How Habits Work (And How To Change Them)

How Habits Work

Us human beings like to think that we’re the most complex species on the planet.

We’ve built these massive civilisations, we’ve developed incredible technologies and produced breath-taking works of art.

But despite all this complexity, most of our behaviour patterns can actually be described by a simple diagram…


Habit Loop - How Habits Work, Health Room

The Habit Loop – How Habits Work

So this is the habit loop, which essentially explains how habits work. I adapted the diagram from a man named Charles Duhigg, who wrote a great book on habit changing called The Power of Habit.

As you can see from the diagram, there are three main components when it comes to our behaviour or our habits – the cue, the routine, and the reward (also sometimes referred to as the trigger, the action, and the consequence).

Most of our actions are determined by this feedback loop.

Your brain detects a cue, and then signals you to perform a specific routine in order to get a specific reward.

And although many of our habits started initially with conscious thought, they’re now largely performed on autopilot – they’re locked in that feedback loop. They’re unconscious and the pattern has been ingrained, often over several years.

Let’s use the common example of eating a sugary snack in the evening, which is a habit that quite a few people have.

This is an example of a positive feedback loop – you’re seeking a positive response, a positive emotion or feeling. And when you experience this positivity, it reinforces the behaviour pattern, making it stronger

Maybe your long term goal is to be eating healthily, so this evening snacking is a habit that you’ve identified as something that you’d like to change – but no matter what you try, you cant seem to make it budge.

Going back to the three-piece habit loop, the routine piece of the puzzle would be eating the snack in the evening.

Then lets try to identify the cue:

So what’s making you reach for that sugary snack? What’s triggering that action?

Is it hunger? Is it just because you’re bored? Is it because you feel like you need a break at a certain point in time? There may even be more than one cue.

Then we want to look at the reward:

What positive feeling does eating that sugary snack bring to you? Is it the taste? Is it the energy boost, or maybe it’s simply taking a break from your work?

If you’re looking to change a habit or form a new one, you simply need to identify the most important cues and rewards, and then manipulate the loop. 

You’re basically attempting to hijack your natural behaviour system to make it more aligned with your goals.

You can examine your everyday habits or actions, determine which ones you would like to change, and which new healthy habits or actions would get you closer to where you want to be – living a healthy, fulfilling lifestyle.

By looking at common cues, you may start to see patterns emerging. You may start to understand what typically causes you to perform certain unhealthy habits, and what is preventing you from developing new ones. You may then also be able to introduce new cues or triggers, such as post it notes, or reminders on your phone.

Patterns may also emerge when you look at the rewards. You may start to figure out what drives you and makes you tick? The key is then to start substituting certain undesirable actions with new healthier ones, to reap similar rewards.

  • If that unhealthy evening snack simply acts as an energy boost, what healthier alternatives could you choose that would provide you with that same reward?
  • If that cigarette break is your way to destress, what habit could you replace it with to get similar results (without the nasty side effects). Guided meditation or exercise are both good ones that spring to mind.
  • If mindlessly browsing the internet is your default way of winding down, what other hobbies could you replace them with instead? Maybe reading a book or listening to a podcast.

So the next time you think about changing a habit or attempting to reach a goal, think about that habit loop. Think about how you can manipulate it to increase your chances of succeeding long term.

If you want to take your habit changing journey further, I highly recommend taking a free preview of my online course Healthy Habits 101.

With over three hours of content and social support, you’ll be well on your way to creating lasting healthy habits, and getting rid of the ones that are holding you back.



Get a head start on forming healthy habits with the Health Room Starter Guide, along with email updates whenever a new article is posted, subscriber only content, and more. 

Luke Jones
Luke Jones is a mover, blogger and wellness enthusiast. He spends his time exploring and sharing ideas in mindful movement, healthy living and adventure.

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