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How Habits are Formed: The Habit Loop

how habis are formed

It can be extremely frustrating if you are trying to implement new habits into your life but keep falling back into your old ways. Understanding how habits are formed is essential to changing your life for the better.

We do what we do, because of habits. Habits run our thoughts, words, and actions. If they have so much power over us, what are we supposed to do about it?

So many people feel overwhelmed when they are trying to pick a habit and insert it into their day. I know, trust me, but if you understand how habits are formed and the simple formula anyone can use, you will be able to start implementing a new routine into your day.

How Habits are Formed

Let’s start at the beginning and break it down. Creating a habit is a 3 step process.

The Habit Loop

How Habits are Formed: The Cue

The cue is what initiates the habit. Our brain responds to the cue automatically. The cue for your habits is not always obvious.

When you are creating a new habit, only pick one cue. If you pick two you will be creating two habits, instead of one. Which could double the amount of time it takes you to form a complete habit. 

Next, you want your cue to be unavoidable. Something that pops out to you and reminds you that you must do your habit. Your cue is the start of everything. To make it unavoidable it needs to be something that happens every day. 

For example, don’t pick when the sun wakes you up from your sleep as your cue. You do not want your cue dependent on the weather. It could be cloudy or rainy that day, which would mean you won’t be prompted to start your habit. 

Your cue should help you move into the next step of your habit, the routine. This is the action of actually doing the habit. So if your cue is as soon as you get to work, then the routine could be: you will read for 15 minutes.

This could cause problems because you could have to do some work first or you might be in a hurry to finish a project.

You want to give yourself the advantage and give yourself as much control over the habit as possible.

Here are some ideas to help you get started:

  • Showering
  • Brushing Teeth
  • Eating
  • Getting Ready For Bed
  • Waking Up
  • Commute to Work
  • Driving

How Habits are Formed: The Routine

As we just talked about this is the action of actually doing the habit. This is the part that everyone thinks about when you talk about habits.

The only thing that brings you closer to forming a habit is consistency. So instead of focusing on working on your habits for extremely long periods of time, focus on just showing up.

If you consistently show up, you will form habits much faster than if you skipped your habits on days when you have low willpower. 

To help with consistency have a minimum and a maximum. If you have a minimum amount of work that you must do towards your habits every day, then you will continue to create this habit no matter what.

Then create a maximum. This is the most amount of work you will do even on a good day.

When you focus on showing up, you will find that often times you will get more done than you expected yourself to. Make your minimum as small as it needs to be. If 5 minutes of reading sounds like too long for your minimum, then lower it to 3.  

Then your max could be 40 minutes, you will find that most of your time will fall in between the maximum and the minimum. But even if you feel like skipping a day, you need to do your minimum.

Another thing I wanna talk about super quick is missing days altogether. We just talked about a trick to help ensure this doesn’t happen. But it’s likely to happen every once in a while. 

I want you to be able to create these habits, keep them long term, and make them strong. It seems like when everyone misses a single day of their habit, they immediately think that they have ruined all their work. 

That they might as well give up now and go back to their old ways. 

This is why nearly no one sticks to their new year’s resolutions, it is extremely difficult to stick to your habits 100% of the time and then people give up when they make a mistake. Missing one day of your habit doesn’t have much effect. When you miss one day, ensure that you get back to it the next day.  

Multiple days missed is where you start to run into some problems. When you hit about a month missed you will lose nearly all the progress you have gained.  

How Habits are Formed: The Reward

No habit is complete without the reward. This is what you are getting in return for completing this habit.

If you choose the correct reward it can have profound benefits to your habit formation process. The reward has to be worth your time to go through the habit. 

Humans are instant gratification animals, you must place your reward directly after your routine, it needs to be as soon as possible. 

The reward is extremely important. If you are trying to start a new habit, make a reward that is something you desire. It needs to be pleasurable. If your habit is reading, your reward cannot be the knowledge you gain by reading. It needs to be something extra added in. 

It needs to be instant. You must get the reward directly after having performed the routine.

Rewards depend a lot more on you. Use rewards that you value. Something that will push you through when you don’t feel like completing your habits. Here are some rewards that will help you get started:

  • Relaxation
  • Food
  • Play
  • Treat
  • Sleep
  • Fun

This is how habits are formed, use the complete three-step process for the best results. Here are some more tips and tactics to form any habit you want with ease.

The Habit Loop: The Craving

The craving is a big piece of every habit puzzle. Think of the craving as the fuel that lights the fire. After a habit is developed, your brain starts to crave the reward.

It happens somewhere inside the routine. Your brain recognizes the cue, and it starts the craving phase.

If you are stuck in the cycle of constantly eating junk food, then right after your cue, your mouth may start to water and you could have trouble thinking about anything else besides going right into your routine of eating a donut and some cookies.

The craving can be extremely difficult to push away, but if you apply the craving to a positive habit it can have profound benefits and stop you from losing your healthy habits.

The craving is actually how you know you are creating your habit correctly. You should start to crave your reward even inside a habit that is good for you. 

Implementing The Habit Loop

Now that we understand exactly how habits are formed…

  • Cue
  • Routine
  • Reward

Now we can implement the fastest and easiest way to create your own habits.

Let’s say you are wanting to start a new habit of working out every day. To start we must find a cue. Your cue will be when you see the gym on your drive back from work around 5:30. Setting a time/event for the cue is one of the easiest ways to make sure you continue to do the habit.

That way you know you must work out every day after work, but it helps to know it’s usually around a certain time of day. At the very least, make your cue obvious. Make sure your cue is something that happens every day. Find a gym that is on your drive home, or create a home gym, to make it as easy as possible.

Then immediately start your routine. Have your minimum and maximum set, and make sure you always hit your minimum.

Next is the reward. Obviously, you have the reward of building muscle and burning fat, but that is too far out. We need an instant reward to create the habit loop. 

Make sure this is something that you desire. After your habit of working out, set aside time to have a delicious meal when you get home or give yourself some kind of treat. Just make sure it is something that you can duplicate every day and is right after you finish your habit.

In this example, you would start craving your meal during your workout. That’s how you know you are forming your habit correctly.

How habits are formed and making a habit stick can turn into a long process. This formula of cue, routine, reward is extremely powerful and must be applied to your life

How to Change a Bad Habit

Deconstructing and changing a bad habit can be just as difficult as it is to create healthy ones, and sometimes even harder. But we will use the same formula.

Once you decide you are done with a bad habit, such as eating junk food, take your cue and hide it, make it invisible. Your cue could be every time you see junk food in your pantry. So throw it all out, get rid of it, or give it to a friend.

Next, set yourself up for success. Don’t let yourself find any junk food, don’t hang out with people that have any and tell your friends to not offer you any. This makes it difficult for you to even get any, even if you wanted some. 

The reward can be tricky. You must find a way to make the reward feel unsatisfying. Disassociate yourself with the reward and make yourself not want it.

Use this inverted formula of how habits are formed to destroy your habit and replace it with other actions that are much healthier and better in the long run.

Habit Deconstruction Hack

If this habit is something that is ingrained into your daily routine and you are expecting that breaking this habit will be extremely difficult, there is always hope for you.

One thing you might want to try is to simply leave the cue and reward the same, and specifically attack the routine.

For example, if your cue is you get nervous, when you are answering emails, which leads you to bite your nails (which is the routine), then the reward is the stress relief that biting your nails gives you.

What you could do is replace biting your nails with a much healthier routine, such as writing check marks on a piece of paper.

Every time you get nervous and have the temptation to bite your nails, you pull out a little notecard and write a single checkmark.

This strategy has been proven to break bad habits much faster than simply trying to replace the entire habit loop and start again.

The Most Difficult Part of Forming Habits

Forming habits can feel like such a chore at times. You will be constantly tempted to give up and give in to your old ways. But you can’t give in!

The hardest part of sticking with your habits is being able to not give in for an extended period of time. How can you ensure that you don’t give up? One word: Discipline. Discipline is the ability to do what you say you are going to do.

Are you a master of self-discipline? If you are not I’ve put together a system of how you can ensure that you stay disciplined. Click here to find out How To Be More Self Disciplined.

What Kind of Habits Should You Form?

If you try to form many habits at the same time you could run into some trouble. It’s very hard to continue forming many habits at the same time without giving up. Especially if these habits are “keystone habits”.

Keystone habits are habits that have the potential to affect many other areas of your life. 

For example, let’s say you decide to start going to the gym every day. As you start to form this habit, many other areas of your life will begin to change. If you are working out you are much more likely to start caring about what kind of food you eat.

You begin eating much healthier because you don’t want to waste your workout. Once you put all this work into your health, you realize you no longer want to smoke. You drop this negative habit and become very conscious of your health.

Since you are eating healthy and working out, you begin sleeping better. Which gives you much more energy throughout the day, and you become more productive at work.

You can clearly see how keystone habits have the potential to change many areas of your life other than the area that the habit directly effects. At the same time, this is why these keystone habits are so much harder to form and stick to.

What other kinds of keystone habits are there? 

I cover many of the keystone habits that you should start implementing into your life. One of my favorites is journaling, learn the 7 Benefits of Writing in a Journal.

Another habit that has the potential to completely change your life is reading, learn the 11 Benefits of Reading.

For a full overview of the kind of habits that should be inside your daily routine check out: The 19 Habits of Successful People | Daily Success Habits

healthy habits daily countdown

How Long Does it Take Habits to Form?

I hear people say all the time that it takes 90 days or even 3 weeks to form habits. This can be true, but in reality, there is not a set time that it takes habits to form.

It really depends on you and the kind of habit you are forming. If your habit is taking a drink of water as soon as you get out of bed, this might take less than 3 weeks to form. 

On the other hand, if your habit is going to the gym after work, this could take more than 90 days. 

When you start forming a habit you can’t come into it with all these expectations. The time it takes to completely form a habit will vary depending on you and the type of habit. If you begin with a ton of expectations this could leave you disappointed and wanting to give up.

You have to be willing to put in the time to form complete habits. If you are going to give up every time it gets hard, you will not get anywhere.

Why Do We Form Bad Habits?

Often times it can be much harder to change a bad habit than it is to insert a positive one. It would be so much easier if we never formed these bad habits in the first place. Unfortunately, that’s just now how humans work.

We are designed to look for instant gratification. How to make things easier, make things taste better, save time. It’s just how we are wired. 

With the massive advancements in technology, it has made many of us lazier. At times the right thing to do is let technology take over and help us. But its not always the answer. 

For example our health. Our jobs often require that we sit at our desks for hours at a time. Then we come home and sit on the couch and watch tv for the rest of our day. This is extremely detrimental to our health.

We have to go out on our own and get the exercise our body needs. We can’t do what’s easy and continue to live this way. Sometimes we have to go out there and do extra work.

Key Takeaways – How Habits are Formed: The Habit Loop

Habits and how habits are formed have always been extremely interesting to me, which is why I have studied them so diligently.

Your brain uses habits as a way to conserve energy and put your brain on autopilot. Once we become accustomed to a certain way of living, our brain remembers that. It creates the habit and we start to live our lives without thinking and just following the habits we have formed for ourselves.

It is meant to create a positive outcome. Our brain is designed that way so we can conserve our energy for the harder tasks and never worry about the smaller ones. But in some cases, it creates a multitude of problems…

So many people are going for the instant gratification of donuts, TV, and fast food. They are forming their habits around the wrong things.

Since we go on autopilot because of our habits, it’s incredibly scary, how unaware everyone is of how much time they are wasting, and how sick they are making themselves.

With this formula and the right amount of practice and effort, anyone can take their life, and start to turn it around.

If you are looking to improve your productivity go here: How To Be More Productive – 19 Productivity Hacks

Posted in Habits

5 Comments

  1. Siddharth Shukla

    Agreed to Kathryn’s view on this article. It’s indeed revealing. I, too, loggerhead with techniques to form habits. I must admit that this article is thorough. Thanks! This will help.

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