October 30th, 2017

4 Steps to Making and Breaking Bad Habits with the ‘Habit Loop’

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Your habits, either good or bad, define you, and we’ve all tried breaking bad habits at one point. They are repeated glimpses into your character, and although good habits can propel you forward, bad habits can pull you back.

So how do you make good habits and break bad habits? The first step is understanding how habits work. Whether you want to improve your fitness, eat better, or strengthen your relationships, all habits follow the same psychological pattern: the “habit loop”.

The Habit Loop

About fifty percent of your daily actions are controlled by your habits. From the moment you wake up to the second you fall asleep, everything you do is automatic – a constant loop.

The habit loop is made up of three parts: a cue, a routine, and a reward. The cue acts as a signal, which triggers an automated routine that leads to a reward. Whenever you receive the cue, your brain instantly recalls the reward and restarts the routine.

Once you become aware of the habit loop and the psychology of habits, it makes it easier to change your habits or start new ones.

Breaking Bad Habits

To start a new habit or change an undesirable habit, you need to keep the reward and cue, but change the routine.

1. Identify the Routine

Do you want to limit your snacking? Start exercising regularly? Or, perhaps, be less pessimistic? The first step is identifying the routine you wish to change or establish. Afterwards, you can begin experimenting with different, yet equally satisfying, rewards.

2. Identify the Reward

Identifying the reward is easy – cookies, entertainment, predictability – but addressing the craving behind it can be slightly more challenging.

If you want to change your snacking habits, for instance, then you need to examine why you keep reaching for that box of cookies.

3. Identify the Cue

What’s triggering your craving? And is there a better, more positive, way to reward it?

According to researchers, almost all cues can be grouped into these five categories: location, time, emotional state, other people, and the immediately-preceding action. For example, you might find that your urge to snack usually appears at around 3:00PM when you’re feeling tired at work.

4. Change the Routine

Now that you’ve identified the cue and reward, you can start changing the routine. One of the simplest ways to accomplish this is by using “if-then” phrases. These statements are clear intentions that link your cues to certain actions, effectively disrupting your previous routine.

Regarding the snacking example, you might learn that, after trying out different rewards, you’re actually craving an energy boost – not cookies. Through experimentation, you may have also found that an invigorating 10-minute walk helped to boost your energy levels. Your “if-then” phrase would look similar to this: “If I feel tired at 3:00PM, then I will go outside and walk for 10 minutes.” This intention will change your routine, giving you a new – and more beneficial – reward for your cue.

Repeat, Repeat, Repeat

Breaking bad habits starts with an understanding of how habits work. When you do this, you change your bad habits into good habits or implement new ones.

But as exciting as it may be to embark on a new change, patience is essential. Every habit is unique, and some habits may require more time to fully develop than others. The most important thing is to remain consistent and positive. Keep the habit loop on repeat.