Habits 101: How to break bad habits and develop good ones

Habits 101: How to break bad habits and develop good ones

Alyssa is a successful millennial living and working in the greater Boston Area at the corporate headquarters of a multinational retailer. She loves the outdoors but hasn’t been able to explore much of the surrounding areas because of her demanding schedule.  She’s also struggled with her weight as a result of her sedentary lifestyle. One day after feeling winded climbing a flight of stairs, she made a commitment to adopt a healthier lifestyle. She decided she wanted to incorporate an outdoor workout routine into her mornings.

She has attempted to do a similar routine in the past but has fallen off after a few weeks. What steps can Alyssa take to ensure that her new positive habit sticks and she achieves her new health goal? The choices we make every day affect the trajectory of our life. These choices are often made even without us contentiously taking into account their impact.  This is what is known as a “habit”. The power habits have over our day to day life is astounding. In this article, we will discuss how habits are formed and how you can use the habit loop to create beneficial habits that will serve you well in the future.

The habit loop

Developing habits - Habit loop

The habit loop consists of 3 sequential parts. The first part of the habit loop is the CUE. The cue is the trigger that tells your brain to perform the habit. Cue’s are often present in your environment and can be caused by people, feelings or things. An example of a CUE would be a craving for something sweet.  When you’re exposed to this trigger, your bad habit may be to grab a doughnut from the break room in the morning to eat at your desk. The second part of the habit loop is your ROUTINE. Your routine is the response you give to your CUE.

In the previous example, your routine would be grabbing the doughnut from the break room. The final part of the habit loop is the REWARD. This is the benefit you receive from the habit you perform. In the doughnut example, this would be the satisfaction you feel after eating your tasty treat. When this cycle is repeated consistently over time, a new habit is formed. Let’s now explore how you can use the habit loop to break unwanted habits and develop positive ones.

Breaking bad habits

Developing habits - breaking bad habits

Have you ever looked at a hamster on a wheel? The animal runs its little heart out each and every day and doesn’t seem to be getting anywhere. Well, that’s what bad habits can do to our life. In order to break bad habits once and for all, you must replace the ROUTINE caused by your CUE. In the book “The Habit Loop” by Charles Duhigg, Mr. Duhigg examines the success of Alcoholics Anonymous at getting people to stop drinking. He explains how their focus on developing new routines for recovering alcoholics is the defining factor of their sustained success. Many alcoholics drink because it offers an escape from emotional turmoil, it relaxes them, it blunts anxiety etc (Reward).

In terms of the habit loop, the emotions an alcoholic feels prior to drinking (anxiety, emotional turmoil, loneliness etc) are the “cues” and the results of drinking (companionship, blunted anxiety etc) are the “rewards”.  By replacing the routine of drinking with the routine of attending AA meetings and engaging with other alcoholics, AA was able to break the habit loop for millions of alcoholics around the world. Do you have a bad habit you’d like to get rid of? Start by replacing your response to stimuli in your environment and you’ll be well on your way to changing your behavior.

Developing good habits

Developing habits - Good habits

If you want to adopt a new beneficial habit, you’ll need to define each phase of your new habit loop. First, you need to determine what cue you’ll use to trigger your desired routine. For example, Alyssa could define her CUE as the alarm clock. Every morning when the alarm clock goes off, her ROUTINE could be to immediately jump out of bed and go for a run outside. Her REWARD would be the runners high she experiences throughout her workout and the boost of energy she’ll have the rest of the day. Although your habit loop may be more complex than Alyssa ’s example, take the necessary time to outline each phase. The time you spend defining your new habit loop will be well worth it.

Stick with it

Developing habits - Stick with it

Now that you’ve defined your new beneficial habit loop it’s time for you to commit to sticking with your new routine until it becomes a habit.  In a study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology by Dr.Phillippa Lally, Dr.Lally and her research team decided to figure out just how long it takes to form a habit. A total of 96 participants were examined over a 12 week period to determine whether or not they stuck with their new behavior and how automatic the behavior felt over time. New habits varied and included habits as simple as “drinking a bottle of water with lunch” to “running 15 minutes before dinner”. After the 12 weeks, the researchers analyzed the data to determine how long each person took to adopt a new behavior and for it to become automatic.

They concluded that it took an average of 66 days for participants to have their new behavior become automatic. Over the course of a year, this would add up to about 5 new beneficial habits! These new habits could include going to the gym 3-4 times a week, eating healthier, reading, journaling, saving an extra 10% of your income etc. Imagine where you’d be in a few years if you incorporated all these positive habits? I bet you’d be shocked. Make the commitment to start working towards developing a positive habit today. It may take some time, but it will be well worth it.

Bringing it all together

After learning about the habit loop, Alyssa decided to develop a habit loop of her own. She defined her CUE, ROUTINE and REWARD and began implementing her new habit every morning. Although the routine was difficult at first, she decided to stick with it and eventually it became a habit. As a result, Alyssa has now been able to explore various areas around Boston and gets a great boost of energy from her morning workout.

Breaking old bad habits and developing new positive ones is not an easy task. It takes a concerted effort on your part and requires a desire to improve each day. With diligence and determination, you can successfully incorporate these changes into your life and begin to experience the benefits they bring. Do you have any questions regarding the habit loop and how you can apply it in your life? Do you have any tips that you feel that our readers would value? I would love to hear your feedback.


My book recommendation for this article is “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg. Although I have recommended this book in a previous article, it will be your blueprint for implementing your new positive habits. In the book, Mr. Duhigg uses real world examples of how people were able to implement new habits using the habit loop and gives you tips to help make the process more seamless. I highly recommend this book and have provided the link below:

Check out “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg