The Habit Loop

Habits are the things we do almost automatically, without thinking. We all have helpful habits and unhelpful habits (as many of us can attest to when we unconsciously grab our phones to scroll when we are meant to be working). 

The American Journal of Psychology defines a habit, from the standpoint of psychology as “a more or less fixed way of thinking, willing, or feeling acquired through previous repetition of a mental experience.” While that definition may help psychologists it isn’t very useful when trying to leverage habits as a tool of change in your life. 

A more useful framework for thinking about habits comes from Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit in which he describes a habit loop. The basic parts of this loop are:

  1. The Cue
  2. The Routine
  3. The Reward

This loop is “all our life, so far as it has definite form” in the words of philosopher and psychologist, William James. The cue sets the routine in motion, which is what we most consistently think of as the habit (exercise, smoking, etc) which leads to the reward. Crucial to changing these is understanding that the cue and reward are very hard to change. Instead, we need to focus on the routine. 

Step 1: Single Out the Routine

Fortunately, the routine is the easiest thing to identify. It is the action we take- exercising at the gym, smoking a cigarette, journaling or meditating- those are all routines that are part of a habit loop. When we set a new goal we often go about adjusting these routines without much consideration for the cue or reward that the pre-existing routines had. 

This oversight is where most of our failures come from. If we try to change the routines without satisfying the craving for the specific reward the old routine satisfied, we are doomed to be frustrated and ultimately fail. For example, let’s imagine trying to replace the routine of a cigarette with, say, eating an apple instead. If the reward from the cigarette routine was “calming my nerves”, simply eating the apple is most likely not going to serve that same reward. Therefore, it is important to take a step back and understand the combination of cues and rewards (the cravings) that drive our habit routines. The craving can be thought of as the engine that keeps the habit loop going.

First, we need to identify the routine(s) we want to change. This is the most straight forward aspect in the case of “bad” habits since they are readily identifiable as the actions you’d like to stop. Think, biting your nails, smoking a cigarette, watching TV too late. Those are the routines. It’s the same case of a habit you want to add in. Waking up early, Meditation, or Journaling would be the routine. So, step one is complete! Now what comes next.

Step 2: Test Different Rewards

When changing a habit, it is time to experiment with the rewards you receive from a routine. Rewards satisfy the craving that drives the habit loop, and so understanding the “true” reward of a routine is crucial to being able to replace an unhelpful routine, or habit, with a helpful one. 

One method for identifying the reward you’re really after is to simply substitute another routine for the one being replaced. For example, if you drink caffeine every late afternoon when you get that slump try substituting it with another routine, such as doing ten jumping jacks. Afterwards, write down what’s on your mind (3-5 things should do). Charles Duhigg then recommends setting a timer for 15 minutes and asking yourself, “do I still want the caffeine?” If the answer is yes then the quick cardio didn’t meet the reward criteria, so you try something else the next day. Perhaps the reward is more about having a break from work, so what alternative routine might give that to you? The idea is to play with substitute actions until you finish the 15 minutes and don’t crave the caffeine. After you identify the reward you can more easily determine an appropriate action that gives the same reward.

Step 3: Identify The Cue

The following step is to find the cue for your habit. The cue is what gets the habit started, and almost all cues fall into one of five categories, according to experiments performed at MIT and other universities.

  1. Emotional State: Think “how do I feel?” This is a common cue for unhelpful habits such as smoking where anxiety can trigger the need for a smoke.
  2. Immediately Preceding Action: What did you do right before the routine? Washing your hands is often cued by using the restroom or handling uncooked meat (at least it should be…)
  3. Location: Many times we are cued by where we are and our memories associated with that place.
  4. Other People: Certain people in our lives can be cues.
  5. Time: The time of day can often be a cue, like waking up and brushing your teeth, or eating breakfast

Once we have identified the cue for our routine we have uncovered the other half of the driving force behind the habit we want to change. Duhigg offers a great method for helping to identify cues in our daily life surrounding a specific habit. He suggests writing down answers to these five questions as soon as your habit “urge” strikes.

  1. Where are you?
  2. What is the time?
  3. What are you feeling?
  4. Who is around?
  5. What did you do just before you got the urge?

Step 4: Make a Plan

To recap, the methodology to change a habit loop is as follows:

  1. Single out the routine
  2. Test different rewards
  3. Identify the cue

By recording these answers in a journal for a few days, you can isolate the variables and determine which category or categories (maybe it’s a time and place) the cue falls in, and what the cue is specifically. Once you have identified the reward and isolated the cue, it is time for step four- make a plan of action for the habit loop!

In order for habits to create a new and better you, you must know what that version of yourself looks like. In other words, what are your values? What goals to you want to achieve? Setting goals without a clear set of priorities in your life is a sure-fire way to end up dredging along to the beat of a drum that is not quite yours and has an unsteady rhythm. This overall rhythm can only be determined through a process of self-reflection. Personally, we use journaling as our guide. You can learn more about how to make your habits stick and achieve your goals by signing up for our Habitbetter Program.

At Habitbetter, we know how hard it is for humans to be consistent, even if it’s good for us. We help people develop great habits that enable them to achieve a joyful life. We do this through a program that trains your brain through guided journaling to be able to find your joy and accomplish your goals, habitually.

Whether you’re looking to improve your relationships, your business, or your health, you can sign up for our waitlist using the form below!

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