Breaking the Habit: How the ‘Habit Loop’ Can Be Hacked

Whether we want to admit it or not, humans are creatures of habit. Good habits make us contributing members of society, bad habits do the opposite. Naturally, we all want to be functioning people in our community while keeping our mental and emotional health safe and sound.

Of course, real life doesn’t work that way, and unfortunately, most of us will start developing bad (or, if you prefer a non-moralistic word, then detrimental to society and self) habits. Personally, I think one or two bad habits isn’t all that bad; that being said, when those habits start affecting your daily life in a negative way, it’s time for a change.

The Habit Loop

Easier said than done, of course, as anyone who’s ever tried to quit smoking will tell you. It’s all because of a psychological phenomenon that one researcher calls the “Habit Loop”. The Habit Loop is like a behavioral algorithm that journalist and author Charles Duhigg claims is responsible for the set of actions we call “habits”.

The author claims that the Habit Loop consists of three, main stages:

  1. The Cue: any kind of stimuli that acts as a trigger for your brain to enter into a state of automation. The cue is the one that starts off your habit, and it could be as simple as a click (like in mice) or as complex as a concept (like “lunch time”).
  2. The Routine: the “habit”, i.e. the activity (or, in some cases, non-activity) or response to the cue, be it physical, mental, or in some cases, emotional.
  3. The Reward: the serotonin fix that your brain gives you as a ‘reward’ for going through the habit.

A set of cues, routines, and rewards, when repeated over time, become habit, or, an automatic neurological complex that barely registers in our conscious mind. However, a habit is only cemented when the Cue-Reward system trains our brain to crave it: that is, our brains are locked in, well, a loop of wanting the Reward that it can only achieve if it goes through the Routine.

But far from being some sort of esoteric, ethereal, emotion, cravings are a neurological phenomenon that happens when the cue is initiated. In fact, scientists have found that craving in and of itself lights up our brain’s pleasure centers almost as much as if it achieved the Reward already. This anticipatory response is what drives the brain to go into auto-pilot mode: it must achieve this reward, and the only way it knows how is to undergo the Routine.

Over time, our brains start associating the Cue with pleasure and the Reward, thus launching us automatically into the Routine, thus giving birth to a new Habit.

Breaking The Habit, Changing the Loop

Habits are only really problematic when they start becoming detrimental to us: the habitual burger will kill you, so will the coffee break cigarette. And while the habit loop itself is never going to go away (our brains are hardwired to reward cues, after all), there is a way to change the loop, turning the bad or detrimental habit into a positive one.

To break a habit, one doesn’t need to change the whole loop: in fact, it’s best to keep the structure of the loop, the Cue-Routine-Reward system. The only difference? Change the routine.

Remember that the habit only starts when the cue initiates it. The cues, as mentioned, is going to be pretty much anything, from the simple to the complex. The reward is a neurological response that is always going to be present. The only thing transmutable in the whole formula is the routine, the set of actions (or inaction) that is required for the Reward to be initiated.

habit forming
Photo by THE 5TH on Unsplash

This deliberate reprogramming of the brain isn’t as impossible or complex as it may seem, and in fact, can be broken down to a few simple steps:

Step 1: Figure Out What the Routine Is

The step that requires a lot of introspection: what is the routine, or, to put it simply, what is the habit that you want to change? Do you want to stop smoking? Sleep earlier? Wake up earlier? Be more focused? Whatever it is you want to change, the first and foremost step will be accepting that a change is needed at all.

Step 2: The Routine is Not the Reward

We often think that the Routine itself is the Reward; but in reality, the reward is the serotonin, the pleasure chemical your brain releases when it feels like it has ‘deserved’ it, i.e., when the Routine is complete.

This means two things: first, what we crave is not the thing in and of itself, but rather, the neurological response to it. Secondly, that neurological response will happen regardless of what the routine is; the only thing that mattered is that the Routine was completed.

Step 3: Pay Attention to the Cue

Once you’ve identified the habit and made it clear to yourself that it’s the routine that needs changing, not the reward, it’s time to look into the Cue, the thing that triggers the entire process. Again, this can be anything from an emotional state, a place, a time, a mark, a mission, a brand, a scar, etc.

Or, to put it simply, psychologists have figured that most, if not all, habits fall into these five categories:

  • Location
  • Time
  • Emotional State
  • Other People
  • Immediately preceding action

Pay attention every time you feel the urge to engage in the habit you’re trying to break. Maybe it’s a place you’ve walked into, or the time of day, or that feeling you get immediately preceding an action. Regardless, pay attention this cue so that when it happens again, you’ll be prepared to change the routine.

Step 4: Stick to the New Habit

As with ‘bad’ or detrimental habits, ‘good’ or beneficial habits can only ‘stick’ if they are repeated over time. The habit that you want to ‘break’, or in this case transmute, needs to be repeated as much as the previous one so that your brain can be reprogrammed to identify this new Routine (the habit you’re replacing the old one with) as the precursor to the reward.

It varies from person to person, but in general, experts say that it takes 18 to 254 days for a person to form a new habit and an average of 66 days for a new behavior to become automatic. It takes a while, but hey, nothing worth having comes easy, after all.

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