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How to use Neurological Cravings to Create Good Habits (Like Studying Korean)


If you can identify the right cue and reward—and if you can create a sense of craving—you can establish almost any habit. … Craving, it turns out, is what powers a habit.

– Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit

The last Motivation post on here talked about habits, particularly about the power of habits and the three components of a habit: (1) Cue; (2) Routine; and (3) Reward. One of Charles’ Duhigg’s articles online caught my eye and it details how craving is actually a FOURTH component of habit that is likely more powerful than the other three and really causes habits to stick. Here are some of the details (be sure to check out his site for the full story – all images below are from his site).

A Monkey and some Blackberry Juice

Wolfram Schultz is a professor of neuroscience at the University of Cambridge and has studied how we learn. In one experiment, he had a monkey named Julio touch a lever on a computer screen whenever colorful shapes appeared. If Julio did so, he was rewarded with sweet blackberry juice. Readings of his neurological brain patterns are as follows:


Turns out, after a while, Julio started anticipating the reward before actually receiving it. His brain spiked in excitement and anticipation anytime he saw shapes appear on the screen (as the image below indicates).


After a while, Professor Schultz stopped consistently providing Julio with the same reward. Either he watered down the juice, or he didn’t provide it at all. Julio only received the sweet blackberry juice occasionally. This created a deep craving in Julio that resulted in either anger or depression.

  • Cue: Colorful shapes on the computer monitor
  • Routine: Push the lever
  • Reward: Sweet blackberry juice – highly anticipated and deeply craved
  • Craving: Sweet blackberry juice (when watered down or absent, anger or depression resulted)

Pepsodent Toothpaste

In the early 1900s, toothbrushing was an uncommon habit – very few people actually did it. Claude Hopkins, one of the U.S.’s most famous marketing executives signed on to promote Pepsodent toothpaste and ended up starting a nationwide habit of toothbrushing.

Hopkins coined the term, “the film” to explain the thin layer of mucin plaques on the teeth. One Pepsodent ad elaborates, “Just run your tongue across your teeth,” read one. “You’ll feel a film—that’s what makes your teeth look ‘off color’ and invites decay.” That was the Cue. The Routine then, obviously was brushing. And the Reward was a white smile and clean teeth.


However, the Reward also included an element that created a neurological craving in its users. Pepsodent included citric acid, mint oil, and other chemicals that produced a cool, minty, tingly sensation on users’ gums. People admitted that they remembered to brush because they wanted that tingly, minty, clean feeling – it wasn’t so much about white teeth initially.


  • Cue: Feel “the film” on your teeth
  • Routine: Brush with Pepsodent
  • Reward: Clean, white teeth
  • Craving: Tingly, minty feeling in your mouth

Other Habits

These principles can be applied to other habits as well.

  • Cue: Morning (or another time of day)
  • Routine: Go for a run
  • Reward: Healthy, energetic, thin body
  • Craving: Endorphin release into your brain triggered by long, intense workouts (they call it the “Runner’s High” for a reason)
Drinking or Smoking
  • Cue: Your stress level (or time of day)
  • Routine: Have a drink or a smoke
  • Reward: Relaxation, de-stressing
  • Craving: Dopamin release in your brain to help you relax and make you feel good (this site has a poor design, but great info)

How to Use Craving to Study Korean

If you can identify the right cue and reward—and if you can create a sense of craving—you can establish almost any habit. … Craving, it turns out, is what powers a habit.

– Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit

So, returning to the original quote for this article, craving it turns out is far more powerful in creating and maintaining habits than anything else. You can create a habit (lowercase ‘h’) for yourself by planning out the (1) Cue; (2) Routine; (3) Reward parts of a habit. But it will never become a Habit (uppercase ‘H’) until there is some sort of neurological craving in there that is being met whenever you carry out the habit pattern.

Associate your Habit with a Craving

So, the most logical thing to do in order to establish new Habits is to Reward yourself with something you Crave immediately following your Routine.

In another example, a habit of exercising every morning can be established by rewarding yourself with a piece of chocolate immediately afterwards (and that’s probably why bodybuilders drink chocolate protein shakes after workouts – they satisfy a craving for sweet and build muscles at the same time). After a while, you begin to anticipate the Reward before you participate in your Routine because of your strong Craving.

So, what do you Crave?

  • Chocolate
  • Coffee
  • Video Games
  • Compliments
  • Page Views

Find a way to Reward yourself with what you Crave, and you can quickly create a good Habit.

For me?

I’m still working out the specifics, but the thought of enjoying a chocolate bar after Korean class today – and every day after – already has my mouth watering.

But now the key to making progress in Korean is actually to withhold that Reward from myself until I write all my sentences in my journal (and also to limit the amount of Reward). No sense jumping the gun and eating the chocolate before doing the work – that would be like spending money before it’s in my pocket. And that’s just silly.

Did you know that a researcher at Duke University has found that over 40% of our daily actions are habits? Have you ever used Cravings, Rewards, or Habits to your advantage to learn or do something great?

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