Protip to Increasing Your Productivity: The Habit Loop

You've found this post because you're a productivity-minded individual. You have goals that you want to accomplish like increasing your output at work, becoming more fit, keeping a tidier home, or simply getting more sleep.

For me, that last example of simply getting more sleep wasn't actually so simple. I found it hard to get to bed at a regular hour every night and decided, in a past life, that it was fine to get six hours of sleep at night and make it up on the weekends. I'm much wiser now and found a way to form positive habits to help me accomplish my goals.

The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg was indeed about how powerful habits, but more importantly he gives a framework on how to either create positive habits or break negative ones. The habit loop is THE protip from Duhigg's book.

The Habit Loop

Want a new behavior? Create a new habit. But these new habits are often times hard to develop (my sleep habit example). Once we've created a habit however, the new behavior becomes easy because we've re-wired our brain to go onto autopilot. Our brain on autopilot is a very powerful thing: We can accomplish some complex tasks without  much thinking. If you've ever left your house for a destination other than work, but found yourself driving TO work, this is your brain on autopilot from your commuting habit!

Here are the four parts of the habit loop:

The craving

Duhigg describes the craving as the engine that drives the habit loop. It's the brain's desire for for its next "neurological hit" and creates a strong wanting behavior of wanting whatever that craving is.

In forming positive habits, think of the craving as the "why?" behind the habit. Why do I want more sleep? Why do I want a tidy house? Why do I want to be more productive at work? The answer to your why will help in increasing the likelihood that your new habit will stick.

The cue

This is the kickstarter to your habit. A certain time of day (9:30 PM to start getting ready for bed), location (arrive at my office to start planning my day), or an event (think of your phone buzzing and you automatically check for the notification). The cue tells you to start the habit loop.

The routine

It's a checklist. Write down each step of what you want to get done as part of the habit.

I used to have a very messy desk. I fixed that with my work startup routine which, after arriving at my office (the cue), consisted of:

  • Log into computer
  • Set a timer for 15 minutes
  • Clean/organize papers for 5 minutes
  • Open email (which defaults to my calendar)
  • Plan/review day schedule for 10 minutes

A few things with this routine. First, I had this checklist written down. It helped my brain in sticking to the routine and after a couple of months, the sequence of events became automatic. Next, the 5 minutes of cleaning was important because, after 12 days, I would have had an hour of cleaning/organizing under my belt. After this, I would open up email, but it defaulted to my calendar first, which helped me with a critical part of my time management system: my daily planning.

Finally, it was a short checklist. Too elaborate and you decrease the likelihood that your habit will stick.

The reward

The reward is more than having completed the habit itself. It's positive reinforcement to your brain for a job well done! Make sure that the reward is clear. Give yourself a treat (I've got a bit of a sweet tooth), record completing the goal to get a sense of accomplishment (a dopamine hit), or allow yourself a fun activity (a quick mobile game, maybe).

Tools that have helped

Here are a few tools that have helped me in forming habits. I hope that they help you too:

  • My phone. It's the thing that I have with me all the time and has some basic, but useful apps.
  • Timer. Setting short timers for your routines helps in increasing the chances of completing the habit.
  • Notes app. Most notes apps have a checklist feature that we can reset after each loop.
  • The classic sticky note. List 5 to 7 things on a sticky. Although you can't check things off on the sticky note, it's a very convenient way to display a short list of things to do.
  • Habitica app. I tried this for a while and, although it's a great way to create the checklist of routines and tracking your accomplishment, gameifying my life just wasn't for me.

On bad habits

Duhigg's work is much more than the simple takeaway of his habit loop. It's a great read into the neuroscience of habits, amazing stories of how powerful habits are, and the latest edition has a reader's guide to using his ideas. It's particularly useful in understanding how to break bad habits.  It's worth the read; check it out here.

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