The Habit Loop
In his 2012 best-selling book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, Charles Duhigg introduced the world to the “habit loop.” This psychological concept views habit formation as a three-step process involving a cue, a routine, and a reward—each reinforcing the other steps in a circular motion.
Duhigg asserts that our brains already unconsciously follow this model for developing habits. By familiarizing ourselves with the process on a conscious level, we are able to break bad habits and establish healthier ones by harnessing the mental power of the loop.
Habits are largely instinctual, and cues are the triggers that let the brain know it’s time to perform a certain automatic action. Specific cues largely depend on the individual—for some it might be the smell of coffee wafting from the break room, for others it could be a rumbling stomach that always seems to occur in the late afternoon.
Routines are the habits themselves—they’re the things we do when cues switch the brain onto auto-pilot. If you’re looking to get rid of bad routine, you’ll need to replace it with something better. For example, if getting home from work is your cue to hit the couch and watch TV, switch it up with something similar, like popping in a workout DVD instead. This routine switch may be difficult at first, but over time, it will feel instinctual, just like being a couch potato did.
The reward phase of the habit loop is everyone’s favorite, and for good reason too—you get a treat for following through! However, the real benefit of reward is its ability to encourage more healthy behavior in the future. A good one will leave you wanting more, which means your brain is more likely to recognize the cue and perform the routine (i.e. habit) the next time they occur.
Habits & Neuroscience
At this point we’ve taken a look at the habit loop itself, but what is it about the process that makes it so effective? The answer to that question can be found in two particular areas of the brain responsible for habit formation—the basal ganglia and the prefrontal cortex.
As mentioned before, the reason that habits are so powerful is because they require little to no conscious effort to perform. The basal ganglia is one of the most primitive areas of our brain, and researchers now know that it plays an important role in habit formation. Beginning with studies on lab mice, scientists discovered that this portion of the brain begins to work overtime when presented with a habit cue. Conversely, activity in the prefrontal cortex, or our “thinking” brain, drastically drops when the basal ganglia springs into action.
If habits are largely instinctual, then the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for conscious, rational thought, must be a hindrance to their formation, right? Not quite. For one, without it, we wouldn’t be able to conceptualize the idea of a habit loop on a conscious level at all! However, research now indicates that the prefrontal cortex may also work as a metaphorical on/off switch for our habits. If a bad habit is avoided enough, this brain area may be able to reduce some of its instinctual power over the basal ganglia. Conversely, it may also be responsible activating an automatic response for new, healthier habits.
Healthy Habit Tip #1
To see the habit loop in action, think of one healthy change you’d like to make. For the sake of an example, let’s say you want to improve your diet. If you’re inclined to toss everything unhealthy out of the cupboards and replace it exclusively with health food, resist the temptation!
Habit formation works best when you focus on one specific problem—try to get as close to one individual cue, routine, and reward as possible. So, why not try replacing soda at dinner (your cue) with water or unsweetened tea (your new routine)? It may not seem like much, but small changes add up over time.
Healthy Habit Tip #2
While you can’t completely will your basal ganglia to do your habitual bidding, it is possible to nudge it in the right direction. Try to make your new, healthy routine as painless and unavoidable as possible. For example, if you want to start running in the mornings, wear your workout clothes to bed. Then when 6 am rolls around, you’ve got one less thing standing between your cue (waking up) and your routine (going for a run).
Healthy Habit Tip #3
You may think you can break an unhealthy habit by simply refusing to perform the routine when presented with a cue. However, it can be very hard to fight against instinctual power of your brain. Instead, find a healthier routine to replace it with. That way, you’re not simply fighting a losing battle against your urges.