How does the habit loop work?

“Habits can not be eradicated or erased, they can only be replaced"

 How neuroscience explains habit formation?

Scientists have researched habit formation and have identified the three steps that lead to the creation of a new habit, they call this the neurological loop.  These three steps are involved in all habit formation whether it be a good or a bad habit.  Effectively, about 50% of our day is just a number of these loops repeated over and over again. The pattern of our lives that we repeat on a daily basis becomes ingrained in our brain, the longer we repeat patterns the more deeply ingrained they become. By understanding this, we can can become more aware of our own habits and we can examine which are good and bad and where they come from. 

This 3 step loop is very simple. It is cue, routine and reward.

The Cue - this can be any external trigger, a sound, a colour, a smell, a person-your best friend or your boss.  These cues cause a reaction in the brain telling which habit to instigate.  These cues are not just from external signals, they can also come from internal triggers like certain feelings; when the brain detects feelings such as stress, boredom, anxiety, it initiates the habit that has been formed to deal with that emotion, such as mindless eating when you are bored or stressed.

The Routine- this is an activity itself that has been hardwired into the brain to deal with a particular cue.  The brain is extraordinary machine that finds the most energy efficient way of solving any problem that arises, it is mainly concerned with our survival.  If it has recognized, that you have a particular way of dealing with a cue, it will skip the analysis part of the problem and move straight to the automatic solution, in this way it conserves energy.

The Reward- this is normally the release of happiness hormones such as dopamine, endorphin, serotonin and oxytocin.  The brain releases these hormones, when it decides that the routine is one that should be repeated in the future.  The more frequently the hormones are released as a result of the routine the more ingrained it becomes, and the more quickly the routine becomes associated with the cue. 

For example my habit loop of  my exercise habit is:

Cue- I am feeling stressed, bored or anxious, which is internal trigger.

Routine- I  exercise for 30 minutes and accomplish a habit which is associated with the cue of being stressed.

Reward-I feel relaxed and happy because dopamine is released into the bloodstreem, I achieved the goal of exercise.

Now, I have another example of my:

Cue- I feel stressed.

Routine- I crave for something sweet, I eat some dark  chocolate.

Reward-I feel happy and satisfied and dopamine released into bloodstreem, I achieved the goal of eating the chocolate.

Understanding how the brain works is a good way to start giving yourself the best chance of changing your habits. One of the best ways to change your habits is use your current routines instead of fighting them. Be aware of what you do and why you do it.We talk about this in more detail in the next post!

Every workout counts!



Tomas Vaicelis