The Habit Loop: How To Build Positive Habits That Set You Up For Success

Louis Chew
Aug 8, 2017 · 5 min read

Alcoholics Anonymous is one of the most influential organisations in bringing about positive habit change.

Millions credit the program for getting them out of a downward spiral that could have destroyed their lives. Nobody knows how successful the program really is, but many of the treatment programs used today for destructive behaviours have adapted their methods from the AA.

And yet, Alcoholics Anonymous was founded by a group of amateurs who had no scientific background. Bill Wilson, co-founder of the organisation, reportedly failed to graduate from law school because he was too drunk to pick up his high school diploma.

This begs the question — what is Alcoholics Anonymous doing that has made it so effective?

The Habit Loop

Researchers have an answer for that: the program works because it forces people to identify the cues and rewards that encourage their alcoholic habits. It then helps them find new behaviours to replace the old ones.

Much has been said about building habits. We study the habits of those who are successful and try our best to mimic them. Yet, we often aren’t very successful in doing so.

In The Power Of Habit, Charles Duhigg writes that the habits are responsible for most of what we do. It’s the brain on autopilot, becoming so efficient that we don’t consciously think about every single action we make.

The problem comes when we internalise an action that harms us and makes it a habit. To get rid of that habit, we first have to understand the entire process. This is best illustrated by the Habit Loop, as seen below.


The idea is that our behaviour is guided by a cue, routine and reward. To change your behaviour, you need to isolate and identify the cues and rewards you are looking for. The only thing that you need to change is the routine.

For instance, the reward you’re looking for may be to satisfy your craving for novelty. The cue will more often than not be when you have a small pocket of free time. The routine that we’ve developed in such situations would be familiar to most — we pull out our mobile phones and scroll our endless social media feeds.

Knowing this allows us to replace our social media habit with a plethora of healthy ones — reading and exercising for a start — while allowing us to be satisfied in the short run. And that’s the first step to setting ourselves up for success in the long run.

Understanding Your Habits

Of course, it’s not always so simple to isolate the cues and rewards that we’re used to and put it into a graph. The only way to know for sure is through slow experimentation.

Duhigg was aware that this was the only practical way most of us could ever attempt to change our habits. It takes time for us to identify our rewards and the motivations that drive our behaviour. For instance, do we snack because we are hungry, looking for something novel or want to relieve stress? Chances are, it’s usually a mixture of the above three.

But you’ll be able to identify your own cravings as you experiment with different factors. If having a heavier lunch doesn’t change the fact that you’re still tempted to snack two hours later, you can conclude that it’s not hunger driving your habit. Do this a few times and you’ll understand the reward you’re after — then adjust the routine to fill that need.

Start Small

The exact science of behavioural change is complicated, but it doesn’t mean that it’s not possible to effect beneficial change in your life.

The problem is that most of us start too big when we want to build good habits into our lives. We get caught up in the moment, and want to pursue a new goal. We forget that any lasting change takes a lot of time to build.

Stanford professor, BJ Fogg, suggests that we start really slowly. If you want to build a flossing habit, start by flossing just one tooth. Just one. It’s what he calls the ‘Minimum Viable Effort’. Here’s what he has to say:

Make it tiny. To create a new habit, you must first simplify the behavior. Make it tiny, even ridiculous. A good tiny behavior is easy to do — and fast.

It may sound ridiculous, but it’s cognitive dissonance at its finest. Our brain decides that since we’ve started, we might as well just follow through and do more anyway. Once you’re doing it consistently, make the steps bigger. That works far better than being too ambitious initially and then quitting.

Keystone Habits

There are a ton of habits out there that many suggest we pick up. They are the things which separate the successful and the mediocre — at least what many people claim and say.

But there are some habits that are far more powerful than others. For many, exercise seems to be one such habit. Those who begin exercising regularly also start eating more healthily. They procrastinate less. They rack up less credit card debt. There’s a myriad of benefits and new behaviours that seem completely unrelated to the original habit.

These are what Duhigg calls keystone habits. These habits don’t just change a behaviour, but also fundamentally alter how you see yourself. He writes:

The power of a keystone habit draws from its ability to change your self image. Basically, anything can become a keystone habit if it has this power to make you see yourself in a different way.

If you’re just starting out, don’t go chasing after every bit of positive change at once. Rather, start with a habit that makes you see yourself as the kind of person you want to be.

You’re In Control

Aristotle wrote that we are what we do repeatedly. The unconscious behavioural patterns that we call habits have a bigger impact than you can imagine.

It doesn’t matter if the odds are stacked against you. It doesn’t matter that companies such as Facebook, Twitter and Snap have poured millions into optimising their products to capture and hold your attention. It doesn’t matter that habit change doesn’t come easy.

You’re still in control. You determine whether a small habit compounds into achievement years later or a bad one leads to a downward spiral. Realisation of this simple fact is the first step to changing your behaviour.

Call To Action

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