There are plenty of methods out there promising to help you get rid of an undesirable habit, but in the end it all comes down to understanding why you stick to the things you do - even the ones that are not so good for you. Whether you're trying to quit smoking, stop going to bed so late, curb your sweet tooth or your afternoon caffeine intake, the habit loop can bring insight into why you do the things you do - which is what we really need in order to get rid of our bad habits.

The habit loop

The habit loop was made famous by Charles Duhigg's book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.

The habit loop summarizes the pattern of our habits down to three steps:

1. The Cue

This is what triggers the habit by telling your brain to go into auto-pilot and resort to the habit. It's what makes you go for an automatic choice. This can really be anything - how you feel at a certain moment, a specific time of the day, a specific situation - which is why introspection is so important when it comes to stopping bad habits.

2. The Routine

This is what you automatically do after you run into the cue. It's basically performing an automated behaviour - the habit.

3. The Reward

This is what makes your brain remember the loop. The reward is tricky though, because sometimes it might not be as obvious as it seems. Let's say you go out to buy a bar of chocolate every afternoon at 2 pm. The obvious reward would be the chocolate, but the hidden one would be getting away from the office.

In and of itself, the habit loop is not bad. It's just that sometimes we can engage in the wrong routine to obtain a reward. Charles Duhigg explains it well in the video below:

Hacking the habit loop

Now that we know what the loop is all about, let's see how we can break the cycle. This is not only key to helping us break habits, but it's also the key to understanding how to pick up good habits.

Experiment with the reward

After you have identified the routine - checking email continuously or drinking a few too many cups of coffee  - experiment with the reward. This will help you become conscious of the cravings behind your behaviour. Take a look at the obvious reward to better understand the hidden one. Does that cigarette stand in for boredom? Or is the chocolate bar an excuse to get away from the office? As I said in the beginning, this requires quite a bit of introspection, but it will help you find out whether there's a different (read: healthier, more positive) reward that will satisfy what you truly crave.

Try switching up the reward to see what it does to you. Instead of going to the store to buy that chocolate bar, try getting a different chocolate bar on one day, walking around the block another, or just hanging out in the cafeteria instead of going to the convenience store. Try different things to see what satisfies your craving, in order to understand what you're really craving.

Identify the cue

What is the thing that really triggers your craving? Cues can belong to one of these categories:

  • Emotional state
  • Location
  • Time
  • Other people
  • The immediately preceding activity

Try to write down things that belong to these categories every time you notice a craving. After a while, you should be noticing a recurring cue. Personally, doing this I found out that I always crave a slice of pizza after a doctor's appointment. Go figure!

Implementation intention

An implementation intention seems so easy, yet it's so hard to do. Once again, this is because it requires buckets of mindfulness on our part. Implementation intention requires us to reframe how we break our habits into an "if-then" statement. Let's say you want to stop having so much coffee in the afternoon. Your if-then statement could be "if I get a craving for coffee, then I will take a walk around the block and have an apple." The quick walk and the sugar will fulfill the need for a pick-me-up reward.

It might seem very simplistic, but implementation intentions really work. People do suck at planning, but having a clear action plan in mind makes it more likely to take goal-directed actions. In an experiment on implementation intentions, two groups of subjects were asked to write essays over Christmas break on how they spent Christmas Eve. The deadline was 48 hours after December 24th. Some of the subjects were then given a questionnaire asking them when and where during those 48 hours they were going to write the essay. Basically, this group was stating an implementation intention - "if it's December 26th at 10 am, I will be writing the essay in the library."

The results of this experiment were quite surprising. Around 75% of the subjects who had created an implementation intention actually wrote the essay within the 48 hours. On the other hand, only one-third of the subjects who hadn't completed the questionnaire did so. This is because creating the implementation intention makes it easier for us to get started on an action plan when we are faced with the cue. And as the Zeigarnik effect tells us, you just need to get started somewhere.

Believe in yourself

Finally, none of the above will work unless you actually believe that you can do it. Believe that you can make it happen.

Sharing your goal with a trusted, supportive friend can make you more accountable for your goal of breaking a bad habit and foster belief in yourself.

Now that you know how the habit loop works, you can turn it around to serve you. You can start using the cue-routine-reward not only to break bad habits, but also to create good ones.

What habits are you trying to get rid of/ pick up? I'd love to hear from you in the comments below!