Executive Function Pt. 3: Forming Habits

Executive Function Pt. 3: Forming Habits

For part 1 go here and part 2 go here. Now we move on to forming habits. Toward the end of this article will be links to this information in other forms. 

The Parts of YOur Brain Involved in Forming habits

When you form a habit, you move information from your pre-frontal cortex to other parts of your brain, especially your basal ganglia. Your pre-frontal cortex is the newest part of your brain, genetically. It is also the most vulnerable to stress and other issues. Because of this, it is important, whenever we can, to implant our knowledge deeper in our brains.  One of the most important of these areas is the basal ganglia, Information in the basal ganglia are less susceptible to things that make prefrontal cortex information fragile. Essentially the prefrontal cortex passes off information to the basal ganglia where it gets stored more deeply.

I’m going to refer to your prefrontal cortex from now on as your “boss brain” and your basal ganglia as your “lizard brain” or “the roots of your brain”.  This is because using a metaphor helps you to learn information and store it better. When forming habits, your boss brain hands off information to the roots of your brain, where they are stored in such a way that eventually they become automatic. 

creating a habit

The basics of Forming a habit

The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg, consolidates a lot of the research on how we build habits. He defines three steps to forming a habit. First you create a trigger to remind you to do the thing. Then you do the thing repeatedly. Finally, you reward yourself for doing the thing. Sounds simple, right? Let’s break it down. 

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creating a trigger

To create a trigger, you figure out something that works for you to remind you to do the thing. Some ideas include:

  • Setting an alarm
  • Having Cortana or Alexa remind you
  • Writing a note to yourself where you’ll see it (Refrigerator door? Bathroom mirror?)
  • Tell all the folks on Facebook or Twitter or Snapchat that you’re going to do the thing. 
  • Putting the things you need to do the thing where they’ll remind you
  • Setting up the space where you’ll do the thing. 
  • Have a partner or supportive friend or colleague help you remember. 

Experiment, persist and evolve until you find a trigger that works for you. You’ve started forming a habit. 

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Create a routine

Decide for yourself whether this is an everyday habit or more or less often. Often, you can figure this out from the task. For instance, exercise is typically an everyday habit, Paying bills and balancing your budget is typically a once or twice a week habit. Eating three healthy meals and two healthy snacks a day (for those with hypoglycemia) is going to be a five time a day habit. 

Use your trigger to remind you to do the thing. Set up your “bill paying station”. Put out your exercise clothes and have your water bottle ready for your morning exercise. Make a menu for your healthy eating and put it on your refrigerator door (and pack food for work). 

We used to believe that it takes 21 days to form a routine. Unfortunately, this isn’t actually true. It is based on the observations of a plastic surgeon by the name of Malcolm Maltz in the 1950s, but he only observed his own pattern, not a group of people. Phillipa Lally did a study in 2009 that found that it takes 66 days to form a habit, on average. Two months and a week or so. 

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Tricks for creating a routine

So the next piece is to promise yourself and anyone else who is willing to help that you will spend at least two and a half months doing the thing. Sometimes this helps to “trick” our brains into thinking it’s easier, by “promising” an end date. 

If you find that you can’t consistently do the habit in the morning, try the evening. When Fridays don’t work, try Mondays. If you need to break the BIG habit into smaller bites, do that. For example, the Eat Five Healthy Meals thing might be broken down into making the menu, shopping for the food, preparing and storing it in easy to grab portions, and eating it.  Each of those habits might take 66 days to develop, or you might try some or all of them at once. It’s up to you. You’re forming your habit, not anyone else’s. 

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Rewards for Forming Habits

I mean, a good habit is its own reward, right? Except that you and I both know that not everyone does well with intrinsic rewards (because you read part 2, right?) Some people (sometimes) just can’t be motivated by feeling good or liking having something done. Some folks, some times, need extrinisic (external) rewards. So let’s think up some extrinsic rewards for doing the thing you’re trying to turn into a habit, okay? (These should be done only after you have done the thing you’re turning into a habit). 

  • Video game time
  • A favorite beverage or snack (in keeping with your goal)
  • Buying something for a collection (yarn, model cars, books, music, etc.)
  • Time out with a favorite person
  • A nap
  • Reading time
  • Or anything else that rewards you and doesn’t get in the way of your goal. 


Forming Habits: A review
  • Executive function in the prefrontal cortex (boss brain) catches new information
  • Information is then passed to your basal ganglia (lizard brain or brain roots)
  • It goes from being something you struggle to remember to something that is easy to remember and do
  • Creating a new habit has three specific parts:
    • Forming a trigger
    • Developing a routine of doing the same thing over and over for at least 66 days
    • Creating a reward that works for you

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More on Executive Function

You can find part one of this series, Executive Function Pt. 1: What is it? by clicking the link. Executive Function Pt. 3: Forming Habits is next, and it will lead you to the next in the series. To view all of the Executive Function videos as a playlist, go to Youtube (please like the videos, comment, and follow my channel to keep current). To listen to all of the Executive Function audio as a playlist, go to SoundCloud (again, please like the podcasts, comment, and follow my channel to keep current. )

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Finally, I donate half of every dollar I make from videos, podcasts, and writing to my best friend, Katherine Malone.  She has a deadly heart condition and needs a heart transplant. Before she can be placed on the transplant list, she must raise $20,000 for anti-rejection drugs. Learn more here and here, and go here to donate directly to her GoFundMe. This will continue until Kathy’s heart is fully funded. After that, I will continue to donate half up to $500 per month to help her pay for her anti-rejection meds. 

A final reminder:  You are each important and have much to teach, and much to learn.

I look forward to learning from and teaching you all. Comment below or at any of the links to start the conversation. 

Executive Function Pt 1: What Is It?

Executive Function Part 2: Hacks and Workarounds


Jennifer Liles is the owner and webmistress for Jenni's Space and Responsive Mental Health Services LLC. She is dedicated to mental health and human rights for freaks, geeks, and queer folk. She uses the Jenni's Space label for places where she combines education about, advocacy for, and celebration of mental health and human rights. This information is primarily for neurodiverse people, people with mental health issues, people who are on the queer spectrum, disabled people, and Black and Indigenous and other people of color. There are also discussions for privileged people about privilege and how it intersects with human rights work.