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The Habit Loop

Updated: May 14

Transform Your Life by Building and Breaking one Habit at a Time

painting by @ellagrace.art


Habit formation occupies far more of our day to day than we are consciously aware of. What is the simple explanation for this? Our brains are designed to be highly efficient and thinking takes energy. Our brain’s most primitive patterns are buried within its deepest layers. This is in order to make space in the superficial layers for things like learning new skills, dreaming up dreams and being present in the moment. If we had to consciously analyze every piece of our daily morning routine, we would burn through the majority of our fuel before we even got to work. Our mind defaults to making patterns automatic so it doesn’t have to work any harder than necessary. In the words of psychologist and philosopher William James, “All of our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits.”

Our day is made up of multiple series of actions or habits strung together into an automatic routine - a process known as chunking. Once a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision making.  

This brings us to the habit loop - a three-step loop that was discovered by researchers at MIT and has been proven in science, psychology and advertising as the most instinctive way in which we create long lasting, automatic habits.


In the words of psychologist and philosopher William James, “All of our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits.” 

This neurological process at the core of every habit consists of a cue, a routine and a reward. The author of The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg, states, “To understand your own habits, you need to identify the components of your loops. Once you have diagnosed the habit loop of a particular behavior, you can look for ways to supplant old vices with new routines.”¹ A cue is the trigger that tells our brain to go into autopilot and engage in the habitual action. If the goal is to override a current bad habit with something new, gaining conscious awareness of the cue is the first and most important step in replacement. The routine is a physical, mental or emotional series that we follow to reach the reward we are looking for. And the reward is ultimately what creates the motivation to solidify something into a habit; it helps the brain determine if it’s worth remembering this process. Through repetition, the cue and reward become so intertwined that the brain begins to anticipate the reward the moment the cue takes place. This anticipation is the creator of cravings - the most significant driver of the habit loop. 

So what does this look like practically? Let’s go with something as specific as eating ice cream every night after dinner. Maybe this began as a treat at a very young age and now it has become the norm. In this case, the habit loop may look something like this: the cue is wrapping up dinner and taking the dishes to the sink, the routine is pulling the ice cream out of the freezer and bringing it to the couch to mindlessly enjoy and the reward is the satisfying dopamine release from the sugar and sense of nostalgia that brings us back to the ease of childhood. This habit is so deeply ingrained that on the way home from a long day at work, the anticipation driven by that first bite of creamy deliciousness starts to build. The craving is the definer of a rock solid habit. 


Research shows that the success rate of transforming a habit is 80% when one behavior is changed at a time. This number drops to 35% when trying to change two behaviors and only 5% with three or more at once. Choosing to build one habit at a time is recommended when we commit to the RMS MIND program, enabling us to gain mastery and layer habits over time. Dr. Caroline Leaf, communication pathologist and cognitive neuropsychologist, has stated that “Science says that it takes 63 days – or 3 cycles of 21 days – to break down a habit or pattern of thinking. It only takes 21 days to break down a core habit and build up a replacement one, but to avoid falling back into the habit, we need to practise the new way of thinking for at least another 42 days.”² The RMS MIND program is designed to help us restructure unhealthy thinking patterns and uproot the actions they are paired with. Both the thought pattern and the action are manifestations of the brain going into autopilot and performing habits. RMS MIND will encourage us to tackle one thinking pattern across a two month period, just about 63 days. Science supports that as we consistently bring these habits to the forefront of our mind across those 63 days, it will allow for transformation of default settings and rewiring of the brain!  

In a research study titled “How Habits Are Formed: Modelling habit Formation in the Real World,” Lally found that missing a single opportunity to complete a new behavior did not have a significant effect on the habit formation process.³ So we can take heart, and be honest with ourselves on how we are doing, instead of getting discouraged if we slip up for a day or two.  We can use it as an opportunity to assess what led us off track and determine a new game plan for the next time that scenario presents itself. This new approach is most effective when shared with a trusted friend to establish accountability. Connection leads to empowerment! Disclaimer: although the constructs of a habit can be simplified, this is far from easy. It takes fortitude and will come with setbacks through the process, but if we press on we can absolutely transform our lives one habit at a time. 


What can we do now to begin the process of healthy habit building?

First, decide to either build a new habit or break an old one. Remember you can choose anything that you do on a daily basis, but it is important to select something that you can be successful at. Success encourages you to keep going, so it may not be your best idea to try and tackle the thing that has been plaguing you for decades. Build some confidence through a few smaller habits first! Grab a sheet of paper and try a few samples using the template below: 

Building a new habit:

1. Determine the habit.  

2. Determine the reward it brings. 

3. Determine the cue that causes the habit. 

→ SAMPLES


  1. Eat 6 servings of vegetables per day. 

  2. Feeling energized and not sluggish. 

  3. Set a phone reminder an hour before meal times to remind me to have two servings of veggies. 


  1. Develop a 3-minute breathing practice daily. 

  2. Reduces stress and helps me fall asleep faster.

  3. Before I shut off the lights to go to bed, set a timer for 3 minutes of belly breathing.

  4. Get 7 hours of sleep daily. 

  5. Weight loss and more productivity throughout the day.  

  6. Set an alarm to get ready for bed 30 minutes before my determined bedtime. 

Breaking an old habit:

1. Determine the habit. 

2. Determine the reward it brings. 

3. Determine the cue that causes the habit. 

4. Choose a different reward. 

5. Choose a new routine. 

→ SAMPLES 


  1. Eating refined sugar. 

  2. Temporary satisfaction from the dopamine release. 

  3. Finishing dinner and expecting to cap it off with desert. 

  4. Having clear skin because I am no longer breaking out from the sugar. 

  5. After dinner, consuming my favorite fruit instead of a sugary dessert.

  1. Smoking a cigarette.

  2. Nicotine hit that produces a strong sense of pleasure. 

  3. Seeing someone else smoke a cigarette. 

  4. I will receive a dopamine release (feel good hormone) through that strong sense of accomplishment as I note in my calendar another day of succes. 

  5. Write a note in my calendar that I saved my own life every time I was successful. 

  1. Finishing off the day with three drinks. 

  2. Temporarily relieves stress from the workday. 

  3. Pouring a glass of wine while I cook dinner. 

  4. Not waking up with a migraine daily. 

  5. Opening a flavored sparkling water to drink while I cook. 

From your examples, select the habit you are ready to tackle first. Ask yourself if you are 90% sure you can accomplish it? If that still seems daunting, shrink it down to a less intimidating version or choose something else to start. Once you have decided what you are ready to conquer, share your habit below so we can cheer you on to your most restored, mobilized and strengthened self! 

¹ Duhigg, C. (2014). The power of habit: why we do what we do in life and business. New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks.

² Mumtaaz. (2019, November 8). BAD HABITS: CHANGE THE WAY YOUR BRAIN REACTS! Retrieved from https://www.thislifeonline.co.za/breaking-bad-habits/

³ Lally, P., Jaarsveld, C. H. M. V., Potts, H. W. W., & Wardle, J. (2009). How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology, 40(6), 998–1009. doi: 10.1002/ejsp.674


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