The Habit Loop

How many times have you heard, “we’re creatures of habit?” Have you ever stopped to think what that really means? Or have you just accepted that, as we do many sayings we use, as just another expression.

I just got off of skype with my 81 year old step-father where I asked him what is something he does everyday? He said the very first thing he does after opening his eyes is shave.

He has been doing this for over 65 years… every single day. That is an engrained habit. As we are about to learn, most habits have a “trigger” or a “cue” that sets that habit in motion. I was curious to know what is his “cue” to start shaving. I happen to know that he wakes up very early every morning so, I asked if he used an alarm clock to wake up. I was thinking maybe that is his cue it’s time to shave, and he said no. He said he doesn’t use an alarm any longer because he has been getting up early since he was a little boy, living on a farm. That made me think, another habit.

I’ve been reading the book, “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg and it’s kinda got me thinking.

At first I was curious to know how the heck can you write a whole book on habits? I mean habits are not a new concept are they? We are all familiar with and know we have some good habits and some bad habits, right?

As I was reading the book I was getting more and more fascinated and alarmed with the impact of, and the inter workings of our habits.

Here is a specific quote that got me to go introspective:

“But the discover of the habit loop is so important is that it reveals a basic truth: When a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision making. It stops working so hard, or diverts focus to other tasks. So unless you deliberately fight a habit — unless you find new routines — the pattern will unfold automatically.”

As I sat in my red-neck reading chair (which is actually a Costco beach chair), I wondered how many bad habits I have unfolding automatically without my even being aware. It fit perfectly with my understanding of mastery, that the lowest level of mastery is “unconscious incompetence” – which basically means that someone isn’t even aware that they are incompetent at something. Like the person that chomps their gum. They probably have no clue they do that until someone brings it to their attention.

It’s true the results we have today are the results of the things that we do most often, which of course are our habits.

In the past decade, our understanding of neurology and psychology of habits and the way patterns work within our lives, societies and organizations has expanded in ways we could not have imagined just 50 years ago.

We now know why habits emerge, the science and mechanics behind them. We know how to break them down into a ‘habit forming’ model so that we can manipulate, tweak and change them.

Transforming a habit isn’t always easy or quick. But it’s possible. And now we have an understanding of how to do it.

The Habit Loop

According to Duhigg there is a “habit loop”, which consists of a cue + routine + reward. Pretty similar to Pavlov’s classic conditioning right?

Well, what researchers have found is that there is a critical component missing from that equation and that is a “craving” for the reward.

You won’t have a created a habit unless, you have created a desire or craving for the reward.

Let me give you an example.

I’m sure you are familiar with a product called Febreze. That is one of the best selling products for Proctor and Gamble. I believe it has sold billions. But it was very nearly one of the company’s biggest flops.

At first they were marketing it as a product that would get rid of the odors caused by animals, smoke ect. The product really is amazing. It doesn’t just cover up odor it actually eliminates it.

With any consumable product you would love to have the consumer use and reuse your product regularly… basically a consumer habit.

So the habit model was simple: Cue (smell) + Routine (clean) = Reward (no smell)

If failed miserably.

After spending millions on the product’s development and production, executives were about to abandon the product, but at the last hour, decided to give it one more chance.

This time they tapped researchers to use everything that science had discovered in habits to help re-formulate their campaign.

What they discovered is that their current campaign had a couple things wrong. First of all most people that have dogs or that are smokers become immune to their own smell and odors. So there won’t be a “cue” or trigger to clean.

Secondly, they discovered that the reward of “no smell” was not a strong enough reward to create a craving.

So here is how they tweaked their habit loop:

They repositioned Febreze from an “odor eliminating” product to a “fresh smell creating” product. They reformulated it include a fragrance and they positioned it to be the icing on the cake after cleaning your house.

Cue (dirty carpet/no fresh smell) + routine (vacuum carpets) = reward (clean smelling room)

In this case, their reward became addicting. Housewives considered it a signal that they had accomplished something and they had something to show for their hard work.

With this understanding of and some simple tweaking of the habit loop, P&G took a product that was about to be a flop and turned it into a grand slam.

So how can you use this in your business or personal life?

First of all, understand this: Most habits form without your knowledge. Secondly, once they are formed, they are hardcoded into your brain always waiting to come back out with the right cues and rewards.

If you want to change a habit, you must find out what your habit loop is. What are the cues that set this habit into motion, what are the rewards? What do you get out of this habit? It’s usually not what you think. Smokers seldom say they smoke because they get nicotine.

Once you know your habit loop, if you want to change a habit, it’s most effective to change the routine. Find another routine (behavior) that will give you the same reward but is more empowering.

For example, if someone has a smoking habit, the habit loop is like this:

Cue (stress) + Routine (smoke) = Reward (mental well being)

In this case, you would need to find some other behavior that will will give you mental well being. (Note: everyone has their own rewards, your mileage may vary.)

This explains why so many people gain wait when they quit smoking.

Cue (stress) + Routine (eating) = Reward (mental well being)

Another and more effective way to quit smoking would be:

Cue (stress) + Routine (walk or run) = Reward (mental well being/endorphins/sense of accomplishment)

If you want to form a new habit of working out in the morning, deliberately create cues like:

Cue (tie shoes/set workout close out) + Routine (workout) = Reward (endorphins/sense of accomplishment/the feeling of creating the body you deserve)

Habits are one of the greatest predictors of success and familiar in anything you do. If you have good habits, nourish and enrich them. If you have bad habits, identify their habit loop of cues + routine = reward and actively start to replace them with actions that are going to help you get to where you want to go faster.

How important do you think habits are in your day to day life?


  1. Rob Carlson on August 21, 2012 at 11:58 pm

    Cue (rough day at work) + Routine (distract myself with Martini) = Reward (mental well being) OR.

    Cue (great day at work) + Routine (celebrate with Martini) = Reward (mental well being)….what the heck do I do now? 😉

    In all seriousness, excellent post. I have had my eye on this book for the last couple of weeks. I will go get it now. Thanks again Jeff.

  2. Rob Carlson on August 21, 2012 at 11:58 pm

    Cue (rough day at work) + Routine (distract myself with Martini) = Reward (mental well being) OR.

    Cue (great day at work) + Routine (celebrate with Martini) = Reward (mental well being)….what the heck do I do now? 😉

    In all seriousness, excellent post. I have had my eye on this book for the last couple of weeks. I will go get it now. Thanks again Jeff.

  3. David on March 30, 2016 at 7:44 pm

    Betty Crocker (or maybe it was Duncan Heines) did the same thing when cake mixes first hit the market. They couldn’t get the wives/mothers to use the pre-mixes because they felt guilty about not having a role in really preparing the cake, like they did when doing it by scratch. They felt like women who would use these pre-mixes would be bad wives/mothers.

    So, this problem was easily solved by adding a simple preparation step that required an extra step to be performed by the wife/mother at home. The company simply required that the wife/mother add an egg to the mix and personally blend it in.

    Voila!! Cake mixes were saved….

  4. David on March 30, 2016 at 8:13 pm

    Another concept is that of a pendulum, whereas we swing from the absolute vertical position (the status quo) for one of 2 reasons: either 1) to escape pain/discomfort, or 2) to gratify with pleasures.

    If either the motivations of pain and or pleasure are insufficient, a person will not likely move from the status quo, even when they know that a change would be better for them.

    Also, we all know that pain is a more powerful motivator than pleasure. That is why people procrastinate going to the dentist, studying for a test, eating/exercising to avoid adverse health issues, etc. until there is pain. The pleasure benefits are always there, but often not powerful enough to invoke a change of status quo (comfort zone) until there is an immediate crisis looming or upon them.

    Therefore, a transformational formula has to be illuminated in order to have the person establish the

    Cue (potential stressor) + Routine (Constructive Gratification (vs. Destructive Vice)) = Reward (most positive/beneficial consequence)

    For example, if your kid hates Algebra, a transformation to a positive habit will unlikely be possible until studying Algebra is converted into something that provides constructive gratification for the teenager. A paradigm shift has to be facilitated in order to induce greater pleasure for the constructive gratification (becoming fun enjoyable game), over the destructive vice (excessive playing, TV, computer, etc). And of course, the Beneficial Reward(s) will be reduced anxiety prior to tests due to confident preparation, excellent performance indicated by tests, and the personal pride, parental pride, academic recognition, peer respect/admiration/envy/etc (instead of the low expectation glee for simply scraping by).

    Same concept could be used for anything:

    Physical Health
    Emotional Health
    Relationship Health
    Finance Health
    Spiritual Health
    Any other aspect of life

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