The Habit Loop – An Incredibly Simple Method to change habits that works for all – PART 3

In past week or two – did you do any of these activities more (or less) than you intended to?  Did you exercise less than you really wanted to?  Spend more time in front of TV?  Did you read less?  Spent less time connecting with family members? Spent more money on shopping? Smoked more?  Consumed more alcoholic drinks?   What is one of your “bad” habits, which you would like to change?  If you could consistently make yourself eat healthier, exercise more, read more, spend more time with family member, spend less and save more, smoke less, drink less – how would it impact your life?


In his bestselling book, “The Power of Habits”, Charles Duhigg describes the process of habit formation. He coined this three part process, “The Habit Loop”. All habits, good or bad, small or large have these three components.


  1. Cue: Cue is the trigger that signals the brain to go into an automatic mode and start a specific habit.
  2. Routine: The routine is a physical, mental or emotional behavior that follows the cue.
  3. Reward: Reward is the pleasurable activity that helps the brain decide whether this particular behavior is worth remembering and repeating for the future.


In this article, we will dig deeper into the habit loop and “The Golden Rule” of habit change – in order to understand how to change a bad habit.


Step 1: Identify the Routine:


The first step is to identify the routine, the behavior or bad habit you would like to change.  This is usually the easiest and most obvious part of the habit loop.  Let us take an example.  When you reach home after work, you have a habit of snacking on unhealthy foods and watching TV.


Step 2: Isolate the Cue:


All habits are triggered by a cue.  To change a habit to need to find the cue.  What triggers your “bad” habit?  Cues that trigger the habit usually fall into the following 5 categories

  1. Location – Where are you?  Where we are is a powerful predictor of our behavior.  We act differently in our home, at our work, at the airport, in a bar and so on.  With our example, the location is obviously our home, as we eat junk food and watch TV at home, sitting on our couch.
  1. Time – What time is it?  Most of our day is controlled by routines.  We wake up, have coffee or breakfast, drive to work, have a coffee or lunch break, return home, watch TV, go to bed –  all these routine activities are more or less performed at a set time.  With our example, the time is late evening, once we reach home after work.
  1. Emotional state – What are you feeling?  We act differently upon feeling different emotions.  When we are happy, sad, bored, tired, stressed angry, upset, or feel any specific emotion – it has a powerful effect on our behavior.  For our example possible feelings to eat junk and watch TV may be – tired after days work, feeling bored, needing a distraction, feeling hungry, having a sense of entitlement that we have “earned it” and so on.
  1. People – Who is around you?  People around us can be our “friends” or ” partners in crime” – as far as our bad habits are concerned.  People also trigger certain emotional states in us.  Do you feel a knot in your stomach when you see a co-worker who always criticizes you?  With our example – are you by yourself?  Is there a family member who “encourages” or ” “deters” the bad habit?
  1. Preceding action – What did you do immediately before?  When you have a good meal – do you feel an urge for dessert? Or a cigarette?  The preceding action of having a good meal triggers the urge for something sweet or a cigarette.  For our example the preceding action could be changing into comfortable home clothes, or walking to the refrigerator, picking up the TV remote etc.


Identifying the cue is the starting point to changing a habit.  Think about your bad habit.  Now investigate which of the five cues – location, time, emotional state, people, or preceding action – trigger your bad habit.  Which of these five cues stays the same every time you have the urge or craving?


Step 3: Experiment with new routines that provide the same rewards:


We indulge in habits because there is a “reward” attached.  The thought of this reward causes a craving for it, as soon we encounter the cue.  What craving does this routine – eating junk food, and watching TV – satisfy?  Eliminate hunger?  Relaxation?  Distraction? Entertainment?  Feeling of relief?


Experiment with alternative routines, that may result in the same reward and satisfy the craving.  Try them one at a time.  To satisfy hunger try a healthy snack like a piece of fruit.  For relaxation, distraction, entertainment – try breathing techniques, light exercise, yoga or stretching routine, or listening to favorite music, talking to a family member, reading a book, calling a friend, going for a walk, etc.


After trying any one of the alternative routines – reflect and make notes.  Did this new routine satisfy your craving?  If yes, this is the new routine you should substitute to get the same reward.  If the answer is no, then keep experimenting with alternative routines till you find one.


Step 4: Have a plan:


Now that you have identified the cue, the reward, and the new routine, write them down in the following format.


WHEN, reach home and change into comfortable clothes (INSERT THE CUE ISOLATED IN STEP 2), I WILL, eat a piece of fruit and go for a walk while listening to my favorite music (INSERT THE NEW ROUTINE FROM STEP 3), BECAUSE IT PROVIDES ME WITH feeling satiated and relaxed (INSERT THE REWARD).


Habits are formed through repetition.  The key to making this new routine an automatic habit is to go through the habit loop – cue, routine, reward – enough number of times.  Once the brain associates the cue with the reward, this behavior will become your new habit, in place of your old bad habit.


The concept of habit rule is simple to understand.  The process of “The Golden Rule” to change the habit works for all habits for anyone who is willing to follow these steps.


Try it in your own life.  Share your successes and challenges in the comments section.


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I am a coach, consultant, and a trainer. I sincerely believe that people have a lot more potential than their current life conditions reflect, and with the right coaching and tools, we all can grow and transform our lives beyond our own beliefs. My hobbies include reading, writing, traveling, and connecting with people from all walks of life.

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