How habits work: Why understanding the habit loop is crucial to getting better results

Written by Emmanuel Leroy
Published: May 4, 2022
How habits work

Habits are a series of actions and behaviors that you repeatedly perform without realizing it. They begin as choices performed with a clear intention. With time and repetition, your habits become an automated routine you perform on autopilot.

They’re the building blocks on which you build your successes and failures. Why do they have that impact? Because they govern at least 40% of what you do daily. They have the power to support or sabotage your efforts at creating positive change in your life.

It’s crucial to understand how they work and how to change them.

In this article, you’ll learn

  • What are habits
  • Why habits matter
  • How habits work

Why do habits matter?

Habits matter because they influence people’s perceptions of you. They’re responsible for the results you consistently get in your personal and professional life. They affect your health, career, and relationships.

They make us predictable to those that know us. Habits create expectations of us in the minds of our friends, family, coworkers, clients, and customers. They position us as the person that habitually does __.

The actions you perform habitually influence how others label you.

They have a direct impact on your brand and your reputation.

People judge you based on your behavior. What’s alarming is that more than 40% of your daily actions get done on auto-pilot. You’re judged based on behavioral patterns you may not know you have (a.k.a. bad habits).

The best way to change certain perceptions of you is to change your habits.

Easier said than done.

Whenever you try to make positive changes in your life, your bad habits:

  • sabotage your efforts
  • make it easy to quit
  • make it hard to progress

If you’re not aware of them, your bad habits make it impossible for you to change.

Your bad habits can become your worst enemy.

It’s crucial to know how they work. Once you do, you can get your habits to work for you, not against you.

How do habits work?

There’s a neurological loop that describes how habits work. It’s called the habit loop. It’s the framework used by Charles Duhigg in his book The power of habit.

Habits are a structure. The best way to understand this structure is to analyze its parts.

What is the habit loop?

The habit loop is a process made of three parts:

  1. The cue.
  2. The routine.
  3. The reward.

It’s a formula that your brain executes on auto-pilot:

  1. When I sense CUE
  2. I will do ROUTINE
  3. To get a REWARD

I think one of the best ways to illustrate the process is a race like the 100m dash:

  1. When I hear the starting gunshot
  2. I will run as fast as possible
  3. To win the race

In this example:

  1. The starting gunshot is the cue. It signals the start of the race.
  2. Running as fast as possible to complete the race is the routine.
  3. The outcome of the race (medals, records, ranking, etc.) is the reward.

Let’s explore the parts of the habit loop because knowing and understanding them leads to control over your habits.

The cue

The cue is the proverbial starting gunshot in your mind. It’s a clear signal that triggers the automation, the routine.

You can group most cues into one of these five categories:

  • Your location (where)
  • The time (when)
  • Your emotional state (what you’re feeling)
  • Other people (who’s around you)
  • Your immediately preceding action (what you just did)

The routine

The routine is a series of actions or behaviors. It can be physical, mental, or emotional.

Routines begin as intentional actions you perform to get specific results. They can become second nature with time, experience, and repetition.

They require focus and concentration in the beginning. They operate on auto-pilot when they become a habit.

Sprinting requires a tremendous conscious effort from anyone. It only becomes an automated routine in top-tier athletes.

The reward

The reward makes you remember why the entire process matters.

It’s

  • What you look forward to receiving
  • What you expect to get after the routine
  • What motivates you because it satisfies the cravings you develop in anticipation

Rewards are the benefits your brain expects.

By identifying those three components of the loop, you can understand how habits form. There’s another element. Without it, the habit loop isn’t as powerful as it can be.

The craving

Cravings are what make habits work. They play a crucial role in the habit loop. You can see them as the fourth component of the habit loop.

Flowchart representation of the habit loop as described in The power of habit
Flowchart representation of the habit loop as described in The power of habit

Habits create neurological cravings. They develop over time without being aware that you have them. When you combine cues with specific rewards, you can bet that one will emerge and eventually strengthen your habit loop.

In the habit loop, a craving is anticipating the reward.

Cravings make you look forward to getting a reward. Spotting the cue triggers them and begins the loop.

The way for you to create new habits and grow them is to introduce craving into the equation. They power the habit loop.

There are two basic rules to follow before introducing cravings:

  1. Find a simple cue. It has to be an obvious one.
  2. Clearly define the rewards.

Your rewards need to be something that gives you a sense of accomplishment. Ideally, you have a signal that lets you know where you are in the process.

Have a clear signal that you can see:

  • During the routine.
  • After the routine.

During example:

When you brush your teeth, the paste foams.

Toothpaste works without foam. Additives were added to toothpaste to convey that it works. That is the signal during the routine. It is purely superficial, but it gives people the impression that it works.

If you brushed your teeth and nothing happened (no foam), you might not feel like it works.

You expect foam when you perform the routine.

After example:

When you finish brushing your teeth, you have a fresh, tingly feeling in your mouth.

Toothpaste works without that feeling. Additives were added to toothpaste to convey that it worked. That is the signal after the routine. It is purely superficial, but it gives people the impression that it worked.

If you brushed your teeth and did not feel fresh, you might not feel like it worked.

You expect a fresh, tingly feeling in your mouth when you finish the routine.

Now that you know what structures habits and how they work, you can move on to creating them.

How do you create new habits?

The basic formula that you can use to create your habits:

  1. Find a simple cue. It has to be an obvious one.
  2. Clearly define rewards.
  3. Create a sense of craving.
  4. If possible, create a sensation or feeling that you expect:
    1. During the routine
    2. After the routine

Back to the teeth brushing example. Here’s what the basic formula looks like to create that habit:

  1. Bad breath and awful tastes are cues that begin that habit loop. Those cues are simple and easy to notice.
  2. A clean mouth is a clearly defined reward.
  3. Fresh breath is what you crave.
    1. Foam is what you expect during the routine.
    2. A tingly feeling is what you expect after.

Would you perform the routine regularly without having a clear signal that the process worked? You have to crave the fresh feeling.

Your brain needs to feel that it works to know that it works. The additives in the example convey that to your brain.

To make your habits work, you need clear signals that they work.

How to create habits will be covered in more detail in the following post: Tutorial on how to form habits to improve your well-being.

How do you change habits?

Use the Golden Rule of habit change and the habit loop. The beginning and the end of the habit loop stay the same. Change the middle.

So, keep the same old cues and rewards and substitute the routines.

Keep the simple components and substitute the complex ones.

What is the Golden Rule of habit change?

To change your habits, you need to take advantage of your existing ones. Substitute the routine you want to eliminate for the one you want to keep.

To change your habits:

  1. Keep the simple components of your habit loop
    1. Keep the same cue
    2. Keep the same reward
    3. Keep the same craving
  2. Substitute the complex part of your habit loop
    1. Change the routine
      1. Make sure that it feeds the craving

The new routine needs to feed the old craving.

The Golden Rule is likelier to work if you believe that change is possible.

Belief

To ensure that your new habits stick, you need to believe that change is possible.

To make new habits stick, you need:

  • Golden Rule of habit change.
  • Belief.

That combination increases your chances of your new habits being permanent.

Recognizing the cues and rewards are half the battle. Most of the time, all you need to change the routine is to find the cues and rewards.

Some exceptions require belief.

Belief is the secret ingredient that leads to a successful new habit loop.

Belief is possible when you have the support system you find in a community. The size of the community isn’t a factor that matters. Just being a team of 2 can prove to be effective.

I want to say that all you need is to believe in the process or yourself. Easier said than done. Skepticism and imposter syndrome each render that option useless for many people. Under those circumstances, groups are the solution.

Belief grows when you share experiences with a group.

When change is too hard on your own, join a group. The community makes it easy to believe.

How do you control habits?

To control your habits, you need to understand them. The best way to do so is to break them down into their parts. The elements of the habit loop. The cue, the craving, the routine, and the reward.

What you need to understand is that:

  • Routines are the complex components of the habit loop.
  • Cues, cravings, and rewards are simple components.

Remember that your brain likes simplicity.

You gain control by:

  • Keeping the simple components of the loop (cues, cravings, and rewards)
  • Removing the complex parts that don’t work (detrimental routines)

You gain control by being aware of the triggers, cravings, and rewards that fuel your habits.

How do you break bad habits?

You break habits by messing with your habit loop building blocks.

You have to know that habits never disappear. They wait for the right cues and rewards to enable them. So, bad habits just lay dormant until they get triggered.

Habits are delicate. They are more fragile when they are new. Slight changes in cues can destroy your efforts to engineer lasting good habits. You could short-circuit your worst patterns by introducing new triggers.

However, it’s not as easy to disrupt old habits.

To break a bad habit, replace the complex part of the habit loop with a better one.

Final thoughts

It’s essential to identify and understand your habits to improve your quality of life. They can support or hinder your efforts to change. So, it’s crucial to change them before anything else. You can do so by breaking down the elements of the habit loop.

Reading the following article will provide you with a detailed approach to help you implement what you just learned. 

Related articles

The power of habit (Summary)

How to change habits (Tutorial)

Disclaimer:

This article is the first of a series that focuses on The habits of individuals, which is Part one of The power of habit. This book is my primary source of reference for the full article. 

These are my takeaways on the topic.

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