Comparing and testing the four most popular systems for learning new habits

Niklas Göke
Oct 1, 2018 · 15 min read
Photo by Marion Michele on Unsplash

For the past six years, I have been obsessed with habits. This obsession grew out of the realization that, as a business student in an obscure university, no teachers or classes would be enough to push me to become a successful entrepreneur. It was up to me to take responsibility. So I began by changing what felt controllable: my habits.

When I first learned about the psychology of habits, I expected to find a single set of habits that would work for the rest of my life (think 7 Habits of Highly Successful People). So I ran lots of habit experiments to find the right set for me. I spent three months waking up at 5am, and then another three months without caffeine. I spent a year both adhering to a cold shower in the morning and then 10,000 steps during each day. I went two years without alcohol.

Each habit mattered for a time, but then I’d find it would become less valuable or that I’d need to adopt yet another new habit. What really matters, then, is not just a one-time push to get the right habits. What matters is learning the skills of habit-building and habit-breaking so that you can always adopt the right set of habits for that moment in time.

While chasing my own new habits, I also had the fortune of joining the habit coaching community at Coach.me. Through my own research, discussions with other coaches, and my own coaching, I’ve found that there are four habit researchers who we all reference over and over: Charles Duhigg, BJ Fogg, Gretchen Rubin and Nir Eyal.

Below, I’m going to teach you the basics of each of these “master” systems so that you can apply their advice to your own habits.


#1. Habit Loops from Charles Duhigg

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As a news reporter in Iraq, Charles Duhigg had a front row seat to what he dubbed “one of the biggest habit-formation experiments in history”: the U.S. military in action. He witnessed an army major deal with violent outbreaks in public plazas in Kufa by removing the crowd’s access to food. It turned out angry people turn into an angry mob, but hungry people go home and eat.

Almost a decade of research later, Duhigg published the go-to habit manual, The Power of Habit. At its core lies the habit loop, which consists of three steps:

  1. Cue. The signal that triggers your habit, like the clock striking 1 PM, which means it’s time to get lunch.
  2. Routine. The behavior that follows, such as walking over to the cafeteria and buying a cookie.
  3. Reward. The source of satisfaction that makes the habit so easy to repeat, like the sugar-induced dopamine high that comes after eating the cookie.

In the Iraq example above, the army major disrupted the crowd’s habits by removing the option to follow their routine. In the past, hunger had cued the crowd to follow a routine of buying food from vendors. Their reward was satiation. Without the food vendors, they couldn’t follow through on their old habit, and most people in the crowd opted to create a new habit of going home to eat. That was exactly the major’s goal.

For breaking habits, you can identify these three components and then swap in replacements. Usually, you start with replacing the routine, which leads to a different reward. For example, to avoid eating sweets in the afternoon, try talking to a friend instead of buying a cookie.

For habits you want to acquire, you can assemble the three parts yourself, although often the cue already exists. As you’ll see in BJ Fogg’s methodology below, identifying existing cues is a great way to form new habits (BJ Fogg uses the term trigger, but he means the same thing as a cue).

The Science

Duhigg cites dozens of academic papers in his book, but the core study observed the behavior of rats in a maze as they searched for a piece of chocolate. If the path remained the same for a week, their brains would show minimal activity while running towards the chocolate. Mental effort spiked only at the beginning and end of the loop, which indicated a learning experience and reinforced the behavior. That low mental activity in the middle is part of what you and I are looking for when we form habits. With a new habit, we’re looking to create new behaviors in ourselves that are effortless.

Case Study

In 2015, I worked with a client, Clint, for nine months to moderate his drinking habit. During our coaching, Clint read The Power of Habit, and practiced spotting cues that would spark his desire for alcohol. After learning to recognize these triggers, he replaced his routines and eventually ended up cutting his alcohol intake by almost 50%.

Here’s an edited transcript of one of our conversations about triggers:

“A trigger for me that led me to drinking usually happens sometime around eight o’clock at night. I’ve had a long and tiring day, I’ve accomplished a lot, my brain still wants to be in productivity mode, but my body is exhausted. I just reach a point of frustration and tiredness and I am looking for something to unwind and to relax and so I built this habit up over time that my brain says: ‘If you drink alcohol you’re going to feel that relaxed feeling.’”

And, on changing routine and reward:

“A few examples would be having a glass of soda water with lime. Even though there’s no alcohol in the soda, it’s a very refreshing drink. And because it’s bubbly and something that I don’t usually drink, it tricks my brain into thinking I’m having a treat.”

Lastly, on Clint’s results:

“At the beginning of our coaching session early last year I was drinking pretty much every day. I started out with the goal of wanting to not drink at all, which was which was maybe overly ambitious [… but] I found that I was able to slowly build up my willpower over the course of the year and slowly add more days on to not drinking so that by the end of the year I came close to ‘tipping the scales,’ as I call it, so that I was having more days of not drinking than I had of drinking.”

When to use this model

The strength of this model is that it’s so well known — many of you have read the Power of Habit. However, we’ve found the models below to be slightly easier to implement and slightly more focused on people who are actually trying to apply behavior design models to themselves.


#2. Tiny Habits from BJ Fogg

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BJ Fogg is a behavior scientist at Stanford who developed the Fogg Behavior Model (FBM) pictured above. It states that for a trigger (same as a cue in Duhigg’s model) to succeed, the right levels of motivation and ability must come together. You might have a lot of motivation to do 100 push ups, but not the physical strength to do so. Eating a healthy meal of steamed broccoli is physically easier to do than the pushups. But you’re still likely to fail due to a lack of motivation (assuming you don’t love steamed broccoli).

To make sure triggers for the right behaviors succeed and those for the wrong ones fail, Fogg created an approach called Tiny Habits, which are habits…

  • “you do at least once a day,”
  • “that take you less than 30 seconds,”
  • “that require little effort.”

To change behavior using the Tiny Habits methodology, Fogg suggests using his habit recipe template:

"After I [TRIGGER], I will [TINY HABIT]."

The trick here is to use a so-called anchor as your trigger. An anchor is a solidified, routine behavior, like brushing your teeth, making coffee, or washing your hands. The anchor becomes the trigger for your new habit.

For example, flossing one tooth after you brush your teeth feels so dead simple that it’s hard not to follow through.

In practice, most people find the tiny habit leads to a larger behavior change. In our coaching community, we talk a lot about momentum. In this Tiny Habits flossing example, you focus on just getting the initial momentum knowing that you’re most likely to go well past flossing just the one tooth.

The Science

The Tiny Habits framework is rooted in the concept of implementation intentions. From the premiere study on the theory, validated by NYU psychology professors Peter Gollwitzer and Gabriele Oettingen:

“Implementation intentions are if-then plans that spell out in advance how one wants to strive for a set goal. For the if-component, a critical cue is selected (e.g., a good opportunity, an anticipated obstacle) that is linked to a goal-directed response in the then-component. Implementation intentions are known to enhance the rate of goal attainment. They do so by delegating action control to situational cues, thus endowing action control with features of automaticity.”

Case Study

The power of this methodology is that tiny habits quickly compound once you chain them together. In 2015, I read a book called The Miracle Morning, which outlined a six-step morning routine. It already came with an acronym to remember the steps, but chaining them together with habit recipes helped me consistently do them all in sequence. I turned the acronym into a habit staircase, and then spelled out my implementation intentions next to it.

Source

Knowing which habit followed which, and that each one only took a short time to do, removed a lot of the mental effort usually required to adopt a new behavior — especially one that’s supposed to happen right after getting up.

When to use this model

No matter whether you’re a habit nerd, an intrigued skeptic, or you just want your kids to eat their vegetables, the risk-reward ratio of tiny habits is excellent. They take little time to set up and close to no effort in executing.

A lot of clients who come to habit coaches are struggling with goals that are way bigger than their current capabilities. If this is you, a Tiny Habit is a nice alternative. You’re making a guarantee to yourself to make one tiny step, knowing that enough of those tiny steps will eventually lead to your bigger goal.

The important thing here is to write down your habit recipe. Then, if you still have trouble with the habit, the most likely culprit is an anchor that either isn’t consistent or which doesn’t leave room for your new habit. In either case, just pick a new anchor.


#3. The Four Tendencies from Gretchen Rubin

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Gretchen Rubin attained a law degree from Yale and clerked at the Supreme Court, but eventually decided she wanted to be a writer and researcher. You may know her book The Happiness Project. But in our coaching community, we all know her for a specific habit framework.

Her framework is called The Four Tendencies and categorizes people based on how they respond to inner and outer expectations. The four types are:

  1. Upholders. They meet both kinds of expectations readily. Upholders love rules, always have a clear plan, and are self-motivated and disciplined. They struggle in an environment that lacks structure.
  2. Questioners. As skeptics, they meet their own expectations, but resist outer ones. Questioners need to see purpose and reason in anything they do. Clarity as to why they should do something is all-important.
  3. Obligers. This is the most common type. Obligers love satisfying other people’s expectations, but struggle in prioritizing their own. Being held accountable by a friend, coach, or boss helps them a lot.
  4. Rebels. This category defies both inner and outer expectations. Freedom to choose feels most compelling to rebels. They want to be challenged, but not pressured into doing things.

Rubin offers a free quiz to determine your own type. The idea is that you can then design your environment in ways that match your tendency.

For example, if an obliger wants to go to the gym three times a week, she can arrange for a friend to meet her there or hire a coach and make appointments. Her desire to fulfill those obligations will then help follow through.

The Science

Personality tests are often scrutinized for lacking scientific validity. As an academic herself, however, Rubin stays close to best research practices. She developed the framework with a market research institute, who also ran a representative, quantitative study on its statistical significance. 1,564 people participated in the study and over one million have taken Rubin’s quiz.

One UK paper using the approach in healthcare has been published and another researcher is studying its application for better nutrition.

Additionally, the Coach.me coaches use this quiz heavily to help clients explain how they want to be coached. Here’s how they describe it:

“A challenge for new clients is that some of them want their coach to hold them accountable, and others hate to be nagged. So we give clients this quiz in order to give the client the vocabulary to ask for what they want from a coach. An upholder wants confidence that they’re doing everything possible. An obliger wants daily accountability. A questioner wants information. A rebel wants their coach to be a sounding board.”

Case Study

Another client I worked with for three months in 2016 identified himself as a questioner early on. Below is a great example of how a questioner thinks and approaches a goal.

“Good example — Christmas presents. I don’t see the point, so I stopped buying physical presents a few years ago and requested the same from others. I buy them experiences and spend my time with them instead. That’s what makes me think I’m a questioner — I’ll do things that are completely outside the norm if I don’t understand the reasons.

So with our coaching [on setting a new gym routine], I wondered if I might need external accountability, but I don’t think that’s what helps. It’s the discussing with someone else about why I’m doing it that helps. Because that keeps the reasons clearer in my head amongst the daily junk information.

And the other reason that might stop me is not thinking I can succeed. Because even though I have a good why, there’s an equally strong “why not” (justified or not). So, if I’m not taking action, I need to work on the why and the why not and tip the balance. The quiz certainly made it clearer though thanks for showing me that.”

Having identified that he didn’t need accountability, but someone to act as a sounding board, it was easy for us to structure the coaching that way. He’d send long messages and I’d reply with a few thoughtful questions or with important information.

Being able to meditate on his own reasoning regularly allowed him to establish a consistent, weekly gym routine in the time we worked together. He did all the work and reported the results back to me, but knowing his habit tendency and then acting on it sped up the process.

When to use this model

Finding out your tendency is an a-ha moment that you should have and then sit with. Do you agree with your result? Can you map the pattern to past situations in your life? Are there many, or just a few?

Then once you know your tendency, you can optimize your approach to any goal. As coaches, these are the types of adjustments we make based on a habit tendency.

  • Upholders are probably going to be fine on their own, but many hire coaches to give themselves the feeling that they are doing everything possible and are getting the best information.
  • Obligers have an obvious need to build in external accountability. Their coach will focus on that. You could get a similar result with a friend acting as an accountability buddy.
  • Questioners want lots of information — as coaches, we can point out what’s worked for our other clients or what research we’ve read.
  • Rebels tend to not want advice. So as coaches, we try to act a sounding board. When you talk out your rebellious ideas, they get sharper and stronger.

One important thing to remember is that it’s easy to take such test results as absolutes, but they’re called tendencies for a reason. Don’t pigeonhole yourself.


#4. Hook Model from Nir Eyal

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When Nir Eyal started an in-game advertising platform for social media entertainment apps in 2008, he found himself scratching his head. Somehow, their target customers managed to get their users utterly addicted to their products. He didn’t find any research, so he began conducting his own.

Five years later, his learnings from science, teaching, and consulting culminated in the publication of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products. The heart of this book is the Hook Model, which explains why we make a habit of using certain products over others. It has four steps:

  1. Trigger. An internal or external prompt to perform a certain behavior. Facebook initially triggers you with notifications to open the app, but eventually, you begin to associate using it with internal triggers, like boredom or anxiety.
  2. Action. A simple click, a tap, some scrolling, or whatever gets the user to interact with the product.
  3. Reward. Finding a funny video in an otherwise boring feed gives you a little dopamine hit. Varying rewards at different times make us curious and spark a desire to come back — over and over again.
  4. Investment. Now that you’re happy, companies ask you for something in return: time, data, and money are some examples. Ideally, you’ll even load the next trigger yourself, for example by commenting on a friend’s photo, to which they’ll surely reply and get you to come back.

The Hook Model is a habit loop on steroids. If a company knows their customers well, they can get them to repeat it indefinitely.

What this framework is most useful for is getting a sense of which products and services you’re addicted to without even realizing. For example, if you still find yourself spending a lot of time on Facebook, but can rarely point to why you ended up there, identifying and eliminating triggers can help kick this addiction to the curb.

The Science

Besides the mental shortcut from the habit loop itself, the main factor contributing to habits turning into outright addictions are variable reward patterns. Not knowing what exactly is going to happen the next time you open Instagram is precisely why you want to do it.

Eyal quotes a study about pathological gambling showing we stick with habit-forming products not in spite of, but because they sometimes disappoint us:

“More specifically, it has been shown that, after an initial learning phase characterized by a continuous reward schedule, subjects almost immediately cease the activity when it is no longer rewarded. By contrast, after a primary phase characterized by intermittent rewards, subjects persist for some time in the activity that was previously rewarded.”

Case Study

There’s a good chance you’re hooked on multiple products right now. Almost all social media platforms, smartphones, entertainment apps, and games use some variation of the Hook Model to engage users and turn a profit. However, there are many ways to break those addiction cycles.

For example, News Feed Eradicator eliminates your central news feed on Facebook, but leaves other functions intact. I have been using it since 2015 and it’s improved my relationship with the platform a lot.

I now only go there with a specific goal in mind, like sending a message or posting an update. I even manage to leave my notifications untouched and only check them once a week most of the time.

When to use this model

If you like video games, you will enjoy learning with the Hooked Model a lot. If you tend to get obsessed with new ideas, tools, or hobbies, Nir’s framework will provide a good solution to managing your relationships with those things more efficiently, be healthier, and feel less stressed.

I suggest you pick a digital service you know you use too much, search for a tool to block it, and take it from there.


Where Will You Start?

One of the first habit researchers ever, Aristotle, said: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” But he also proposed that…

Had I not started on the path of self-exploration six years ago, I would never have learned that habits are merely a means, not an end. Without all my experiments, I wouldn’t have built up the courage to start writing, let alone the discipline to continue doing it for four years.

Changing your habits on purpose is one of the most rewarding and enlightening things you can do. It will help you figure out yourself, your character, and your life. The only question left is: Where will you start?


Resources

Want more info on these habit masters? Here’s where to look:

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

Niklas Göke

Written by

I write for dreamers, doers, and unbroken optimists. I also publish daily micro-blogs to help you live a balanced life: https://emptyyourcup.substack.com

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

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