The Habit Loop: Treat Yo'self for Good Habits
By Sarah Plantz
What is the Habit Loop?
We all remember sitting at our childhood kitchen table, pushing our cold broccoli around on our plates hoping our parents wouldn’t notice if we “accidentally” dropped it under the table. “It’s good for you! Eat it!,” your parents would insist. Even dreams of one day growing up to be big and strong couldn’t convince you to choke down the yucky greenery. “You can have ice cream if you finish your broccoli!” would be the final plea.
*queue gagging down the cold broccoli and proudly showing off your empty mouth*
This broccoli tale as old as time may be many of our first memories with what is scientifically called the “habit loop.”
The Habit Loop is a neurological pattern identified by MIT researchers and expanded upon by journalist and author Charles Duhigg. Like our favorite recycling slogan, the habit loop is composed of 3 steps: a cue, a routine, and the reward. The “cue” is a trigger which tells the brain that it is time to prepare to start performing a specific behavior. The “routine” is the actual physical or mental behavior (or action) itself, and the “reward” is the form of satisfaction received by completing the behavior.
Seems straightforward — mom tells you to eat the broccoli, you chew and swallow, and you receive delicious ice cream. However, as adults with many more daily tasks and distractions – those cues reminding us to perform healthy, “good” behaviors seem much easier to ignore, and the reward often goes overlooked. It leaves us wondering, though, why is it so much easier to form bad habits versus good, and how does the habit loop help us to change that pattern?
Good vs. Bad
As Duhigg explains in his studies, analyzing the three components of the Habit Loop separately can be helpful in understanding what causes humans to form both good and bad habits. Afterall, the same release of mental satisfaction can be felt when both a chore is completed or when a hangnail is finally bitten off. The step of the loop which determines “good” from “bad” lies in the routine, or behavior portion of a habit.
By first identifying the routine part of the habit, one can determine if this action is considered good/healthy or bad/unhealthy. Say the action is grabbing an afternoon frappuccino on a regular basis. Maybe your blended treat is starting to pack on a few pounds, and leading to an evening sugar crash. This action can be identified as bad/unhealthy due to the negative outcomes on your body.
The next step is identifying the cue – or what causes the routine consumption. It could be a feeling of stress, an afternoon slump, or a coworker asking for company. While not always conspicuous, there is a distinct signal to the brain that it’s time for a frappuccino.
Lastly, identifying the reward, or affect of the frappuccino, is key to understanding what keeps bringing the brain back to this habit with disregard for the consequences. This part is trickiest to isolate, as the reward is often a subconscious feeling. In this case, the coffee treat could be a distraction from boredom, companionship with peers, or simply instinctual hunger or thirst.
How to convert bad to good?
The negative/unhealthy routine might be repeated since it’s the most familiar, or path of least resistance to accomplish the reward. In order to change that routine component into something healthier, there will need to be experimentation of pinpointing the desired reward. Using the frappuccino example, if the desired reward is a feeling of extra energy to overcome the afternoon slump, try scheduling an afternoon walk into your day. If the desired feeling is socializing, try bringing a coworker along for the walk, or making tea together instead. Testing out different routine behaviors until the same reward is accomplished can take time. Patience and persistence in trying out new behaviors until the same reward is accomplished is key to changing bad habits to good.
How does the habit loop affect oral care?
One of the primary reasons quip was created was to address the problem of people not performing oral hygiene habits correctly. Brushing less than 2 minutes, not always twice a day, and delaying changing the brush head can be the method of least resistance to still feeling like a healthy oral care routine was accomplished. quip recognized the long-term rewards from following proper oral care habits (better oral health and overall health) are sometimes too intangible or difficult to recognize to convince people to convert to professionally-recommended routines. We know that when you brush your teeth once correctly, your teeth don’t magically look and feel healthier. Frankly, we recognized that even with a brush with built-in features that guide correct oral care, the rewards of feeling clean and accomplishing better long-term health aren’t always strong enough.
With the launch of the new Smart Brush and Smart Motor, quip seeks to tap into the power of the habit loop and human psychology with more obvious cues, clearer guidance for a healthier routine, and praising healthy behavior with more tangible rewards. The Smart Brush technology and corresponding quip app prompt (cue) brushing and flossing (behaviors) to build points that are redeemable for discounts, new products and gift cards (reward).
Learn more about the new quip Smart Brush and Motor.