The Habit Loop

April 16, 2021

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How We Form and Break Habits  

What is your habit? Maybe you have a few good ones and a few bad ones here and there, regardless of what your habits are though; we can all agree that breaking habits seems almost impossible at times. If you are someone who struggles with breaking habits or are maybe thinking of breaking a habit but are unsure how to go about it, you have come to the right place!  

Now there are many techniques to breaking habits, but today I am going to be talking about the Habit Loop. The Habit Loop is one of many models that psychologists and therapists research and use to help people break habits. It doesn’t necessarily tell you what to do if you have a habit of biting your nails for example, it simply acts as a sequence of steps where you “fill in the blanks” and it guides you to identifying triggers, rewards, and creating new habits to replace old ones. Remember that habits are just actions or behaviors. They can occur consciously like brushing your teeth every morning or more unconsciously like picking and biting your nails.  

Let’s start with the basics. The Habit Loop is a three step model that was designed by Journalist Charles Duhigg. The three steps in the model are the cue, the routine, and the reward. 

  • The cue: Think of this as the trigger for the behavior. The trigger can be a specific location, time, emotional state, your action immediately before the behavior, or even the people around you.  

  • The routine: This one is simple, it is the actual behavior that occurs immediately following the cue. If you do have a habit that you have had for a long time, eventually it may become something that you don’t even notice yourself doing unless someone points it out.  

  • The reward: This is the final step and is what reinforces the behavior. Whatever the reward may be, the stronger sense of satisfaction it brings you will make you develop the behavior more quickly.  

For the sake of simplicity, here is an example of a habit (nail biting) in action using the Habit Loop:  

  • The cue: You are waiting at the bus stop and you are thinking of the exam you are about to take. You start to feel stressed because you are nervous for the exam and have a nagging feeling that the bus is going to be late.  

  • The routine: You start to chew on your nails and pick at any hangnails you find.  

  • The reward: The nail biting distracts your racing thoughts which eases your anxiety as you get onto the bus to go take your exam.  

Now there are a few ways that you could approach this to break the habit or even better, replace it with a new and healthier habit. Ultimately, the latter should be the goal. Once you have established what the habit is, or at least are more consciously aware of it (in this case, nail biting), it is time to start with the cue.  

By starting with the cue, you can identify the trigger. In this example, imagine that the student has become aware that they are biting their nails during a pandemic (yuck), so the next step would be to look back at the action that immediately preceded the nail biting. They don’t specifically remember what they were doing, but they do remember feeling an overwhelming sense of anxiety. Soon they are making connections and remember that time they were waiting in line at the grocery store a few weeks ago and felt anxious so they started biting their nails. The trigger or cue for this habit is the emotional state of stress and anxiety. As a friendly reminder, the possible cues can be a location, time, emotional state, an action preceding the behavior, or the people around you.  

Once the cue has been identified, it is time to start the real work. This is a great opportunity to brainstorm some replacement behaviors. It is probably going to take a lot of trial and error, but the goal should be to find a new and healthier replacement behavior that is going to provide the same level or an even greater level of satisfaction.  

Going back to my example, the student is now aware that they bite their nails when they are anxious because it helps them feel more calm. So it is time for them to become more aware of their cues and triggers and implement new behaviors. Whether it be throwing in some earbuds to listen to their favorite playlist, or texting a friend, finding a behavior that is going to help them feel just as calm as nail biting does is the key to replacing old habits with new habits.  

Although everything that I just described above is very simple, this process is not one that is going to happen overnight. Identifying habits and replacing them with new ones is a process that can take weeks, months, or even years. Assessing external and internal motivators is a helpful technique that can expedite the habit breaking process. Ask yourself why you want to break the habit and what breaking the habit will mean to you.  

I know that I have thrown a lot of information at you in this blog, but if you take anything away from this, let it be the simple fact that what you consider a healthy habit may not be considered a healthy habit by others. So if you decide that you would like to break a habit, make sure that you are doing it for you and not the pleasure of others. Let us know what you think of the Habit Loop and forming new and healthier habits at Healthy.UNH@unh.edu!  

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