The Endless Cycle of Habits and How To Break It

Raise your hand if you can relate to any of these. Maybe you paid for a gym membership and have only gone a few times (or never!). Maybe you’ve been postponing that new diet plan Monday after Monday. Or maybe you have a reminder to go to bed early that you keep dismissing. If you’ve experienced anything like this, you probably know that habits are hard to implement. 

You are not alone. Changing the way we have been doing things for a long time can feel impossible. Whether you are trying to take up new habits or leave behind some old ones, good intentions and life resolutions tend to lose traction over time. Approximately 54% of people who promise themselves to adopt a habit fail to sustain it for more than six months.[1] Conversely, people can commit up to ten times to adopt the same habit. This article is all about understanding what habits are, why it is so difficult to incorporate them into our lifestyle, and how we can overcome those obstacles.

What is a Habit?

Recurrence is a monumental part of our everyday actions. Think about the first thing you do when you wake up, the place where you usually drink your coffee or the route you choose to get to work. Chances are those actions are pretty much identical every week. 45% percent of people’s daily activities occur in very similar situations.[2]

Those recurrent actions are habits and we develop them through time until they become learned automatic responses.[2] They can form unconsciously or according to our personal goals. Either way, the key element to habit formation is associative learning and repetition.[3] We repeat what we see works for us, and when said repetition is stable, our brain forms associations between cues and consequences. This is what makes the habit loop: a cue triggers the behaviour, and the behaviour leads to a reward. That return leads us to be motivated to repeat the behaviour next time a cue comes around.[4]

The habit loop is a very simple depiction of the relationship between action, reaction, and motivation. Taken from Medium.

A key characteristic of habits is automaticity.[5] They function largely outside of awareness, which means we are not really thinking about what we are doing. Think of it as an autopilot mode. Since our attention and willpower are limited, our brains automate routinary conducts so we can focus on other things.[6]

This tendency toward quick-and-efficient responses can backfire if the behaviours are unhealthy or unsustainable. Consider smoking, for instance. In those cases, how can we break the loop?

Hacking our Habits

There is no magic recipe to change habits because they, like people, are unique and different. We can, however, see some commonalities. That’s because the habit loop works similarly to operant conditioning.[7] The cue-reward relationship implies there’s a trigger for the habitual behaviour, and such behaviour provides some sort of reward. That trigger can be anything from a specific time to a person. 

So, how do we change these relationships? Well, we can hijack the cue, for example. If you always pass by a bakery shop and buy pastries, changing the route would be the first step to breaking that habit loop. A shift in context can disrupt even strong habits.[8] The reason why that is the case is because of the cue. By changing our routine, we remove the cue and break the loop.

Behavioural therapies to stop smoking behaviour focus on breaking the habit loop. Taken from WikiHow.

The same rule applies when we try to create a new habit. We require a cue that triggers the action and signals the onset of the behaviour. For instance, always leaving your sportswear next to your bed to go jogging come morning. Having cues in a stable context helps create patterns.

Cementing Habits

Of course, that alone won’t be enough and that takes us to the next key principle of creating habits: repetition. We mentioned earlier the concept of associative learning and operant conditioning. Both are central tropes in psychology that revolve around repeating a behaviour in order to learn it. This basically means that we have to practice habits before they become truly automatic. Even simple behaviours can take long (up to 250 days!) before we can perform them without thinking.[9]

One way of programming these habits is by incorporating them as simple practices and gradually adding onto them. When consistency is the goal, it is better to commit with simple targets and succeed at it, and then get better 1% at time. At this point, it’s not about the volume but making it automatic.[10] This approach is known as the minimum enjoyable action (MEA).[6] This paradigm also contemplates tracking your achievements as a way to reinforce your brain and sustain motivation.

Though we are more complex than rats, the way we acquire new habits is very similar to animal training. Taken from Evolution Institute.

The Bottom Line

Habits result from our needs to save mental energy and be more efficient in our routines. However, not all habits are healthy. Learning how to control our autopilot mode is fundamental to improve our lifestyle and optimise our routines. 

Changing our behavior may seem difficult so we should first focus on understanding our habit loops. That way, we can tweak our cues and achieve our goals more effectively. Long story short, we already know a clear course of action to modify our behaviour the way we want. All it takes is a bit of motivation and consistency to train those behaviours into our daily lives. Creating those associations is like rewiring our brain, but it takes time and energy. 

So, when you’re thinking about your New Year’s resolutions and you feel compelled to turn your whole life around, remember the cycle. Perhaps a clear picture of the effort it takes to ingrain a behaviour in your routine will bring you a higher success rate in your endeavours.   


Academic References

  1. Norcross, J. C., Mrykalo, M. S., & Blagys, M. D. (2002). Auld lang syne: success predictors, change processes, and self-reported outcomes of New Year’s resolvers and nonresolvers. Journal of clinical psychology, 58(4), 397–405.
  2. Neal, D. T., Wood, W., & Quinn, J. M. (2006). Habits—A Repeat Performance. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 15(4), 198–202.
  3. James, W. (1890). The Principles of Psychology, in two volumes. New York: Henry Holt and Company.
  4. Wood, W., & Rünger, D. (2016). Psychology of Habit. Annual review of psychology, 67, 289–314. 
  5. Wood, W., Quinn, J. M., & Kashy, D. A. (2002). Habits in everyday life: Thought, emotion, and action. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83(6), 1281–1297.
  6. Eyal, N. (2020). Indistractable: How to control your attention and choose your life. Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
  7. Skinner, B. F. (1965). Science and human behavior (No. 92904). Simon and Schuster.
  8. Duhigg, C. (2012). The power of habit: Why we do what we do in life and business. Random House.
  9. Lally, P., Van Jaarsveld, C. H., Potts, H. W., & Wardle, J. (2010). How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. European journal of social psychology, 40(6), 998-1009.
  10. Fogg, B. J. (2019). Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

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