Health Conditions

Habit Loop: What It Is and How to Break It

Change is tough. It’s difficult to stop doing the same things you’ve always done, simply because you’ve always done them.

Routine is a powerful tool to reinforce habits, long-standing and new. The more regularly you do something, the more likely you’ll stick with that behavior over time.

You probably want to maintain your positive habits, like having a glass of water when you wake up, finishing off your lunch break with a short walk, or reading every night.

If you’ve got some habits you’d like to change, though, you might have realized breaking them isn’t quite as easy as you imagined.

The habit loop is a framework for thinking about the formation — and destruction — of habits.

The 3 parts of the loop

Journalist Charles Duhigg introduces the concept of the habit loop in “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.”

This loop, he explains, offers the key to deciphering how and why habits develop.

The habit loop has three main components:

The cue

Sometimes called the reminder, the cue is the trigger that kicks off the habitual behavior.

Cues that prompt routine behaviors, or habits, vary widely. They can take a lot of different forms.

They usually fall into one of the following categories:

  • location
  • time
  • current emotional state
  • people around you
  • your last action

For example, as you walk by the break room, the smell of coffee wafting out prompts you to go pour yourself a cup. This cue might be your last action, walking by and smelling the coffee, or your location. You wouldn’t have smelled the coffee if you weren’t just outside the break room, after all.

The action of flushing the toilet cues you to wash your hands, while a nervous state of mind might cue self-soothing behaviors like biting your nails or jiggling your leg.

Your dog’s polite but insistent whining by the back door? He knows it’s time for you to hurry and take him for his evening walk.

The routine

Routine here refers to the habit, or repeated behavior. This might be something you’re completely aware of, like closing your work computer and getting up from your desk when the clock hits 5 p.m.

Some habits, like chewing on the tip of your pen while thinking through a difficult problem, might happen less consciously.

Habitual behaviors often happen automatically, though you probably made a conscious choice to pursue that action the first few times you did it. For example:

  • “I’m tired, so I’ll have a cup of coffee.”
  • “I’m bored, so I’ll scroll through social media.”

Over time, this routine becomes more automatic thanks to the final component of the habit loop.

The reward

When it comes to habits, rewards refer to what the behavior does for you. Rewards reinforce routines and help keep habits firmly in place.

Some rewards can benefit you. Brushing your teeth after breakfast, for example, rewards you with a clean, fresh mouth and no more coffee breath. A habit of messaging your partner when you’re running late earns you the reward of a better relationship.

Less beneficial rewards can reinforce habits you don’t want to keep, like spending your entire evening watching videos on YouTube. Who hasn’t fallen down the rabbit hole on a quiet, boring night?

But once your brain begins to associate that specific behavior with a reward (in this case, relief from boredom), you’ll eventually develop a craving for the behavior, even if you don’t realize it.

The next time you feel bored in the evening, you might find yourself on YouTube before you know it.

The internet fills up the hours before bed nicely, and the habit loop is formed.

Examples of the habit loop in action

Want a little more detail about how it all works? Consider these examples below.

Habit: Shopping online

Every so often throughout the day, you find yourself browsing your favorite online retailers and adding items to your cart. This habit offers a nice distraction, but you’ve realized that sometimes the better part of an hour slips by while you shop.

The routine here, of course, is the shopping itself. As for the reward, well, your first few digital excursions offered relief from boredom and the excitement of looking at new clothes and household goods.

If you happened to make a purchase, you were also rewarded by the pleasure you felt when those items arrived in the mail.

Since you want to try and change this habit, you decide to identify what cues your browsing. You notice you always start shopping when you’re by yourself, during work or right after checking social media. Retail therapy also becomes more likely when you feel bored, frustrated, or stuck.

You realize breaking the habit probably means finding a new way to distract yourself when you feel bored or stuck on a problem.

Habit: Texting your ex

Your last relationship ended about 2 years ago. You mutually decided to split because you had different goals for the future, but you still enjoy their company — and your sexual chemistry — so you’ve fallen into an on-and-off situation.

When you’re honest with yourself, though, you have to admit this habit is holding you back. Falling back into a comfortable routine with your ex makes it easy to avoid pursuing a more permanent relationship with anyone else.

Over a month or two, you list out the cues and notice you tend to text them when you’re horny, after a stressful day, or when you feel down or lonely. Usually, you’ve also had a drink before you decide to text.

Hooking up with your ex offers two rewards: You get sexual satisfaction, but you also benefit from the emotional support a romantic partner can provide.

The key to breaking your habit of texting them lies in finding other sources of emotional support, like friends or close family members, until you establish a romantic connection with someone new.

How to break the loop

Habits often prove difficult to break since the process is usually more complicated than simply quitting the behavior.

Maybe you’d love to stop picking up your phone every time there’s a lull in your workflow, but you probably won’t have much success until you unpack the entire habit loop.

Change is possible, though the process has multiple steps. Here’s what Duhigg recommends:

First, identify the routine

Figuring out the routine is the easy part since the routine usually just refers to whatever habit you want to break.

Maybe that habit is “sleeping in until you’re dangerously close to running late for work.” Your routine, then, might involve turning off the alarm and rolling over to catch a few more minutes of sleep.

Next, try different rewards

Habits generally develop when specific actions yield rewards. Your phone can give you good news and messages from friends and loved ones as well as provide entertainment. It becomes natural to pick up your phone again and again to receive these rewards.

Sleeping in might help you feel more rested, but you also stay warm in bed instead of facing a dark, cold morning. Oversleeping also lets you put off your morning routine for a few more minutes.

Exploring what a specific routine does for you can help you experiment with rewards that offer similar fulfillment.

Taking a few days to vary your routine slightly can offer some insight into exactly what you get out of it. As you try out each new reward, keep track of how you feel.

Maybe, instead of reaching for your phone, you decide to try an entertainment reward one day by reading for 10 minutes. Another day, you try distraction by making a cup of tea.

Note a few thoughts or emotions immediately afterward, and then again 15 minutes later. Did either of the new activities fulfill the same craving? Or do you still find yourself with the urge to pick up your phone?

Then, explore your triggers

Identifying the specific cues that prompt your routine is an essential step of breaking a habit.

Remember those five cue categories? Here they are again:

  • location
  • time
  • emotional state
  • people around you
  • last action

Every time you catch yourself repeating your routine, note those possible cues. Getting the potential triggers down on paper can help you recognize them more clearly and identify any patterns.

Try this for a few days, then look back over your notes to see whether anything stands out. Maybe a specific friend group triggers the routine, or a certain time of day.

Finally, find a way around those cues

Determining the three parts of your habit loop can help you design a unique plan to keep it from playing on repeat.

Take the habit of sleeping in:

  • Your cues were location (your bed) and time (your alarm at 6 a.m.).
  • You weren’t craving extra sleep since going to bed earlier didn’t make it any easier to get up. It wasn’t the cold morning you were dreading, either. Keeping a cozy robe under your pillow to slip on first thing still didn’t propel you out from under the covers.

Eventually, you realize your reward is the delay in your morning ritual: You stay in bed because you aren’t ready to face the chore of making coffee and getting ready to face the day.

Understanding your habit loop allows you to develop a plan, so you buy a programmable coffeepot and prepare coffee the night before. Your reward for getting out of bed on time becomes fresh coffee ready and waiting for you.

Things to keep in mind

Some people have more trouble breaking habits than others. The habit loop method may not work for everyone.

It might take some trial and error to find the method that works best for you, but there are other ways to address unwanted behaviors.

The important thing to remember is that while habits form quickly, you usually can’t break them overnight. Committing to your new routine for a few months will help ensure it sticks.

Finally, it always helps to consider your motivation. If you don’t really want to change, you might struggle to interrupt the loop.

Plus, what some people consider a “bad” habit may not necessarily be a problem for you:

  • Your housemate insists kombucha is better for your health than coffee, but if you hate kombucha, switching your morning brew is a habit that may not last.
  • You’ve heard that experts recommend using your bed only for sleeping and sex, so you’re trying to stop reading in bed. If you’ve never had trouble sleeping, though, you’re probably just fine.

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