Image credit: Brian Chang

Learning The Loop: How To Master Your Automatic Behaviour

Hazel Gale
Dec 14, 2015 · 8 min read

By Hazel Gale, Cognitive Hypnotherapist, Athlete & Performance Coach. More at | Facebook |Twitter | G+ |Mailing list here

I run online courses to teach people how to let go of self-sabotaging habits, thoughts and feelings and begin to maximise their potential at work, in relationships, in sports… You can begin the Thought Engineering course as a free trial to determine whether you feel it could help you with your mental stumbling blocks. I’d love to have you on board!

Practically everything we do is habitual. We follow programmed patterns of behaviour when we brush our teeth, tie our shoelaces, go to work, the gym, the pub… We learn a sequence of steps for a certain outcome and then we stick with it.

But of course, there are good ones and there are bad ones. This article looks at how habits are formed and explains a simple process to reroute unwanted behaviours and install some more desirable ones.

Image credit: Abigail Keenan

The habit loop:

This cycle is known as the habit loop (Charles Duhigg: The Power Of Habit) and it consists of three elements:

The cue is the thing that triggers the habitual behaviour. It could be a negative emotion like loneliness, boredom or stress. Or, it could be a certain situation, a group of friends, the time of the day etc.

The routine is the habit itself: the biting of nails, smoking of cigarettes, or walking over to the fridge and eating a massive lump of cheese (just me?).

The reward could be anything pleasurable. It might be as obvious as the physical stimulation of nicotine or sugar (although, even if that’s a part of it, there is very often more to it than just that). It could be connected to a feeling of acceptance, belonging or achievement; or it could simply be an excuse to get away from your desk.


So, if a cue is encountered but not shortly followed by the routine and reward, we experience a sense of longing or yearning. We have a craving.

It’s this that keeps a gambler glued to the slot machine for hours, and what can motivate a drug addict to do all manner of unthinkable things in order to get their fix.

Feedback loops

What makes something like gambling or drug use so terribly addictive is that the routine itself can easily manifest another emotional cue immediately afterwards. Once a drug addict starts coming down, or the gambler loses money, they’ll often experience the very same negative feeling that cued their last indulgence… and so it goes on.

How to break a habit:

Once you’ve identified the cue-routine-reward loop for your habit, as long as you keep the cue and reward the same, you can substitute in a new routine.

Here’s a summary of Charles Duhigg’s framework for changing an undesirable routine.

1. What’s the cue?

The cue might not be immediately evident. Do you eat at a certain time of day? Is it worse in a particular place in your home? Do you find yourself mindlessly wandering to the kitchen and grabbing something only when you hit a tricky bit?

Habit cues generally fit into one of five categories:

a) Location
b) Time
c) Emotional state
d) Other people
e) Immediately preceding action

To work out exactly what your habit’s cue is, keep a notebook with you and at the moment the urge presents, write down the answer to these five questions:

a) Where are you?
b) What time is it?
c) What’s your emotional state?
d) Who else is around?
e) What action preceded the urge?

The real cue will be the one that remains consistent as you tot up the examples.

2. What’s the reward?

By trying out different behaviours over a period of time you can start to shed light on exactly what the loop is achieving. The idea is to find any other way to get the craving to subside (it’s often only partial or temporary relief at first, but that’s still the information you are looking for).

Image credit: Dominik Martin

So, one day try drinking a glass of water or herbal tea instead. Another day, walk into a different room. Try doing some press ups, singing a song, switching work tasks or calling your mum.

Each time you substitute in a new routine, allow fifteen minutes to pass and then test to see if the craving is still as strong. If it isn’t (or if it has gone) then whatever you did instead has satisfied the real craving.

You can also experiment with variations of the habit you want to break. Try quickly grabbing the usual cookie but immediately sitting back down and eating it while you continue working. If afterwards you don’t feel that same sense of satisfaction and you still want to get up and grab another, then maybe you’re not craving the sugar. Maybe you are really looking for a time out. The cookie is nothing more than a scapegoat.

Action plan

Write your plan as an affirmation and keep it in a place where it’ll remain in your awareness (so pop it on the fridge, or make it your desktop screensaver).

This is all it needs to say:

“Every day when (the cue happens) I will do (the new routine)”

It takes a certain amount of commitment to begin with, but it will continue to get easier as time goes on. I’ve read that it takes 21 days to set a new habit (I’m not sure how they came to that conclusion, but if we’re talking about a daily occurrence, then that may well be a decent guideline).

As soon as you have written your affirmation, visualise yourself encountering the cue and going about the positive behaviour. Do this five times, and then repeat the visualisation once or twice a day, or whenever you see the written affirmation.

As far as your brain is concerned, imagining yourself do something is as good as doing it, so repeated visualisation will act as a catalyst for the installing of your new habit.

Creating new positive habits

Image credit: Francesco Gallarotti

For example, to start running on Monday and Wednesday mornings, begin leaving your trainers out the night before (the cue) and then really commit to getting out there when you see them the following morning. The endorphins and feeling of virtuousness should suffice as a reward (or you could have a nice smoothie, I suppose).

The more times you you do this, the more strongly you’ll anticipate the reward when you see your trainers waiting for you, and the less motivation the run will require.

One final thing to bear in mind:

This means that you can choose to find a silver lining in the next big upset in your life. Being made redundant could actually turn out to be one of the most positive things that ever happened to you, you just need to make the most of the window.

FYI, you can make me happy by giving that applause button a few clicks. Thanks! / Newsletter / Facebook / Twitter / Instagram / LinkedIn

For an exploration of the psychology of self-sabotage (and how to take control), take a look at my book, Fight: Win Freedom From Self-sabotage.

The Coffeelicious

Home to some of the best stories on medium.

Hazel Gale

Written by

Boxer-turned-therapist and author of “The Mind Monster Solution” // // Instagram: hazel.gale.therapy // Send me a message:

The Coffeelicious

Home to some of the best stories on medium. Look around, relax and enjoy one with a sip of coffee.

Hazel Gale

Written by

Boxer-turned-therapist and author of “The Mind Monster Solution” // // Instagram: hazel.gale.therapy // Send me a message:

The Coffeelicious

Home to some of the best stories on medium. Look around, relax and enjoy one with a sip of coffee.

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