“A lot of what you do, even if you feel it’s conscious, is done automatically,” explains Benjamin Gardner, PhD, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Surrey in the UK who has devoted the last 15 years of his career to studying habits. This is especially true of habits, good or bad. They’re, well, habitual, meaning that our brain follows along without a ton of conscious thought. And that makes them really challenging to tweak.
- Benjamin Gardner, PhD, licensed psychologist, researcher, lecturer, and public speaker on the psychology of habitual behavior
- Chandler Chang, PsyD, clinical psychologist and founder of Therapy Lab
- Victoria Latifses, PhD, licensed psychologist, contributing faculty at Walden University, and founder of Embodied Psychotherapy
However, a framework supported by neuroscience might help you hack those automatic habits and replace them with something that better serves you. It’s called the habit loop, and it might be just the ticket for overhauling your tired routines.
What is the habit loop?
Psychologists think of habits to mean something a bit differently than the rest of us do, says Dr. Gardner. “To a psychologist, a habit is not the behavior itself, but an association that prompts the behavior,” he says. “A cue that leads to something we do.”
That cue is the first component of the “habit loop,” a framework penned by Charles Duhigg in his best-selling 2012 book, The Power of Habit, that breaks down habits into three parts: cues, routines, and rewards.
While not a scientist by trade, Duhigg tapped into his Pulitzer prize-winning reporting skills to provide an actionable explanation of how habits work. His ideas were supported by years of psychological research. One such study published in the journal Science involved monitoring brain activity in rats while teaching them to run through a short, T-shaped maze. Rats quickly learned that if they turned toward the right-hand side of the T, they’d find chocolate. Researchers observed that the rats’ brain activity decreased once they got used to the maze, meaning the organ didn’t need to work as hard once the rats had established a habit.
“It is far easier to modify or improve current habits than to break them completely." —Victoria Latifses, PhD
The notion that habits make us do things almost on auto-pilot inspired Duhigg to come up with a systematic way to understand how habits form, and give people a framework to follow so they can change their behaviors in a sustainable way.
Duhigg’s habit loop presents a process to create and maintain habits: A cue triggers a routine, which is reinforced by a reward. Work backwards and you can learn how to replace your bad habits; work forwards and you can make sure the habits you want to build—like working out more often—actually stick.
Here’s a breakdown of each aspect of the habit loop:
Step 1: the cue
As mentioned earlier, a cue triggers the habit loop. Cues can be physical, emotional, or environmental; even a specific person or time of day. In the case of the above-mentioned rat study, rats would hear the sound of the gate lifting at the beginning of the maze to know it was time to start.
Cues aren’t always obvious, though. In one study conducted by Dr. Gardner and his team, they interviewed people who typically slept less than six hours a night. They all believed that they had no routine leading up to bedtime, and they thought they always did things differently. “But they didn’t,” says Dr. Gardner. “We got them to go through step-by-step what they do before bed, and they realized there’s a sequence.” (And many were able to use this newfound awareness to change parts of their routine and get better sleep.)
Step 2: the routine
A routine represents the actions that form a habitual behavior. These actions start out as conscious decisions—like choosing to pick up your phone and scroll for a while after you get a little bit of work done, or going on a walk after lunch. So why do some routines become automatic?
“At some point in the past, I made the conscious decision when I got to my office to make a cup of tea. I did it and I enjoyed it,” says Dr. Gardner. That enjoyment was a crucial component because it reinforced the behavior, prompting him to do it again the next day. Now, he follows the routine on auto-pilot. “I no longer need to think about it. I just pick up my mug, go to the kitchen, and make a cup of tea.”
Step 3: the reward
A reward represents the satisfaction you feel when you follow a routine. A good enough reward reinforces behaviors to the point where they become habitual, whether that’s the jolt of energy you get after your morning walk or the relief from boredom that accompanies social media.
To your brain, rewards represent a burst of dopamine, a “feel good” neurotransmitter that it is hardwired to seek out. But you may have realized that the more you do something, the less rewarding it can feel over time. Fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately), habits may stick around even when they’re no longer rewarding.
“Rewards are important for getting the habit up and running, but once you’ve got it, the cue can trigger a behavior anyway,” says Dr. Gardner.
How understanding the loop can help us make better habits
When people try to break habits they don’t like, they typically focus on the routine itself. Trying to skip the morning coffee? You might opt for fresh juice instead, but that likely won’t scratch the same itch.
The thing about habit is that it doesn’t directly generate a behavior. “When I arrive at my office, habit doesn’t immediately make me go make a cup of tea. Actually what it does is generates an unconscious impulse, which then drives me to do that behavior,” explains Dr. Gardner.
Throughout the day, as multiple cues trigger your impulse to get up and have coffee, you’ll have to actively fight that urge, and you might eventually give in, especially if you aren’t adequately replacing the reward that accompanies a shot of caffeine.
Trying to break a habit without considering its cues and rewards can feel insurmountable, and it’s rarely sustainable. In fact, Victoria Latifses, PhD, a psychologist and contributing faculty in the school of psychology at Walden University, suggests that we shouldn’t be trying to break our habits at all. “It is far easier to modify or improve current habits than to break them completely,” she says.
So, rather than trying to quit things cold turkey or banish certain behaviors from our lives, lean into the habit loop and consider how you can transform habits in a way that aligns with how the brain works.
How to transform your habits with the habit loop
If you want to start upgrading your habits, Duhigg’s habit loop framework provides a powerful starting point. Here are the steps you can take to begin understanding your habitual behaviors and transforming them effectively.
1. Associate a routine to its cues
Step one is to single out a habit that you want to change. As with anything, starting small can help build momentum. Say you have a habitually messy bedroom, and you’d like to tidy it daily rather than sporadically. Instead of vowing to become perfectly neat overnight, maybe commit yourself to making your bed each morning before you leave your room.
Once you’ve picked a routine, you need to map its cues, which will take some time. “Write things down,” suggests Chandler Chang, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and founder of Therapy Lab. When you find yourself in a loop you’re trying to break, note where you are, what time it is, your emotional state, who you’re with, and the last thing you did. Soon enough, you’ll start to see a pattern.
Going back to the bed-making example: If your current routine is to wake up to the alarm that you’ve snoozed five times and run straight out of your room, all the cues are telling you to hurry up and get on with your day. To change this routine, you’ll need to consciously take a pause and spend a minute putting your bed back together before you do anything else. The cues don’t necessarily have to change, but your response to them does.
2. Develop a new reward
To successfully alter your routines, you need to find an adequate replacement to reward your new behavior. In the case of making your bed, maybe you’ll have the satisfaction of seeing it neat and tidy, which will give you a little burst of accomplishment to start your day. Or if that isn’t enough, you can manufacture a reward for yourself, like by getting a nice scented pillow spray.
The most important thing is to make sure the new reward is at least equal to the old one. If you’re used to sleeping in instead of going for a jog, how are you going to ensure you’re motivated to get out of bed for that run? Likewise, if you’re accustomed to sipping a coffee on your way to work, how can you enjoy the commute just as much without that indulgence if you’re committed to cutting out caffeine?
When you go searching for a new reward, don’t forget to experiment. You might assume you’re drinking coffee because you need the energy boost, in which case a podcast might help wake you up. But what if the real reason you drink coffee is because you love the taste? The new reward needs to satisfy (or completely overpower) the urge you’re trying to resolve.
3. Be vigilant of your behaviors
Your goal is to develop new habits that run on auto-pilot, just like your current habits do. But to make a healthy routine habitual, you’re going to have to spend some time being very conscious of what you’re doing, and not doing, to avoid reinforcing your old habits and ensure your new habit is forming strong. Tracking things in a journal might be a helpful way to cultivate that awareness.
“What’s helpful is to vividly imagine the amazing feeling you will have once you get started,” says Dr. Chang. Remember, you won’t always need to be rewarded for your behaviors once a habit takes hold, so don’t be afraid to invest a little extra effort, like by getting a cute running outfit to inspire your morning jog or subscribing to a podcast to accompany you on your commute. By focusing on the great reward that awaits, you can stay motivated to work through the urges and impulses.
We’re hardwired to seek out instant gratification, and it often seems that unhealthy patterns form into habits far faster than any healthy ones we try to establish, but now that you know about the habit loop, you have a solid framework for addressing your routines holistically.
And, if you’re scolding yourself for your current habits, take it easy. “We should give ourselves credit for all the good habits we sometimes overlook, like checking in on people we care about,” says Dr. Chang. You’re already doing a lot of things right, and applying the habit loop can help you revamp your routines in a sustainable way, so you can keep doing better.
- Jog, M S et al. “Building neural representations of habits.” Science (New York, N.Y.) vol. 286,5445 (1999): 1745-9. doi:10.1126/science.286.5445.1745
- Smith, Kyle S et al. “Reversible online control of habitual behavior by optogenetic perturbation of medial prefrontal cortex.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America vol. 109,46 (2012): 18932-7. doi:10.1073/pnas.1216264109
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