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The Habit Loop – The Science Behind Forming Or Breaking Habits

The Habit Loop – The Science Behind Forming Or Breaking Habits

The habit loop explains how each habits goes through a common pattern of 3 steps – the cue, the routine and the reward. Knowledge of these parts helps in breaking habits and cultivating good ones.

In this article, I will cover:

  • The story of how Tony Dungy led undergoes to victory using the habit loop
  • How the habit loop works
  • How to use the habit loop to your advantage
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When Tony Dungy took up the role of the head coach for the first time in 1996, no one expected him to succeed. Tony took over the reins of a team called Tampa Bay Buccaneers which was among the least successful teams in the league. Everyone considered them underdogs.


How Tony Dungy Led the Buccaneers to victory using the habit loop

Nov 17, 1996: On a bright afternoon, Tony’s team took on the formidable San Diego Chargers. The Buccaneers had the odds stacked against them. The question wasn’t if the Chargers would win, the question was “by how much?” As the match proceeded, the Buccaneers were losing as expected. The San Diego fans cheered wildly seeing their team winning as expected.

Tony had taken over as the head coach of the team in January. For the 9 months in his role, the Buccaneers displayed miserable performance like their previous years. They had a score of 2-8 for the season and every analyst expected them to lose most of their matches. When they lost a match that season with a score of 0-27, one newspaper called them an orange doormat(they wore an orange outfit). People also called the psychological training techniques of Dungy stupid.

For Bucs vs Chargers, everyone was expecting the same result. The Buccaneers had been losing all game, they had been losing all season and they had been losing all decade. They had not won a single game on the west coast for the previous 15 years. ESPN even predicted the sacking of Tony Dungy before the end of the year.

But when the clock showed 8:19 minutes to spare, something happens. The fans do not notice it. The analysts do not notice it. The Chargers do not notice it. But Dungy does. As a person, the coach maintained a calm demeanor so he did not show any emotions at that moment. Nevertheless, Dungy sees which no one else does – his plan is working.

He was waiting for this moment for close to two decades. During his 17 years as an assistant coach, Dungy had interviewed for the position of head coach 4 times. During the interview, he would present his technique to the management.

In the game of football, many scenarios and important moments occur. A player has to consider a wide range of details before making a move. Every other coach used complex strategies based on opponents’ actions, attacks, and counterattacks. But Dungy had a different idea. His approach was, the key to winning was changing the habits of the players.

Instead of making so many decisions moment by moment on the field, Dungy wanted his players to react based on habit. He wanted to train the team to develop such habits instead of building a team of players who made the smartest decisions in a split second.

He knew that players already had habits, so he wanted them to use those habits but develop a different routine to use them. But the 4 teams did not appoint him as the head coach due to Dungy’s technique of changing habits.

In 1996, when he finally got the job of the head coach at Tampa Bay, he had an opportunity to put his technique in place. At 8:19, San Diego Chargers had the ball and the defense of the Buccaneers had to do something right then.

Humphries, the Chargers quarterback was making the play but Dungy wasn’t looking at him. He was looking at his players who were getting into a formation which they had spent months practicing. Hardly ever did the team apply it well, but that day, things were falling into place.

The formation that Dungy used was not complex. In fact, it was among the most obvious tactics but with a small difference. The team had trained to get into the formation faster than any other team could, purely by the force of habit.

They had practiced a few simple formations but targeted to form them fast without the delay of thinking. The delay we are talking about is only in milliseconds, but in football, it can make the difference between winning and losing. The team had applied the concept of the habit loop to their advantage.

The Chargers quarterback takes 3 seconds to make a move. During those tense moments, a Buccaneers player, Upshaw makes a move which no one notices

Second 1: He darts right so fast that the offensive lineman fails to block him

Second 2: He covers more distance downfield running at a fast pace

Second 3: He comes 3 strides close to the Chargers Quarterback who was now suddenly exposed

The Chargers Quarterback had 2 options now: to make a safer throw to one of their experienced players or a long throw to a rookie, Brian Roche. Caught by surprise and put under the pressure of Upshaw’s charge, the quarterback makes a mistake by attempting a long throw.

But John Lynch from the Buccaneers had already reached his position waiting to intercept. He makes the charge and intercepts the pass before Roche can grab the ball. He then makes a run of 10, 15, 20, 25 yards before he is blocked, but he brings the Buccaneers close to scoring.

All the action happens in less than 10 seconds. 2 minutes later, the Buccaneers score a touchdown. 5 minutes later, they score a field goal. One after another, the defense of the Bucs blocks all the offensive plays by the San Diego chargers denying them even a single point for the rest of the game.

When the clock hits 0:00, the scoreboard shows 25-17 in favor of the Buccaneers. The match turns out to be the biggest upset of the season.

As Lynch and Dungy walk back together into their team room, Lynch says, “Something is different” and Dungy replies “We are starting to believe.”

The habit loop was working in their favor.

After the turnaround of Tampa Bay Buccaneers

In 1997, the Buccaneers start the season with 5-0, qualify for the playoffs and finish second in the NFC Central division. The 1997 season becomes the first winning year for the team since 1982. In the years that follow, the Bucs perform way above their previous benchmark before Dungy took over as coach but the trophy eludes them.

As inspiring as the story is, it has a bittersweet ending. The team fired Tony Dungy as the head coach in 2002 after the Buccaneers repeatedly choke in the playoffs which the management attributes to Dungy’s defensive play. In 2003, Dungy watches with teary eyes as the Buccaneers, with their new coach, lift the trophy using the defensive techniques that he had incorporated.


Dungy proceeds to join Indianapolis Colts, until his retirement in 2009. He wins the coveted Super Bowl in 2007 much to his joy. He remains the only coach to reach the Superbowl playoffs for 10 consecutive years. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers may not have considered the transformation Dungy brought in the team, but he is now listed in the Pro Football Hall of Fame since 2016.

Many other teams use his technique ever since and it has also spread across other sports. So how did Tony Dungy manage to transform a below-average team to title contenders?

Read another story of success below. Though the story of the Polgar sisters is less about the habit loop, it is a story about practice and mastery.

The Habit Loop Explained

Charles Duhigg, in his best selling book, the Power of Habit presents the story of Tony Dungy and the technique of forming and breaking habits.

Every habit, good or bad, goes through the habit loop of 3 steps into your brain.

The Habit loop
Habit Loop Diagram

Though the 3 parts of the habit loop may seem obvious, identifying the cue and the reward is not as apparent as it seems.

The Cue:

The cue

A cue is anything that triggers a habit. It can be a specific place, a certain time of the day, the company of people, the emotional state of your mind or the previous action. The cue is what commences the habit loop.

Let us consider the example of the most spoken bad habit, smoking. Any trigger which causes to pick up a cigarette and light it up is a cue. Every smoker has different cues and sometimes they do not seem very clear. You might feel that the urge to smoke is the cue but there might be other reasons behind that. Here are a few examples:

  • You want to take a break but do not know what to do(time of the day/place)
  • Your friend starts smoking and you feel like lighting one too(the company of people)
  • You finish a hearty meal and you feel the urge to flip a cigarette between your lips(previous action)
  • You do not feel the urge on a normal day but when you sip on alcohol, you desperately want a few drags(previous action)
  • You want to smoke in the parking lot before you step into the office(place)
  • You are under stress and feel like smoking to relax(emotional state)

When you hit any of these cues, your brain sends a signal to your body to process the next step of action, the routine.

The Routine:

The routine

The most obvious part of the habit loop is the habit itself, also called the routine. After the cue triggers the start of the habit loop, the routine takes over.

In this example, the routine is the act of lighting a cigarette or smoking. For every bad habit you want to overcome or the good habit you want to cultivate, the routine is the behavior you want to change. Other examples include biting your nails, working out, consuming less sugar, spending lesser time on the smartphone and so on.

If you observe yourself closely you will see that you exhibit the routine more due to habit than other reasons. For example, if smoking in the parking lot is one of your cues, you will smoke even if you do not have the urge.

For most smokers, only a small portion of the cigarettes smoked in a day is due to the urge. As per science, if you haven’t smoked for 100 hours, the urge is no longer due to nicotine. It is your habit that leads you to light a cigarette habit even when the urge isn’t that strong.

In an organization, based on similar behavior and routines, employees waste time and are known to spend only 3 hours actually working.

The Reward:

The reward

The final part of the loop is the reward which the brain enjoys by performing the routine. Smokers love the feeling of smoke down their throat, some others like the sweet taste of chocolate or the energy boost coffee provides. The reward causes the brain to remember the routine and repeat it again in the future for the same contentment.

But again, you might assume the wrong outcome as the reward your brain craves for. Charles Duhigg explains how he had a habit of walking to the cafeteria and buying a cookie to eat every afternoon. He thought the reward was the cookie hitting his taste buds. He had to ask himself what the real reward was? Was it the energy from the sugar? Was it the distraction due to the break? Was it hunger?

It turned out that he actually enjoyed socializing when he went to buy the cookie. Your body may not recognize the reward but your brain keeps releasing pleasure chemicals when you receive a reward for your habit.

You experience a similar pleasure even when you check the notification of your smartphone. If you bite your nails, you feel satisfied when you have cleaned up the edges of one nail or the entire hand.

Without your knowledge, your brain registers the reward and prompts your body to repeat it again and again.

How to break out of the habit loop

Though smoking is one of the toughest habits to get over, you can use the habit loop to get rid of it. Do not expect immediate results and do not give up if you fail. After all, if you have the habit ingrained in you for years, you cannot expect to get over it in a few days.

Though the example mentioned below is for smoking, you can use the same technique to overcome any bad habit. Biting nails, overeating, alcohol addiction, checking social media feed are all habit loop examples. Each step also includes how Dungy used the technique for his team.

1. Identify the cue for the routine:

Stay away from the cue

Watch yourself and identify what prompts you to smoke. Is it a specific time/place, a state of mind, a previous action or the presence of other people? You may have one or more cues for smoking like many others do.

Make sure you pay close attention because certain cues can mislead you. You might think that watching a person smoke is your cue when the real trigger could be the smell of burning tobacco. Identify all your cues and make a note.

When Dungy took over the Buccs, he observed how the team defended during an offensive play by the opponent. The reward, in this case, was obvious which is either denying the opponent a point or making a counter-attack. He even spoke to the players and understood how they made their movements and formations.

It turned out that the cue for their actions was the move made by the opponents. Dungy did not want his players to determine their first move by watching the actions of the opponents. He trained his players to get into a formation as soon as possible without any thought. Once they were in the right position, they could decide their next move by watching how the play panned out.

It took Dungy’s team close to a year of practice to change their habit of acting based on the movements of opponents. But they managed to blindly get into a formation at lightning speed with repetition.

Understanding the relationship between the cue and the reward is essential to making or breaking the habit loop.

2. Try different rewards

Experiment with rewards

As human beings, we love rewards without even knowing it. The habit loop runs based on the reward. Do you know you can increase your motivation by rewarding yourself?

But sometimes the reward might be different than what you think it is. So try different rewards to see if you feel the same pleasure. You might assume that smoking makes your throat feel nice and improve your mood, but the reward your brain craves for could be different.

Maybe the nicotine in your body acting up and a nicotine patch might work. Maybe you like puffing out smoke and a herbal cigarette might satisfy your craving. When you have a sip of alcohol maybe you want to do something else in between, so try munching on some eatables.

If the reward gives you the same pleasure as the habit, you know the real reason behind your routine. The purpose of the exercise is to narrow down which craving is causing the habit. When you try alternate rewards, you must write down how you feel. Do not skip the writing part because it helps you know exactly what you feel.

Check back on yourself 15 minutes later. Do you still feel the urge? If you feel better after the herbal cigarette it implies you crave smoke in some form, not an actual cigarette. If eating some food solves the urge, it means you need something to do with your mouth after you sip on alcohol.

If you have difficulty identifying the cue, you can try the exercise below. Every time you feel the urge, you can write down the state of the 5 possible cues:

  • State of mind:
  • Time of day:
  • Where are you:
  • What was the last action:
  • Who is around you:

By looking at the data you gather from a few days or a week, you can identify the common cue behind your behavior.

For Tony Dungy though, he did not have to experiment with rewards. One, because other than winning, there were only a few rewards to play around with. Second, Dungy already knew the exact cue behind the routine of his players.

3. Eliminate the cue and try to get the reward without the usual routine

Eliminate the cue

In some cases, you can cut the cue by changing your actions and break the habit loop.

For example, if you feel like smoking when you see a friend smoking, do not accompany him to the smoking zone when you have just quit smoking. If drinking alcohol increases the urge to smoke, stay away from alcohol itself. If having a packet of cigarettes with you makes you smoke, do not carry more than one with you at any time. You can avoid most of your smoking cues by changing your actions.

Sometimes, you cannot avoid the cues easily because you are around them always. For example, for Dungy’s players, there was no way to avoid the cue of reacting to the opponents’ movements. The only way to avoid the cue was to not play the game at all which was not an option.

He had to make his players practice reaching their formations faster from repetition by calling it out again and again. Early in the season, the practice had not made the behavior a habit yet. Somewhere over the months, it did.

When you have no choice to avoid the cue, you have to remind yourself repeatedly to avoid reacting to the cue with the old routine. To avoid biting your nails, you cannot avoid the cue by keeping your fingers in a cupboard. But you can avoid the urge by placing your hands under your legs as soon as you feel the urge.

With enough repetition, you will get over your old routine. It took 10 months for Dungy’s team to get into the groove. You should not expect immediate results either. Whoever tells you that getting over a habit takes 21 or 66 days is generalizing by reading some forward sent on a group message. There is no proof to back such statements. You might take only 3 days to get over a habit but your friend might need 300.

Finding a substitute reward for smoking is no easy feat. The closest option is smoking an e-cigarette which is not healthy either. People might suggest a beverage after a meal instead of a cigarette but a smoker knows the difference.

So convincing your brain to accept another reward will be the toughest part of quitting smoking. For other habits like drinking too much coke, you can substitute a healthy drink like a sugar-free fresh juice or a green tea.

The alternate award seems like a consolation prize at first or sometimes even downright frustrating. If you keep repeating, it does get better with time. Once your mind accepts the substitute prize and you repeat the cue/routine loop enough number of times you will no longer crave the reward.

In addition to the three steps, one more essential element is belief. Without the power of belief, you can still slip back the habit loop of your old habits. For smoking, this takes a different angle because the most common cue for bad habits is stress. Science has shown that belief and willpower go down a spiral under stress. So one of the cues for smoking is when your willpower has taken a hit already.

But for other habits, having the belief that you will get over the habit makes a big difference. Only after their victory over the Chargers did the Tampa Bay Buccaneers start believing that they could be title contenders and it paid off.


Your habits drive a big chunk of your daily behavior due to the habit loop. You are unaware of most of them. For example,

  • Which side of your mouth do you brush first?
  • Do you tie the right or the left shoelace first?
  • Do you put your right or left leg into your pants first?
  • Which of your hand stays on top when you clap or cross your arms?
  • Which hand and ear do you hold the phone on?

If you observe yourself, you will notice you follow the same pattern for such activities. Your brain has done this on purpose to make your life easier. The brain cultivates habits so that you do not have to apply thought for every little action of yours. Imagine you had to think if you should lift the cup with your left hand or right. If you had to, you would be mentally exhausted all the time.

In the process of making your body function better, your brain cultivates bad habits too. But you can override your brain by breaking the habit loop your brain has formed. It is easy for some and tough for others. You will only know for yourself if you try.

Reference link: How Habits Work

how to create a habits to start

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