When Working is Hard, Let Habit Do the Work – The Science and Practice of Making and Breaking Habits

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”Aristotle

“A man who can’t bear to share his habits is a man who needs to quit them.”Stephen King, The Dark Tower

My belief in my own strong will tends to last just as far as it takes to reach into the freezer for a scoop ice cream after a long day.

But what does strong-willed really mean?

Is a corporate CEO strong-willed because he is able to wake up at 5am every day and work until he drops?

What about a slave who was forced to do the same on pain of the lash?

Research shows that willpower is actually a limited resource. Every time we force ourselves to do something difficult—get out of bed, go to the gym, refrain from eating that entire plate of brownies—we deplete it a bit more.

So how is it then that so many high-performers seem to have a nigh-unlimited store of energy?

One answer is that willpower is more a muscle than a cistern. There are a myriad of both physiological and psychological ways to strengthen it.

But any muscle has its failure point. So how then are some people such unstoppable juggernauts?

The answer—in case the title or opening quotes didn’t give it away—lies with habits.

The most comprehensive coverage of the topic of habits that I have thus far encountered is the book The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. It’s an amazing read and the source for much of what I will be talking about here.

Your Brain on Habits

Habits don’t use willpower. They don’t require conscious decisions. When an action is habitual enough, you often don’t even notice that you’re doing it until halfway through. How many times have you been driving to work only to suddenly realize that you have absolutely no memory of the first half of the drive?

Duhigg opens up his book with the fascinating case of Eugene Pauly, a 71-year-old man who lost the medial temporal lobe of his brain to viral encephalitis. This had the astounding effect of entirely removing his ability to store new memories (he was the basis for the “Ten second Tom” character from the movie Fifty First Dates).

Eugene had no memory of his grandchildren, thought Eisenhower was still president, and couldn’t tell you how to find his own bedroom from his living room couch.

Nonetheless, Eugene was quite happy, and to make sure that he got some physical exercise his wife began taking him on 15-minute-long walks around their block. One day his wife came home late to find Eugene gone. She began frantically searching for him only to finally locate him halfway around the block, following their usual path. When questioned, Eugene was completely incapable of pointing in the direction of their home.

The case of Eugene served to demonstrate what scientists had long thought but never managed to prove: that habits operate through an entirely different part of the brain than standard memory formation and decision making.

Once a behavior becomes a habit, it doesn’t just make the choice to carry it out an easy one. It makes it no choice at all.

But how to take advantage of this?

The Habit Loop

All habits can be broken down into three basic components:

  1. Cue – some type of trigger that tells the brain to initiate a habit sequence.
  2. Routine – A physical, mental, or emotional action.
  3. Reward – Any form of positive stimulus that indicates to the brain that this routine was a good one.

For an established habit, the brain begins to anticipate and crave the reward the moment that the cue is experienced.

A common example of this sequence is experienced every day by anyone who owns a cell-phone. The phone buzzes: the cue. You instantly go to check what caused it: the routine. You receive the tiny dopamine rush that accompanies a small burst of social interaction: the reward.

The power of this particular loop is made especially evident by the “phantom cell-phone buzz” phenomena. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve felt or heard something vaguely akin to a buzzing, gone to check my phone, and realized that the phone was already in my hand. Because I was talking on it. That is clearly not the behavior of my conscious mind (or so I dearly hope).

Eliminating Bad Habits

The first step towards eliminating any bad habit is to identify each of its component parts. Let’s take for example a habit that I’ve had for years: getting up in the middle of working to find a snack.

The routine is easy. It involves getting up, browsing through my refrigerator and cabinets (I usually work from home), and potentially finding something to eat (sometimes I catch myself halfway through my rummaging and go back to work).

But what about the cue? The reward? And how do I use this knowledge to eliminate the habit?

Step 1 – From Background to Foreground

The single most important step towards eliminating a bad habit is raising it into your conscious awareness. This doesn’t just mean recognizing that the habit exists (sometimes a necessary first step), but rather becoming aware of it each and every time you enter into the loop. Only once the conscious brain gets involved in the action sequence can it have a hope of changing it.

The first step is therefore to begin training yourself to consciously recognize whenever you are in the middle of the negative routine and simply pause for a second to realize that fact.

Step 2 – Identify the Cue

Merely recognizing a routine is not enough to change it. Once we are in the middle it is often far too late to stop. When was the last time you spat out a mouthful of ice cream? Most people who attempt to change a habit get to this point and then begin to flounder. They realize that they are doing something negative, decide they need to stop, and firmly commit to stopping—next time. They think to themselves, “This one last time is okay… right?”

The question that they need to start asking is not “What am I doing?” but “How did I come to be doing this?”. What was the cue?

Most cues fall into the following categories:

  1. Location
  2. Time
  3. Emotional state
  4. Physical state
  5. Other people
  6. Immediately preceding action

Sometimes the cue might be readily apparent; imagine a pitcher going through the same windup sequence right before each pitch (a clear case of #6). In other cases it may take some deeper thought and experimentation to determine.

Let’s go back to my snacking habit. The easiest explanation would be #4—I’m hungry, therefore I snack. But why then do I find myself getting up for a snack within half an hour of sitting down to work after lunch? I don’t always under-eat at lunch time.

Maybe it’s #1—I don’t get up for a snack when working at a Starbucks, just at home. And it generally happens when I sit down in front of my computer.

Perhaps #3 could explain it—I definitely have negative emotions surrounding work, so maybe whenever I begin to feel them my body decides that it needs a counteracting agent: food.

Even #6 could provide a plausible cue. When I really get into the flow of working I do tend to enjoy it and am therefore less prone to taking a snack break. The most common time that I seem to find myself going for a snack is either right as I sit down to work or right when I return to working after something has distracted me.

Step 2 in a nutshell: whenever you find yourself mid-routine of a bad habit, pause and write down 3 possible cues. The true cue will soon reveal itself.


Step 3 – Identify the Craving / Reward

Once you figure out when you begin your bad habit sequence, the next step is to determine the why.

The key here is to be as specific as possible. It’s not enough to say “I do it because it feels good.” That may be a true statement, but it only tells part of the story.

Sure, when I start eating a sugary snack it triggers a dopamine rush in my brain that makes me feel good. But when you get down to it, just about every habit involves dopamine.  If that were the sole reason for the habit, and I were so susceptible to it, then I would end up spending most of my days locked inside a Costco-fueled Willy Wonka Wonderland. Clearly there is something else going on.

Rewards can come in many different forms. They can be physiological, such as sugar and it’s accompanying positive feelings. They can be social, such as an office worker who frequently gets up to go to the water cooler for the chance to talk to associates. They can even just be positive feelings, such as a sense of accomplishment or feeling of relief.

Regardless of which form the reward takes, once your brain starts linking a particular behavior and reward together following a specific cue, from then on whenever the cue is experienced a sense of craving will emerge. As the habit gets more ingrained, the rush of positive neurotransmitters that accompanies its completion starts to become greater than can be explained away by the reward itself. The habit becomes self-perpetuating.

Step 3 in a nutshell: Just as with Step 2, we let the data decide. Once you have identified the cue for a bad habit and begin noticing every time it comes up, now switch from writing down potential cues mid-routine to writing down potential cravings mid-cue. There are two possibilities for what to do next, one passive and one active.

The Passive – Once you’ve written down three potential cravings/rewards, set an alarm for 15 minutes. Continue with the routine. When the alarm goes off, see which of those cravings you might still have and which have been satisfied.

The Active – Instead of continuing with the normal routine, experiment with a new one that you think will satisfy the craving. If you do this and you still feel the same urge as before, you’ve probably gotten the craving down wrong.

For my snacking habit it took me some time to properly isolate both the cue and the craving. I experimented with keeping both healthy and unhealthy snacks at my desk, but while I did eat them, I still found myself periodically wandering around the kitchen. Thinking it might be the urge to stretch, I tried getting up and doing stretches, jumping jacks, or pushups. This worked a little bit, but still felt off.

My epiphany came fairly recently. I was about to begin working, felt the urge to snack, and did 20 pushups instead. When I sat back down at my computer, I again started to pull up my work only to find myself checking my phone. It suddenly occurred to me that this was all really part of the same habit.

When I am in the middle of a project that I enjoy, and I know exactly what the next step is and how to go about it, it’s easy for me to start working. But whenever I am faced with a large, multifaceted task where I barely even know where to begin, beginning anywhere is very, very hard. So I look for any possible excuse to put it off.

My Cue – Beginning an ill-defined piece of work.

My Craving – Something very specific to do that will provide a distraction (and quick dopamine hit).

My Routine – Getting up to snack. Or check my phone. Or look at email. Or Facebook. Or stop and go out shopping. Or anything else to put off the work.

My Reward – A sense of relief. A very brief sense of accomplishment.

Step 4 – The Swap

Now that you fully understand how your habit operates, the hard part finally begins: eliminating it.

But who likes to do anything the hard way?

One brain imaging study examining subjects addicted either to food or to drugs found that:

“…during exposure to the reinforcer or to conditioned cues, the expected reward (processed by memory circuits) overactivates the reward and motivation circuits while inhibiting the cognitive control circuit, resulting in an inability to inhibit the drive to consume the drug or food despite attempts to do so.”

Ever get the feeling that, when fighting a bad habit, you’ve regressed from “real boy” to “marionette with sadistic puppet-master”?

Unfortunately, modern neuroscience supports the existence of said puppet-master. It’s called your mesolimbic dopamine (DA) pathway, and it doesn’t care about your long-term welfare.

Sure, it’s possible to stop a habit cold-turkey. Some people manage it. Some fewer even manage to not relapse.

For those of us normal humans, there’s a better way.

We’ve been discussing how habits have three parts. The cue, the routine, and the reward. But generally the only part that we really care about stopping is the routine. Instead of eliminating the entire habit, why not swap out the bad routine for a different one with the same reward? Satisfy the craving, but in a slightly different way.

Unfortunately this is not always possible. A heroin addict whose brain expects a dose of morphine to hit its opioid receptors and instead gets an apple won’t find that replacement habit working very well. But even in cases like this, replacing parts of the habit still works far better than trying to eliminate it entirely. At the very least, it is always possible to use an existing cue to start a totally different action.

Step 4 in a nutshell: try and swap out the existing bad routine for a better one that satisfies the same craving as much as possible. If this absolutely won’t work, use the existing cue to start a totally different action. Eventually the new action will begin to overwrite the old one as a response.

For my snacking habit, or at this point maybe it would be better to call it a distraction habit, I am still working on possible solutions. The real pain point behind the habit is the reduction in productivity which comes from following it, so my replacement routine needs to have the following characteristics:

  • Short, rigidly defined length
  • Doesn’t require me to walk around or otherwise provide opportunities for distraction
  • Provides either a degree of pleasure or sense of accomplishment

The easiest solution would be to ration out some type of healthy but tasty food to myself each time I begin working. The problem is that because part of my ‘reward’ is the very time I spend not working—exactly what I want to eliminate—there is no routine that will provide a perfect replacement.

Which leads me to the final option for dealing with bad habits.

Step 4.5: For cases where the cue itself is undesirable, figure out how to avoid the cue.

Lets say that every time you get completely wasted you end up texting your ex-girlfriend. One way to change this bad habit would be to change the routine by training yourself to instead start sending prank-texts to random friends. But wouldn’t it be better if you were to avoid getting so drunk in the first place?

Returning again to my distraction habit, the cue primarily arises when I have a very open-ended task. The wider the scope, the harder it is for me to begin work on it. I have known this about myself for years, but only recently was I able to formulate it so succinctly and to link it to a particular habit chain.

In addition to experimenting with alternate routines, I have also been working on ways to make these open-ended tasks more concrete. If I can break the larger project into bite sized, manageable chunks, it becomes far easier to throw myself straight into them and I am less likely to get the urge to distract myself.

Designing Good Habits

The key to maximizing productivity whilst minimizing effort expenditure lies in transforming your daily routine into a series of good habits.

Now that we understand how habits work, this process becomes fairly simple.

Step 1 – Define the Routine

What is it that you want to do?

Again, specificity is key. It isn’t enough to say “I want to start exercising.” It is far more effective to say “I want to start going to the gym three times per week for 30-minute workouts using exercise program XYZ.” (For those who want to begin working out but don’t know where to start and are worried about hurting themselves, I would highly recommend Mark Rippetoe’s book Starting Strength).

One habit that I am currently trying to train into myself is one of mindfulness: a moment-by-moment awareness of my own thoughts, feelings, and environment.  Rather than just tell myself “be mindful,” I have developed the following routine:

  1. Stop whatever I am doing.
  2. Take three deep breaths through my nose.
  3. Notice something good about either what I am currently feeling or my environment.

Step 2 – Decide on a Cue

The easiest way to develop a new habit is to link it to an existing cue.

It is often helpful to go through your daily routine and create a list of cues that you know you will be experiencing one or more times. Here is a part of my own list:

  • Wake up
  • Get out of bed
  • Check email – repeated
  • Check facebook – repeated
  • Get dressed
  • Go to bathroom – repeated
  • Brush teeth
  • Brew bulletproof coffee – repeated
  • Stop at traffic light – repeated
  • Walk down hallway – repeated
  • Watch a video online – repeated

Given that I work from home my daily routine is more unstructured than structured, but for most people all of the events surrounding going to and returning from work can be excellent cues.

For each habit that you are trying to start, go through this list and figure out which cue would be best to link it to. Is the habit once-per-day or is it repeated? How long does your routine take?

I want my mindfulness routine to be repeated many times throughout the day so I decided to link it to exiting the bathroom.

Step 3 – Assign a Reward

Some habits have intrinsic rewards, others need to be externally assigned. Even the ones with intrinsic rewards might need an added boost in their formative stages.

Going to the gym will produce a rush of endorphins and a sense of accomplishment, but if that were enough to get an exercise habit started then the US might not have such an obesity problem.

One effective way of linking habits to rewards is called temptation bundling, described by Professor Katy Milkman from The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania as:

…bundling instantly gratifying but guilt-inducing “want” experiences (enjoying page-turner audiobooks) with valuable “should” behaviors providing delayed rewards (exercising).

In her study she showed that people were 29%-51% more likely to exercise if they had a page-turning audiobook such as The Hunger Games that they were only able to listen to while at the gym.

An added trick is to go through your previous list of cues and identify any pleasurable activities that you find yourself doing every day. These can then be used simultaneously as a cue for a desired new behavior and as a reward.

Having accepted the fact that I will sometimes waste time watching various types of media on my computer, I decided that the only way I would continue to let myself do so is if I were stretching at the same time. (Note: standing on a chair and touching your toes whilst staring at a computer screen can attract some weird looks.)

The difficulty of a routine should be linked to the magnitude of the reward. For my mindfulness habit I decided to link it to a minor action that gives a small endorphin rush: a smile. (Mind-follows-matter: even a forced smile will produce a positive affect on brain chemistry, as demonstrated in a study where participants showed a greater humor-reaction when forced to ‘smile’ via holding a pencil in their mouths.)

Step 4 – Sticking With It: External Culpability and Competition

The best way to ensure the successful formation or removal of a habit is to set up a system of external culpability and incentives / disincentives.

Even once you have developed the perfect cue-routine-reward trio there is no guarantee that the habit will stick. The journey from conscious-effort to effortless action is a long one.

It takes time for the brain to get familiar enough with the new cycle for new neural pathways to form. One study showed that it can take anywhere from 20 days to 84 days or more before the a routine begins to feel habitual, depending on the particular habit in question.

The beginning stages of habit formation are like a wild ride on a rickety unicycle. How many times have you made a New Year’s resolution to diet or exercise, kept it up for the first week or two, then reached a day where for some reason it just wasn’t possible? Once that momentum is broken, getting back up and balanced is extremely tricky.

Unless you have help.

The best way to successfully start a new habit (or kick a bad one) is to do it as part of a group. Let’s examine some of the benefits in the context of exercise:

  • Camaraderie — Humans are social creatures. Facing challenges as part of a group is uplifting, alone it can be depressing.
  • Company — Related to camaraderie but more specific. Rather than the abstract knowledge that others are struggling, with exercise you can go and do the activity together with the other person(s), thus increasing the moment-by-moment enjoyment.
  • Shared learning — Figuring out how to do something new can be difficult. Two people can often figure out best practices and eliminate problems noticeably faster than someone going solo.
  • External culpability — This is the big one. We are wired to do whatever is possible to avoid losing face in the eyes of our peers. If you know that your friends expect to see you at the gym, even if you miss a day that will only redouble your desire to go back the next and show that you had a good excuse for missing it.

Helpful tools

Not everyone can find a workout buddy. And some habits don’t lend themselves well to group activities. But, unlike those poor unfortunate souls in generations past, we have an excellent substitute: the internet.

stickk — This is a website/app that allows you to set up goals, regular check-ins, assign yourself a referee to monitor your progress, compare yourself to friends, and even sign up for a monetary disincentive (you lose $$ if you don’t check in).

coach.me — This app is similar to stickk, but also allows you to sign up for a professional coach and has Q&A discussion groups on all of the major habits.

wayoflife — With an elegant interface and excellent data-tracking tools, this app is perfect for those who like analyzing long-term trends in their own behavior. Note- it costs $5 to be able to track more than 3 habits at once.

21habit — Straight and to the point. For those who don’t need al the social whistles and bells and are just looking to give themselves a monetary incentive for carrying through with a habit, 21habit allows you to sign up, give $21, and get back $1/day that you check in as having met your goal.

Bad Habits Evernote Template  — A simple starting point that I use when trying to analyze my own bad habits.

This is just a small sampling of the tools that are out there for habit tracking, but the nuances of each one are far less important than simply choosing one to use and sticking with it.

I have recently started to use coach.me and plan on writing about the specifics in more detail.

Does anyone have any of their own tricks that they use for forming or eliminating habits?

The Habit Cheat Sheet