This post is by staff writer Honey Smith.

Recently on GRS I’ve been exploring the concept of motivation. But what if you didn’t need to be motivated at all? What if you did what needed to be done automatically, without even thinking about it? You’ve probably heard a version of the saying before: We’re creatures of habit. But what are habits, exactly? How are they formed? Why are they important? And how can we form good habits (or break bad ones)?

Recently, I was listening to back episodes of the NPR program Fresh Air and came across a story on Charles Duhigg’s book “The Power of Habit.” Duhigg has also written about how to change your spending habits for GRS. According to Duhigg, one of the reasons that habits are so powerful is that they are governed by a completely different part of the brain than decision-making.

Why is this important? Because as has also been noted on GRS previously, making too many choices can result in decision fatigue and a loss of willpower. The more you can move your ability to complete desired activities over into the habit center of the brain (the basal ganglia), the more “room” is left in the decision-making center of the brain (the prefrontal cortex). In other words, if you can make an activity into a habit rather than a conscious decision, then you’re saving your willpower for when you really need it.

A quick review: The three steps of habit formation

In his GRS article, Duhigg explains that, while most people focus on the habit itself, “habit loops” are actually a three-part process. The first step consists of the reminder (also called the cue or trigger). This is what lets your brain know that it can activate autopilot.

The second step is the routine. This is what you actually do. However, for reasons that will become clear, it’s helpful to think of the routine in connection with the trigger. For example, you brush your teeth (after your shower). Or you buy a coffee (on your way to work). Or you have a glass of wine (with dinner).

The third step is the reward or reinforcement. This is where your brain decides that it’s satisfied with what just happened and that it will continue to act this way in the future because of it. You feel clean, you delay the start of your workday and get a caffeine rush, you relax at the end of the day, etc.

Forming good habits

The key to forming a habit, then, is ensuring that all three parts of the process are present. It’s not enough to focus on what you want to do/the habit itself. Additionally, since your willpower/motivation may crap out on you, they are insufficient for habit formation as well. You have to make sure that you’re providing yourself with both a trigger and a reward if you want a new habit to stick. One easy way to find a reminder is to piggyback on a habit you’ve already acquired and use that as the trigger for something else. Let’s say you’re a caffeine addict; you could check your Mint account while you drink your morning coffee. Another, similar way to find a trigger is to piggyback on something that always happens to you. For example, you get paid every other Friday, so you can make your extra student loan payment when your paycheck gets deposited, before you’ve had a chance to spend that money.

Finding a reward can be trickier. That’s one of the reasons that piggybacking on an existing habit may make things easier. If you check Mint while you drink your coffee, you’re using a reward your brain has already come to expect (caffeine) for another purpose. There are a couple of caveats when it comes to rewards. First, if your brain perceives the outcome of your routine as a punishment (making an extra student loan payment means you don’t have that money any more), then it will be harder for the habit to form. That’s why it’s so important to know what motivates you. It helps you pick the reward that you will most enjoy, thus encouraging habit formation.

Additionally, if you want to make something a habit, the reward for the activity can’t be a one-off moment years down the road. Knowing that in five years you’ll be debt-free isn’t going to help you create a habit. The reward has to be immediately experienced every time you complete the routine in order for the habit to stick. So in addition to picking a reward that you will enjoy, make sure it’s easy, sustainable, and won’t have any additional negative consequences. Eating a cake every time you pay a bill on time, for example, may encourage you to make your payments, but what good is that if you need to buy new pants every month?

Breaking bad habits

Breaking bad habits can be much simpler than forming new habits. Remember that habits depend upon triggers and rewards. This means that in order to change your routine, you need to remove at least one of those two steps. Removing the trigger is often the simplest way to break a habit. Do you find yourself shopping online after receiving a “daily deals” email? Unsubscribe from anything promotional, or even start a spam email account so that the deals are there when you want them but not triggering you when you don’t.

Identifying the reward your brain craves and finding another way to give yourself that reward may also help you break a habit, or at least modify the habit so it’s no longer financially destructive. For example, I had a bad habit of buying cookbooks and not trying enough recipes to justify the expense. Turns out if I enjoy admiring recipes slightly more than cooking them, the Pinterest strategy gives me the reward I crave without spending money to acquire Stuff. Habit broken!

Using habits as unconscious motivation

OK, because there’s a reward involved, maybe habits aren’t entirely motivation-free. But by spending a little conscious effort up front to move your actions to the back burner basal ganglia, you don’t have to think about those actions anymore. Seems to me if you can combine conscious and unconscious forms of motivation, you’re well on your way to success!

What habits do you have that help or hinder your ability to reach financial goals? What are your triggers? What rewards do you crave? Have you ever successfully created a new habit (or broken a bad one)?