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  • Writer's pictureHeather

The Habit Loop -- What it is and how to break free

Updated: Sep 16, 2019

The Habit Loop – What it is and how to break free

A couple years ago, I picked up this book called “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg and was blown away! I mean, Blown. Away. So, if you are reading this right now and (a) have not heard of the book or (b) heard of it but not read its sweet succulent interior, take a pause and open Amazon. Even better, just following this link and ‘Add to Cart à Complete Order.’ It will be one of the best $13 you’ve spent in your life.

I’ve thought a lot about this topic over the past year as I have been working towards a better me. When you sit back and look at your actions from the vantage point of an outsider, it is actually quite enlightening. It’s hard as hell, and perhaps even more difficult to accept the things you are seeing, but that is what makes the reflection so powerful.

The prevalent theme in Duhigg’s mastery, and ultimately, the thought process that governs all actions is as follows:

Every habit has three parts[1]:

The Cue

The Routine

The Reward

This can be applied so innumerable situations, but today we focus on nutrition habits.

I’ve also included a worksheet at the end of this post to help you sort through some of your thoughts/habits.

Step 1: The Cue

This is a trigger of some sort, something that happens in your day-to-day that sparks your brain to go into automatic mode. You aren’t actually consciously making decisions about these actions because they have become so innate in your being that you are on auto-pilot. This does not happen overnight, and depending on the habit, the formation time can vary. Let’s agree, though, that if you have identified a habit you'd like to change chances are you’ve been practicing it for quite some time.

Let’s use my most recent challenge as an example. I am addicted to candy. Have been for most of my life. And I’m not talking chocolate and bonbons. I mean chewy, gummy, sweet morsels of heaven. Jelly Beans. Life Saver Gummies. Twizzlers. Call a cab, I’m toast.

So when I took a step back and assessed when it was I either ate these things, or had an uncontrollable urge to stuff my face with them I noticed something. Television. Freaking T.V. There was something about sitting on my couch alone with the blue light shining in my eyes that triggered something in me. CUE.

Step 2: The Routine

The routine you follow after the CUE can be either physical, mental, or emotional but it is routine and you act upon it without thought.

As mentioned in Step 1, my routine when in front of the TV alone was to fill the space. And that filler was candy. It got to the point where if I knew I was catching up on episodes that night, I’d make a stop at the convenience store to ensure I had some candy in my “stash”.

Step 3: The Reward

This step determines if the loop is worth remembering for the future. Is the reward so good that you want to feel it again and again?

This can also be physical, emotional or mental. Lower body fat, faster sprint time, increased feelings of happiness, relaxation the list goes on.

For me, the reward was the sugar rush and joy I felt, the boost of energy. It made me feel a bit euphoric and not like I was sitting on my couch in an old t-shirt immersing myself in the lives of NCIS or Veep.

Bonus Step 4: Create a Plan

It’s great if you can identify the cues, recognize the response/habit and acknowledge what reward you get from it…but where do you go from there?

Make a plan. A plan where all else remains the same EXCEPT THE ROUTINE. The cue may never change, and you still want to receive that same high from the reward so the routine is all that’s left.

What can you replace the current routine with that will provide you with the same reward? This is where properly identifying the reward comes into play, and honestly may be the most difficult. When I dug deeper into my habit, I realized that it was about tasting something sweet and doing something other than just sitting on my butt.

So what could I do that would replace that routine? For me, it was tea. I further realized when I started brewing a pot each evening I sat in front of the TV, that it actually wasn’t the sugar rush. It was just something to occupy my hands and mouth while my eyes and brain were focused on something else.

Once an alternative action or activity is identified, we need to test it out. Stick with the action for 4-6 weeks. Do you notice any change? This portion is all about trial and error and it is OK if the first change you make isn’t the one that sticks. It is important, though, to give it the old college try and work with it for a bit. Habits take time to form, and reshaping habits follow suite.


Ok so here’s the deal. We’re going to break these habits together. Below is an exercise I recommend you test out – and start with only ONE habit, one cue. Progress takes time and dividing your focus is not going to help you.

You are living your optimal healthy lifestyle. How does that look like to you?

What is one habit you currently have that is inhibiting your progress?

When does this habit/action come out? What are you doing? Who are you around? What time of day is it?

What is the result of you performing this action? How does it make you feel (emotionally, physically, or mentally)?

It is at this point you have identified The Cue, The Routine, and The Reward. Now let’s make a plan!

Is there another activity/action you can take that will provide you with the same reward?

For the next 4-6 weeks, when the cue strikes, practice following this new action. Change takes time and the first thing you try may not stick. But you have to give it a chance to gain traction.

[1] The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, by Charles Duhigg

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