Habit Loop
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Overview

This is an incredibly powerful model that's easy to understand and challenging to implement. Our understanding of behavioural economics, via models such as Fast and Slow thinking, has demonstrated that we are essentially on 'autopilot' for most of our lives. So, the question is, are you using your autopilot for goodness or evil? 

The Habit Loop consists of a cue, routine and trigger and understanding each element empowers you to break existing habits and establish new ones. 

ELEMENTS IN MORE DETAIL. 

Habits are complex and personal, yet the habit loop provides a high-level model to understand consistent elements, namely: 

  • Cue: the trigger or factor that initiates the habit, this might include a location, time, emotional state, other people or the immediately preceding action. 
  • Routine: this is the behaviour that occurs almost automatically when prompted by the cue and might be considered as desired or detrimental. 
  • Reward: the payoff or positive reinforcement that occurs as a result of the routine. 

For example: 'when I get stressed (cue), I eat chocolate (routine), and I feel better (reward)'. And yes, sadly, that is absolutely my life!

BUILDING, BREAKING OR STACKING. 

The Habit Loop can be applied in three main ways:

  • Break an existing habit, by avoiding cues or substituting routines. 
  • Creating a new habit, by identifying a cue and desired routine. 
  • Stacking habits, by overlying a new desired habit over an existing one. 

See the Actionable Takeaways below and be sure to use the Habit Canvas download for more on each of these. 

IN YOUR LATTICEWORK. 

Habit Loops have a close relationship to Temptation Bundling and Systems vs Goals. Also, consider combining your approach with nudges using the EAST Framework which takes advantage of the same cognitive 'automatic pilot' as established in Fast and Slow Thinking.

Research by B.J Fogg, in particular, has shown the impact of 'tiny habits', leveraging Hyperbolic Discounting, that is embedding new habits are most effective with small, immediate rewards over distant larger ones. 

Finally, consider how to use the Habit Loop to develop a Chain Reaction for greater impact — or inversely, use the Chain Rection to reinforce Habit formation using the 'don't break the chain method'. 

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Actionable takeaways
  • Use the habit canvas below. 

The habit canvas in the toolkit below combines simple techniques to break, create, stack habits as well as temptation bundling and tracking habits using a domino effect inspired approach. 

  • Identify your habits - both negative and positive. 

Be aware of your automatic behaviours, both positive and negative. Apply the habit loop to understand common cues, routines and rewards in your daily routine. Then consider which you want to break, which you wish to adapt and what new habits you want. 

  • Break habits by avoiding the cue. 

Though often not an option, one option to break a habit involves avoiding the cue. For example, don’t want to buy that morning coffee? Take a route to walk that avoids cafes. 

  • Break habits by substituting the routine. 

If you want to shift a habit consider tweaking the routine rather than fighting it all together. For example, want to drink less alcohol? If you tend to drink while eating dinner, substitute your drink with a non-alcoholic alternative. 

  • Experiment with rewards. 

Rewards ultimately satisfy a craving that drives behaviour. Try to consider the rewards behind your current habits and how you might shift them. 

  • Focus on immediate, small rewards. 

Immediate rewards, no matter how small, tend to be more effective drivers than larger more distant goals. 

  • Consider ‘tiny’ habits.

B.J. Fogg recommends focusing on building tiny habits and building on them. Want to get fitter? Do 3 push-ups (routine) after you go to the toilet (cue), and reward yourself by throwing a coin into a fund for a nice dinner (reward). 

  • Try habit stacking by adding routines. 

Rather than simply creating new habits from scratch, when you identify an existing habit consider how to build new desired routines over the top of it. For example, if you want to build a habit of learning mental models using the ModelThinkers ‘learn’ function, you could identify an existing habit — e.g. your afternoon cup of coffee, then stack your new habit over the existing one.

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In Practice

Make your bed in the morning. 

This 2014 commencement speech by Admiral William McRaven argued that people should develop a habit of making their bed in the morning to initiate a chain reaction of positive behaviour. Note - we also used this example in the chain reaction mental model. 

McRaven explained: “If you make your bed every morning you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride, and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another. By the end of the day, that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed.”

Limitations

In reality, our behaviour and drives are complicated. As a simplified representation, the habit loop might not consider a range of other factors at play which makes it difficult to break or establish habits.

Habits are incredibly powerful, but breaking, designing or controlling them can be very challenging. For example, understanding and interrupting a craving behind a reward might stray into issues of addiction and other dependencies which are obviously very complex to shift. 

Build your latticework
This model will help you to:

The habit loop is a powerful model that can be used to implement and incorporate countless other models into your routine. 

Use the following examples of connected and complementary models to weave the habit loop into your broader latticework of mental models. Alternatively, discover your own connections by exploring the category list above. 

Connected models: 

  • Fast and slow thinking: the need to design our automatic pilot. 
  • Temptation bundling: similar approach, leveraging your ‘wants’ to make your ‘shoulds’ happen.

Complementary models: 

  • EAST framework: another way to take advantage of our ‘automatic pilot’. 
  • Munger’s latticework: use ModelThinkers to habitually add to your latticework - whenever you read something/ meet someone interesting — ask ‘what mental models have I learnt and might want to use?’ Then add them using the add model button at the top right of this page. 
  • Deep work: consider incorporating moments of deep work as habit. 
  • Chain reaction: try to create habits that have a flow on effect, like the ‘make your bed’ example from the in practice section. 
Origins & Resources

The Habit Loop was based on research from MIT and firs captured and popularised by Charles Duhigg in his 2012 book The Power of Habit. Explore Duhigg’s work, including excerpts from his book, on his website here

Other significant contributors to the science and art of habits include B.J. Fogg, in particular for his work in tiny habits, and James Clear who recently summarised and popularised habit science in his book Atomic Habits

My Notes

  • 321 days ago Michelle Ryan
    I really like this one - very practical. The first thing I want to try is tiny habits - seems really achievable. Need to modify some of my newly acquired ISOhabits!
  • 321 days ago arun , CoFounder ModelThinkers & keynote speaker
    One of my favourite models. Very simple on face value but has lots and lots of powerful applications - particularly combining it with the other models you'll find at MT.
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