How To Make And Break Habits

It turns out that the science behinds habits is very valuable knowledge: The New York Times Magazine has a long and very interesting article describing how companies use their vast amounts of customer data to try to make shopping at their stores, or buying their brands, habitual. At Target, — the article’s focus — each customer gets a unique “Guest ID” number that the company uses to track them. The data from their millions of customers then gets analyzed, and specific predictions for each customer are made. For example, they can tell when a woman is pregnant because she started buying unscented lotion and zinc, so they send her coupons for baby stuff. (They bury the ads for baby things among other, unrelated ads like lawn mowers and glassware so she thinks the baby ads are random, and not the specific result of a very creepy stalking algorithm.) Before she knows it, the pregnant woman is in the habit of buying all her baby things at Target. But how did that habit form?


Photo by Pawel Loj


The Anatomy Of A Habit

Habits have three parts:

  • cue — the trigger to engage in the habit: hunger is a cue for you to eat.
  • routine — the complex sequence of events that have been habitualized: eating involves many steps (finding food, preparing it, finding a place to eat it, etc) that are each pretty complicated
  • reward — every habit has a happy ending, which in fact conditions us to repeat the routine and make it even more habitual; eating makes you feel full and content, so next time you’re hungry, the ‘eating’ habit kicks in to fix that.

The meat of the matter is the routine. It’s very interesting how extremely complex actions can become second-nature to the point where we do them on autopilot. Take showering, for example: you probably have that routine so ingrained, that were something to interrupt your shower, you would have trouble figuring out how to wash yourself consciously, because most of the time you do it unconsciously — as part of a routine you developed probably at some point during youth. And one of the most important keys to understanding habits is knowing that developing routines is difficult: you have to consciously think about what you want want to accomplish (e.g., to get clean), what the best way to go about doing that would be, and optimize for efficiency, so that you can shower as fast as possible, but come out as clean as possible too.

This kind of complex thinking is the opposite of what you want to do every morning, so once you’ve figured out a showering sequence that works, your brain saves it. Then, some cue triggers it: you feel dirty, or it’s the morning or night or whenever your normal showering time comes to pass. The cue makes you think “I need to shower”, after which you go into your zombie-like state, perform the routine, and then like a trained monkey, you get the reward: you feel clean. All because you already had a routine ready that would scratch the itch which cued it. Cues themselves tend to come in one of five flavors:

  • time: it being 11pm might cue you to start your nightly routine: yawn, brush your teeth, get in bed
  • location: passing by an ice-cream store might cue you to want ice cream
  • mood: feeling sad might cue you to want ice cream
  • people: if you always have ice cream with Donna, seeing Donna might cue you to want ice cream
  • prior events: leaving work might cue you to call your wife

The way habits get created is that one of those kinds of cues will create a desire, and you’ll find an appropriate routine that will quench it, after which you’ll get rewarded by the desire being gone, and probably some additional happiness. Figuring out that mechanism took years of scientific research, which we can now put to work for us too — not just for Target.


Photo by Mark Mitchell


Making A Habit

The basic concept is pretty simple: if you want to, for example, make a habit out of exercising all you need to do is prepare a routine, find a cue and find a reward. The problem is that many people maybe don’t have an exercise routine, so they get up in the morning and the thought of having to figure out what to exercise and how is just too much, so they put it off for another day — people are fundamentally lazy, and figuring things out is very mentally taxing, so we don’t like to do it. Therefore, the first step is to figure out the exercise routine, then learn it to the point where you can do it without thinking. Maybe start with something simple, like running: get your running clothes, put them on, put your shoes on, strap on your iPod, head outside, turn the music on and run. Repeat that until it becomes second nature, and now you have a routine.

To turn routine into habit, you have to add a cue and a reward. For something like exercising, a “time” or “prior events” kind of cue would probably work best, since you want consistency regardless of where you are, what mood you’re in, or who’s available. So maybe every day at 8am or 6pm, or after you wake up or get home from work. The cue gets you started, but without a reward, the routine becomes a chore instead of a habit. Maybe exercising is enough of a reward, with the endorphins it produces, or maybe you need something more, like watching a really good TV show after, or eating some strawberries. Put all three parts together and it becomes a habit that you now have to ingrain: next time you get home from work, think about the strawberries, start into your exercise routine, then eat the strawberries. In the end, it all boils down to Pavlovian conditioning: eventually, just getting home from work will make you want to go running. But at least at first, you need the reward to make the habit stick.


Breaking A Habit

Doing the opposite actually takes some detective work to figure out the three parts of the specific habit. As an example, lets say you want to stop eating sweets. The ‘routine’ part is obvious because it’s the set of actions you’re trying to get rid of: sugar going in your mouth. To figure out the cue, every time you get a craving for sweets, ask yourself why you have that craving. Is it at a certain time of day like the mid-afternoon? Is it in a particular location, like the kitchen? Are you in a particular mood? Are people around you? What happened right before the craving? Sometimes the cue is not obvious, in which case it helps writing down your time, location, mood, people around you and what happened before; after the craving hits a few times, the common factor will reveal itself. The reward is not as straightforward to figure out, and can be tricky: it may be eating sweets gives you energy, relieves boredom, improves your mood, etc. To suss it out, take a trial-and-error approach: if you think you might eat sweets for energy, try caffeine instead; if it’s out of boredom, try nuts.

Once you’ve figured out the cue and reward of the bad habit, figure out an alternative routine. The key to breaking the habit is to realize that the itch must be scratched: the willpower required to keep yourself from craving the reward is extremely powerful. But, once you know what the cue and the real reward are, you can switch out the routine and still scratch the itch. For example, lets say your cue for sweets is a prior event: you’ve accomplished something, like cleaning the kitchen, and now you want sweets. What’s the real purpose (reward) of eating the sweets in that situation? Probably the ‘treat’ aspect of it — something nice to do at the end of an annoying chore. (Note that the dirty kitchen -> cleaning routine -> sweets sequence may be a habit of itself, so in this case our habits are nested, like Russian dolls.) If so, switching out the routine for a non-sugary treat should do the trick. Maybe eat some strawberries instead: they’re kind of expensive, they’re sweet and taste good, so it’s a good treat. Or maybe a treat that’s not related to food at all, like a cat nap. Find the cue, find the reward, keep them — but switch out the routine.

An interesting thing to note is addictions: the physical reward of doing heroin is not something you can really produce via another kind of routine, so this tactic of switching out routines doesn’t always work. Instead, counselors teach addicts to eliminate cues from their lives — to stay away from the people, places and things that can trigger their addiction. Generally this means a complete change of lifestyle, but even under the best of circumstances, all cues will never be eliminated and alternative routines (coping strategies) still have to be ready for the addict to use at a moment’s notice. For example, running into your old dealer should cue you to run in the opposite direction and eat a cupcake.

Photo by Lauren Mitchell


In both cases — making and breaking habits — you have to be aware of all three aspects of the habit. When trying to make a habit:

  1. Internalize a routine
  2. Find an appropriate cue and reward, that will motivate your brain to turn the routine into habit.

When trying to break a habit:

  1. Find the existing cue and reward
  2. Internalize an appropriate alternative routine, that will get you the same reward when the cue happens.

From The New York Times Magazine

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