The Habit Loop: Reward is key to forming new habits that stick

Forming a new habit is highly personal — but researchers have found a common thread in ones that stick: a 3-step process called the Habit Loop.

Not-so-fun fact: 80% of New Year’s resolutions “fail” in the first 30 days. And though it’s often said that it takes “22 days to form a new habit,” studies show it actually ranges from 18–254 depending on the type of habit we’re trying to make (or break). In other words, change is hard, and there’s no one-size-fits-all method to make something stick.

But there is some good news: The same researchers who found that it can take nearly 9 months to form a habit also noted that missing an opportunity here and there to complete the desired behavior “did not materially affect the habit formation process” (whew!). And other studies have concluded that incorporating reward is key to creating a positive feedback loop that lasts in the long-term (bonus!).

In short, one of the keys to forming a new habit is reframing failure and reinforcing success. But first, how do we know when a habit is “formed”?

Started from the cortex now we’re here

New behaviors that we still have to think about and remind ourselves of happen in our prefrontal cortex, the “decision-making” and “monitoring” part of the brain. But, after we repeat an action often enough, it becomes second-nature; it moves to our “lizard brain,” a layman’s term for the basal ganglia, a region of the brain that controls our instinctual behaviors like eating, sex, and survival.

If the habit is a physical action — our very movements may flow together and feel more coordinated and fluid, a phenomenon that MIT neurologist Dr. Ann Graibel called “action chunking.”

Consider this action “chunked.”

An activity becomes a “habit” when starts to feel easy or automatic; we no longer have to “decide” to floss our teeth, we just do it.

The Habit Loop is the fastest route to our lizard brain
Graybiel’s research was instrumental to “classifying components of a habit,” including the discovery of The Habit Loop, a 3-part cycle including a cue, a routine, and a reward.

  • The routine is the behavior you want to instill or change.
  • The cue is the thing that triggers the behavior (be it positive or negative). If we want to stop eating junk food, the cue might be stress or skipping a meal. If we want to start meditating every morning, the cue might be an alarm clock reminder.
  • The reward is the thing that positively reinforces this behavior. For example, when a marketing team found that consumers “desired a fresh scent at the end of a cleaning ritual,” they created a product that skips right to the good part: Febreeze.
Yep, Febreeze “short-circuited” our reward system.

Experiment with what works for you

Not all rewards work for all people — and the same goes for cues (I’ve blown through at least 3 warning post-it notes stuck to a clear glass door and had the goose eggs to prove it).

Test some different rewards and cues to see what sticks: A reward for getting up early to work out maybe buying a special latte, or just pausing to thank yourself for taking care of your body. Just make sure you reward yourself immediately after finishing the routine so your brain knows to connect the two.

When trying to break a habit, identify the cue that’s causing it is key. If you’re oversleeping, is it because you’re tired, or because you dread going to the workout? If the former, try going to bed earlier. If the latter, it might be time to find a new gym or instructor.

Pro habit hack: “Habit stack”

Research shows that “habit stacking,” or chaining a new activity to another already-established routine, makes both easier to stick to (like putting your umbrella next to your keys).

Studies also suggest that once you find a cue and reward that works for you, keeping them and the routine itself consistent (including the time of day) is important to success.

And as far as reframing failure? Try not to think of the fact that habits can take much longer than a month to form as daunting. As one writer put it, this reality is simply an “invitation to start slow and small,” and welcome missteps as a part of the experimentation process.

The Point: We’re all great at punishing ourselves for tiny mistakes. Don’t forget to reward yourself for the tiny wins, too.

Check out our upcoming drop-in mental fitness classes to work on reframing failure and retraining your brain with improv-thinking!

Speechless is an organization that uses Improv Thinking to help people be themselves and be heard. Visit https://www.speechlessinc.com/ for more info.