Photo by Tim Mossholder .

If you need help sticking to your new year’s resolutions, try hacking into your habit loop.

What’s A Habit Loop?

A habit loop is a neurological loop with three parts:

Habit Loop

1) Cue (e.g. you’re taking a break from work and are looking for a distraction) 2) Routine (you walk to the kitchen and start to graze on snacks) and 3) Reward– ( you are no longer bored as your brain releases dopamine and the chewing, flavor and swallowing all distract you). Once a habit is formed, the cue creates a craving that puts your body into autopilot. Fortunately, there are ways to short circuit or even use this loop to your advantage.

Why Not Just Stop A Bad Habit?

Short answer- it’s near impossible. As this famous behavior experiment shows, once something becomes a habit, it’s programmed into your basal ganglia— the deepest part of your brain responsible for automatic behaviors like motor control or emotional responses.  When you drive your car, get dressed, take a shower and perform every daily routine you are in habit mode, you’re not thinking.

As Charles Duhigg says in his book The Power of Habit  that once something becomes a habit, it is  very difficult to extinguish.

Hack Your Habit Loop.

You don’t want to change the entire loop, just the routine. Take some time to figure out what the cue is for your bad habit. For example, I chew my nails when I am thinking or feeling anxious. This led to some nasty looking digits for many years. After some examination I figured out that the digital stimulation helps me relax and concentrate. Now, when I’m cued by having to come up with an idea of feeling anxious, I tear a small piece of paper and roll it around between my fingers. Cue and reward are the same, behavior is different. And my nails? I actually have to cut them now.

Turn Off Your Autopilot.

Another way to disrupt your habit loop is by changing the automatic nature of it. This is why many diets work in the short term. Because every diet requires that you pay attention to what goes into your mouth, so you switch from your System 1 thinking (that’s more reactionary and automatic) to your System 2 thinking (that engages active thinking)*.

Take the example above; you want to stop snacking or eating unhealthy foods. Next time you start to go to the kitchen when you’re not hungry, write down what you’re feeling, what you were doing right before. Figure out what you’re getting from that snack and look for a replacement behavior that become your new habit.

Of course, it’s not that easy.  But just taking your brain out of autopilot helps you create new routines.

*This theory and the research behind it won Daniel Kahneman a Nobel Prize and you can read about it in his book Thinking Fast and Slow .

Being Hard On Yourself Can Lead To Failure

As we wrote about our blog about learned helplessness, it’s easy to convince ourselves that we can’t do something. It’s normal to fall short of your resolutions from time to time.  Sometimes there’s cake involved.  Unfortunately,  when people don’t meet goals, they often give up entirely. But here’s some encouraging news: Studies show that people who quit smoking for good, tried and failed 10 times previously. Some tried as many as 30 times. They quit 30 times before they succeeded! So you weren’t 100%, so what. Anything above 0% is start. 

If you remember nothing else from this remember this last part. Don’t give up. Keep tinkering with your habit loop and keep moving forward.


About us:

Creative Outhouse specializes in compelling creative that is based on the science of human behavior. Clients come to us for brand launches and any communication that strives to change the way people think, feel and act.  Check us out at Creativeouthouse.com