The Habit Loop – The Key of Making and Breaking Habits


Following on from our topic on New Years Resolution, this blog looks at the Habit Loop – and the mechanisms involved in creating new habits and ensuring that they stick!

As previously mentioned – habits are automatic reactions triggered and carried out by our ‘lower brain’ – the part of our brain dedicated to our subconscious thought. They are important and necessary in our survival because they free our ‘higher brain’ to process only the important aspects of life.

Just imagine how we could plan for our day if our conscious thought was preoccupied with the steps involved in making our breakfast, or brushing our teeth, or showering!

However, habits can be both helpful and unhelpful. These automatic reactions that allow us to begin our day, drive to work and complete our daily living tasks with relative ease can also trigger us to take a smoking break, engage in prolonged sedentary behaviour and other poor lifestyle decisions.

As such, being aware of this Habit Loop can allow us to identify the triggers for our automatic behaviour, which can play a role in the formation of new habits and the elimination of our poor habits.


The Elements of the Habit Loop

The Habit Loop - The Key of Making and Breaking Habits
The Cue:
This is anything that triggers our habitual behaviour.

Furthermore, with research done on those who have suffered higher brain injuries such as strokes, traumatic brain injuries and degenerative illnesses – these cues and routines can persist long after our upper cognition has left us!

Working in a nursing home for a small part of my career, you hear these stories of Dementia patients with deep seeded morning routines. With their cue on rising from their sleep, they immediately pick themselves out of bed, walk down into the kitchen and get their daily breakfast. This is usually the same breakfast they have eaten for the last 20 years!

Given the intervention of being directed back to their room, they climb back into bed, forgetting about their previous adventure and fall back asleep. A short time later, they doze again, jump immediately out of bed and embark on their journey into the kitchen to remake another bowl of breakfast! Ofcourse, some time later, they generally have no recollection of any of these events having occurred.

In this example, the simple cue of being woken from their sleep, or perhaps the break of dawn and rumbling of morning activity incites the automatic response of springing out of bed and readying their breakfast.

Have you noticed a ‘normal’ routine? Perhaps each morning, you crawl out of bed and into the shower. Do you brush your teeth before or after the shower? When do you have your breakfast? You may not notice it, but each of us will already have an ingrained routine! And each time we perform this routine we strengthen this connection.

The Routine: Self explanatory. The routine is the behaviour we either want to change or to reinforce. This may apply to a habit we are trying to break – for example quitting smoking, or a habit we are trying to develop – such as an exercise habit or drinking more water throughout the day!

The Reward: This is the positive reinforcement we get from engaging in a behaviour. Taking for example, the exercise behaviour, this can simply be the endorphin release that occurs following exercise or a simple sense of accomplishment.

However, fundamental in the development and formation of habits is a significant positive reward from our behaviour. For example, this reward may be the excuse to eat a fancy restaurant or have a ‘cheat meal’, engage in a social activity or have ‘time out’ playing a game or reading a book.


Example Cues That Can Trigger Our Habits

Time: Going back to the example of the Dementia patient with the ingrained habit of his morning breakfast routine. Here we can see that simply waking is the time-based cue to trigger his behaviour.

However, in a less obvious fashion this can occur at other times throughout the day. For example, do you suffer from 3:30-itis, and find yourself having an afternoon snack each day. Or do you find yourself watching TV or scrolling through your phone each night before bed?

If your behaviour is negative, you may want to explore why this behaviour is occurring. At 3:30 you may be reaching for food simply because you need sustenance, and if you find your food choices at this time are unhealthy – such as a block of chocolate or bag of lollies – this may be a habit we can attempt to break.

We can break this habit by eliminating the cue. We may find we are skipping lunch, so the simple action of having lunch or even a morning tea can eliminate this hunger cue and reduce our craving at 3:30.


Your Environment

It is also very common that we associate habits with particular locations. For example, we may associate going to bars and clubs with smoking and drinking, which incites the trigger for this behaviour.

With particular personal relevance – is instilling the habit of sleep when I enter the bedroom.

The simple action of using technology – a laptop or mobile phone, or even reading a book in bed – can create the mental habit of stimulating brain activity instead of ‘unwinding’ when we enter the bedroom. This can lead to disrupted sleep. Eliminating all behaviours aside from sleep in the bedroom, we can associate the environment of our bedroom with sleeping and be able to fall asleep easier at night.



The majority of our day-to-day activities are based on the formation and execution of habits. Our morning wake-up routine, the roads we take to work, our leisure activities and even our conversation topics!

Having an understanding of the habit loop can be a powerful tool in creating new habits and eliminating poor habits from our daily routine. If there are habits you are trying to break – dive deeper into the underlying mechanisms preceding our ‘cue’.

The next blog will take us down the road of formulating our ‘Keystone Habit’. These are the habits that lead to a cascade effect of other ‘good behaviours’ throughout the day.



Daniel Ryan
Move Physiotherapy and Fitness