the habit loop: research on changing your habits

I’ve become very curious about how we develop habits–the good kinds and the bad kinds. My good friend Meredith researches nutrition and pregnancy at Cornell University, and after reading my blog post yesterday,  she sent me a few research articles on developing habits. I’m in the process of reading through them, and I’m learning a lot about what habits are and how we form them. So, I thought I’d share a wee bit of what I’m learning about the science of habit formation and the practical things we can do to develop new habits, particularly in relation to food.

In a nutshell: A habit is a pattern of behavior that we engage in without thinking about it. Habits allow our brains to save mental energy, thereby reserving more energy for performing more complicated tasks. Research has demonstrated that our brain helps us determine when to let a habit kick in rather than letting decision-making guide our behaviors. Research out of Duke University suggests that 40% of the actions we take every day are not “decisions” but habits. 40%! I thought I had far less habits than that but I guess when I think about what I do every day, most of the routine stuff happens on automatic pilot.

One of the articles explores Charles Duhigg’s New York Times best seller The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and BusinessThe gist of the book is that if we can understand our habits, we can break old ones and make new ones. Duhigg’s says this requires that we understand the three-step habit loop. I made this little diagram for y’all to keep in mind when you’re thinking about the habits you have:


The habit loop has 3 steps:
Step 1: the cue
*The cue is that “trigger” that tells your brian to go into automatic mode: to use a habit (rather than a decision-making process) in response to the situation you are in.

Step 2: routine
*The routine is the physical behavior, mental reaction/way of thinking, or the emotional response that is performed in response to the cue.

Step 3: reward
*The reward “helps the brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering” for future situations.

The argument goes that loops become even more automatic with time; the cue and reward “become increasingly linked to create a powerful sense of anticipation” so that a craving is created. The result: a habit is formed. Once something becomes a habit, your brain no longer fully participates in the decision-making. Unless you fight the habit, an automatic response will occur. Duhigg argues that the goal of changing habits is changing these automatic response patterns we’ve developed.

Soooooo, how exactly do we do this? Duhigg argues that we can alter our habits if we take specific steps to mess with our automatic responses. He suggests the following 4 steps, which I’ll explain here in relation to my own habits eating sugar:

Step 1: Identify the routine or behavior you want to change
I want to stop eating refined sugar when I am craving it. I want to stop drinking wine 4-5 nights a week. 

Step 2: Experiment with rewards: Try different rewards when you have a craving and write down your feelings after you have rewarded yourself.
I haven’t listed out my possible rewards for refined sugar, but avoiding wine at night: I’ve been “rewarding” myself with cups of herbal tea and sweet oranges.

Step 3: Isolate the cue.
Research suggests that common cues for habitual behavior are: location, time, emotional state, who else is around, and the action immediately preceding the cue. Paying attention to these cues is key.
Taking Duhigg’s suggestion, I’m going to write down what these 5 cues are for me every time I have a craving for sugar for a week, starting today. This might help me develop a better understanding of what cues my habitual behavior. 

Step 4: Have a plan.
Duhigg suggests that plans are important, and I couldn’t agree more. Planning meals ahead when you have food intolerances is key. If you know you have a craving or a habit at the same time every day, plan to reward yourself by doing something different at that same time. (i.e. I want to drink wine in the evening. Instead, I reach for tea instead of wine at that time.) Over time, you’ll begin to forget about the old habits and begin to develop new routines and better habits.
My current plan: Keep up with the fruit and herbal tea routine at the same time in the evening when I would rather drink a glass of wine. 

I’m really excited to see if I go about being very deliberate about breaking my sugar habit, what other habits I will discover in the process and what new habits I will create. Trying Duhigg’s approach feels more structured to me, which I need right now in my life, given how hectic my semester is. What I’m most curious about is how I justify having sugar when I want it. I think paying attention to 2 & 3 will be key for me.

If you join me in this endeavor, let me know what kind of success you have!


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