The Habit Loop and the Golden Rule

In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg talks extensively about the “habit loop” and the “golden rule” of habit change: a habit has a trigger, a routine (the habit itself), and a reward. The trigger is sometimes referred to as an anchor (as in, “when I wake up, I always…”), and the reward may be, for example, a feeling of relaxation or another positive emotional state. This is a model for understanding why people can “replace” harmful habits, like smoking, with other activities, like chewing gum: they can use the same trigger, and as long as they can find a replacement routine that gives them a similar reward, they’re golden.

Anchoring and reward help establish brand-new habits, too. In BJ Fogg’s Tiny Habits program, for example, the very first step to establishing the new habit is to find a good anchor: something you reliably do at the same time of day and with the same frequency as the new habit you want to develop. He also builds in a reward concept, saying he likes to inject some happiness into completing the action by saying “Victory!” afterward. Other examples could be the pleasure of earning a check mark on a calendar, or social support from recording a workout on a social fitness site.

Understanding these patterns can help us find solutions when we bump up against obstacles in doing the things we wish we were doing — and helps to explain why people have so little success when they try to lose weight by eating food or doing workouts they hate. We may need some willpower — and some problem-solving — to get started with a better behavior, but with some persistence, we’ll be able to repeat it consistently enough to make a new habit.

Image: Detail from a flowchart in Duhigg’s book. He discusses it in a blog entry, “Infographics! (Or, a flowchart for changing a habit).”

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