Understanding the Habit Loop

We all get caught up in daily routines that we don’t put very much thought into. Take some time to think about all the routines you currently do on a daily basis that are almost second nature.

Things like brushing your teeth, pouring a cup of coffee, and even pushing the same button on the elevator at work. These are all simple and fundamental routines we all go through on a daily basis, but how many of them are actually proactive? How many of these tasks provide you with a sense of accomplishment?

Routines can be very beneficial or highly detrimental to your life.

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Take, for example, the cup of coffee. Many of us have a cup of coffee before work. It’s second nature. Unfortunately, the caffeine in coffee can make harmful changes to your adrenal system. This, in turn, can lead to dependence, and even addiction.

Simple habits can take over aspects of your life – for better or for worse.

Understanding how a habit forms is one of the best ways you can work to increase productivity and have a more enjoyable life.

Habits Form on a Cue-Routine-Reward Cycle

A habit is essentially a shortcut to a process that would normally take more thinking and attention. Through constant repetition, we teach ourselves to find small shortcuts in the process to decrease our overall effort. The process of having a habit will only occur when we have a particular cue.

This is how the habit cycle works:

  • The Cue is the trigger to perform the habit.
  • The Routine is the path we have taught ourselves to take.
  • The Reward is exactly that – a reward. The feeling of a reward lights up the amygdala and sends a wave of pleasure, small or large.

  • For example: When Janice comes home after work, she always puts her phone and keys on the table, pours a glass of white wine, and looks through the newspaper. She then starts to relax, letting her mind transition from work life to home life.

  • The Cue: Arrive at home.
  • The Routine: Lay the phone and keys on the table, pour glass of white wine, look through newspaper.
  • The Reward: A relaxing, calming sensation, the sweet taste of wine, and the excitement of reading her favorite writers talking about fashion and sports.
  • In order to change and understand the habit, we need to interrupt at the time of the cue and provide a different reward.

    Here’s How We Break The Routine

    Janice arrives at home like most days, yet this time, she will drop her phone and keys and go straight to the shower or bath with the paper. She is then replacing the calm and relaxing sensation of a glass of wine with a warm shower or bath.

    Tweaking the routine is as simple as understanding where to break the main cue of the cycle. In Janice’s case, the glass of wine is no issue, and she can easily adapt the routine in order to limit her alcohol consumption in an effort to better her health.


    Making small changes like this could seem a little redundant, if not futile, yet it is the small changes that make the biggest difference.

    Take the example of the worker who uses the elevator every day at work. Intercepting the routine of entering the elevator and taking the stairs instead will help to improve metabolism and encourage weight loss and vitality. The reward is exactly that – weight loss and vitality.

    Understanding the three main components of the Habit Loop are essential in order to create new routines and better your life. When you interrupt the process of established habits, you can more easily make changes to your habits to support your goals.

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