The Habit Loop and The Four Rules of Habits

Have you ever noticed that sometimes when we start a new habit, it’s effortless to do, and the days just pass by? And then, suddenly, we’re struggling to keep up with our good habits. It’s a well-known fact that the brain is constantly changing, and what we do today affects how our brains work tomorrow, so our habits significantly impact who we are and who we will become in life. This is because habits follow a different pattern than we might expect: they go through four phases – trigger (cue), craving, response (routine), and reward – which psychologists refer to as the “Habit Loop.”

Every habit has an underlying craving; hence it emerges from repeated behavior patterns. We can make new or change old behaviors with conscious effort and repetition because our environment shapes which habit we pick up over time.  The first phase is called the Trigger (or Cue) Phase. This is where your brain starts looking for something specific or unique to fire off an action or behavior. For a behavior to become a habit, it’s essential to be aware of your cues and ensure they’re working in your favor. For example, if you’re trying to develop a fitness habit, you might want to make sure that your cue for working out happens naturally, like waking up in the morning or having dinner at home. By taking control of your cues, you can make it easier to stick to your goals because the cue is the first indication that we’re close to a reward; it naturally leads to a craving. Craving is the second stage of the habit loop, and it is triggered by cues such as thoughts, feelings, and emotions. It is the driving force behind every habit because we have no reason to act unless we are motivated or desire something. It also implies that we crave something other than the habit itself. For example, you are motivated to take a shower by the sensation of having a clean body. Cues and cravings lead to a response or routine, the actual habit we perform, and the third phase in the habit loop. Our response or routine is determined by how motivated we are and how much friction is associated with the behavior; thus, a habit can only occur if we are capable or willing to expend physical and mental effort to make it a routine. Finally, there’s a reward at the end of this loop; something positive happens after following these steps and reinforces our efforts towards turning this activity into a habit. It is the end goal of every habit. The key is figuring out which part of your habit loop needs changing and then coming up with alternate ways for each part of the loop. Once you’ve figured out what needs fixing, it’s time to start experimenting with different behaviors.

The Habit loop is an infinite cycle that constantly scans the environment, estimating what will happen next, experimenting with different responses, and acquiring knowledge from the outcomes—understanding how habits work allows us to use them for our benefit instead of being controlled by them.

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