Unlocking the Science of Habits: How To Hack the Habit Loop and
Become the Man You Want to Be
by Brett & Kate McKay
Art of Manliness
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.
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.
Brain on Habits
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.
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.
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
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!
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.
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
is sort of like a computer program – a very simple one, albeit
– consisting of three parts:
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.”
The routine is the activity that you perform almost automatically
after you encounter the cue. A routine can be physical, mental,
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.
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 Routine that will give
us the pleasure we’re anticipating (hitting the drive-thru).
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
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.
the Habit Loop to Change Bad 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
To change a
habit, you must simply follow the Golden Rule of Habit Change:
Keep the Cue and Reward; Change the Routine.
“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
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.”
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© 2012 The Art of Manliness