The Habit Loop – Understanding How Habits Form and How to Change Them

Habits Loop

If you want to break an undesirable habit, start by identifying its steps. Charles Duhigg writes that MIT researchers have discovered a specific neurological pattern at the core of every habit.

Habit loops consist of three components, the cue, routine and reward. A cue can be anything that triggers behavioral change.


Duhigg provides a helpful framework to stop or alter our automatic behaviors, making it much simpler for us to break bad ones or form new ones. His habit loop breaks down how habits form into three components: cues, routines and rewards – so understanding these three aspects of bad ones will enable you to break them or form better ones in their place.

Habit loops begin with the cue or trigger that initiates behavior. This could include anything from physical proximity or time of day to emotional states and people that you interact with regularly – for instance, receiving push notifications for Instagram may trigger check-ins, as could visiting certain groups of friends regularly; even something as basic as wanting to feel connected can set in motion a habit loop.

Once a cue has been established, the brain takes action – either opening an app or performing certain actions without thinking, such as driving home or pouring water from a bottle. As this habitual action becomes automatic over time, it becomes harder and harder for someone to change it; that is what makes habits difficult to change.

After performing your routine, the next step should be rewarding yourself. This could be immediate or delayed satisfaction; from simple pleasures like eating cookies to social interactions. Whatever its form may be, rewards help your brain determine if this particular habit loop is worth remembering for future repetitions.

Identification is key when trying to change bad habits. For instance, if you want to stop turning to YouTube when bored at night, start keeping track of all of the times when this behavior took place and what the environment was like or how you were feeling at that time. By pinpointing any specific triggers that lead you down this path of addiction and simply avoiding those triggers altogether, you might just break this bad habit!


Habits form the cornerstone of most daily routines. Good ones, such as drinking a glass of water when you wake up and brushing your teeth after every meal, may be easily maintained but breaking old ones that don’t serve us well can be tougher to achieve. Understanding your habit loop may help you break free of unwanted behaviors such as checking Instagram too often or exercising regularly – understanding this may lead to successful change!

Charles Duhigg states that there are three components to a habit loop: cue, routine and reward. A cue triggers behavior–for instance receiving an Instagram notification prompts one to check it–while routine consists of carrying out said behavior like checking likes/comments on photos uploaded to Instagram; reward represents what your brain experiences as a result–whether that be pleasure, pain relief or anxiety relief.

Once triggered by the cue, our brain begins executing our routine automatically and this can create a chain reaction where one action leads to another and eventually establishes as a habit – such as biting your nails when feeling anxious – eventually leading us down an endless spiral of habit-forming behavior. For example, biting nails when nervous can easily become part of our daily lives if we allow it!

To successfully break a habit, it is crucial that you identify its cue and replace it with another behavior that offers equal or better rewards. A method known as “the habit loop” might also work; here, start by recognizing your cue before creating new behaviors to replace old ones.

Although this approach may work for some, as some habits can be too entrenched to change with this alone. If this proves unsuccessful for you, other techniques might need to be combined such as temptation bundling or Systems vs Goals in order to find success with changing unwanted habits. It may take some trial-and-error before finding the ideal approach; but it will be well worth your while once free from unwanted habits!


Habits are automatic patterns of behavior you perform without conscious effort, beginning with an external trigger – like the buzzing of your cellphone when someone likes one of your Instagram photos or the smell of coffee in the morning – or internal feeling such as drowsiness in the morning or a craving for caffeine. Next comes your routine – which you repeat every time a cue occurs; finally comes reward yourself – something your brain recognizes and repeats again later on.

Rewards can be both positive and negative, yet all affect how habits form. Examples of good rewards might be getting an A on an exam, eating healthy food or spending quality time with family while negative rewards could include biting nails, procrastinating or smoking – to identify any bad habits and create strategies to overcome them, use the habit loop framework.

Once you understand how a habit works, breaking it becomes much simpler. The key is finding a replacement behavior with similar rewards – for instance if you want to stop reading in bed at night you could swap that out with reading at a cafe instead or purchasing a programmable coffeepot and prepping some drinks each night prior.

Repetition is also key in developing new habits. At first, we may not realize we’re creating them until they’ve become automatic; even then, multiple repetitions of cueing, routine, and reward need to occur before our brains link these actions with particular feelings.

Cues can range from the physical environment, such as your alarm sounding or bed’s location, to internal thoughts or an emotion you experience before going to sleep. Many different triggers exist for habits; therefore it’s essential that we try and identify each one as soon as possible. Writing down possible cues that lead to bad habits may help identify patterns and break their cycle of recurrence. Keeping a journal or notes of possible cues for bad habits can provide useful insight and break them free.


Habits begin with cues – triggers that set off automatic processes in your mind – which could be an external event like time of day or location, or internal stimuli like thoughts and emotions. Once cued, routine follows as your behavior, from simple to complex forms. Finally, rewards arrive and allow your brain to determine whether this particular loop should continue being remembered for future reference; over time this cycle becomes embedded within you brain’s memory system.

Change an established habit is easier than you may realize once you understand how it works, provided you identify its three components of a habit loop. Start by determining your cue, then find another routine which yields the same reward (e.g. if your morning Starbucks habit leaves you feeling tired and sluggish, try substituting with something healthier like taking a walk at lunch or reading before bed. It may take some trial-and-error until you find one that works)

Once a behavior becomes part of our routine, it can become hard to break. Our brains are hardwired to repeat certain actions even if they’re harmful; that’s how addictions form and why it is crucial that any habit that could potentially lead to mental health issues like obsessive-compulsive disorder or depression be avoided.

Finding out why you do something can help break a bad habit, such as an unhealthy snack, scrolling social media accounts too often or watching too much television. When you know the source, removing it from your environment or managing negative emotions in real time should be enough to stop you falling back into old patterns. Recording potential cues such as locations or people can also prove useful; once identified, new habit loops will develop that will get you where you need to be.

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