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The secret behind turning your New Year's resolutions into life changing habits...


Humans have been making New Year's resolutions for about 4,000 years now. Despite us all vowing to be better humans in the new year that is approaching us, we are not any better at sticking to our resolutions than we were, 4,000 years ago. It is time to turn your New Year's resolutions into long-term, life-changing behavioural changes - and it all comes down to habits.

The habit loop

Think about something that took a great deal of time to learn. At first it took a certain amount of time just to get up and running but after a while it became second nature - habitual. Charles Duhigg, the author of the book The Power of habit, describes how habits work and form through what is called the habit loop. The habit loop is essentially a psychological process that consists of 3 process components namely – 1. The Cue, 2. The Routine and 3. Reward. The Cue - can be seen as any external stimulus that will trigger a person to engage in their already formed habit, therefore the cue can be anything that you associate with performing the action or behaviour. For example, waking up in the morning to your alarm clock can trigger a cascade of habits, such as having a shower, making a cup of coffee or brushing your teeth. The Routine - refers to the behaviour itself in reaction with the certain set stimuli that was initially the cue. According to Duhigg, the routine is what we think of when we think of the habit itself. The Reward - is what helps your brain remember this habit and completes the habit loop (Duhigg, 2012).

The question however, is where in the brain are habits stored and why do we form habits in the first place?

The field of neuroscience has yielded promising results and today we understand more about the brain than ever before. Our habit forming behaviour starts with a group of specialised neurons called the basal ganglia. The basal ganglia are responsible for the formation and storing of habits as reflex behaviour to external stimuli (the cue) and play a huge part in emotions, memories and pattern recognition. The decisions we make however are processed in an entirely different region of the brain – the Prefrontal Cortex. As soon as behaviour becomes more autonomous, the decision making part of our brain go to sleep and more brain activity is found within the basal ganglia region. The reason this happens is due to a process we refer to as heuristics. Heuristics, in simple terms, refers to mental shortcuts our brains start to make as learned behaviour becomes more habitual and is executed with more ease. The reason heuristics form, are to lessen the cognitive workload we experience so that the brain can save energy whilst still being able to effectively execute certain tasks (Bridger, 2017).

The basal ganglia give us the capacity to take learned behaviour and to turn it in to a routine. Duhigg describes a case where a man had contracted a simple cold sore virus in the brain that had caused him not to be able to retain new information for more than 60 seconds. This man could not even map out his house when asked to do so, but still had the ability to navigate the house. What makes this case so interesting, is when researchers asked the man where the kitchen was and he said he did not know, but when they asked him to show them what he does when he is hungry, they were astonished. The man was able to find a cookie jar in the kitchen, a location which was unknown to him when asked where he found the cookies. When asked where the bathroom was, the man could not answer but was able to easily get to the bathroom when he needed to do so. The researchers found that even though the man was unable to retain new information, the learned behaviour he had become second nature and was stored within the basal ganglia. This learned behaviour became habits and were automatic (Duhigg, 2012). Habits at work reduce the cognitive work load required so that tasks can be executed with more ease and less thinking.

Consumer habits

Everything up until now had to do with individuals and individual habit formation but the same can be said for establishing consumer habits to benefit your brand, product or service. Companies themselves have been known to leverage consumer habit cues and rewards to their benefit (NPR, 2012). When it comes to marketing to consumers through habits and routines, the key is to capture moments where consumer habits and routines are at a stage of flexibility.

When forming new habits one only needs to change the routine and keep the reward and cue the same (Duhigg, 2012). This is the secret behind forming new habits or reinforcing old ones. Your consumers do not need new cues to influence their shopping behaviour but rather new routines. If a person is out of routine, they often feel uncomfortable and out of sync with the world around them. Routines give structure to the human experience and that’s why they play such a pivotal role in habits and habit formation, so the trick is figuring out how your product or service can become a routine in the lives of your consumers.

So here's to a New Year and a New You...

If you want to turn your New Years resolutions into life changing habits (or change the buying behaviours of your consumers) all that needs to be done is changing the routine and keeping the cue and reward the same.

For example, many of you may be wanting to limit your social media consumption in 2021. More often than not when we have a small pocket of free time (the cue) we immediately take out our mobile devices and start scrolling endlessly on social media (the routine). However, being aware of this cue will allow us to replace our social media routine with a plethora of much healthier ones, such as taking the time to be mindful and truly present in our environment in that moment or grabbing a coffee with a friend and catching up in person. By changing our unhealthy social media habits into new healthy habits, we will still receive the same reward (a dopamine release through social interaction/connection) while at the same time we will be on track to having a more fulfilled, happier life.

So figure out what are the cues and rewards that truly motivate you and drive your behaviour, and then develop new routines that align to your New Years resolutions.


Bridger, D. (2017). Neuro Design. In D. Bridger, Neuro Design (pp. 146-153). New York: Kogan Page Limited.

Duhigg, C. (2012). The Power of Habit . London: Random House Books .

NPR. (2012, March 5). Habits: How they form and how to break them. Retrieved from


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