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The Habit Replacement Loop

Managing habit formation can lead to greater long-term student success.

Luskin’s Learning Psychology Series, No. 28

Habit Replacement

Three primary characteristics in forming beneficial learning habits are (1) attention, (2) focus, and (3) purposeful repetition.

When improving learning patterns, one can examine one's behavior, figure out needs for improvement, and replace behaviors that are not productive with behaviors that are more desirable. Habits such as procrastination, absence of focus, impatience, or lack of motivation can be intentionally replaced.

The fact is, research reveals that our bad habits are most effectively eliminated when replaced by new and different learning habits. Given this understanding as a basis for developing positive patterns of learning, you can choose to develop and follow a plan that is beneficial to your overall well-being and feelings of accomplishment.

Habit formation is a process whereby new behaviors become repetitive and automatic. For example, if you instinctively reach for a cigarette the moment you awaken in the morning, you have a bad habit! This smoking habit is detrimental to your overall well-being. Alternatively, if you feel inclined to step into your running shoes and head to the streets as soon as you awaken, you may have a good habit.

Habits can be good or bad, and they can be changed.

However, old habits are hard to break, and new habits are hard to form. One reason is that habit patterns which we repeat with regularity are literally etched into our neural pathways. The good news is, we now know that, through repetition, it's possible to form and maintain new habits. Enter “The Habit Replacement Loop (HRL).”

Learning habits are psychological mechanisms that determine desired or undesired actions, resulting in personal outcomes. We can trace personal patterns of habit formation back to our formative years. The Marshmallow Experiment done by Stanford professor Walter Mischel is quite well known.

Mischel found that children who had more measurable willpower and were able to delay immediately eating a marshmallow treat to receive a bigger treat a little later were more successful in many areas than their counterparts over time. The Marshmallow Experiment relates to habit formation coming from consistent and reliable structures: For example, we can decide to exchange our current behavior for one that can lead us to bigger and better rewards.

Memory is central to habit replacement.

If you want to develop a new habit or replace an existing habit, you can consciously decide to replace one habit with another by working on creating and establishing habit memory. I call it “The Habit Replacement Loop (HRL).” Repetition, thereby embedding the behavior in memory, creates the automatic habit response.

Successful tactics for habit replacement—i.e., changing from poor practices to good practices in learning—may involve using cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) techniques.

Reducing stress can serve as an example. Intentional replacement of stress and anxiety can take place by substituting a feeling of accomplishment by learning something new.

Habit Replacement Looping is a behavior therapy that can help those with nail-biting, thumb-sucking, muscle spasms, or stress disorders resulting from PTSD, or those who simply have poor personal habits resulting from negative behavior practices, writes Charles Duhigg in The Power of Habit (Duhigg, 2012). Once you identify the habits you wish to change, you can consciously replace them through HRL.

As an example, intentionally reinforcing the habit of regular exercise can yield both physical and mental benefits. What I have described incorporates the use of CBT to establish a learning pattern. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is a method used to create successful habit replacement. Habit Replacement Looping (HRL) is the key ingredient.

The primary determinant in successfully substituting or changing a learning habit is that the individual sincerely wants to change the habit more than he or she wants to repeat it. A person wishing to change an ingrained habit must engage as a participant with a level of motivation sufficient to create a positive replacement memory. Desire is very important.

New Year’s resolutions are a good example of wishes to change that may or may not have a substantial degree of desire, and the degree of necessary commitment may be low or high. These are the determinants for whether the resolution is acted upon, sustained… or not.

Learning to learn requires motivation, identification, and conscious effort. Habit observation and management may be used to help you to:

  • Notice early signs that a habit is starting. Be self-aware and practice self-awareness.
  • Change circumstances when you identify that a habit is beginning to form.
  • Intentionally do things to replace the habit. You can’t just eliminate a habit. It is best to literally and psychologically replace it with a positive habit.
  • Learn relaxation techniques to manage the stress that, if not managed, may make a habit worse.

After you understand what to do, you can practice the techniques and responses repeatedly wherever you are, including writing reinforcement notes to yourself about your progress. Notes help to create and reinforce memory.

Also, you can set up a time and place to practice habit substitution, leading to replacement. Reward yourself often by reminding yourself about what you are doing. Psycho-visualization is a technique that works. Creating visualized scenarios that are memorably vivid and unique reinforces your memory.

Do it with a buddy.

If you are helping someone working on a habit replacement situation, you should regularly praise him or her. Replacing a habit can take months, and reinforcement is important. The greatest change in using habit replacement procedures occurs during the second and third month of repetition. It is key that we don’t give up after only a couple of days or weeks, because habits quickly regress.

Bad habits return unless you sustain the change long enough for the positive replacement to become automatic. Habits are replaced through repetition, i.e., looping, which is the fundamental ingredient in sustained change. Habits are literally, visibly imprinted in our neural pathways, so imprinting is an objective. The more you repeat a habit, the more permanent it becomes.

The process of habit formation can be slow, but research shows that it works. A study done by Phillippa Lally and colleagues at University College London identified 66 days as the average amount of time that it took to reach automaticity. In other words, after a little more than two months, an action can become automatic.

The University College London study also suggested that occasionally missing a day in repetition did not diminish the formation of a habit. The supposition is that a habit can be formed with irregular but consistent conscious repetition.

Practice does not make perfect.

A bad habit is an undesirable behavior pattern. Procrastination, fidgeting, and lack of focus can develop from habituation. The sooner one recognizes repetitive behaviors as habits, the easier it is to change them. Practice and repetition are important, but the old saying that “practice makes perfect” is not necessarily true. Only perfect practice makes perfect. Therefore, in establishing the habit of responsiveness and focus, it is important to establish a correct pattern.

Every habit has three components: (1) a cue or a trigger for an automatic behavior to start, (2) a routine (the behavior itself), and (3) a reward (that is how our brain learns to remember this pattern for the future).

The Habit Replacement Loop (HRL)

In The Golden Rule of Habit Change, Duhigg says that the most effective way to replace a habit is to find a way to retain the old cue that triggered a behavior and identify and automate a new routine that leads to a new outcome.

Use a “memorable trigger” whenever you are tempted to engage in the new and positive habit.

Think of something that you can remember, such as rubbing your arm, wrapping your knuckle on a table or desk, or anything that you can use to produce a memorable physical response.

Seven steps in HRL training:

1. Develop awareness. It seems ridiculously simple, but once you’re consciously aware of how habit replacement works, once you consciously recognize the cues and rewards… you are on your way to positive change.

2. Intentionally replace a negative habit by choosing and substituting a positive routine and applying CBT tactics.

3. Eliminate negative triggers. Identify and substitute positive triggers.

4. Buddy up. Join forces with somebody; get a buddy if that’s possible and makes sense to you.

5. Pick your friends. Surround yourself with people who behave the way you want to behave and use the power of the group effect.

6. Visualize. See yourself succeeding with the new habit.

7. Be persistent. Practice your new routine, even if you miss a repetition opportunity; keep on repeating the behavior, and it will eventually stick.

Habits are learning fundamentals.

Understanding habit development and habit replacement are important research subjects for the continuing evolution of the study and application of learning psychology to student success. Consciously developing thoughtful habits offers you a stairway to learning and succeeding in whatever you do.


The New Normal

Using Habit Replacement Looping as a learning tool involves a process by which new behaviors become automatic, and automatic means that you have advanced to a new normal. Congratulations are in order since old habits are hard to break, and new habits are hard to form. The good news is that, through repetition, it is possible to eliminate bad habits and substitute and maintain positive new habits.

Creating positive learning habits is fundamental to establishing proper learning patterns. Learning is foundational to personal development, and learning how to learn is a key to sustained vitality, personal development, self-actualization, and success. You can improve your learning skills if you understand and engage in effectively using the Habit Replacement Loop.

Special thanks for assistance to:

Toni Luskin, Ph.D., Beth Shephard, Patti Blair, and Janeene Nagaoka

Author’s Note: Luskin’s Learning Psychology Series is designed to identify and describe tactics that help individuals learn better as a key to student success.

Permission is granted to copy or redistribute this article for educational purposes.



Clear, J. (n.d.). 40 Years of Stanford Research Found That People With This One Quality Are More Likeley to Succeed. Retrieved May 2017, from Behavioral Psychology:

Dean, D. J. (2009). How Long to Form a Habit? Retrieved from

Duhigg, C. (2012). The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business Retrieved from

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