The Science Behind Habit – Understanding The Habit Loop to Create Good Habits

So recently I’ve been reading a book called ‘The Power of Habit’ by Charles Duhigg and articles about habit building on a website called which by the way is a fantastic resource for scientific-based self improvement. I highly recommend checking it out!

In this article, I will share with you what I’ve learnt about how habits really work and how you can apply this information to your life to build the habits which are important to you.

In the Power of Habit, there is a chapter about how habits work. It looks like a loop (see image below). There is a trigger (the thing that causes you to carry out the behaviour), routine (the behaviour) and the reward (the benefit you get out of doing the behaviour).

Below is an image of what the habit loop actually looks like…

To make this clear on how this works, let’s use a classic example – Exercise.

The trigger to exercise could be seeing an exercise advert on the TV or coming across a health and fitness blog which talks about the importance of exercise. These triggers are out of our control. I’ll talk about how to create our own triggers later. So anyway, a trigger causes you to exercise.

The routine of exercise is quite obvious – It’s the doing of it. The behaviour carried out. Walking, lifting weights, running on a treadmill etc etc.

The reward we get from exercise that makes it a lot easier to perform the routine again is the rush of ‘feel good’ chemicals which are released into the bloodstream by the brain after exercise. I think they get released into the bloodstream during exercise as well. But I don’t think we realize the effect they have on us until we stop exercising.

This is why runners feel good after exercising. I’m sure you’ve heard of the term runners high before. Well apart from realizing that exercise helps them live longer, this high they get after they’ve ran is a major reason for doing it in the first place and then sticking to it.

There’s a structure that James Clear talks about in his eBook and I’ll share them with you here! You can pick up Jame’s eBook on Transforming your habits right here. I highly recommend you read it, it’s all backed up by scientific research too which is reassuring to know.

Anyway here are the 3 steps which make it easier to create new habits…

Step #1: Use a habit that you’re currently doing as a trigger to start a new one

Whatever habit you would like to incorporate into your life, you can do it by anchoring it off a current habit. Instead of trying to pump yourself full of motivation which requires a lot of energy and effort, you can effortlessly carry out this new behaviour by using a current habit as a trigger.

For example, let’s say that a current habit you’ve kept up is eating a healthy breakfast. The new habit you want to adopt into your life is reading 20 pages of a non-fiction book each day because you have a thirst for gathering new information.

So what you could do here is place the non-fiction book right in front of you as you’re eating your healthy breakfast. This will definitely act as a strong trigger for you to carry out that behaviour. “After my healthy breakfast, I read 20 pages of a non-fiction book” etc etc.

Doing this is far easier than trying to rely on motivation which is like a battery, meaning that it has a limited amount of time to expend energy before it needs charging again. You cannot rely on motivation because one day we feel like doing something, the next day we might not. By using a current habit as a trigger, you can consistently carry out the action of the new habit you’re trying to adopt much more easier.

Step #2: Start Extremely Small

The truth is that real change is made through small steps done consistently over time. Not through a quantum leap. It’s easy to get the idea that we can achieve great things in a short amount of time. After all, the collective mentality of the society we live in is a ‘want-it-now’ mentality. We are bombarded by adverts, films and videos that portray the quantum leap myth. But this is truly out of touch with reality and how lasting change and major progress is achieved.

But how small do I have to start? You might be asking. And the truthful answer is that you carry out a behaviour so small that it’s impossible not to do.

For example, if one of your goals is to do 100 press-ups in one go, then start with 1 press-up and add another one each and everyday. First day 1 press-up, second day 2 press-ups, third day 3 press-up and so on. It will take you 100 days to get to your goal of doing 100 press-ups.

However, at the start it is all about consistency and not about quantity. The idea is to do it on a daily basis until it becomes automatic. Then you can start focusing on the quantity.

How small and easy is that? This is what I mean when I say that you have to carry out a behaviour so small that it’s impossible to not do.

No willpower or motivation is required. This is how small you need to start. Why? Because you haven’t built up the habit (muscle memory) of doing 100 press-ups before. You need to start incredibly small…

Step #3: Give yourself a pat on the back (the reward)

If you ask any professional in any field (especially athletes) they will say they always give themselves a reward after carrying out an exercise, run, or even something small like practicing a new kick. Rewarding yourself is something that makes the ‘habit-sticking’ process easier because you know that making this behaviour a habit is something you really want. So rewarding yourself after carrying out the behaviour keeps you on the right track and naturally motivated to continue doing it.

The reward doesn’t have to be big. It could be as simple as internally telling yourself that you’ve made progress with your day after running an extra half mile or whatever.

What I wouldn’t recommend is rewarding yourself with something that isn’t conducive to your goals, especially if it is about health and fitness. So running an extra half mile and then rewarding yourself with a McDonalds after is probably not the best idea. You’ll probably enjoy the McDonalds and it will seem worth it in the moment. But you will regret it a little while later because you’ll know that it was not supporting your habit and goals and so you’ll feel annoyed at yourself.

To spare yourself from that guilt and frustration, why not instead have something healthy like a fruit salad? You know it will be worth it in the run. If you reward yourself in a healthy way, you’re only going to feel extra healthy each time.

Think how awesome it will be when you make a habit of rewarding yourself with something that is supporting your health and fitness? You’d feel great!

I trust you found this article helpful in some way. Feel free to leave a comment below letting me know what you thought of this article and if there was something you think needs more explaining.


Where I got this information from

  • The Power of Habit by¬†¬†Charles Duhigg

Lawrence Gregory

Hi I'm Lawrence. I write about what has helped me heal/recover from high anxiety and panic attacks. Everything I share here comes from personal experience and what I've learnt from others. I write with honesty and with readers in mind, so you'll never see me share something I haven't had any experience with myself.

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