Everything you know about breaking habits is wrong: Goals vs Environment

Disclaimer: This is not a how-to guide for breaking habits. This is a summary of many, many research papers I had to read in grad school about “muscle memory.” I have no idea how any of this applies to smoking, dieting, etc. And frankly, I’ve never broken any of my bad habits, so I don’t recommend this post be followed by anyone :) Instead, go read The Power of Habit now!

I recently read some advice on how to break habits that went against what I learned about habit formation in graduate school. As an engineer, I felt the call to share a presentation I gave a few years back for school on habit.

Duty Calls — https://xkcd.com/386/

In graduate school for Human Factors (UX), I focused on studying habit formation, expertise, human error, and contextual interference (i.e. what’s the best practice schedule to learn and retain skill) as it related to software usability.

I wanted to share what I learned about habit as it pertains to motor learning (aka “muscle memory”). I’ve joked in previous blog posts that I don’t blog, I dissertation. But in this case, I could dissertation :)


  • Background: Habits and Research (up to 2012)
  • 3 techniques for breaking habits
  • Why New Years Resolutions are tough to keep (It isn’t your fault!)

Habits are beyond conscious control

(Aarts &Dijksterhuis, 2000; Wood & Neal, 2009)

If you take away only one thing, take away this:

habits are out of our conscious control

It doesn’t matter whether the habit is a

  • good habit — i.e. I brush my teeth every morning before I’m fully awake
  • bad habit — I bite my nails whenever Steph Curry falls down
  • or action slip — why on earth am I driving to work on Saturday morning??

Our brains work differently for habits

An area of the brain called the basal ganglia takes over during a habitual action (picking up a sandwich), freeing up another area of the brain called the pre-frontal cortex to perform other actions that require conscious effort (listening to the lunchtime conversation).

This within-brain hand-off (yes, I just made this term up) is why you can do two things at once: hold a conversation while eating lunch, listen to music while you type, etc. If you think about it, this makes sense. Otherwise, we’d perform like javascript without a callback function.


This concludes my knowledge of the human brain (and javascript).

Most Every Day actions are habitual

(Aarts & Dijksterhuis, 2000)

According to these ^^ folks, nearly 45% of all habitual behaviors are done at the same time in the same place.

And yes, I purposefully chose to ignore APA citation just because now I can. And it felt good! :)

Two Theories for How Habits Form

There are two camps of researchers on why habits form:

  1. Goal-based (Aarts & Dijksterhuis, 2000)
  • These folks are known as “Behaviorists” — there must be a goal, and that goal is the stimulus.
  • They theorize habits are formed solely within “stimulus/response units.” Think Pavlov’s dog: Ring bell, and dog drools.
  • They also theorize you always need goals to develop a habit.

2. Context Cues (Verplanken & Wood, 2006)

  • These folks are more cognitive-centric, versus being solely “muscle memory” oriented
  • They agree that habit formation begins with goals within a stable context (i.e. the environment isn’t changing)
  • However, they theorize it’s all about the cues within the environment that triggers the habit. You need goals at the very beginning, and then the contextual cues take over.

Another way to think about Habits:

“Habits are the residue of past goal pursuits” — (Wood & Neal, 2007)

BTW, I learned my first night of grad school that “cognition” means having to do with how the brain works. Kinda good to know since the course I was taking was called “Cognition.” For the next sports game color commentary I have to endure, I hope they could say “he’s performing at a high cognitive level” instead of “he’s performing at a higher cerebral level.” Just something, anything to change it up.

Soccer announcers are the worst (and I love soccer).

Habit Formation Research

Aarts and Dijksterhuis (2000) released their stimulus/response theory and showed habits are related to goals. However, Wood and Neal (2007) disagree about their judgments. Neal and Wood (2012) showed habits are unrelated to goals.

“A habit cannot be tossed out the window; it must be coaxed down the stairs a step at a time” — Mark Twain, as I found quoted in reading Webb, Sheeran, and Luszczynska (2009).

3 Techniques to Breaking a Habit

Verplanken andWood (2006) described 3 techniques for breaking a habit.

  1. Downstream — Stop the habit from occurring when it’s triggered — the least likely technique to work because it requires constant monitoring to keep yourself from performing the habit. You can’t keep up that level of monitoring for long and still go through your normal day.
  2. Downstream-plus — Use the techniques from technique #1 downstream only when moving cities, changing jobs or schools, or anything that breaks up the majority of your daily routine. This is the most reasonable technique, IMO.
  3. Upstream —Completely change the environmental context triggers. Most effective, but also most expensive for breaking strong habits. You could drastically change your life by moving to a different country, in a different language, etc, but not the most feasible.

A few definitions

Sorry to force you to read stuff from a term paper, but you gotta understand these concepts; otherwise, the next section won’t make sense, and you’ll still sign up for New Years Resolutions that you can’t keep.

  1. Procedural knowledge is the knowledge that you know but can’t articulate. It’s the opposite of declarative knowledge — knowledge that can be verbalized. As an example of declarative knowledge, if you asked me how to use a deadbolt lock. I could tell you that you turn the knob towards the door and then verify that the door is lock by trying to push/pull the door open. To understand procedural knowledge, here’s the quiz we were given: You must answer this question immediately. When you tie your shoe, which shoe lace (right or left) do you wrap on top of the other? Answer right now! Don’t know? Need more time? That’s because you’ve tied your shoes so many items that it has become an autonomous motor functions, aka a habit. You can’t articulate it until you perform it. These autonomous motor functions are what habits are.
  2. Contextual Interference — The contextual interference effect is a paradoxical effect observed in motor learning (aka developing “muscle memory”) that if you make learning a new skill too easy, you don’t retain the skill. Sad, but true. But if you make it too hard, you can’t acquire the skill. There’s this sweet spot for optimal learning and retaining of the skill. A part of this effect is that a bunch of “stuff” (e.g. the experience, the emotion, the environment, the success/failure, the motor pattern, etc.) gets “chunked” as part of the skill. For example, why is home field/court advantage such a big deal for players? No one quite knows yet what all this extra “stuff” is — what the athlete really learned as part of the end-to-end skill. Since you can’t truly articulate what causes the habit (much less the habit itself), you have no idea what the actual trigger is.
  3. Action slips — in the context of Human Error, there are three types of errors: 1. mistakes (errors of judgement — I picked ‘C’ on exam but answer was ‘A’) 2. action slips (errors of action — I hit wrong button in elevator because I started thinking about what I’d eat for lunch) and 3. lapses (errors of memory — Argh, I can see their face, but I can’t remember their name). Habits happen many times as action slips because habits are easy to do.

One thing that drives me absolutely crazy about “how to break a habit” advice is when they tell you to apply conscious effort to prevent it, because this is the least effective way of breaking the habit (see technique #1 — downstream above) and you’re just begging for these action slips to occur. For example, I read somewhere about if you chew the top of your pen, put it in your non-dominate hand. This is the worst thing you can do, because you’re bringing even more awareness to the habit with even less conscious control to prevent it from happening. As soon as you take your conscious focus off of not performing the action, you’ll perform the action. Case in point, giving a talk about this very subject in school, I mentioned that I keep twirling a pen. For illustration purposes, I put it into my left hand as I talked about why this advice was bad. As soon as I moved to the next slide, the class called me out that I had unconsciously twirled the pen in my left hand. I was shocked because I did not plan to twirl the pen at all and had only a vague memory of doing so — the pen was in a different position in my hand than I had last remembered.

(Some) Reasons Why New Years Resolutions Are Tough To Keep

as explained by Verplanken and Wood (2006), Wood and Neal (2009), and Quinn, Pascoe, Wood, and Neal (2010):

  1. Strong habits are *NOT* based on goals — we think by changing the goal, we can break the habit. Nope. Won’t work, because the habit is not based on a goal. You’ll end up just being hard on yourself for failing.
  2. Procedural knowledge hides actual triggers — Because of the contextual interference effect, you have no idea what information is really chunked when you learn a skill (or habit), and hence don’t really know what the trigger is. Remember, your habit isn’t based on a goal.
  3. Wrong post hoc judgments — again, we think we know what our habits are based on, but we don’t, and make the wrong post-hoc judgments as to what is causing our habits.
  4. Habits are super-easy to perform thanks to action slips, thinking about the habit makes it more likely that we’ll perform the habit.
  5. Temptations different from habits — see next section on temptations

Temptations are not Habits

Quinn, Pascoe, Wood, and Neal (2010)

Temptations seem to be the opposite of habits in both learning them and getting rid of them.

  • Temptations are goal-based. If you need to resist a temptation, change your goal. Remember, this strategy won’t work very well for breaking habits.
  • If you focus on the temptation, you’re more likely to fall for doing it. However, if you distract yourself from the temptation, you are more likely to resist.

For your next New Year’s Eve resolutions, you might want to split into two groups: Temptations to Resist and Habits to Break.


Habits are out of our conscious control. To break a habit, try focusing on changing your environment to remove the possible cues that trigger the habits.

And if you read about a quick fix, remember

“Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.” — Princess Bride


  • Aarts, H. , & Dijksterhuis, A. (2000). Habits as knowledge structures: Automaticity in goal-directed behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78(1), 53–63.
  • Danner, U. , Aarts, H. , Papies, E. , & de Vries, N. (2011). Paving the path for habit change: cognitive shielding of intentions against habit intrusion. British Journal of Health Psychology, 16(1), 189–200.
  • Holland, R. , Aarts, H. , & Langendam, D. (2006). Breaking and creating habits on the working floor: A field-experiment on the power of implementation intentions. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 42(6), 776.
  • Neal, D. , Wood, W. , Labrecque, J. , & Lally, P. (2012). How do habits guide behavior? perceived and actual triggers of habits in daily life. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48(2), 492.
  • Quinn, J. , Pascoe, A. , Wood, W. , & Neal, D. (2010). Can’t control yourself ? monitor those bad habits. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 36(4), 499.
  • Verplanken, B. , & Wood, W. (2006). Interventions to break and create consumer habits. Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, 25(1), 90.
  • Webb, T. , Sheeran, P. , & Luszczynska, A. (2009). Planning to break unwanted habits: Habit strength moderates implementation intention effects on behaviour change. British Journal of Social Psychology, 48(3), 507.
  • Wood, W. , & Neal, D. (2007). A new look at habits and the habit-goal interface. Psychological 
    , 114(4), 843–863.
  • Wood, W. , & Neal, D. (2009). The habitual consumer. Journal of Consumer Psychology (Elsevier Science), 19(4), 579.
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