Hey there,

In this week’s Subtle Leader newsletter, I bring you my thinking around The Power of Habit and how to incorporate it into your life.

“The problem is that your brain can’t tell the difference between bad and good habits, and so if you have a bad one, it’s always lurking there, waiting for the right cues and rewards.” – Ann Graybiel, scientist at MIT


My time with The Power of Habit by James Duhigg is one that I keep coming back to. I’ve read this 3x and it gets better every time I do. I pull something out of it that I’ve forgotten about. The foundation of understanding habits, how they work and what we can do to change them is something we must all master.

I’ll break down why this matters and how we can create more happiness and fulfillment by recognizing the little things we do every day (habits).

Do you do something at the same time everyday that is not as healthy as you’d like?

Before: At the end of a long work day, I walk to the fridge, put my hand on the door handle, open it, look at that beer and pull it out.

After: I walk outside, down the street, do 10 jumping jacks and come back to the house.

My habit was drinking beer and now has become an exercise of 3 minutes walking outside and returning.

Let’s get into how I was able to leverage the power of habit into my daily routine.


The four areas to understand how to alter your habits (in a positive way):

  1. Breaking down a habit (pieces)
  2. Changing a habit
  3. Willpower and why it matters (to us)

Breaking down a habit (pieces)

“Habits are so powerful: They create neurological cravings. Most of the time, these cravings emerge so gradually that we’re not aware they exist, so we’re often blind to their influence.” – James Dunhigg

Imagine a world where you could break down all the actions you take on a daily basis, understand your cravings in more details and take positive action for change.

Here are the pieces that make up a habit (it’s more than you realize):

  1. Craving
  2. Cue
  3. Routine
  4. Reward

This can look like a loop where you’re cued to do that thing (beer out of fridge) and given that reward (feeling of relaxation). The craving is what happens before you are cued.


Now, picture this: A monkey sitting on a wooden stool. In front of him (or her) is a button on a table. Above him is a bottle of grape juice and anytime he hits the button, a drop of grape juice comes down.

For the first 10 times, it works. This triggers to the monkey that ‘I get a reward’ when I hit that button.

Wolfram Schultz, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Cambridge did a study in the 1980s and 1990s with monkeys similar to this to understand brain activity to determine how cravings work.

The conclusion: Anticipationof the juice triggers the monkey to keep going for the juice. That anticipation is the craving that we all have for the thing we want.

Typically that craving leads to your cue.


There are ways that your habit routine can be triggered or (cued). Here are a few that you can reference:

  1. Time
  2. Location
  3. Emotional State
  4. People


What is the first thing you do in the morning?

Typically morning routines are your habit. What would it take to alter your order of how you accomplish things in the morning?

What happens at the end of your work day?

Yep – that’s right – back to the example I had above (beer).

Time is a powerful thing and you can leverage it to your advantage.


The kitchen typically has cues built into it. When you see the pantry, what do you do?

Think about all the cues you might have when walking into the kitchen, bathroom or if you’re about to head out to drive somewhere – what do you do?

Emotional State

For me, when I get into a negative mental state, nothing good happens. Typically, I find myself in the pantry with those Trader Joe’s almond butter pretzel bites. Other times, I’m feeling overwhelmed and needing to go run outside.

When you’re in a postive mental state, things can create triggers for you but typically I’ve found this one to be for negative habits.


When that person’s name shows up on your iPhone, what happens to you? Does it take you into an emotional state that cues you to do something?

I try and remove toxic relationships that I’ve had over the years to focus on those that create postive experiences and cue me into things that are healthy.

Surrounding yourself with people that are triggered to something negative has only created problems for me.

So, find those people that create positive experiences for you. It matters.

Once you’ve define your cue/triggers, that will lead you to the routine of whatever that thing is that you’re doing.


This is pretty simple. For whatever the cue is, it leads to that routine (whether it’s positive or negative).

For a chain smoker, that may be time cue becuase it’s every hour I need 5 mins.

For someone intermittent fasting, it might hit 3pm and it’s time to go inside and start eating (that’s me).

Everyday around 3pm, I go inside to start making my first meal of the day. It consists of eggs, white rice, spinach, red pepper, steak (or ground beef), kerry gold butter and some bone broth (the rice is cooked in).

I’ve found myself in the pantry opening the jar of Trader Joe’s almond butter pretzel bites.

I don’t want to eat them but somehow I’ve created this routine of going into the pantry before eating my ‘real’ meal.


Defenition: The positive reinforcement and payoff I get from the routine I’ve created.

Intermittent fasting: Gives me a reward of feeling healthlier and more alert all day.

Eating pretzels: Satisfying hunger

Is it possible to change a routine that isn’t the most positive in your life to something that is?

Changing a habit

“It seems like it should be more complex. The truth is, the brain can be reprogrammed. You just have to be deliberate about it.”

Nathan Azrin, developer of habit reversal training

The golden rule of habit change: With the same cues and rewards in place you can change the routine.

In order to do that, you need to identify the cues and rewards which can be difficult.

The other main barrier to entry here is your willpower or belief that you can do this.

Here’s how to reshape your habits:

  1. Identify the routine
  2. Experiment with new routines
  3. Isolate the cue
  4. Have a plan

A habit is really just a formula: When I see a CUE, I will do ROUTINE, in order to get REWARD.

Have a plan to replace that routine.

Here’s what I’ve tried:

  1. Write down 10 different routines
  2. Try each one out
  3. Come back and determine if you’re still craving that thing after 15 minutes

I tried to replace my pretzel eating habit by doing just this and it worked. Now, when I’m craving one, I grab an apple. I just needed something to satisfy my hunger while I waited for that meal. The apple did it.

The takeaway

Have a plan to replace that routine and try things out until you find something that works.

Willpower and why it matters

Willpower is the single most important keystone habit for individual success.

Willpower is like a muscle. It gets tired as you work harder and there will be less power for other things. If you can strengthen willpower in one area of your life, it will spill over into others.

Willpower can become a habit if you’re able to choose a certain behavior ahead of time. If you can follow through when inflection points happen, you’ve won the game.

Starbucks has an entire framework for helping employees deliver the best customer experience for high stress situations. They call it the LATTE method:

  • Listen to customer
  • Acknowledge their complaint
  • Take action by solve the problem
  • Thank Them
  • Explain why it happened

Imagine that you had a framework to fall back on when a co-worker, family member (including your children) or friend came to you with a confentational situation.

How would this help you?


Habits are part of all of us. To think that reading this and all of a sudden you’ll change your routine and habits is crazy.

The biggest thing for me out of all of this is awareness. If I’m aware of the cues and triggers for the routines I’ve built, that’s a big step.

It’s going to take me time to change my habits but at least now I have a clear framework to build from.

Here’s what I’ve learned to sum it all up:

  1. Identify the cues in your life that lead to routines you want to change
  2. Try to alternative routines in your habit loop to replace the things you want to change
  3. Create a willpower plan for stressful situations (similar to the LATTE method)

Action Item: Reply and let me know about a habit you want to change and one new routine you want to try and replace. I’ll hold you accountable and check in on you if you do!

Till next week,


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