How We Form Habits: Extra Ideas to Help You Handle Procrastination

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, you will learn about habits and why some of them are difficult to change. You will also learn about the importance of focusing on the process rather than on the tasks you want to get done.

Pause and Think: “Why is it so difficult to do some things?”

You’ve had enough of play time and now, you want to focus on your studies and get something meaningful done today. But then, the thought of actually studying paralyzes you, and you give up yet again, putting off studies for tomorrow. As we all know, tomorrow never ends. Why is it sometimes so hard to get some real work done?

How do habits work?

Human beings are creatures of habit and there are so many things we do today that we do without thinking much about them or even giving a thought to why we actually do them. In fact, studies tell us that 40 to 45% of the decisions we make everyday are habitual. Take for example, brushing our teeth. Once we form a habit, it becomes difficult to change it.


Photo Credit: The New York Times

To understand why some of our habits are so powerful and what it would take to change them, we first have to learn how habits work.

The Cue 

According to Charles Duhigg, every habit functions much the same way. At first, there’s a CUE , which is some type of trigger that makes the behaviour unfold automatically and studies tell us that a cue can be a location, a time of day, a certain emotional state or feeling, other people or just a pattern of behaviours that consistently triggers a certain ROUTINE. See the habit loop below:

To figure out the cue for the habit, you might want to spend a few days tracking exactly when the urge to perform the usual routine hits. You are most likely to discover a pattern such as a certain time of the day, a certain emotional state, etc.

The Routine

The next part of the habit loop is the ROUTINE, which is somewhat easier to figure out, considering we mostly focus on the routine or behaviour whenever we talk about habits. 

Perhaps, for a student, the routine might be going instead to watch a TV programme or movie, anytime you pick up your maths textbook to study.

The Reward

The last part of the habit loop is the REWARD, and in some sense, the reward is the most important part because that’s why habits exist, so that we can get the rewards that we want. Take for instance, the habit of brushing your teeth or taking a bath every morning gives us a reward of feeling clean, awake and ready for the day.


Photo Credit: YouTube

However, figuring out the reward you get from a habit can be quite tricky. To figure out what reward is driving your habit, you also need to do a little experiment.

When the cue or urge strikes, instead of doing what you would usually do, which is the existing routine, try something else, a different activity, the moment you feel the urge to engage in your habit. Test different hypotheses to figure out what reward you are actually craving.

You will most likely figure out that the reward you are craving has nothing to do with your particular routine and that something else seems to deliver the same reward. For instance, deciding to watch an interactive online documentary on the history of mathematics might surprisingly give you the same feeling of accomplishment you crave when the fear of the maths problems facing you suddenly causes you to want to watch TV or see a movie instead.


So, the idea is to figure out which activity is most productive or healthy as the case may be in delivering the reward you crave and allow this to become the new behaviour out of which you can form a better habit.

Focus on the Process Rather than the Product

If you find yourself avoiding certain tasks such as attempting maths problems because they make you feel uncomfortable, you should know that there’s a helpful way to approach this issue. And that’s to learn to focus on process rather than product.

Process here means, the flow of time and the habits and actions associated with that flow of time. As in, I’m going to spend 20 minutes working on a small part of the work. Product is an outcome, for example, a homework assignment that you need to finish. To prevent procrastination you want to avoid concentrating on product. Instead, your attention should be on building processes. Processes relate to simple habits, habits that coincidentally allow you to do the unpleasant tasks that need to be done.


The product is what triggers the pain that causes you to procrastinate and put off work for some other time. Instead, you need to focus on the process or processes — the small chunks of time you need over days or even weeks to answer the assignment questions you were given or prepare for your tests.

It really doesn’t matter whether you finish your homework or grasp the key concepts in any one session and rather than judging yourself by asking “am I getting closer to finishing?”, simply allow yourself to relax into the flow of the work.

Lesson Summary

Recall from the first lesson on procrastination that we said that you seem to have to trick yourself into doing important tasks and that it’s not a sign of weakness to depend on tricks like the Pomodoro technique to get yourself to do the real work.

Studies have shown that if you can diagnose your habits, you can change them in whichever way you want. Premeditate your habit cues and rewards ahead of time and use them to develop healthier and more productive behaviours.


Failure is not one bad decision you might have made today, rather, failure is a series of repeated bad decisions. Success, on the other hand, is repeated and consistent good habits.

We so underestimate what we can achieve in a year and so overestimate what we can achieve in a day. You’ll never be able to finish a big textbook in one night in preparation for an exam the next day. However, if your read a page a day, in a year, you would have finished a 365-page textbook. Make it three pages a day, and you can actually finish it in 4 months.

Happy Learning!

Lesson Discussion

What do you think about the ideas shared in this lesson about habits? What are some of the ways you might be able to form better habits that will help you with your learning? Share your thoughts here!

Confused about anything that was mentioned in the lesson? Ask a question!


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