The Habit Loop

I recently watched, and wrote about, a webinar about living well and energy levels. The webinar also spoke about how to create healthy long term habits and how to break bad habits. What I love about these webinars is not just gaining a better understanding around why we do what we do, but actually having the tools and action points to implement things in our own lives.

I’ve previously written about how to motivate yourself to change your behaviour after watching a TED talk. That talk showed aspects to help motivate and change behaviours – I would say more bigger picture stuff. Whilst this webinar by Jana Nightingale showed a different thought process, or cycle, to change daily actions or habits.


The webinar discussed how we can create healthy habits and put them into practise so we don’t have to think about them – so that it’s just part of our lifestyle. We can consciously craft the life we want.

40% of the actions we perform each day aren’t decisions but habits. The brain doesn’t like change and will push against any new behaviours. This is why self discipline and will power is so important.

Habit loop

I thought this was brilliant. Nightingale spoke about the habit loop:

  • cue;
  • habit/ routine; and
  • reward.

A cue is something that prompts a behaviour to happen. A habit, or routine, is carrying out the behaviour or habit. Reward is the result or positive reinforcement of carrying out the behaviour. For example, you might be feeling stressed and want to take a break (cue), so you eat 5 biscuits (habit/ routine), then you get a sugar hit or slight distraction (reward).

To change habits or create healthy habits, one must identify the cue: it could be a time of day, a person, a feeling, a situation. Then one must identify the reward: what it is that you’re seeking from that habit.

The cue and reward can still exist, but changing or updating the habit/ routine can help nip it in the bud. For example, eating only 1 biscuit or eating fruit instead. Bringing awareness is also super helpful, when we notice what we are doing in the first place then we can change what’s happening.

Stopping bad habits

Nightingale stated that it’s easier to avoid temptation rather than resist it. You can make a habit invisible, for example: not buying biscuits so you can’t act on the craving or not having cigarettes around if you are quitting smoking.

You can also reduce exposure to the cue. It is still possible to have a cue, but it would be easier to stop the habit by making it less available (if that’s possible).

Introducing new habits

Habit stacking 

Attaching a new habit to an existing one. For example, if you want to start meditating you can attach meditation to something you already do each day, like brushing your teeth.

I did this with my gratitude journal. To practise gratitude, I attached writing in my gratitude journal after stretching in the evenings, a habit I already did most days.

Designing your environment

Setting yourself up for success. For example, moving the fruit bowl into the centre of the table. I tried to do this with reading and exercising, and it kind of works – sometimes.

I leave a book on my bedside table in an effort to read before bed. I also tried setting out exercise clothes nearby to exercise in the morning – this was not as successful. But this helps to move us in the direction we want to go in.

The 2 minute rule

If you want to start something then first commit to 2 minutes. Then every time you do it, double it. If you wanted to commit to one hour straight away, the brain will think there won’t be enough time to do that. But start with 2 minutes, and then increasing each time, the brain will slowly adjust.

I did this with playing the ukulele, and again it kind of did work. I did get round to playing just over an hour a few days a week, which I was quite proud of.

Marginal gains or micro changes

Nightingale noted to focus on marginal gains or micro changes. The more slowly you do these things then the more likely you’ll continue to do them for the long term. I would definitely say that my difficulty is keeping up with the habit long term. Maybe that was my issue, I tried to do too much too quickly.


This can keep us motivated for longer. For example if you want to exercise, instead of exercising to lose weight, think of yourself as a runner. If you want to quit smoking but someone offers you a cigarette, instead of saying “no thanks I’m trying to quit”, say “no thanks I’m not a smoker”. These shifts in language and identity are really powerful.

This one I have not tried. Perhaps this is not an identity change, but more using positive language and rephrasing how you talk about things. Instead of saying “can’t”, say “won’t” – this is more empowering.

Instead of saying “I can’t snack because I want to lose weight”, say “I won’t snack because I’m not a snacker”. Instead of depriving yourself from something, it becomes more of an active decision – I feel this language shift and rephrasing is definitely more empowering.

Designing habits


Apparently it can take 14-21 days to keep a new habit. So try one new habit, keep at it for a little while each day, and see if it sticks before moving onto the next one.

Writing things down

When we write things down and pre-empt obstacles that may arise when we are starting a new habit, we are engaging the human side of our brain. Having a plan for better habits and finding ways to overcome potential obstacles can help us stick to new habits and improve our wellbeing.

Final thoughts

Lots of tools and action plans to implement, some of which I’ve used before, but really interesting to learn the names for them. It was also quite helpful learning about the habit loop and seeing how you can change, update, or re-design habit loops.

Of course this may be a lot easier said than done. I think I’ll try to identify the motivation to change and definitely try reframing my mindset by rephrasing my language into something more empowering. This is what can keep us motivated, where will power and self discipline comes from.

And also trying to plan for healthier habits, writing things down, referring to the plan, future thinking and pre-empting potential obstacles, and then finding ways to overcome those potential pitfalls.

Every now and then the inner critic can take control. But being more aware, by pre-empting things and future thinking, will help us form better habits. Instead of focusing on results or a particular outcome, we can choose to just show up. We can reduce the expectation gap and just make it about doing the new habit.

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