The Habit Loop – A Look Behind Forming Or Breaking Habits

The habit loop explains how each habit goes through a common pattern of 3 steps – the cue, the routine, and the reward. Knowledge of these parts helps in breaking habits and cultivating good ones.

The Habit Loop Explained

Every habit, good or bad, goes through the habit loop of 3 steps into your brain.

Though the 3 parts of the habit loop may seem obvious, identifying the cue and the reward is not as apparent as it seems.

1. The Cue

A cue is anything that triggers a habit. It can be a specific place, a certain time of the day, the company of people, the emotional state of your mind, or the previous action. The cue is what commences the habit loop. Let us consider the example of the most spoken bad habit, smoking. Any trigger which causes to pick up a cigarette and light it up is a cue. Every smoker has different cues and sometimes they do not seem very clear. You might feel that the urge to smoke is the cue but there might be other reasons behind that. Here are a few examples:

When you hit any of these cues, your brain sends a signal to your body to process the next step of action, the routine.

2. The Routine:

The most obvious part of the habit loop is the habit itself, also called the routine. After the cue triggers the start of the habit loop, the routine takes over. In this example, the routine is the act of lighting a cigarette or smoking. For every bad habit you want to overcome or the good habit you want to cultivate, the routine is the behavior you want to change. Other examples include biting your nails, working out, consuming less sugar, spending lesser time on the smartphone, and so on.

If you observe yourself closely you will see that you exhibit the routine more due to habit than other reasons. For example, if smoking in the parking lot is one of your cues, you will smoke even if you do not have the urge. For most smokers, only a small portion of the cigarettes smoked in a day is due to the urge. As per science, if you haven’t smoked for 100 hours, the urge is no longer due to nicotine. It is your habit that leads you to light a cigarette habit even when the urge isn’t that strong.

3. The Reward:

The final part of the loop is the reward that the brain enjoys by performing the routine. Smokers love the feeling of smoke down their throats, some others like the sweet taste of chocolate or the energy boost coffee provides. The reward causes the brain to remember the routine and repeat it again in the future for the same contentment.

But again, you might assume the wrong outcome as the reward your brain craves for. Charles Duhigg explains how he had a habit of walking to the cafeteria and buying a cookie to eat every afternoon. He thought the reward was the cookie hitting his taste buds. He had to ask himself what the real reward was? Was it the energy from the sugar? Was it the distraction due to the break? Was it hunger? It turned out that he actually enjoyed socializing when he went to buy the cookie. Your body may not recognize the reward but your brain keeps releasing pleasure chemicals when you receive a reward for your habit.

You experience a similar pleasure even when you check the notification of your smartphone. If you bite your nails, you feel satisfied when you have cleaned up the edges of one nail or the entire hand. Without your knowledge, your brain registers the reward and prompts your body to repeat it again and again.

How to Break Out of the Habit Loop

Though smoking is one of the toughest habits to get over, you can use the habit loop to get rid of it. Do not expect immediate results and do not give up if you fail. After all, if you have the habit ingrained in you for years, you cannot expect to get over it in a few days. Though the example mentioned below is for smoking, you can use the same technique to overcome any bad habit. Biting nails, overeating, alcohol addiction, checking social media feeds are all habit loop examples.

1. Identify the Cue for the Routine:

Watch yourself and identify what prompts you to smoke. Is it a specific time/place, a state of mind, a previous action, or the presence of other people? You may have one or more cues for smoking like many others do. Make sure you pay close attention because certain cues can mislead you. You might think that watching a person smoke is your cue when the real trigger could be the smell of burning tobacco. Identify all your cues and make a note. Understanding the relationship between the cue and the reward is essential to making or breaking the habit loop.

2. Try Different Rewards

As human beings, we love rewards without even knowing them. The habit loop runs based on the reward. Do you know you can increase your motivation by rewarding yourself? But sometimes the reward might be different than what you think it is. So try different rewards to see if you feel the same pleasure. You might assume that smoking makes your throat feel nice and improve your mood, but the reward your brain craves could be different. If the reward gives you the same pleasure as the habit, you know the real reason behind your routine. The purpose of the exercise is to narrow down which craving is causing the habit. When you try alternate rewards, you must write down how you feel. Do not skip the writing part because it helps you know exactly what you feel.

If you have difficulty identifying the cue, you can try the exercise below. Every time you feel the urge, you can write down the state of the 5 possible cues:

By looking at the data you gather from a few days or a week, you can identify the common cue behind your behavior.

3. Eliminate the Cue and Try to Get the Reward Without the Usual Routine

In some cases, you can cut the cue by changing your actions and breaking the habit loop. When you have no choice to avoid the cue, you have to remind yourself repeatedly to avoid reacting to the cue with the old routine. To avoid biting your nails, you cannot avoid the cue by keeping your fingers in a cupboard. But you can avoid the urge by placing your hands under your legs as soon as you feel the urge. With enough repetition, you will get over your old routine.

In addition to the three steps, one more essential element is belief. Without the power of belief, you can still slip back the habit loop of your old habits. For smoking, this takes a different angle because the most common cue for bad habits is stress. Science has shown that belief and willpower go down a spiral under stress. So one of the cues for smoking is when your willpower has taken a hit already.


Your habits drive a big chunk of your daily behavior due to the habit loop. You are unaware of most of them. For example,

If you observe yourself, you will notice you follow the same pattern for such activities. Your brain has done this on purpose to make your life easier. The brain cultivates habits so that you do not have to apply thought for every little action of yours. Imagine you had to think if you should lift the cup with your left hand or right. If you had to, you would be mentally exhausted all the time. In the process of making your body function better, your brain cultivates bad habits too. But you can override your brain by breaking the habit loop your brain has formed. It is easy for some and tough for others. You will only know for yourself if you try.

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Published by SULV Foundation

Build and Repeat is our Mission and Purpose, we strive to make the world a better place while creating inter-generational wealth.

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