The Habit Loop: A Simple Guide on How Habits are Formed
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“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”– Aristotle
I can’t count the number of times I told myself in my 20s, “Starting tomorrow, I won’t eat any junk food, I will only eat vegetables and whole foods.”
But I never followed through.
Why? Because the next morning, a client would inevitably bring doughnuts into the office or it would be someone’s birthday and there would be cake in the breakroom. I wasn’t going to pass up an opportunity that essentially fell into my lap to enjoy an unexpected glutinous treat.
What I was failing to do each time I made the empty promise to myself that I would embark upon a new health journey the next day was realize the concept of a habit loop.
I didn’t know how to generate the willpower to preserve my decision making between, “I will eat only healthy foods starting tomorrow” and “I want a piece of that birthday cake.” That moment of temptation would always lead to the repetition of my typical behaviors.
In this article, we will talk about the concept of a habit loop and how you can use it to create positive habits. Then we will look at some specific habit triggers that can help you form the habits that you desire.
What You Will Learn
What is a Habit Loop?
Charles Duhigg, a Pulitzer-prize winning reporter, detailed the idea of a habit loop in his book, The Power of Habit. In this book, Duhigg discusses the science behind habit formation in our everyday lives, business, and in society.
Now, you may be thinking, “Great! There is an easy method to change my behaviors!”
But it’s not that simple.
Because there are so many kinds of habits and everyone’s behaviors and motivations are different, the possibilities for changing the patterns of one’s behaviors are countless. That being so, the concept of a habit loop provides a framework for understanding what causes you to engage in certain behaviors and offers a guide to exploring different ways that you can change them.
The process of habit loop is composed of three components: a cue, a routine, and a reward. Understanding these components can help you either eliminate bad habits or establish better ones. Let’s take a look at what these components entail.
A habit’s cue is anything that triggers the behavior–it can be anything that you associate with performing the action. These contextual factors have a powerful effect on your behavior.
Think of the first thing you do every morning when you wake up. Do you brush your teeth? Go to the bathroom? Go straight downstairs to fix coffee? In this case, the cue of waking up puts your brain in automatic processing mode, and you engage in whatever behavior you’re accustomed to doing.
Each time a cue precedes a behavior, the link between the behavior and its cue is strengthened. As this connection increases, the behavior becomes increasingly ingrained in your brain to the point that you eventually engage in the behavior without even giving it a second thought after you’re triggered to do so.
The routine is the behavior you either want to change or reinforce.
For example, maybe you want to quit smoking or you want to drink more water during the day. What is the habit that you want to work on?
The reward is the positive reinforcement that you get from engaging in the behavior. It is the reason that the action has become a habit. The reward can be anything that satisfies a craving, from feeling a sense of relief from smoking a cigarette to simply drinking water to quench your thirst.
Here is a flowchart that provides a visual representation of what the routine of a habit loop may look like:
To reshape your habits, you have to break this habit loop.
When you’re trying to change a habit, you probably focus solely on the routine. However, what Duhigg teaches us in his book is that what you should be focusing on is the cue and the reward. To change your routine, you have to decide on a specific action you will take ahead of time that you will apply when your cue arises. Then, when you follow through with this decision, you get a reward.
When thinking about deciding on a specific action, if you’re trying to create a habit of being more constructive with your time by reducing the amount of time you spend on social media, saying, “I’ll spend less time on social media” isn’t going to work.
Instead, you have to decide that whenever you’re spending idle time waiting for something (in line at the grocery store, at the doctor’s office, etc), instead of scrolling through social media, you will do something else specific, such as read a book.
Here, the cue is waiting and the reward is whatever enjoyment you derive from scrolling social media.
This is where the process of changing your habits gets personal. While one person might like to spend time on social media because it helps them engage with other people, another may crave the sense of novelty they feel when seeing their friends’ posts or updates.
Experimenting with rewards is an important part of forming new habits because doing so will help you engage in a desired behavior that can serve the purpose of your original action. If the reward that you’re craving is to seek novelty, reading a book might be the key to cutting back on social media. However, if what you’re looking for is a feeling of engagement with other people, a more effective action to satisfy your craving may be to call a friend or strike up a conversation with someone sitting near you. You have to figure out what you’re craving so you can meet that need.
If you’re aware of the cue that’s prompting an identified behavior, it’s within your power to form or eliminate any habit that you want. The idea here is to build new neurological connections and patterns that overpower the old ones. Let’s look at some examples of specific habit triggers that can lead to forming positive habits.
Examples of Habit Cues
There are five main cues that can trigger a routine. By understanding each of them, you can figure out which one is applicable to the habit that you’re working on. Here are the five cues:
Going back to thinking about your morning routine, waking up is a common trigger that usually leads to a sequence of habits. However, there are also some examples in which time cues a routine that are less obvious. If you think about your everyday behaviors, you can probably recognize some things that you do without really thinking about it at the same time every day. Maybe you eat some chocolate at work every afternoon at 3:00, or you watch television every night before bed.
If the behaviors that you identify are negative, you will want to consider what’s generally going on during that time of day. Are you tired? Maybe your tendency to reach for chocolate is fulfilling your need for an energy booster. Are you feeling lazy? Maybe your television habit is a way to mindlessly escape from everyday life.
If you can recognize why you engage in a certain habit around the same time every day, then it will be easier to form a new habit that will serve the same purpose.
Sample Action Step: If you want to create a daily habit of meditation, meditate at the same time every day. So, perhaps you decide that from 7:30 to 8:00pm you’re going to practice meditation. Eventually, the cue of it becoming 7:30 will trigger your action of meditating without requiring an intentional reminder.
Your environment can either encourage positive habits or influence bad ones. If you’re a smoker, you may feel the urge to light up a cigarette every time you get in your car. In this instance, being in your car and preparing to drive somewhere creates an environment that triggers you to smoke.
Environmental-based triggers can also be the impetus for creating new habits. In fact, research has shown that new habits are easier to form when you’re in a new location because you’re not being exposed to familiar cues. For example, people who are trying to stop drinking are often told to not go to the places where they usually drink. Instead, they should find new places to hang out that they don’t associate with drinking alcohol.
One possible reason for this is that we associate habits to certain locations. You probably associate your office with working or the shopping mall with buying new things. If you wanted to form a new habit in a location that you frequent, you would have to overcome the trigger that you’ve already assigned to that area. On the other hand, forming a new habit in a new place offers you a clean slate where you don’t have to overcome triggers that are already set in your mind.
Sample Action Step: If you’re trying to improve your productivity, allocate different places in your home for different activities. You’ve probably heard that if you have trouble falling asleep, you should only use your bed for sleep and sex–meaning you shouldn’t read in bed, watch tv, work on your laptop, etc. This way, your body and mind are able to associate the environment of your bed with sleeping and you’ll be able to fall asleep easier at night. You can apply this same idea to doing work, relaxing, socializing, etc by strictly using the different areas of your home for their intended use.
A Preceding Event
Your habits are often a response to a co-occurring circumstance in your life. When your doorbell rings, you answer it. When an email notification from your boss pops up, you click on it.
The best way to use preceding events to form positive habits is to practice habit stacking. This involves tying a new behavior to something that is already habitual. For example, while you wait for your coffee to brew every morning, take five minutes to meditate. Making something that you already do each day into a trigger for a new habit is an effective way to make the new habit stick.
Sample Action Step: Build a series of habits that come together to create a positive routine. Engaging in a morning routine is a great way to start every day off right with a cascade of actions that will have a positive impact on the rest of your day.
Your Emotional State
Your emotional state is often a cue for bad habits. A common example is eating when you’re bored or engaging in retail therapy when you’re stressed out. However, while it can be a little tricky, you can use your emotional state to trigger a positive habit. The reason this can be hard is because it requires you to be aware of whatever emotion you’re experiencing, meaning you have to be both emotional and consciously aware at the same time. However, you usually aren’t aware of your more extreme emotions until after they’ve passed.
If you can learn to become aware of your emotions as they’re happening, one good way to use your emotional state as trigger for a positive habit is to practice gratitude whenever you’re feeling angry or frustrated. Because there is so much buzz lately on how practicing gratitude can help you live a happier life, many people are trying to incorporate this habit more into their daily routine. You can be sure to reflect on things you’re grateful for more frequently if you can recognize an emotional cue to instigates this practice.
Sample Action Step: Come up with a strategy to use in response to feeling stressed out in the future. Practice deep breathing or taking a quick walk to clear your mind rather than resorting to harmful habits like smoking or eating.
Have you heard of the idea that you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with? You may not realize how much other people influence your behavior, but think about how you act in front of your boss versus your best friend. Their specific presence probably impacts your actions in the moment a lot.
Consider this: one study found that among adult siblings, if one person became obese, their sibling’s chances of becoming obese as well increased by 40%. Similarly, being married to someone who becomes obese increases your likelihood of becoming obese yourself by 37%.
Instead of allowing your friends and family to cue negative habits, use them to trigger positive actions by being conscious of this pattern of behaviors.
Sample Action Step: If you’re trying to lose weight, plan your behavior ahead of time when you’re going out to dinner with friends. Look up the menu of the chosen restaurant before you go out and choose what you’re going to order. Putting this plan into place will help prevent your friends’ eating habits from influencing your choices.
Final Thoughts on The Habit Loop
The message to take away here is that you can eradicate an unwanted habit by altering your routine in any habit loop, even while maintaining your regular cues and rewards. Similarly, if you want to form a new habit, you just need to identify a cue that will trigger your new routine. Remember, experimenting with a variety of rewards can help you figure out the void you’re trying to fill with each habit. If you can understand that, you can replace your old habits with new ones that still fulfill the reward you’re craving.
Yes, there will be bumps along the road and you will face moments of temptation that are hard to resist. But each time you’re successful in completing your desired habit loop, you will be solidifying those connections in your brain more and more, which will eventually lead you to unconsciously engage in your identified positive behaviors.
A large part of self-improvement is being conscious of your instincts, thoughts, and behaviors. If you can recognize the cues and rewards that surround the routines that you want to change, you will be setting yourself up for success in your quest to form new habits.
Connie Stemmle is a professional editor, freelance writer and ghostwriter. She holds a BS in Marketing and a Master’s Degree in Social Work. When she is not writing, Connie is either spending time with her 4-year-old daughter, running, or making efforts in her community to promote social justice.