This Habit Sequence Method Is the Secret to Forming Healthy Habits That Actually Stick

Want to make start working out more consistently or using your Sunday nights to meal prep? This habit sequencing framework might finally get you there.

woman meditating in Habit Loop with alarm clock and coffee
Photo: Alex Sandoval

There's no question that unhealthy habits are easier to form than the habits you know are actually good for you. Scrolling TikTok every night vs. winding down with a book, ordering takeout on Friday nights or cooking something nutrient-rich, going to Starbucks every morning instead of putting that $5 toward your savings…you get the idea.

It's why one Tiktok is going viral for showcasing a way to form healthy habits that actually stick: habit loops. The video was posted by Shelby Sacco, who doesn't have any formal psychology training but says she's read a ton of self-help books and is now sharing how she went from "sad to savage" to help others do the same. In her video (which has over 355,000 likes), she says she used a habit loop of a cue, routine, and reward to make sure she stuck to the habits — including working out in the morning every single day.

So, is the habit loop method legit? Kinda, but not exactly. Here's what the video gets right and wrong about habit building — and tips on how to actually create habits that stick.

How to Use a Habit Sequence to Rewire Your Brain

While it's true that a cue, leading to a routine, leading to a reward can be used to build habits, it's more of a sequence, not a loop, says Wendy Wood, Ph.D., who is a social psychologist, professor at University of Southern California Marshall School of Business, and the author of Good Habits, Bad Habits. "This is because the reward doesn't lead back to the cue," she says. "It's also not how we do everything, which the video claims, but it's how we do repeat behaviors," says Wood.

Wood gives making coffee in the morning as an example: You get up and stand in front of your coffee machine (cue), you make your coffee without giving it a thought (because it's your routine), and then you enjoy your cup of Joe (your reward). "Cues, behavior, and rewards are all central to habits," agrees Phillippa Lally, Ph.D., a leading habit and behavioral science researcher and senior research fellow at University College London.

Lally also agrees that Sacco's point about breaking habits by replacing an unwanted habit with an alternative is true — but it's way harder than Sacco makes it sound. "It isn't as easy as she suggests because when we are under stress or distracted, our habits will have led us to perform the old unwanted behavior despite our plans to create a new habit," she says. "Making a clear specific plan and repeating the planned behavior when your cue occurs will lead to habit formation."

One important factor about the habit sequence that both experts emphasize is that the reward has to be immediate. Waiting until the end of the week or month like Sacco does to reward herself with socks and athleisure isn't going to work for most people, says Wood.

"Rewards are important in habit building at the moment you're engaging in the behavior," says Wood, adding that these rewards don't have to be a material thing. "For example, if you really hate going to the gym, don't think that you're going to be able to form this healthy habit just with motivation alone," she says. "You have to pair it with something you enjoy, like going with a friend." Dr. Wood says something she does is read romance novels — which she loves — while on cardio machines at the gym. It's the only time she actually allows herself to read these books, so she actually looks forward to her gym time — something she didn't enjoy before.

How Long Does It Take to Build Healthy Habits?

In the video, Sacco says it takes three weeks to make a hopeful habit into something that becomes routine. Both experts say this is completely false; it takes much longer. "If someone chooses to repeat a behavior in the same situation, over time the behavior will become more automatic, but if they think this process will be complete after three weeks then they might be disappointed and give up," says Lally. This is why it's key to make the behavior that you want to make a habit rewarding, she says.

So how long does it actually take? Both experts say there isn't one set answer to this and it depends what habit you're actually trying to build. In a study Lally conducted, the average time to form a habit was 66 days but the range was between 18 and 254 days, she says. "So it varies a lot," says Lally, adding that more recent studies have found the average to be even longer.

Dr. Wood says that the easier you can make the habit you're trying to build, the more likely it will actually become something that's routine. "It sounds obvious, but it's something people often don't think about," she says. For example, if you want to go to the gym in the morning, it's more likely to happen if you live nearby. The more time there is between you and whatever reward you're pairing with that behavior (maybe it's listening to a playlist you only allow yourself to listen to at the time), the less likely it's going to become a habit.

Trying to build a habit of eating more vegetables is another example, explains Wood. "I used to buy a lot of unprepared vegetables because they were cheaper than prepared vegetables and I thought they were fresher. But then I wouldn't eat them. It just seemed like a lot of work to cook them," she says. "Then I started buying vegetables that were pre-washed and prepped and I actually started eating them more. They're a little more expensive, but I actually end up eating them, so the trade-off is worth it to me."

The bottom line is this: Make your habit-building behaviors as easy on yourself as possible and pair the behavior with an immediate reward. That's really the secret to building long-lasting healthy habits. And hey, if you still want to reward yourself with a cute workout outfit at the end of the month, go for it. Just don't think it's going to be enough to motivate you the entire month.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles