in: Character, Featured, Habits

• Last updated: July 5, 2023

Unlocking the Science of Habits: How to Hack the Habit Loop & Become the Man You Want to Be

A motivational poster of Good Habits about the armor that protects us from the arrows of defeat.

For better or for worse, our habits shape us. A good habit is a strong ally in our journey to becoming the men we want to be, while a bad habit acts like a millstone around our necks. (Want to know why? Read this Manvotional.) To achieve our goals, whatever they may be, it’s necessary to defeat our bad habits and encourage the good ones. But how do you go about doing that? We’ve written about making and breaking habits before, but honestly, most of what I suggested  was based off of anecdotal evidence of what’s worked in my life. Sure, those tips can work, but since then I’ve continued my search for more efficient, science-based ways to improve my habits.

Fortunately for me, a book was published earlier this year that highlights the latest research by psychologists and neuroscientists on the science of habit formation. It’s called The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, and it’s among the top five books I’ve read in 2012. In The Power of Habit, Duhigg explains how habits work in our brain. More importantly, he reveals the process by which a habit becomes a habit. By being aware of what he calls the “Habit Loop” we can take control of the habits in our lives.

Below, we take a look at the science of habits and how we can hack the Habit Loop in our lives to break bad habits and make better ones.

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Our Brain on Habits

Just beneath our gray and squiggly cerebral cortex sits a small piece of neural tissue called the basal ganglia. For years, researchers really didn’t know what the basal ganglia did except that it might play a role in Parkinson’s disease. But beginning in the 1990s, researchers at MIT had a hunch that the basal ganglia had something to do with the formation of habits.

The inspiration came after researchers noticed that mice with injured basal ganglia developed problems with learning how to run through mazes. Curious, researchers surgically placed wires and probes inside the brains of healthy mice so they could see their brain activity as they got better and better at making it through a maze.

During the first maze runs, mental activity in the mice’s cerebral cortex was high. Because the maze was new to them, the mice had to sniff and scratch the walls in order to make it to the end of the maze. They really had to think about which way to go. But as the days and weeks progressed, navigating the maze became more and more automatic for the mice. It was as if they didn’t even have to think about it, and, according to the brain probes, they weren’t. The activity in the cerebral cortex went almost silent when the well-practiced mice scurried through the maze. Even the parts of the cerebral cortex related to memory showed decreased activity.

But while activity in the cerebral cortex, or the “thinking” part of the brain, decreased, the probes showed that the mice’s basal ganglia were working in overdrive. The MIT researchers concluded that the brain essentially off-loaded the maze-running sequence from the cerebral cortex to the basal ganglia where it was stored as a habit. What’s more, the “maze running” habit was initiated whenever the mice heard a certain clicking noise. The “click” acted as cue to the basal ganglia to run the maze-running script (we’ll come back to this important bit of knowledge later).

Since the initial research with mice, researchers have found that habits work pretty much the same way with us humans. Whenever we go into “habit mode,” our brain activity shifts from our higher-thinking cerebral cortex to our more primitive-thinking basal ganglia. It’s one of the ways our brain works more efficiently. By freeing up mental RAM from our cerebral cortex, our brains can use that mental energy for more important stuff like creating a life plan, starting a business, or even researching the science of habits!

Neuroscientists have also learned that once our brain encodes a habit into our basal ganglia, that habit never really disappears. It’s always there looking for that certain cue to initiate the habit sequence. That wouldn’t be a problem if all our habits were good for us. Unfortunately, our brain doesn’t distinguish between good habits and bad ones. It will off-load any repeated activity to the basal ganglia, even if it’s to our detriment.

The permanence of bad habits shouldn’t discourage you: Change is still possible according to the latest habit research. While you can’t really get rid of a bad habit, it is possible to create more powerful good habits that simply override the bad ones. To do so, you need to understand exactly how habits are formed. Once you know the process by which our brain encodes habits, you can start tweaking the various components to change and create any habit you want. Author Charles Duhigg calls this habit forming process the Habit Loop.

The Habit Loop

Vintage men working at computers for programming work stations.

The Habit Loop is sort of like a computer program — a very simple one, albeit — consisting of three parts:

  1. Cue. According to Duhigg, a cue is “a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use.” For the mice in the MIT experiment, the cue was a “click” sound; for us a cue could be “sitting down at the computer,” or “boredom,” or “lunch time.”
  2. Routine. The routine is the activity that you perform almost automatically after you encounter the cue. A routine can be physical, mental, or emotional.
  3. Reward. The reward is what helps our “brain figure out if [a] particular loop is worth remembering for the future.” A reward can be anything. For the mice in the MIT experiment the reward was chocolate. For us it could be the feeling we get after eating a Five Guys burger, smoking a cigarette, or watching porn.

As we encounter this three-part loop over and over again, the process slowly becomes more automatic. What really cements the habit in our brain is when the Cue and the Reward work together to form powerful neurological cravings that compel us to perform the Routine.  In short, cravings are the fuel for the Habit Loop.

Here’s how this happens: Whenever we crave something, our brain experiences the same sort of pleasure response that we get when we actually experience a reward — be it a tasty burger or an orgasm. But this anticipatory pleasure creates some cognitive dissonance within us — there’s a conflict between what our brain feels (the pleasure of eating a burger) and what we’re actually experiencing (I’m not eating a burger right now). Our brains don’t like this disconnect and will quickly close the gap by compelling us to engage in the Routinethat will give us the pleasure we’re anticipating (hitting the drive-thru).

When something is a habit, our brain strongly associates certain Cues with certain Rewards. In the case of the MIT mice, the “clicking” noise cue was strongly associated with the reward of a piece of chocolate. Just by hearing the click, the mice began experiencing the pleasure of eating the chocolate, which created a craving to actually eat the chocolate. Sort of like Pavlovian’s dogs. That craving then compelled the mice to go into automatic mode and run through the maze in the pursuit of chocolate without even thinking about it.

And as it is with mice, so it goes with humans.

Like it or not, we all have cues that we associate with certain rewards that create almost insatiable cravings within us. For many modern men, the buzz or chime of incoming email is a cue that initiates a powerful craving to check our inbox to see if we’ll be rewarded with some life-altering or exciting email. For other men, the cue of a putting on their running shoes creates a craving for the reward of a runner’s high, which compels them to get out the door and start running. Once our brain associates a Cue with a Reward, an un-erasable habit begins to encode itself within our basal ganglia.

Hacking the Habit Loop to Change Bad Habits

While habits never really disappear, we don’t have to be slaves to them. Research has shown that by becoming aware of the Habit Loop in our lives and making simple tweaks to it, we can change bad habits to good ones.

To change a habit, you must simply follow the Golden Rule of Habit Change: Keep the Cue and Reward; Change the Routine. 

That’s it.

“It seems ridiculously simple, but once you’re aware of how your habit works, once you recognize the cues and rewards, you’re halfway to changing it,” said Nathan Azrin, a habit researcher Charles Duhigg interviewed for The Power of Habit. “It seems like it should be more complex. The truth is, the brain can be reprogrammed. You just have to be deliberate about it.”

Below is a step-by-step guide that Charles Duhigg suggests using to identify the component parts of the Habit Loop in your life so that you can begin taking deliberate action to change how it runs.

Step 1: Identify the Routine

The first step is to identify the routine you want to change in your life. Do you want to stop checking your email incessantly? Do you want to stop watching porn every night? How about quitting your caffeine habit? Or maybe you want to quit playing video games all weekend and start working out? This is the part of the Habit Loop that we’ll be tweaking in order to change our undesirable habits.

Step 2: Experiment with the Reward

“Rewards are powerful because they satisfy cravings. But we’re often not conscious of the cravings that drive our behaviors,” says Duhigg.

It’s easy to identity our rewards – pizza, orgasm, drinking – but what are we really craving when we go after those things? And is there a different reward that will satisfy the true craving, but in a more positive way?

To answer those questions, you need to conduct a series of experiments designed to test various hypotheses. Don’t get frustrated during this process if it takes too long or doesn’t have the results you had predicted – think of yourself like a scientist who is led by curiosity and dispassionately seeks to uncover the truth.

For example, let’s say you have a habit Routine of going to the vending machine to get a Diet Mountain Dew every day. You want to change it because it’s costing you money and Diet Dew isn’t very good for you, so you need to figure out the craving that’s driving you to seek that Reward, and whether a different Reward might satisfy it equally well.

To begin your experiments, the next time you feel that all-too-familiar pull towards getting that delicious neon nectar, adjust your Routine so you get a different Reward. On the first day of your experiment, buy a 7-Up instead; on the second day just drink water from the water fountain; on another day simply surf the web or take a walk outside. When you commence the substitute activity (or after say, drinking the 7-Up), set a fifteen-minute alarm on your watch or computer. Then when the fifteen minutes is up, ask yourself: “Do I still feel the urge for Diet Mountain Dew?” Evaluate the state of your craving. If you still feel an urge to do the Dew after surfing the web, then you’ve discovered that your habit isn’t motivated by a craving for distraction. On the other hand, if the craving for Dew disappears after taking a walk outside, then perhaps your Dew habit was being driven by a craving for a quick energy boost. By substituting the soda-Routine for the walk-Routine, you can satisfy your craving for a pick-me-up-Reward, but do it in a healthier, more positive way.

Step 3: Identify the Cue

Once you identify the reward, it’s time to identify the cue: the thing that triggers the craving. Habit researchers have shown that almost all habit cues fall into one of five categories:

  • Location
  • Time
  • Emotional State
  • Other People
  • Immediately-preceding action

Whenever you get the urge for a Mountain Dew, write down answers that correspond to the five possible cue categories. Do this for an entire week. After a while, you should be noticing a reoccurring cue. For example, you might get the craving for a Diet Mountain Dew at a certain time of day or maybe whenever you feel tired and bored. Make note of what you believe your Diet Mountain Dew Habit Cue is.

Step 4: Create a Plan

After you identify the Cue and Reward, you can start making plans to change your routine. According to researchers, the best way to plan your habit change is through implementation intentions. We wrote about these earlier this year. In a nutshell, an implementation intention is an “if-then” phrase that links a situational cue to a specific action.

So let’s use our Diet Mountain Dew example to create an implementation intention to help us kick the habit. Through days of experimenting you discovered that you get the urge to drink a Diet Mountain Dew right around 2PM. You also uncovered by experimenting with different rewards that it wasn’t really the Diet Dew you craved, you were just craving an energy boost. Fortunately, you found that walking outside for 15 minutes gave you the same boost as chugging the sweet stuff. So you could create an implementation intention that looked like this:

When I feel tired at 2PM, I will get up and walk around outside for 15 minutes.

You’ll need to be methodical about actually implementing your implementation intention. You can’t half-ass it. The goal is to associate taking a walk with your tiredness-energy boost cue/reward combo. Depending on how entrenched your bad habit was, overriding it with your new good habit could take a few weeks. Be patient, stick to your implementation intention, and change will come.

Step 5: Believe You Can Change

A final ingredient necessary for lasting habit change is to believe that change is possible. Researchers have found that the best way to foster that belief in yourself is to surround yourself with a supportive group of people. According to psychologist Todd Heatherton, “Change occurs among other people. It seems real when we can see it in other people’s eyes.”

The ability of groups to encourage belief that change is possible is one of the reasons researchers believe Alcoholics Anonymous has been so successful with helping people beat their alcohol habit. Every week they go to a meeting where everyone believes that they can change.

Your group doesn’t have to be as large as an AA meeting. In fact, just having one other person to turn to as you change your habit can foster the belief that you can change your bad habit. Find an accountability partner that you can meet with on a regular basis to report on your progress and get encouragement. Ideally your partner would be somebody that you can meet with face-to-face, but even virtual check-ins can work.

How to Form a New Habit Using the Habit Loop

Understanding how the Habit Loop works can also help you create new habits that you’ve been meaning to establish, but never had the wherewithal to follow through on. You just need to design a cue-routine-reward loop and work through it until a craving is created that drives the loop. It may take some tinkering and experimentation, but with enough patience and diligence, you’ll strike on something that works.

Also, when you know how to discover your habit loops, you can get rid of bad habits by disenchanting them. Here’s how to disenchant your bad habits.

Your Man-Up Challenge

I have two challenges for you today. First, pick a habit that you want to change and start experimenting to find out what your Habit Loop is. I’d love to hear what habit you plan to work on, so share it with us in the comments. Second, I highly recommend you pick up a copy of The Power of Habit at a book store or library. I just scratched the surface of the Habit Loop in this post. Duhigg goes into much more detail and provides compelling examples of the Habit Loop in action. You’ll be a better man after reading. 


Listen to my podcast with Charles Duhigg for even more: 

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