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The Habit Loop: How Your Environment Changes Your Behavior

Quick Definition: The Habit Loop describes the structure of a habit in three parts: cue or trigger, routine, and reward. 

Table of Contents:

  • How Habits Work
  • The 5 Habit Triggers
  • The Bottom Line

Every year, my friend Joe (not his real name) decides to quit smoking. How do I know? He makes a Facebook proclamation around New Years', declaring he's done with cigarettes.

There are weekly progress updates for a month or so while he white-knuckles his way through his first smoke-free days. But eventually, Joe backslides.

Why? He goes out to a bar with a friend who smokes.

Why does being in a bar overpower Joe’s best intentions? Well, Joe’s surrounded by cues to light up — a glass of whiskey, a warm spring night, and good company who’s also smoking. Joe walks into the bar with good intentions and a few smoke-free months behind him, but before he knows it, there’s a lit cigarette in his hand.

It makes sense that being in a bar persuades my friend to smoke. Everywhere he looks, there are triggers for old habits — and habits are compelling. Studies show that up to 43% of our daily actions are habits — actions performed without conscious thought.

If habits are so pervasive, how can we hope to overcome them? We first have to understand the science behind habits and what triggers them. The answer is a behavioral science framework known as the Habit Loop.


How Habits Work: The Habit Loop

In the 1990s, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) decoded the structure of habits. They coined the so-called “Habit Loop” that describes the neurological patterns that govern routines. The loop consists of three parts:

  1. The trigger (or cue): These are signals to our unconscious minds that it’s time to perform our habit. In Joe’s case, being in a bar with a drink in his hand is an unconscious trigger to smoke. For me, waking up every morning triggers a craving for a cup of coffee — not because I want one but because it’s something I do every morning.
  2. The routine: This is the habit itself. In Joe’s case, this means asking the bartender for his favorite brand, packing the box, then lighting and smoking the cigarette.
  3. The reward: This is the payoff you get from performing your habit. For example, Joe’s nicotine craving goes away, and he feels more relaxed. He’s also had a chance to bond with his friend who smokes while standing outside in good weather.
The Habit Loop

Source: Created by the author

There’s a lot of research into habit change, and many evidence-based strategies that can help you quit a bad routine. But most studies agree that you can isolate and avoid the triggers of your bad habit, you can significantly increase your odds of breaking that habit.


The 5 Habit Triggers

Because most habit cues are environmental, changing your context is more important than relying on willpower.

Studies have shown there are five basic categories of habit cues. Use this list to systematically isolate and identify your trigger next time you have the urge to perform a bad habit:

1. Time

Time is a sneaky category because it can be closely related to our third trigger, “preceding action”. Eating breakfast every day at 7:30 am, only because “it’s time for breakfast” and not because you’re hungry, is an example of a time-based trigger.

Next time the urge for a bad habit appears, check the clock. What time is it?


2. Mood

Bad habits can form as ways to self-soothe. We smoke because we’re stressed out, we overeat because our boss is pushing us too hard, or we skip the gym for Netflix because we’re tired after a long day at work.

When your craving strikes, ask yourself, “How do I feel?” And it doesn’t have to be a negative emotion. The positive feeling of finishing a workout might be a cue to grab an unhealthy snack, for example.


3. Location and Context

Situations and surroundings can be triggering for many people, as in Joe’s case. When he walks into a bar, the smell of smoke, the availability of cigarettes, alcohol, and friends that smoke is a deadly combination. That’s also why a move or vacation can be a catalyst for breaking bad habits.

The next time the urge for your bad habit appears, look around. Where are you? Do you usually perform your bad habit in this context?


4. Preceding Action

According to research, it’s easier to make a habit stick if it’s built off an existing chain of action rather than pure motivation. It’s easier to say, “I will exercise at 5 pm right after I close my laptop for the day” than to say, “I will exercise today.” This approach can work in reverse as well if you’re trying to identify the cue for a bad habit.

For example, you might eat a cookie every afternoon at 2:30 pm. When you take a look at your calendar, you realize that your one-to-one with a particularly stressful client happens every day at 2 pm, and it’s triggering you to self-soothe with a cookie.

Next time you have a craving, ask yourself, “What did I just do?”


5. Other People

The people you surround yourself with — particularly your friends — can change your habits. As social psychologist Amber Gaffney put it:

“The more of your identity you draw from a group, even when you’re not around that group, the more likely you are to uphold those values.”

A 2014 study found that our social group can influence us to keep our good habits, like sticking to a diet, or encourage us to break the rules. When it came to resisting temptations, the study found that friends were more likely to become our “partners in crime.” So make sure your friends are working for you, not against you.

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The Bottom Line: Habit Loops

There are no silver bullets in behavior change. Studies have shown that willpower is a critical factor in personal management success. But before willpower kicks in, we need to use our powers of observation to isolate our cues.

Next time you have the urge to perform your bad habit, ask yourself:

  1. What time is it?
  2. How am I feeling?
  3. Where am I?
  4. Who’s around me?
  5. What action did I just perform?
  6. How am I feeling?

As you examine your environment to identify habit cues, remember the words of B.J. Fogg, professor at Stanford University and behavior change expert:

“There’s just one way to radically change your behavior: radically change your environment.”

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