The Habit Loop: Create New Habits that Last!

Habit is a rather broad term that loosely refers to the passive process of performing certain actions by repeating them unconsciously, over and over again. Habits can be both good and bad. There may be habits that need improvement or there maybe a need to create new habits.

Delving deep into the process, we know, habits are a result of complex brain functions. Apparently it seems like an unconscious ritual, but in reality, every habit is a result of the human sensory nervous system constantly seeking a hit of dopamine, the reward chemical. In our subconscious, human mind is wired to seeking pleasure and performs actions that give them the same. Eventually, when the brain establishes a connection between the action and satisfaction, this information is safely stored in the brain. Once stored in the brain the action soon turns into a habit that is performed effortlessly.

This is just the starting point of the habit loop. Here’s how the habit loop works:

Cues – The starting point of any habit is a stimulus that triggers the brain to initiate a certain behavior. The trigger could be a certain location, any specific time of the day or an emotional state. Almost always, the trigger is backed by some kind of reward which takes us to the second step – craving.

Craving – The second level of the habit loop and the motivational force behind every habit. Without the craving of a particular outcome, there is no reason to act or bring about a change. It is interesting to note that every craving is linked to a desire for change in the internal state. One does not crave a cigarette, one craves the feeling of relief that comes with smoking. Similarly, one may crave music simply because of the feeling of relaxation it provides.

Response – Response, the third step of the habit loop, is the actual habit, action or behavior that is performed to achieve the desired outcome.

Reward – The feeling of satisfaction or the reward that comes with the outcome of the habit. The feeling of relief reinforces the cue, making the cue a stronger trigger for the next craving. That is why it is often referred to as an endless loop.

The habit loop happens subconsciously; over a period of time it becomes second nature. The human mind performs it with ease. The human brain likes this comfort and wants to stick to a routine. This is what makes forming new habits so difficult.

According to researcher Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz, most new habits (especially healthy ones) fail because we are not practising “self-directed neuroplasticity.” According to this theory, the brain can create positive habits primarily by intentionally rewiring the brain or through active reflection.  

It might sound scary but there is always a way forward. If you are wondering what’s the next step, then this is what you can try:

1. First, break the habit loop into 2 phases:

The Problem Phase: Cue & Craving

The Solution Phase: Response & Reward

2. Next, analyse the habit in the two phases.

E.g., Your phone buzzes (cue) You want to drop everything and check your messages (being in control of everything – craving) You immediately grab your phone (response) You read the message and feel a sense of satisfaction (Reward).

This is a habit that you want to break and you don’t know how to address it. Here’s what you can do:

3. Finally break the loop:

Next time you phone buzzes, (Cue) practice self-directed neuroplasticity. Craving is still the same – to be in control. This time intentionally rewire your brain to not touch the phone until you have finished the job at hand or at least for 5 minutes. This is how you control yourself. Respond to your craving by reflecting on the fact that the phone is not going anywhere (Respond).  It can wait as it is a message and not an urgent call. And reward yourself for the new response you’re building. 

And remember, the world will not end in five minutes.

The key to creating new habits and breaking old ones is to understand the fundamental laws of the habit loop and adjusting them to your specifications. Every habit is doomed to fail unless they are tailor made to the basic human nature of an individual.

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Source: Atomic Habits, James Clear