Habit Loops: The Anatomy of Habits That Stick

Ever feel like your life is completely out of your control?

You just wake up and go through the motions like you’ve done a thousand times. You’ve tried changing your habits in the past, but you always end up back where you started.

It’s disheartening. It makes you feel like a loser. As I’m writing this on the 18th of February, people are abandoning their New Year’s resolutions left and right. Every single one of those people will say “life just got in the way” and reassure themselves that next year will be the year they finally build an exercise habit.

Except they won’t. They’ll fall back into the same patterns and they’ll fail over and over again until they take the time to learn how habits work.

Changing your habits is simple. All you need to do is look at your current habits, deconstruct them, and replace the parts you want to change.

It’s simple, not easy. Some habits are stickier than others. Some only take a week or two to change, some habits take months to change.

One thing is certain: You won’t be able to effectively build or break habits without learning about the habit loop model.

Table of contents

The Habit Loop Model: Cue, Routine, Reward

Every habit consists of three things: the cue, the routine, and the reward. Each element plays a vital role in how the habit is formed. Let’s go over them one by one.

habit loop

The Cue

The very first part of any habit is the cue. This is what triggers your behavior. A cue can be a time of day, location, mood, or one of your senses.

Time is the most common cue for habits. It’s also the easiest to get wrong. People who create New Year’s resolutions often say they’ll go to the gym after work. By doing that you’re already setting yourself up for failure. Not only because you’ll be tired, but also because it isn’t very specific. If you work 30 minutes longer, your gym habit will be moved by 30 minutes. Not a great foundation to build an important habit on.

To make it time an effective cue, you need to make it as specific as possible. Instead of saying you’ll do it after work, say “Every weekday at 17:30.” The time doesn’t change when you work late. And if you find yourself missing your cue because of work, you might want to find a different time, or a different cue altogether.

Some examples of using time as a cue:

  • Going to the gym every Tuesday and Thursday at 1 PM.
  • Getting a coffee at 10 am every day.
  • Eating dinner with the family at 6:15 PM.

Your environment plays a big part in determining your behavior. There’s a now famous study of Vietnam veterans who were addicted to heroin during the Vietnam war but quickly kicked the habit once they were home. The stress and environmental cues where gone, so they were able to break the habit. It doesn’t have to be this drastic, though.

Some examples of location cues are:

  • Every time you walk past a coffee shop.
  • Walking into your kitchen.
  • Going to your mom’s house.

Ever browsed Reddit because you had nothing to do, but got bored because you’ve gone through all of the interesting stuff already so you open a new tab and go to… Reddit?

That’s emotional cues at work. By doing this over and over again you start to associate boredom with a need to go to Reddit.

Other examples of emotional cues are:

  • You feel sad so you start eating snacks.
  • You’re depressed so you start playing video games to take your mind off of your problems.

This one’s pretty obvious. You see cookies, you want cookies, you eat cookies. Hmmm, cookies.

Other examples of this type of cues:

  • Every time your alarm goes off.
  • Seeing someone else smoke.
  • A notification on your phone makes a noise.

Overall, cues are often overlooked. We don’t often notice them because the next step of the loop gets all the attention.

The Routine

The routine is the part of the habit loop that gets all the attention. It’s also the thing most people want to change when they’re looking to improve their habits.

Your routine is simply the action you take after the cue has triggered the loop. For example:

  • Going to the gym
  • Smoking
  • Eating snacks
  • Playing video games

Pretty straightforward, right?

The Reward

Finally, you have the reward. This is the benefit you get from going through the entire process. It’s the reason why you’re behaving the way you do.

“But wait!” I hear you say. “What about bad habits? What benefit does smoking have? What benefit does overeating have? Every time I play videogames I feel like a procrastinating piece of garbage. Surely there’s no reward?”

If you’re completely honest with yourself, you’ll realize even your bad behavior does give you some reward.

Maybe smoking helps you calm your nerves when you’re anxious. Videogames help take your mind off of the current problems in your life. Checking social media can relieve some of the boredom.

Admittedly, this is one of the harder things to figure out. Injecting heroin into your veins doesn’t look like it has any upsides to it, but if you hit rock bottom and you have nowhere to go, it can momentarily help you escape your shitty life. ( PSA: don’t do drugs yo)

How to Build or Change Your Habits

Now that we’ve gone over the theory, let’s look at how we can use it in order to change our behavior. We’ll go through the entire loop again, but this time we’ll look at what we can change.

Identifying the cue

If you want to change the cue of your habit, you first have to identify it. This isn’t always easy because we only tend to become aware of our habits once we’re doing it.

The best way to figure out what the cues of your habits are is to be mindful. This in and of itself is a challenge. Personally, I find keeping a journal helps a lot. You might not immediately see what’s going on, but after a few days or weeks, you start to see patterns emerge.

You can also brainstorm a big long list of cues that could trigger your habits. Ask yourself when your bad habits occur. Is it right after work? Is it when you’re at home and you have nothing to do? Is it when you just woke up? You don’t need to know the exact trigger right away, but this will help you look in the right direction.

Changing the routine

The mistake most people make when you try to change their routine is that they try to make it really big. They try to replace the act of smoking with doing fifty push-ups. They try to go from zero to running five miles. The problem with this is that it’s not sustainable. You might be able to do it once or twice – you might even do it for a week – but then your motivation starts faltering and you stop doing it. Even worse, you fall back into your old patterns convinced you can’t change.

To fix this, make your routine as small as possible. Instead of doing fifty push-ups, do one. Instead of going for a five-mile walk, walk around the block first. BJ Fogg calls this tiny habits and it’s super helpful.

Making your new routine as easy to do and as small as possible will make sure that you keep doing it consistently day after day, week after week.

Walking around the block every day for a year is better than running five miles for two weeks and then quitting.

Getting the reward

In order to change the reward, you have to be very clear about what benefit it gives you. If your current habit helps you relieve some of your anxiety and you try to build a new habit that doesn’t provide that relief, you’re bound to fail.

You’ll have to figure out ways that will address the core need of your habit. In the case of having anxiety, maybe you can add more play to your day. Instead of using your smartphone to relieve boredom, try drawing or some other hobby you can quickly pick up.

Deconstruct your habits if you want to change them

I’ll be the first want to say that changing your current habits is hard. Don’t expect them to change by next week. Instead, focus on one single habit that you want to change and start identifying the cue, the routine, and the reward. Even if it doesn’t have a very obvious reward, try to think of ways it makes your life more pleasant or more bearable.

Once you know how your current habits work, only then can you start to change them. It’s hard work, and it requires a lot of mental effort. But once you’ve managed to change one habit and you’ve gone through the entire process, changing other habits becomes a lot easier.