The Habit Loop: Cue, Routine, Reward


Have you tried unsuccessfully to establish a daily habit – such as writing – only to give up after a few days?  How about breaking a bad habit, like indulging in the office donuts or hitting the snooze bar many, many times before getting up?   Habits.  We have a love-hate relationship with them.  We are always trying to develop good ones and get rid of bad ones.  

It seems that it is so easy to get into a bad habit.  We don’t even think about it half the time.   But establishing good habits – now that is difficult. Why is it so easy to hit the snooze bar 15 times but not get up when the alarm first goes off? Why is it so easy to spend literally hours checking your email every day (and multiple times a day), but not get 15 minutes of writing done? Why is it so hard to read every day or keep a journal daily but watching tv for hours is effortless?

The habit loop:  cue, routine, reward.

Our brain has a big job to do, and it is always looking for short-cuts. To conserve brain power, it takes activities that we do regularly and puts them on autopilot.  If you think about it, you perform numerous activities every day in this mode.  Take brushing your teeth for example.  It’s automatic.  You don’t actually decide whether or not you will  brush your teeth in the morning – you just do it without thinking.

Bad habits and good habits are established in the exact same way and are always bracketed by a cue and a reward.  The cue, or trigger, signals to your brain to execute a routine, and the reward associates pleasure with the routine. After you have gone through this cue-routine-reward loop a few times, your brain starts to catch on and puts the habit – good or bad –  on auto-pilot.   

Let’s take a bad habit for example.   I had gotten into the habit of eating one Hershey’s kiss every day after lunch at work.  The cue was returning to my office after lunch.  Like clockwork, I did not fail to unwrap a shiny kiss and pop it into my mouth.  

One day, I decided that eating Hershey’s kisses every day was not particularly good for me, so I decided to stop.  Not so easy.

On Day One of the no Hershey’s kiss challenge, I ate lunch as I usually did and without even thinking about it, popped a Hershey’s kiss in my mouth. Fail.

Okay, I thought, I just need to be more intentional.  So, on Day Two,  when I saw the bowl of Hershey’s kisses on my desk, I intentionally told myself not to eat one. An irresistible craving for Hershey’s kisses came over me.  I resisted for a while, but then I thought, well – how bad can one Hershey’s kiss be?  And popped one in my mouth.  Fail.

Oh, come on!  How hard can it be to give up one single kiss of Hershey’s chocolate every day?  Day Three, Four and Five? Fail.

Why was this happening? Without even realizing it,  I had entered into a habit loop.  There was a cue – lunch ending – a routine – eating a Hershey’s kiss – and a reward – enjoying the burst of pleasure I got from the kiss.  My brain had learned a pattern, just like a rat in a maze that presses a lever and gets a tasty piece of cheese.  


Lunch Ends → Eat Chocolate→ Thoroughly enjoy chocolate taste


And once my brain learned the cue, routine, reward pattern of the Hershey’s kiss, it began to anticipate the pleasure of the chocolate kiss, creating a craving for it.  

Creating a craving is the critical part of establishing a habit that will operate in auto-pilot.   

One way to get rid of a craving that is leading to a bad habit is to get rid of the cue.  What is triggering the craving that then compels you to execute the bad habit?

But what if you can’t get rid of the cue?  My cue was eating lunch.   Do I stop eating lunch?  Seems a little drastic.

If you can’t get rid of the cue, the next best thing is to replace your response to it.  This is the routine  – the thing that you do after the cue. And that routine needs to invoke some sort of reward at the end – just like the previous routine did – to work.

In the case of the Hershey’s kiss, what finally allowed me to interrupt the cue/routine/reward cycle was to replace eating the Hershey’s kiss with brushing my teeth.  Brushing my teeth is a new routine that has its own reward – a nice clean, minty feeling mouth. Brushing my teeth when I was triggered to eat the Hershey’s kiss consistently started a new pattern for my brain that fit the cue-routine-reward format.  Soon, I found that I was craving brushing my teeth after eating.  I felt uncomfortable if I didn’t.  And once I had the minty taste in my mouth, that killed the previous cue of wanting to top off my lunch with something sweet.

To  kill a bad habit, replace the habit itself with a positive routine that has some kind of reward attached to it.

 Creating a good habit

By this same reasoning, you can ingrain any new good habit in the same way – by following the cue, routine, reward loop.  That is how I was able to establish a habit of writing every morning shortly after I woke up.

The cue was easy – it was the alarm clock. There’s no more reliable cue than that.  Every day when the alarm clock goes off, it’s your cue to wake up and get out of bed.  You probably then have a string of habits – such as going to the bathroom, brushing your teeth, making a cup of coffee etc.  

In my previous life,  I was a snooze bar pusher.  My cue was the alarm clock, but my routine was to hit the snooze bar – multiple times.  As a result, not only did I not get up right away, I also ended up wasting valuable time in the morning and running late pretty much every single day.  The reward for all of this slothly behavior was getting to lie in that comfy, warm bed for another 10-30 minutes.  This was an awesome reward.  Your bed never feels as good as when you first wake up and get to fall back asleep for 10 minutes.

I  had the cue, and I had a routine – hitting the snooze bar.  Now I needed to change the routine.  I needed to introduce a foundational habit before I could introduce the habit of writing first thing every morning.  I had to introduce the habit of getting up right away when the alarm went off instead of hitting the snooze bar.  

This was, as you can imagine, much more difficult than popping a Hershey’s kiss into your mouth.  I had the cue (alarm clock), the routine I wanted to execute (get up right away), but no reward and certainly no craving for abandoning my bed in favor of walking around like a zombie. That is when I introduced coffee.  I set up the coffee pot the night before on auto brew so it was freshly brewed when I woke up the next morning.  I also picked out a nice comfy armchair to write in and made sure there was a nice fluffy blanket there as well.  Part of the reward of staying in bed was getting to cuddle up under the warm covers and enjoy a few extra zzzs.  So, I replicated the warm covers in an upright environment, added in the coffee and voila – I had my reward.

Now the existence of a reward did not eliminate the unpleasantness of getting up right away when the alarm clock went off.  That was and continues to be unpleasant.  But to make myself feel better, instead of hitting the snooze bar and snuggling back in for 10 more minutes (again and again),  I hunker down in my comfy armchair with my coffee.

Then came the writing part.  Well, once you have gotten out of bed, made yourself a cup of coffee and sat down in an armchair with your laptop, doing the writing turns out to be the easy part – as long as you start writing right away and don’t do a few things to “wake yourself up” – like reading your email or surfing the web.  That will get you nowhere fast. Why?  Because you won’t be able to stop doing that and at the end of your writing time, instead of having a reward, you will be frustrated that you didn’t get your writing done. And after a few days of not doing your writing every morning, you will give up on the whole idea of getting out of bed right away when the alarm goes off.

Now if you were paying attention you will notice that the I did not create an entirely new habit loop.  I replaced a bad habit with a good habit.  I took the same cue (alarm clock) that I used for the bad habit of hitting the snooze bar and I replaced the routine that followed that cue with getting up instead of hitting the snooze bar.

Think about some bad habits that you have right now that you would like to get rid of, and what good habits you might replace them with.  Want to procrastinate less?  Determine the cue that sets the procrastination in motion, and replace that procrastination routine with a more productive routine.. Want to exercise more?  Pick a cue in your day where you can slip in an exercise routine in lieu of the other behavior you are executing.  Want to stop snacking at work?   Brush your teeth, take a walk or talk to a friend instead.  Experiment and see what works for you.  And if you’d like to learn more about the habit loop and how habits rule our lives, check out Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit.

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