The Science of Habit-Forming

May 14, 2022


Alto Pharmacy

Many of us have experienced the disappointment of a failed New Year’s resolution. Only 35% of Americans who made one in 2020 kept at it until the end of the year, and according to one study, 80% of resolutions fail by mid-February. But don’t be discouraged: you have more control over this process than it may seem.

Habits are part of a three-part psychological process of triggers, actions, and rewards often referred to as the habit loop. This process often unfolds passively as we engage in familiar behaviors, but it can also be a more intentional rewiring of your brain to turn aspirations into lasting change. Here’s how.

What is the habit loop?

As humans, we’re wired to search for pleasurable experiences and quick hits of dopamine, the brain’s feel-good chemical. Habits form when the brain recognizes a connection between action and reward. It stores this information in a region of the brain called the basal ganglia. Unlike activity in the prefrontal cortex — the area of your brain that makes conscious decisions — what happens in the basal ganglia is largely beyond your conscious control. That’s why it can be so challenging to break an old habit: sometimes you don’t even realize you’re doing it.

The habit loop consists of three parts:

  • Cue: a stimulus, such as a location, scent, person, or emotional state, that sends the brain into autopilot and motivates you to act

  • Action: a repeated behavior associated with the cue

  • Reward: the pleasure or relief experienced as a result of the action, reinforcing the link between cue and action and perpetuating the habit loop

It’s easy to see how unhealthy behaviors can emerge from this cycle, but with some effort, the habit loop can result in healthy changes, too. You can replace a bad habit like smoking or excessive screen time with something more positive, like reading, going for a walk, or meditating. You can also use this knowledge of how the brain works to develop a new habit altogether. Either way, you’re more likely to find success if you connect a positive habit with an immediate reward, like linking physical activity with your favorite song or podcast.

Building a Foundation for Healthy Habits

As you prioritize your mental and physical well-being, use these tactics to set yourself up for success.

Aim for incremental progress

Big ambitions are admirable, but it usually takes time to build strength or endurance. Sometimes the disappointment of not progressing quickly enough causes people to abandon their goals. For this reason, many experts suggest starting with a small, specific action rather than the end state. So instead of focusing on the goal of a completed half marathon, simply try to run a little more than you did the day before. The same principle applies to other habits like meditating or reading instead of social media scrolling.

At the same time, taking it slow doesn’t mean being inconsistent. Studies show that it can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days to form a new habit, and the best way to establish a routine is to actually do it. If your intention is to be more active, try doing a small, gentle exercise every day — a certain number of jumping jacks or push-ups, or a quick walk — and building up once a foundation is in place.

Fold your new habit into an existing one

We’re all creatures of habit, and there are probably patterns in your day that can help you cultivate your new routine. For instance, try meditating after your morning cup of coffee, or taking a walk after your lunch break.

This approach is called habit stacking, and it uses our tendency towards autopilot to our advantage. Your new habit will quickly become linked to what the brain already knows, increasing your chances of success.

Make it easy

Rather than trying to muster up more will power, look for opportunities that bring you closer to your health goals — literally. Add a visual cue to your new routine or remove a preparation step. A few ideas:

  • Pack your gym bag for a morning workout before going to bed

  • Choose an exercise you can easily do from home

  • Put heart-healthy snacks in a visible spot in your kitchen

Whatever you’re trying to achieve, there’s likely a way to reduce the time and effort it requires.

The pharmacy care you deserve

Alto makes it simple to live your healthiest life through a more supportive and affordable pharmacy experience. Our expert pharmacists can answer any questions you have right in the Alto app, and we offer same-day delivery and medication management tools like dosing reminders, auto refills, and bundled deliveries to help you stay on track with treatment.

Reach out any time through in-app messaging to learn more.

This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.