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🧠 How one simple principle can radically change behavior (and how Peloton used it)

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Hi there - Jen here :)

Every year, my friend Joe (not his real name) decides to quit smoking.

How do I know?

He makes a Facebook post declaring he's finally done with cigarettes.

There are weekly progress updates for a month or so while he white-knuckles his way through his first smoke-free days.

But eventually, Joe backslides.


He goes out to a bar with a friend who smokes.

But why does being in a bar overpower Joe’s best intentions?

Well, Joe’s surrounded by triggers to light up — a glass of whiskey, a warm spring night, and good company (who are also smoking).

Joe walks into the bar with good intentions and a few smoke-free months behind him, but before he knows it there’s a lit cigarette in his hand.

It makes sense that being in a bar persuades Joe to smoke.

Everywhere he looks, there are triggers for old habits .  

And habits are powerful.

Studies show that up to 43% of our daily actions are habits — actions performed without conscious thought.

If habits are so powerful, how can we hope to overcome them?

And how can (ethically) build them to help with product use, engagement, and repurchase?

We first have to understand the science behind habits and what triggers them.

The answer is a behavioral science framework known as the Habit Loop.

Today you’ll learn:

  • The mechanics of the Habit Loop and how to use them

  • The role of triggers and prompting in launching a product - and how they are the biggest factors in its success (or failure)

  • 3 Real-life examples of the Habit Loop in action from Peloton, Duolingo, and Starbucks

  • How you can apply the Habit Loop to your marketing

👉 But before we get started, it’s your last chance to register:

THIS FRIDAY, May 10th, I’m holding a free virtual workshop, “Introduction to Buyer Psychology.”

This workshop will introduce you to fascinating concepts, bust marketing myths, and help your brand grow (all with the power of psychology, behavioral science, and AI).

(Don’t worry, I’ll send out a replay video to everyone if you can’t make it to the live workshop.)

Today’s edition of Choice Hacking Ideas is brought to you by:

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What is the Habit Loop?

In the 1990s, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) decoded the structure of habits.

Called the “Habit Loop” (coined by The Power of Habit author Charles Duhigg), this framework describes the neurological patterns that make up habits.

The loop consists of three parts:

The trigger (or cue):

These are signals to our unconscious minds that it’s time to perform our habit. In Joe’s case, being in a bar with a drink in his hand is an unconscious trigger to smoke.

For me, waking up every morning triggers a craving for a cup of coffee — not because I want one, but because it’s something I do every morning.

The routine:

This is the habit itself.

In Joe’s case, this means asking the bartender for his favorite brand, packing the box, then lighting and smoking the cigarette.

The reward:

This is the payoff you get from performing your habit.

For example, Joe’s nicotine craving goes away, and he feels more relaxed. He’s also had a chance to bond with his friend who smokes while standing outside in good weather.

How triggers can make or break a new product

One of the top reasons new products fail (according to research) is because people just FORGET to use them.

We get so caught up in our default behavior and existing habits it just slips our minds to use or buy a new product again.

So to sell, we have to disrupt people’s habits.

And to keep selling, we have to create new ones.

Often, it’s not the new product “routine” or even the “reward” that trips up new products. It’s the trigger to use the product that marketers forget about.

It’s why you can have a new product that sells like gangbusters at launch, but quickly drops off (Prime, anyone?).

Studies have shown there are five basic categories of habit triggers, or cues.

1. Time

Time of day can be a powerful prompt to perform an action.

Eating breakfast every day at 7:30 am, only because “it’s time for breakfast” and not because you’re hungry, is an example of a time-based trigger. Working out after work is another time-based cue.

2. Mood

Habits can form as ways to self-soothe - whether we know it or not.

We smoke because we’re stressed out, we overeat because we’re masking at work, or we skip the gym for Netflix because we’re tired after a long day in the office.

But a mood trigger doesn’t have to be a negative emotion.

The positive feeling of finishing a workout might be a cue to grab an electrolyte drink to rehydrate, for example.

3. Location and Context

Situations and surroundings can be habit triggers, as it was in Joe’s case.

When he walks into a bar, the smell of smoke, the availability of cigarettes, alcohol, and friends that smoke is a deadly combination.

That’s also why a move or vacation can be a catalyst for breaking bad habits and even trying new brands - a new location and context means we have a rare opportunity to break out of established patterns.

4. Preceding Action

According to research, it’s easier to make a habit stick if it’s built off an existing chain of action rather than pure motivation.

For example, it’s easier to say, “I will exercise at 5 pm right after I close my laptop for the day” than to say, “I will exercise today.”

5. Other People

The people you surround yourself with — particularly your friends — can change your habits.

As social psychologist Amber Gaffney put it:

“The more of your identity you draw from a group, even when you’re not around that group, the more likely you are to uphold those values.”

A 2014 study found that our social group can influence us to keep our good habits, like sticking to a diet, or encourage us to break the rules.

How Duolingo, Starbucks, and Peloton use the Habit Loop

The Habit Loop has found its way - unsurprisingly - into many successful products over the years. To learn more about how, read the case studies below:

How to apply the Habit Loop to your marketing

Building a habit with a new product can decide if it flies or fails (in fact, most modern research about brand loyalty finds that it’s really just habit in diguise).

That's why it's so important for entrepreneurs and marketers to understand and ethically apply the Habit Loop.

Start by asking yourself a few questions:

  1. Trigger: What are the cues that help get people back into our experience or repurchasing our product? These could be emails, notifications, alarms and other tactics that act as a call to action.

  2. Routine: Is the process of using the product easy to understand and perform? Is it clear to users what value they're getting from your product (digital or physical)?

  3. Reward: Are you rewarding customers for using your product? Is there an inherent reward in your product experience that you might enhance?

  4. A great example of baking rewards into a product is Colgate toothpaste. Originally it didn’t have much flavor so people didn’t get an immediate reward from using it. But once peppermint and spearmint oils were added to the formula, users got a bit of tingly feedback, and the product took off.

Read, Watch, Listen

  • Narrative Bias: How Fascinating Stories Can Trick Our Brains [Read]

  • The Untold Story of Why New Coke Failed (the consumer psychology behind its demise) [Watch]

  • The Choice Hacking Podcast just wrapped up Season 5 but will be back for Season 6 in just a few weeks. Click to catch-up before the new seasons starts on June 12th → [Listen]  

Until next time,

Jen Clinehens, MS/MBA
Founder & MD Choice Hacking

Want to use behavioral science, psychology, and AI to grow your business?

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