When most of us talk about “habits,” especially as they pertain to health, we tend to make them synonymous with the behaviours we repeat – like the habit of eating healthy or going to the gym. But a habit is more than just the thing you do, and understanding the mechanics of habits is key to not just building them but maintaining them long term.

The theory around habit formation that resonates most for me is the notion of a Habit Loop. I first heard about it in Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit (add it to your list – especially if you love the neuroscience behind things).

It essentially looks like this:

Habit LoopStep1: Cue

A Cue is anything that triggers the behaviour or routine. It could be something in your physical environment, but it could also be your mental/ emotional state. Understanding your cues or triggers can go a long way to helping you understand your habits and build new ones.

Step 2: Routine

A Routine is what we colloquially think of as the “habit.” It’s the behaviour the cue triggers. This might be a routine that is favourable to our health or not. Remember this isn’t a loop just for the “good” habits – it’s how all habits work!

Step 3: Reward

The Reward is whatever the brain decides makes it worth it to do steps 1 & 2. It is what positively reinforces the cue/ routine connection and gives the cue it’s power. This may be an emotional state like happiness or joy – which is hormonally linked to a physical reward like a surge of dopamine or endorphins (feel good hormones) or the physical effects triggered by the behaviour (ex. the energy surge from food or caffeine).

Let’s go through some examples to really allow this theory to land.

Example 1:

You have a habit of drinking a glass of wine every night when you cook dinner. In this scenario, cooking dinner is the cue to drink a glass of wine (the routine) and the reward in this scenario is likely the effect of the wine.

Example 2:

Every morning when you wake up you drink a cup of coffee and read the news. The cue is waking up, which triggers your morning routine to drink coffee and read the paper. The most obvious reward is likely the surge of caffeine but also likely the enjoyment of the warm cup and reading the news.

Example 3:

Every time you go to the movies you eat popcorn. The cue in this scenario could be multifaceted (the location, the smells, the activity, all of the above), the routine is of course eating popcorn and the reward is the taste and experience of the food in combination with being entertained (read: surge of feel good hormones).

I really like the simplicity of this model. It appeals to the psych science geek in me who wants to understand why we do the things we do. The practical beauty of understanding the mechanics of habits is that you can use this knowledge to not only break down any habits you wish to diminish, you can also use it to create habits you wish to build.Let’s first start with the building of habits we desire.

Creating New Habits

Building habits all comes down to identify the 3 steps required and then putting them into play in a way that works for you and your life. If you’re using this model to build an entirely new habit you’ll want to start by looking at the routine you wish to build, then identify the reward and finally the cue. I find approaching it this way the most functional to building a plan that will work.

  • What cue could I use to trigger this routine?
  • Cue types to consider:
    • Visual: how can you visually remind yourself (ex. shoes by the door, post it notes, water bottle on your desk, etc.)
    • Auditory: how can you use sound to remind yourself (ex. alarms or notifications, phone ringing, etc.)
    • Situation: harness the power of established habits or environmental cues that are not going to change (ex. brushing your teeth, waking up, going to bed, eating dinner)
  • Check in: is this a cue I will ignore? If so, find another!
  • What is the routine I wish to build? Be as specific as possible. See note below about the Health Zone.*
  • What are the potential barriers to that routine?
  • What can I do to set myself up for success?
  • What is the intrinsic reward?
  • Do I need an extrinsic reward?
    • What will motivate/ inspire me?
    • How will I track this?

*While knowing all this information can be transformative, at the core, the routines you wish to build must also be functional for your real life. In my book The Elephant in the Gym I talk a lot about the importance of something I call the Health Zone. The Health Zone is a range of healthy habits as opposed to a “pie in the sky” ideal of what we think we should be doing. Unravelling the shitty should’s and having real clarity around what the practice of health looks like for you is the foundation of that book. Once you have that clarity using the Habit Loop Model to build your habits can truly bring your “Health Zone” to life!

Building a Habit: Example

Let’s say you want to build the habit of being more active. For you, this looks like going for a 20 minute walk 3-4 days per week at lunch time and going for longer walk (at least 45 minutes) 1 day on the weekend. In this scenario there are two habit loops we want to create.

Habit Loop #1: walk for 20 minutes 3-4 days per week at lunch.

  • Cue: The goal here is to build in a cue you can’t ignore. Some cues to consider:  might be to have an alarm or notification go off on your phone or computer to remind you and then tell you to go (2 alarms are great to really get you going). Post it notes are also great physical cues.
  • Routine: When it comes to building this routine for success it all comes down to making sure you’ve eliminated any barriers and also made it enjoyable!
    • Remove barriers: Having a pair of walking shoes under your desk and an umbrella or waterproof jacket to make it convenient will go a long way when the weather is inclement.
    • Make it enjoyable: Invite a friend, listen to a podcast or music
  • Reward: In this case there will be some of the intrinsic physiologic rewards that come from exercise, but you may also play with adding an extrinsic reward like taking yourself for a coffee or manicure on Friday if you hit your target of 3-4 lunchtime walks. There might be a weekly reward or a monthly reward. Bonus: by tracking your walks you’re also triggering the “feel good” hormone dopamine that our brains release when we feel good about our choices.

Habit Loop #2: go for a longer walk (45-minutes) once per weekend

  • Cue: Wake up Saturday morning! (auditory cue of an alarm that is labeled as “Saturday morning walk club”
  • Routine: Go for a walk every Saturday morning at 9am rain or shine. Build success into this routine by joining or forming a Saturday morning walking club with friends where you go for coffee after.
  • Reward: Intrinsic rewards include camaraderie, connection, and belonging as well as a positive emotional state. Extrinsic rewards could include the coffee after.

Breaking Down “Bad” Habits

I personally resist the notion that there are “bad” or “good” habits. There are simply habits we have that are more or less favourable to bringing our unique vision of health and fitness to life. So let’s release that bit of bad juju and carry on talking about how we can tweak habits that don’t serve us.

If you’re a human (and you’re being honest) its more than likely that you have one or two habits that aren’t really serving you or your health. Whether it’s over-eating when you watch Netflix, hitting the snooze button every morning (and not giving yourself time to make a lunch among other things), drinking too many cups of coffee (and not enough water) or skipping the gym every time you have a rough day at work – they’re all habits. Now that we know the structure behind them, we can hack our way to better health.

Let’s say you have a habit of not eating when you’re swamped at work, then over-eating because you get too hungry. This is an all too common scenario. Under-eating is as challenging as over-eating for many people! In this scenario we need to build in a habit of eating (no matter how busy the day is). This comes down to making sure that routine (eating) is possible by removing barriers and making it enjoyable! Once we’ve done that, then we need to determine a cue so it actually happens. This is actually TWO habit loops (again):

Habit Loop #1: Eat healthy food at work

  • Cue: set an alarm on your phone to remind yourself to eat OR block a window in your calendar (or multiple) for meals and snacks. Treat those windows as sacred appointments with a VIP (because they ARE!)
  • Routine: eat your awesome healthy food (unless your office supplies healthy lunches – hello dreamy – this may involve a secondary habit loop we need to build (see below).
  • Reward: we all feel better when we eat regularly and nourish our body’s with good quality food. BONUS you won’t feel yucky from over-eating because you got hangry! #winning (hello serotonin bump!)

Habit Loop #2: Make healthy food available

  • Cue: Once you figure out the routine that will work for you figure out how to cue yourself
    • Self-prep – find a scheduled time and then set an alarm or use dinner Sunday evening as a trigger. Or put a sticky on your fridge reminding you to make dinner a double recipe so you have extra!
    • Ordering in – find a delivery service you feel good about and find a way to automate delivery by either adding a note or task to your weekly calendar or setting it up with the delivery service to automate.
  • Routine: Figure out a plan for how you can have healthy lunches. There are a couple of ways to tackle this.
    • Pack healthy foods you actually enjoy – figure out your game plan for doing the prep – maybe this is a Sunday night chore or a nightly task before bed or make extra of dinner every night so you have lunch for the next day. Find an approach or system that works for you!
    • Have a delivery system drop foods to your workplace once per week with prepped and portioned healthy lunches you’re excited to eat!
  • Reward: by setting yourself up for success you have healthy food. This saves you energy, time and money from last minute runs through drive throughs or expensive meals out (not to say you’ve saved yourself from getting hangry!).

Note: success with Habit Loop #1 hinges on #2. So START with habit loop #2 and the rest will fall into place!

Whether you’re building new habits or breaking down old ones, the trick to this whole thing is mindfulness. Simply taking the time to notice your thoughts, patterns and behaviours and tweaking them to make them work for you (instead of against you).

Want more? This habit loop strategy is a core concept we cover in the Super You Mindset. In this virtual self-paced 12-module course you’ll not only learn how to build habits, but you’ll get clarity around what’s getting in your way, and how to shift your perspective around health and fitness to one that is truly body positive, joyful and sustainable! Learn more here.

Feeling stuck, and don’t know where to start? Maybe coaching is more up your alley. Reach out and connect with me for a complimentary 15-minute coaching consultation.