Written by Em Roberts

Hack the habit loop: How to transform your bad habits into good ones

4th May, 2023   •  

A habit is something that you do often and regularly, sometimes without thinking about it.

What is the Habit Loop?

Routine is a powerful tool to reinforce or change ingrained behaviour. These ingrained behaviours are known as habits. 

The habit loop helps us understand how and why we develop habits and holds the key to forming better ones. 

To understand the loop, let’s take a well-known habit that we develop as children: brushing our teeth. How did it lead to a 58% increase in Americans brushing their teeth?

Why are we so committed to brushing our teeth? Is it because we fear getting a filling? Fear a huge bill? Because our parents said we should? 

These are all contributing factors to the modern-day habit brusher, but the thing that helps us commit to that habit the most is the habit loop. The simple cue, routine, and reward loop. 

An American advertising campaign capitalised on this piece of human psychology to get more people to brush their teeth. Their reward?  A jump from 7% of Americans owning toothpaste to 65% a decade after the advert campaign went worldwide. 

So how does the habit loop work? How do we form habits?

There are three key steps in the habit loop.

Cue: the sensation that prompts habitual behaviour. For brushing our teeth, it is the natural ‘furry’ film that develops over our teeth reminding us to brush. 

Routine: the repeated behaviour, the habit. Automatically putting toothpaste on the brush and cleaning your teeth. 

Reward: the result that you crave once the habit is firmly in place. No more coffee breath and a squeaky clean feeling.

When we become aware of cues and rewards we give ourselves the best chance of building habits, changing old ones and achieving success. 


How can we implement this tool?

What bad habit would you like to change? Why do you do it? What is the trigger that causes it?

For example, do you ever catch yourself scrolling through social media at work and before you know it, three hours have passed with only an increase in screen time to show for it? 

Using the three step loop could help you replace that bad routine with a new and better one.


Three Step Loop

  1. Cue – Boredom
  2. Routine – Scroll through social media 
  3. Reward – Dopamine hit

Replace the unproductive routine with a healthier routine. 

  1. Cue – Boredom
  2. Routine – Make a drink for a colleague and have a quick chat
  3. Reward – Dopamine hit

Something to be aware of is how you can unintentionally use your habit loop against yourself.  We can apply the same theory to the above example, instead of mindlessly checking our social media every time we are bored, use that cue for another task which will give the same reward. So it’s important to be very intentional about what we are replacing the routine with. 

Same system + satisfying reward = new habit 

So once we have established the habit loop, how long do you think it takes for the habit to take root in your brain? An hour? A day? A month?

66 days.

We need to commit to the habit for 66 days for it to become automatic.


How to embed a new habit

Once we have replaced the routine, the challenging part is sticking to it. How many times have you had great intentions and then lost motivation a few weeks in? 

The If – then – because tools can help us make our new habits stick. How it works:

You make a plan A about how you will make a new routine, and a Plan B if your new routine falters.

Plan A: 

If I write down three positives at the end of each day 

Then I will improve my positive mindset 

Because I have the habit of getting into a negative spiral of self-talk that causes me to compare myself to my colleagues and so decreases confidence and increases self-doubt.

Plan B: 

If I forget to write down three positives at the end of the day 

Then I will note them down as soon as I remember them on my phone 

Because it will help me improve my habit of negative self-talk. 


Be as specific as possible when visualising your If-Then-Because. 

If it involves a specific place, describe it. If your backup option is buying an alternative, where will that be from? 

By doing this, you will have a backup plan ready to go even if Plan A fails. 


Three key takeaways:

  1. It takes 66 days for a routine to become a habit
  2. Use the old to create the new by following the habit loop
  3. Increase your chance of success by using the If Then Because tool by preparing for any potential obstacles

Interested in learning more? Why not get in touch to see how we could help you and your team create lasting behaviour change through building strong habits.