The Habit Cycle

The Habit Cycle

What we’ll cover: 
  • Understanding the separate components of the habit cycle
  • Using each stage to build healthy behaviours and routine
  • Using habits to influence your outlook 

Understanding habits is crucial for personal growth and productivity, yet many of us struggle to break bad ones or build new, healthier routines. This article delves into the habit cycle; a fascinating process that explains why we do what we do every day. By exploring the cues, routines, and rewards that drive our behaviours and choices, we can uncover practical strategies for harnessing the power of habits to achieve our goals and improve the often-automatic choices we make each day.

As James Clear, author of "Atomic Habits," puts it, "You do not rise to the level of your goals; you fall to the level of your systems." This concept refers to our ‘systems’ being a series of smaller processes and habits that form how we behave throughout the day.

The habit cycle, as explained by Clear, consists of a cue, craving, response, and reward. Recognising and using this cycle can be a game-changer in reshaping our habits for the better.

Identify the ‘Cue’:

Every habit starts with a cue – a trigger that initiates the habit loop. Whether it's stress, boredom, hunger, or a specific time of day, understanding what prompts your habits is the first step toward change. Clear notes, "The cue triggers a craving, which motivates a response, which provides a reward, which satisfies the craving and, ultimately, becomes associated with the cue." In the context of diet and lifestyle, identifying cues might involve recognising patterns like reaching for snacks during moments of stress or automatically grabbing your phone upon waking.

Understand the ‘Craving’:

Cravings are the driving force behind habits. Once you've identified the cue, pay attention to the cravings that follow a cue. If you habitually snack when stressed, your craving might be for comfort or distraction. Acknowledge these cravings without judgment and where possible try to use strategies such as ‘urge surfing’ to avoid giving in to the craving. By understanding your cravings, you gain insight into the deeper motivations behind your habits,  which can help change how you respond in a way that prevents unhelpful patterns.

Shape your ‘Response’:

Once the cue and craving are recognised, the next step is to choose a more positive response. This is where the power of habit lies. Instead of reaching for unhealthy snacks when stressed, consider healthier alternatives like a brisk walk, deep breathing exercises, or a nourishing herbal tea. Suppose you find yourself snacking in the afternoon due to boredom. Is there another way you can resolve that boredom which aligns better with your long-term health goals, such as phoning a friend or family member or taking 10 minutes to partake in a hobby.

Change the ‘Reward’:

The reward plays a crucial role by providing motivation to repeat the behaviour. When we perform an action that gives us a satisfying result, our brain releases dopamine, reinforcing the behaviour and making it more likely to be repeated. However, we're often hardwired to seek quick fixes, like sugary snacks or instant gratification from screens, because they provide immediate rewards. These quick fixes can be detrimental, leading to poor health and unproductive habits. Understanding this can help us consciously choose more beneficial rewards, leading to healthier, more sustainable habits.


Making small, incremental changes within our habits isn't just a strategy; it's a path to remarkable transformations over time. Remember that a small change will lead to a significant change in our long-term trajectory when we stick to it. Vice versa, steering just 1% in the wrong direction can take you further and further away from where you want to be, if you continue in that same direction.

Using the habit cycle can help you make long-term changes for better health by turning healthy actions into automatic routines. By recognizing what prompts your habits and creating easy-to-follow healthy routines in which healthy habits such as exercise and meal planning are the ‘cornerstone’ of your day-to-day, you can replace unhealthy behaviors that influence your mindset in a positive and reinforcing way. Over time, these positive habits will become a natural part of your daily life, leading to lasting improvements in your overall well-being.

August 31, 2023
Written by
Robbie Green
Reviewed by
Dr. Claudia Ashton


Clear, James. Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones. Avery, 2018.

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