The Habit Loop


Throughout Reframe, we’ve referred to “habitual alcohol use,” or using alcohol regularly, as a force of habit. But what exactly is a habit, and can we change them?

The American Journal of Psychology defines “habits” as:

"a more or less fixed way of thinking, willing, or feeling acquired through previous repetition of a mental experience."

Note some keywords there: fixed, repetition, experience. Habits are things that are pretty hardwired into our thoughts, emotions, and actions, but we can change habits with some intentional work. First, let’s understand “the habit loop” and dive into the anatomy of a habit.

The Habit Loop

“The Habit Loop” is a simple way of explaining the pieces that go into habit formation, and therefore, the things we need pay attention to if we want to change a habit. This loop is made up of three components:

  1. The Cue

  2. The Routine

  3. The Reward

The Cue:

The cue in the habit loop can best be described as the triggers we’ve discussed throughout this program. These triggers can be intense—being around alcohol, having a stressful day—but they can also be subtle. Perhaps your cue is putting the pot of water on to boil for dinner. A cue is an experience—an action, place, person, event, sensory experience like sight, touch, smell, sound, taste, even a time—that your brain has associated with the next part of the habit loop, the routine.

The Routine:

The routine is the result of the cue, the thing you do when that trigger hits. In this example, when you put your pot of water on to boil, your next step is to crack open a bottle of wine to sip while you cook. You don’t even really think about the routine, it just happens naturally. Which leads us to the final step of the habit loop, the reward.

The Reward:

The reward is the positive result you experience from your habit. When we open a bottle of wine and take a sip, we get a flood of feel-good dopamine and it instantly begins numbing our central nervous system.