4 Steps to Breaking a Bad Habit For Good

Thanks for sharing!Email this to someonePin on PinterestShare on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterShare on StumbleUpon



What if you could hack your brain and program it to make you do healthy habits?

Well, my friend. You can! Because science.

MIT researchers did a study on rats that were put into a maze. They monitored what parts of their brains were active during each run through.

The researchers noticed that after the rats grew comfortable with the maze, they no longer used their cerebral cortex or even memory recall to run the course. They discovered that the rats’ brains were simply using their primitive basal ganglia to store and recall the sequence of activities.

In short, the rats were correctly running the course on a type of autopilot.

You may have experienced this same brain autopilot if you’ve ever suddenly arrived at home without remembering the specific turns and stops you took while driving there.

Habit experts call this autopilot function a habit loop. Your brain files away repetitive actions so you can do them later without thinking.

This is why breaking a bad habit can feel so difficult because you can find yourself mindlessly performing bad habits like a broken record.

The good news, though is that once you understand the elements of a habit loop, you can hack it to work for you instead of against you.

4 Steps to Breaking a Bad Habit for Good

Break bad habit loops with science-backed ways to hack your brain so it does the hard work for you

This post contains affiliate links, read the full disclosure here.

The Elements of a Habit Loop

Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, suggests the habit loop is a sequence of 3 elements:

  1. Cue (or trigger)- something happens that sets off a craving (wanting a brownie after dinner).
  2. Routine- You perform the habit to satisfy the craving (you eat a brownie).
  3. Reward- You get a specific reward for completing the habit (Your sweet tooth and chocolate fix are satisfied).

The Habit Loop Hack

In the brownie scenario, if you get this craving every day after dinner- that is a habit loop. So let’s say you decide you want to eat less sugar and calories, a hack for this habit loop could be replacing the routine of eating a brownie after dinner with chewing a piece of your favorite gum or a single dark chocolate instead. You are still achieving the desired reward- just replacing the routine that brings you there with something healthier.

There are lots of different types of cues and many reasons why you do the things you do. The secret is to find out what those cues and reasons are and make a healthy switch that will still leave you feeling satisfied.

If you find yourself on a habit loop that you want to change, follow Duhigg’s 4 steps:

  1. Identify a habit you want to change.
  2. Find out what cues your habit.
    • Answer the following questions every time you crave your habit:
      1. What time is it?
      2. Where are you?
      3. Who else is around?
      4. What did you just do?
      5. What emotion are you feeling?
    • Look for a recurring pattern in your answers- that’s your cue.
  3. Find out what reward you are really wanting. The reward is the feeling you are seeking, the routine is just a means to that end.
  4. Change your routine (or the habit you perform) to something healthier that satisfies that same reward. This is a trial and error. Keep substituting routines for possible rewards until something feels right.

So maybe you weren’t really craving a brownie because you had a sweet tooth. Maybe you just wanted stress relief. So you could switch the routine of eating a brownie with going for a short run or taking a hot shower and satisfy that same craving for stress relief after dinner.


How to change your bad habits and start healthy new ones using habit loop science

What Triggers you?

Let’s say you have a habit of getting to sleep too late because you are looking at your phone. To hack your habit loop you would begin by trying to identify what makes you want to look at your phone in the first place. Every time you get the urge to look at your phone, answer the questions Duhigg suggests.


Day 1:

What time is it? 9:20 pm

Where are you? Bedroom

Who else is around? Husband

What did you just do? Plugged my phone in by the bed

What emotion are you feeling? drained


Day 2:

What time is it? 7:45 pm

Where are you? bedroom

Who else is around? No one

What did you just do? Plugged my phone in by the bed

What emotion are you feeling? happy


Day 3:

What time is it? 10:00 pm

Where are you? bedroom

Who else is around? Husband

What did you just do? Plugged my phone in by the bed

What emotion are you feeling? Excited for weekend


After doing this for a few days you notice a pattern. Every time you stayed up too late, it was triggered by plugging your phone in by the bed. That is what set off your habit loop and made you crave looking at your phone.


What do you really want?

Now that you have discovered your cue, you must identify what reward you get from looking at your phone. In this scenario, you could just plug in your phone in the living room, but you would still be missing the reward you have been craving.

Do some brainstorming on what you get out of your habit. Looking at your phone at night could be to escape anxious thoughts, to relax, to entertain yourself, to feel social connection, or getting one last email sent off or responding to a little notification to feel a sense of completion.

Once you discover what you truly are craving, you can change the routine to something that still satisfies your need- but in a more healthy way.


Trial and Error

Now that you’ve pinpointed the reward you think you want, substitute a routine.

If you think you are looking to calm anxious thoughts, you could try to say a prayer or meditate before bed instead. Ask yourself “Is the craving satisfied?”

If not, perhaps you were just wanting entertainment. So instead of looking at your phone, read a chapter from a book every night.

Or if that’s not it, and you think it may be a need for social connection, talk to your spouse or kids more in the evenings, or use your phone to make an actual phone call to someone you love.

Keep at it until you find something that satisfies your true need, then continue to perform your new routine daily until the healthy routine becomes a habit loop that you will do without thinking.


Your New Habit Loop

To remind yourself of your new habit loop, Duhigg suggests you put it in writing.

Fill in the blanks and put it up where you will see it. “When I (cue), I will (routine) because it provides me with (reward).”

“When I lay in bed at night, I will listen to my favorite song because it provides with me relaxation and better sleep.”

“When I finish dinner, I will read an article in my new magazine because it provides me with stress relief.”


A New You

Your brain is wonderful. It helps you complete everyday mundane tasks and habits without having to put too much effort into it.

If you learn to look deeper and see your true needs, you can be intentional about what habit loops you create. Imagine all the things that stress you out about your home and yourself that you could change!

Embrace the autopilot function in your brain and before you know it, your very own basal ganglia will be doing all the work for you.

If you are more of a visual learner, check out this video about how Charles Duhigg broke his habit of eating a cookie everyday.

If you want to learn more be sure to check out the book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business

This Post is Part of the Habits that Last Series:

A Month-Long Web Series Dedicated to Helping Moms have Less Stress through the life-changing tool of Habit creation

Create a new life for yourself with less stress.

Subscribe via e-mail below for more great content like this:

* indicates required









Thanks for sharing!Email this to someonePin on PinterestShare on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterShare on StumbleUpon