The habit loop says that all habits have three common features: a cue that triggers them, a response that’s routine and a reward that’s generated. Habits are neurological loops and it’s often easier to modify and change them than to break them.

Summary by The World of Work Project

The Habit Loop

All habits, whatever their substance, have certain factors in common and they all work in similar ways. The Habit Loop is a model which explains a high level neurological (or perhaps just thinking) loop in relation to habits, their formation and their perpetuation.

All it really says is that habits exist because something happens (a cue) which leads to a routine response, which results in a reward.

Where this pattern happens, habits are formed. The cues, routines and rewards can be many and varied, but this process through which they work is fairly consistent.

A personal example is that once I’ve had my lunch and am ready to go back to work I often feel a little sluggish (which is a cue), so I go and buy and drink a cola beverage (routine) which gives me a caffeine and sugar hit (reward) and makes it easier for me to get back into the swing of work. Interestingly, it’s worth noting that I only have this habit on week days when I’m working.

Modifying and Replacing Habits

One of the key insights that comes from the habit loop is that habits are about much more than the individual activities that take place within them. They are greater than the sum of their parts. They are neurological patterns that we experience and respond to. One of the take-aways that follows on from this insight is that it’s much easier to modify or change a habit than it is to simply break it.

Modifying is easier than starting from scratch.

In fact, once we understand the cues, routines and rewards that exist in relation to a specific habit, we can modify that habit fairly quickly (though perhaps not always all that easily).

This process of modification can occur through intervening at any stage of the loop: we can modify the cues we receive, we can modify the routine responses we make or we can modify the rewards we receive as a result of the actions we take. By intervening line this in our personal habit loops, it’s possible to change our negative habits into more positive ones.

If we return to my example of drinking cola ever day after lunch, we can see that it’s possible to intervene in relation to cues, routines and rewards.

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Intervene on the Cue

Firstly, the cue is sitting back down to work after lunch and feeling a bit flat and sluggish. There may be a way for me to change that cue. For example, if I change what I eat at lunch, or the time that I eat lunch, then I may no longer feel like that.

Perhaps if I ate fewer carbs and finished my lunch off with a piece of fruit, then I wouldn’t experience my cue. Similarly, I only experience this cue when I’m working alone. If I schedule meetings directly after lunch, then perhaps I wouldn’t experience the cue because I’d be distracted by my meetings.

Intervene on the Routine

Secondly, the routine I have is to get up and get a cola. I could replace this routine with something else. I could instead decided that I will meditate for 15 minutes when I feel like this, until the desire passes. Or I could decide that I will read the news for 15 minutes. Either activity could be a displacement of my current routine.

Intervene on the Reward

Are these a good substitute?

Thirdly and lastly, the reward. Instead of having a full fat and caffeine cola, I could substitute my reward to something less bad for me. I could move down to a diet cola (though I think these are probably actually worse for me), or go to a caffeine free one, or even have a black coffee instead. All of these substitutes are variations on my existing habit loop, which introduce a different reward.

Learning More

Habits are powerful things. There’s some dispute about how long it takes to form habits, but luckily we can replace bad habits. When we have habits we get so used to doing things that we basically automate them. When this happens it is known as automaticity. Some product designers use their knowledge of habit loops to create fairly addictive products to increase engagement with them. An example of this is the Hook model of behavior design.

Habits also play a key role in personal behavior and behavior change. There are several different models that look at this type of change including the Kubler-Ross change curve and Transtheoretical Model.

You might also find this podcast on the Kubler-Ross change curve of interest. It covers some aspects of individual psychological change. It also reflects on the roles of leaders in leading through change.

The World of Work Project View

We really like the habit loop and think that it’s a useful tool through which to asses existing habits. It’s very possible to modify and change habits once you have an understanding of their specific cues, routines and rewards.

From a leadership or coaching perspective we think it’s worth being aware of the the habit loop and the idea that it’s easier to modify habits and behaviors than to eliminate them completely. This concept is useful for helping others around you develop and improve their performance in the world of work.

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This post is based on general reading and on some content that Charles Duhigg has written about in his book: “The Power of Habit”.

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