as we are listening to music, seeing colour-filled landscapes, tasting foods, and experiencing the touch of people or pets. This happens automatically without thought or action on our part.

The brain is very selective as it takes in, filters, remembers, and stores data, basing it solely on who we are and how we perceive ourselves. A simple example is that ten people can witness an event and there will be, without a doubt, ten different descriptions of the same event. Each person’s perceptions of the event are influenced by their history, values, beliefs, and opinions of the world.

Our brain also filters, stores, and activates our emotional self. The myriad emotions that humans are capable of are stored, from bliss to rage. These stored memories are most powerful and re-callable when emotion was associated with the original experience. The stronger the emotion was, the more powerful your recall will be.

The brain also monitors  for similarities of experiences. It stores our feelings; this is true, but only within a frame of reference. In other words, it stores our emotions by matching a feeling or combination of them with any associated behaviours that occurred at the time the memory was created. This is vitally important for us to know if we want to change anything within our psyche – because any experience you have had is combined in the brain with others that may only slightly resemble other ones from the past; the brain will interpret a situation and will immediately pull up all associated behaviours for that feeling and situation. This helps explain why so much of our emotional life is spent replaying the exact same scripts over and over, only with different people. Our brain doesn’t differentiate who the other players may be, it does however identify that when we feel this, then this is how we act and behave. The feeling and the situation similarity are the major cues for our repeated behaviour.

For example, if we had a parent who yelled at us as a child, and it so frightened us that we froze on the inside and burst into tears, there is a high probability that if an authority figure yells or appears very angry we will play the same script and behave the same way – freeze and cry. The only variation is if a person refuses to ever feel that experience again – they will go to the polar opposite, which is to leave and be angry.

How We Form Habits

With the modern imaging equipment available today, researchers have been able to identify what parts of the brain are activated during various activities and feelings. Apparently, when we are learning, planning, or finding ourselves in a new situation, the prefrontal cortex (analytical thinking part of the brain) is fully engaged and hard at work.

Over time, as we develop repetitive behaviors, the prefrontal cortex identifies habitual actions and basically gives the job to a very deep and ancient part of the brain, the basal ganglia, one of its oldest structures.

Once a behavior, be it physical or emotional, has become repetitive and is assigned to the basal ganglia, we have an established habit ready to be activated before we even know it. This has distinct advantages for the brain. Specifically, once a habit is established, this frees up the prefrontal cortex to do what it is designed for, analyzing. Once freed up we can be thinking, planning, and creating whole new sets of data and experiences while the habit part, like driving and walking, looks after repetitive actions. This also allows the brain to relax and not have to work so hard, although a new study from MIT has shown that the prefrontal cortex does not give up complete control of our habitual behaviour. There appears to be a “monitor” that cues the ganglia to take over initiating behaviour as required.

All Habits Are Not Created Equal

Habits are often associated with bad or unhealthy behaviors, but in reality, our habits allow us to do many things without having to think of every step. The majority of our day is spent enacting many of our habits – from the order we get out of bed and get ready to go to work, drive to work, through to the way we prepare to go to bed, all is virtually identical each day. The list is quite endless as to the myriad behaviors that are so memorized we don’t even have to think. As well, habitual activities form some part of all spirituality and usually are referred to as “rituals.”

All habits have three key components to them. To begin, every habit has a triggering cue. Something, whether it is time, location, a feeling, person, no feeling, a color, or a landmark can serve as a cue to initiate stage two of this cycle. Stage two is the behavior itself. Most habits are highly ritualized from start to finish. The order rarely changes through to completion. Upon finishing the behavior we arrive at stage three, the reward, the payoff for the behaviour. All of our behaviour, at this time in our life, has a pay-off. There can be 99 reasons to not do something but if there is one reward that fulfills the need underlying the habit, we will continue to do it despite adverse consequences.

In order to change a habit we need to examine two things: what is the cue for the habit to begin and what is the reward at the end. Neither is easily identified. There are as many cues as there are reward possibilities all playing into the habit cycle. Both the cue and the reward need to be fairly closely identified if you are to succeed in breaking the cycle. Once identified, the more difficult task of breaking the cycle begins. The trick is to maintain awareness of what your cue is while having a new coping skill that will take you past the cue, without entering into the bad habit.

Habits, dependencies, and addictions are all behaviors that start in our conscious mind and, through repetition, become ritualized and move into the unconscious mind, making it difficult to know when and how we are triggered, or that we are even doing a habit until we are well into the cycle. This unconsciousness is not insurmountable but does add to the challenge of breaking habitual behavior.

How do you start a healthy habit?

You must first establish what will be your cue to begin this new behavior. Next, what is this new behavior? How does it start, and how does it conclude? Lastly, what is the reward for this new habit to complete each time?

As an example, you want to establish a habit of walking one mile each and every day. What is your cue going to be to get out there, no matter the rain the snow, or freezing temperatures? What will be the cue to put on your shoes, dress appropriately for the weather, and begin that walk? Remember, every day! Finally what is the reward you will receive that makes you want to start and finish this walk? With conscious effort, this new behaviour can become a habit, ingrained in the deepest part of the brain such that you do not even think about it, and begins each time you are cued. As you can see, starting a new habit is almost as difficult as breaking one. The trick is to know the three elements of the habit cycle, as it gives you everything you need to make or break a habit.

Gord Riddell and Kathy Ryndak are co-founders of the Transformational Arts College of Spiritual and Holistic Training. The College offers professional training programs in Spiritual Psychotherapy, Spiritual Director, Holistic Health, and Coaching. For more information or for a course calendar, call 416-484-0454 or 1-800-TAC-SELF, or visit To receive their monthly e-newsletter, email

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