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The Habit Loop

"The Habit Loop is a neurological loop that governs any habit. The habit loop consists of three elements: a cue, a routine, and a reward. Understanding these elements can help in understanding how to change bad habits or form better ones." - Duhigg, C. (2012). see

Elements of the Habit Loop[]

The Cue[]

The cue for a habit can be anything that triggers the habit. Cues most generally fall under the following categories: a location, a time of day, other people, an emotional state, or an immediately preceding action. For example, every day at 2:30pm, someone could crave chocolate from the vending machine in the other building, or the smell from the coffee house downstairs compels someone to get a latte. As another example, the music from roving ice cream trucks is a very powerful cue. The cue tells the brain to go into automatic processing mode, and it takes effort to resist the cue, versus deriving satisfaction from following the cue

The Routine[]

A habit's routine is the most obvious element: it's the behavior you wish to change (e.g. smoking or biting your nails) or reinforce (e.g. taking the stairs instead of the elevator, or drinking water instead of snacking).

The Reward[]

The reward is the reason the brain decides the previous steps are worth remembering for the future. The reward provides positive reinforcement for the desired behavior, making it more likely that you will produce that behavior again in the future. The reward can be anything, from something tangible (e.g. chocolate), something intangible (e.g. a half hour of television) to something with no inherent value but what it is given (e.g. tokens).

Short-Circuiting the Habit Loop[]

Because the habit loop governs many of the automatic responses to stimuli, short-circuiting the habit loop can be the means to overcoming bad habits. Charles Duhigg, the author of The Power of Habit, suggests the following framework for reshaping bad habits.

Identify the Routine[]

Most habits have a routine that's pretty easy to identify: it's the behavior you wish to change. Duhigg describes his own habit of going to the cafeteria in the afternoon and getting a chocolate chip cookie then sitting down with friends to chat. From there, he had to identify the cue and the reward.

Experiment with Rewards[]

The reward for a given habit isn't always as obvious as you might think. While the reward for a daily craving for chocolate could be just the chocolate, it could also be the resulting social interaction with the folks next to the vending machine or an energy boost from the calories (which could be replaced with an apple or some coffee).

Experimenting with rewards is the time-consuming part of hacking your habits. Each time you feel the urge to repeat your routine, try changing the routine, the reward, or both. Keep track of your changes, and test different theories on what drives your routine. In Duhigg's case, did he want the cookie or just want a walk? Was he hungry or was he just seeking social interaction? Each time you try a different routine, ask yourself after 15 minutes if you're still craving the original "reward". Duhigg discovered his craving went away after just chatting with friends--he really craved socialization, and he isolated that craving by experimenting with the rewards.

Isolate the Cue[]

With the wealth of stimuli bombarding you each day, isolating a habit's cue is a difficult proposition. Experiments have shown that habitual cues generally fall into one of the five aforementioned categories; to whittle down what could be triggering your habit, write down answers to the following questions to see what patterns emerge when an urge or craving strikes you:

  • Where are you?
  • What time is it?
  • What's your emotional state?
  • Who else is around?
  • What action immediately preceded the urge?

Have a Plan[]

When Duhigg finished his study of his chocolate cookie habit, he discovered that his cue was the time of roughly 3:30pm, his routine was to go to the cafeteria, buy a cookie, and chat with friends. The reward, he discovered, was not the cookie itself, but the opportunity to socialize. Thus, he created this plan for working around his habit: At 3:30, every day, I will walk to a friend's desk and talk for 10 minutes. He then set an alarm on his watch for 3:30.

While implementing the plan had its hiccups, after a few weeks of paying careful attention to his new routine, he now does it unconsciously, as a habit. Just one that's better for him.

Implementation with Habitica[]

Habitica can offer assistance in manipulating habit loops, particularly in the development of a plan to reinforce good habits. With Habitica, creating a cue can be as simple as remembering to look at the task screen and read items on To Do's, Dailies, or Habits lists. Habitica creates rewards in the form of gold, experience, and item drops, as well as whatever emotional satisfaction may result from successfully performing the habit. While Habitica also allows the creation of custom rewards, Habitica play itself can sometimes be considered a reward.

Scientific Background[]

MIT researchers discovered the habit loop while experimenting with rats running mazes. They discovered that during initial maze runs the rats' brains generated a great deal of activity in the cerebral cortex. However, navigating the mazes after numerous repetitions required less activity in the cerebral cortex, even in the parts of the brain governing memory. The brain converts the sequence of actions, "chunking" them to the primitive basal ganglia, reserving the cerebral cortex for higher or more intensive functions. This is the mechanism that operates when you're arriving home and you have no conscious memory of actively, attentively driving all the turns.

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