How to Use Duhigg’s Habit Loop to Power Your Self-Improvement

developing good habits
Photo by Klaus Nielsen from Pexels

Forming Habits is Key to Achieving Your Chosen Personal Development Goals

Have you ever set yourself a personal development goal you have been unable to achieve? I certainly have. Choosing to do something is generally easier than the practice of actually carrying out our decision. That is because goal setting is not a one-off decision, it is just the first of a series of decisions. Decision-making itself is a cyclical process

As a professional executive and life coach, who has worked with hundreds of clients, I can attest to the fact that most common life goals succeed or fail around the issues of habits.  We might choose to get fitter or eat healthier, but the challenge is that every time we are faced with a doughnut, or the chance to veg out on the sofa them we face another choice, and our early decision (and future goal) are threatened. So, what do we do?

The answer is creating good habits. In neurological terms, a habit works as a short circuit in the brain that makes choices easier. But first, we must construct the required decision-making routine.  To make effective decisions and to build good habits you should understand the psychology of the process.

The decision space

First off is understanding the decision space. In nature, things react. In Newtonian physics it is forces that react, in chemistry, it is different elements. Biology is not much different and when an animal receives a stimulus it triggers a response. 

But between stimulus and response, there is a gap where we can choose how to react. This is the decision space

“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

Victor E Frankl

Even when we (and other animals) are working at a subconscious level there is the opportunity to interrupt the stimulus-response cycle. The most famous example of manipulating were the experiments conducted by Ivan Pavlov. In his study, he took a simple reaction: the stimulus of food, and the response in a dog’s saliva glands. He then linked the arrival of food with a bell and built up the association until the dog would salivate at the sound of the bell, not just the arrival of food. Hence the term, Pavlovian response. This classical conditioning is key to understanding how we can adapt our responses and build new habits. 

The Duhigg Habit Loop

So how do you develop the right habit that you need to achieve your goal?

Charles Duhigg, in his book The Power of Habit (2013), shows that we need to identify the habit loop of any given behaviour. We need to know the cue (the stimulus), the routine (or action) and the reward (the payoff).  Once we understand the cues to behaviours, we can experiment with rewards to instil new routines.

how to make good habits
The Habit Loop – Charles Duhigg
YouTube video: How to use Duhigg’s Habit Loop to power your personal development goals

Forming new good habits (that stick)

To do this, first think about the new habit (the routine, action, or behaviour) that you want to create. Write it down, capturing as much detail as you can about it.

Next, think about the cues to this action or behaviour. If you are trying to change a bad habit, then identifying the cue allows you to think before you act and you can start to test different rewards to help enforce new behaviours. For example, if you want to improve your sleep but have a screen in your bedroom that you are in the habit of watching late at night, then remove the device or remote.

If you are trying to create a new habit, then you can create cues. You can start linking an action to something. For example, if you leave out your gym kit the night before you are much more likely to put it on in the morning and go for a run.

Now think about the reward. Brainstorm different things that might work to positively reinforce your new habit. Any embedded habit is usually hardwired due to the chemical reinforcement in the body. The trick is to find a new action/reward link that brings a similar hormonal, biological or psychological satisfaction.

Example of changing a habit loop

I tend to get a little hungry mid-morning and mid-afternoon.  I often want a snack.  Snacking, as my friend Tim Rees (a professional nutritionist) points out, is generally bad! When the blood sugar is low it is very easy to grab something unhealthy to eat – a sweet biscuit, chocolate bar or similar would be my thing. But I know this is not good for me so I have tried other replacement snacks.  

I have experimented with various options, and some things just don’t hit the spot, but I have found that I have a real thing for hummus.  I know hummus is nothing like a chocolate biscuit but it turns out that if there is some hummus around, especially with a carrot or some sweet pepper, then there is a good chance I can avoid a sugary snack. 

“Change might not be fast and it isn’t always easy. But with time and effort, almost any habit can be reshaped.” 

Charles Duhigg

Experiment with the new habit

Most people fail with instilling new habits as they don’t persist and learn from their failures. Creating a new habit is hard. You will fail but that failure is just new data to help you succeed. If you did not get the required action, what can you change in the cue or the reward to get a better result? Experiment, changing one factor at a time until you find something that works.

“Failures, repeated failures, are finger posts on the road to achievement. One fails forward toward success” 

C.S. Lewis

Example: two goals but only one successful habit

But even knowing this is not enough. For example, recently I set myself two goals. One to learn and play the guitar and the other to get fit for a race. But I only really succeeded with the latter goal. Why is that?

I started playing the guitar in my teens, but I had never really improved beyond a certain (and basic) level.  Why? Quite simply it was because I never practised enough.  I never developed guitar practice as a habit. But, I decided to try again during the pandemic. 

In my dreams, I would be able to play like Jimi Hendrix.  In my mind’s eye, I could see myself saving the day at a gig, strolling onto the stage to replace an injured lead guitarist, and stunning my friends with amazing solos, my fingers a blur on the fretboard!  But there was a big difference between successful guitarists and me. That difference went beyond just raw talent (of which I had very little). 

Guitar legends such as Jimi Hendrix would pick a guitar up at the beginning of the day and hardly put it down until they went to bed; it is like an extension of their body.  I rarely picked mine up at all.  When practising I got frustrated or bored quickly and if I had the choice between playing for an hour on the guitar or going to the gym, I would generally choose the latter.

So, I managed to get fit but have (so far) failed in my goal of improving my guitar playing. Success in one and failure in another came down to competing values and priorities regarding my time management. I only had the capacity to develop one new habit and achieve one goal. 

The simple fact is you can become good at almost anything, but you cannot be good at everything. You must prioritise. You have to make decisions between the goals you want to achieve and the habits you want to form. It takes focus and energy to build and solidify good habits. So be clear about your personal values and set your priorities before you start building your new habit.

How to start turning goals and decisions into habits

Achieving a personal development goal is not a one-off decision. Success is the cumulative effect of good choices made every day. Habit reinforces our decision-making and makes it easier to do the right thing.

But we cannot change everything all at once or achieve all our goals at the same time. First, we must work out the goal we value most. We must prioritise what we want to do. Think, what is the most important change you want to make? 

Then we have to build a new habit. We do this by experimenting with the habit loop and manipulating the response to any stimulus. By working out the cue, we can build a new routine, reinforced by rewards. 

Crack the new habit and you will have exponentially improved your chances of making the decisions and achieving success. 

“Many of life’s failures are people who did not realise how close they were to success when they gave up.”

Thomas Edison


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