Habits 101: Research and Techniques
This essay is pretty long, and it’s broken up into roughly 7 sections:
- Short introduction passage.
- Medium chunk on modeling habits.
- Short chunk on properties of habits
- Super short chunk on habit statistics.
- Very long chunk on techniques.
- Super short tldr;
- Super short conclusion.
[Thanks to Kada Williams and Jaime Sevilla for their help editing earlier drafts of this primer.]
People, as the saying goes, are creatures of habit. Many of our actions every day are repeated often, typically without much thought.
This type of thoughtlessness, though, isn’t necessarily bad. Habits can help reduce cognitive load, allowing us to get through the day. Imagine if you had to explicitly weigh the pros and cons of behavior like flushing the toilet every single time you did them.
Making in-depth, reasoned decisions all the time can be very costly in terms of both time and attention. Habits allow us to compartmentalize certain behaviors, so that our energy and focus can move to other, perhaps more important, things.
A frequent part of our lives, habits make up at least roughly 40% of our everyday activities, which thus makes them a strong candidate to target when we’re thinking about behavior change *1.
Knowledge about exactly how habits work, how we can create new ones, and how we can remove old ones thus seems very useful because they represent a way of providing benefit continuously over time. It’s a little like your time spent in college: while the actual knowledge may soon fade, the automatic response patterns you develop can you serve you well for a lifetime.
My goal here is, like the Planning 101 article, two-fold: One is to give an overview of the mechanisms behind habits, and two is to give evidence-backed concrete techniques to affect them.
The Standard Habit Model:
Roughly speaking, the standard definition of a habit is that of “an automatic behavior that is cued by context from the situation” *4 †1.
Basically, habits can be thought of as your default responses to different situations.
This model for habits is composed of two parts: the context cue and the response.
The context cue, also called the “trigger” or “situation”, is what first kicks off the entire process. Context cues are typically external things in the environment, from people to sensory details to preceding actions.
Once the cue occurs, the response is generated.
The response, also called the “action”, is the behavior that follows the cue. Responses are typically small, atomic actions, but there is some research suggesting that a series of actions can be “chunked” together into a unit that follows from the response *5.
(However, we also know that actions which require more thought and conscious effort don’t become habitual, even when repeated in the same context *6. Thus, I’ll be recommending simpler responses when we get to creating our own habits.)
This [Context cue] → [Response] model is the core of how habits work.
While this model might seem obvious or simplistic, I’d like to stress the usefulness of this definition. This model allows for much of what we intuitively label as “habits” to fit this template of [Context cue] → [Response].
Here are some examples of how typical habits fit under this model:
- Ring! Your alarm shakes you awake. In response, your arm slaps the alarm, hitting the Snooze button, and you go back to sleep.
[Context cue] Shrill sound of alarm going off.
[Response] Turn it off and go back to sleep.
- Hey! Someone asks you “How are you doing?” and you instantly respond with “Good, you?”
[Context cue] The words “How are are you doing?”
[Response] Immediately saying “Good, you?”
- Beep beep! You open the car door and get inside. After stepping into the car, your hands are already looking for the seatbelt.
[Context cue] Opening the car door.
[Response] Putting on the seatbelt.
Moreover, I think this model is important in that it stresses how much of our behavior isn’t directly under our control. It highlights how habits can be seen as a way of outsourcing our behavior to the environment.
There’s a very real sense in which the central point of control shifts from internal to external.
But how exactly do habits form in the first place?
In simplified terms, the mechanism behind how habits form looks like this:
- Perform an action that isn’t too complex.
EX: You floss your teeth.
- Keep performing the action in a stable context.
EX: You always floss your teeth after brushing.
- Your brain begins to make associations between the context when the action is performed and the action itself.
EX: <Insert your brain activity here.>
- Continue performing the behavior frequently in the context.
EX: Richard keeps up his flossing habit after he brushes his teeth.
- Over time, the entire habit loop becomes internalized and largely automatic.
EX: Richard ends up with a flossing habit.
Much of the actual complexity is in Step 3, where our brains are able to somehow store the information about both the context cue and response together. There’s a question here of “How are habits actually stored in the brain?”
There are two suggested mechanisms for how this actually happens: motivated cuing and direct cuing *7.
The first mechanism, motivated cuing, suggests that certain cues can cause us to act because we anticipate a reward as a result of our actions.
Thus, the cue itself brings to mind a sense of “desiredness” which leads us to act.
A good example is notifications on Facebook. Many people feel a nagging draw to click on the red notification button as soon as they see it, like a sort of mental itch they need to scratch. There’s a two-step phenomenon here, something like [See Facebook notification] -> [Click on it].
Motivated cuing says that this is because past experience with the cue (i.e. the red notification icon) has led to rewards (i.e. information about online activity that involves you).
This means that one way habits could come about is by triggering a motivation to act when we experience just the situation itself (even if the accompanying reward hasn’t shown up yet).
So it sounds plausible enough. But how do know something like this is actually happening in the brain? One good piece of evidence is a classic study involving monkeys and juice.
Here’s what happened: We started with some monkeys, some juice, and a light. We trained the monkeys to push a lever when they saw the light flash, which would then reward them with the juice. When the monkeys received juice, we saw a spike of brain activity (as we might have expected).
Eventually, though, we saw the monkeys’ brain activity shift. Rather than spiking when they received the juice, we began to see the spike when they merely saw the light. In other words, the monkeys seemed to react to the context cue that signaled the reward rather than the reward itself *8.
Basically, this means that one way habits could come about is by triggering a motivation to act when we experience certain context cues.
However, I think the motivated cuing model is unsatisfactory for several reasons. Many of our routines don’t always have well-defined rewards, like folding laundry or drying off with a towel. Additionally, as we’ll see in the next section, rewards seem to have an overall negative effect on habit formation.
This is where the second model, direct cuing, comes in. Direct cuing suggests that when we perform the same actions often enough, one after another, a link will form between them.
For example, consistently putting on the seatbelt after getting into the car can lead to an association forming as we chunk the two actions in our brains, one after another. Thus, once we get into the car, our next automatic step is to look for the seatbelt.
Other simple actions are things like tying our shoelaces right after we put on our shoes or using the same conversation starters (EX: “Have you seen anything good lately?”) with the same friend again and again.
In direct cuing, the most important consideration is repetition.
But didn’t I say earlier that frequency wasn’t enough? And how does the brain know which actions are the ones to chain together to form habits anyway?
Um. To answer the first one, I hope I’ve made clear that, while frequency or repetition isn’t the whole story, it’s an important piece. There are other important factors like a stable context and other things we’ll cover soon.
As for the second one, I’m actually not quite sure. All I know is that in procedural memory (the part of memory responsible for our actions) something called Hebbian learning happens. And Hebbian learning is a mechanism for neurons to link together after they fire in sequence *9.
So this is a rough idea of how linked actions or thoughts could form habits in the brain using the direct cuing model. It’s definitely on shakier ground than motivated cuing.
However, I think that direct cuing still seems a little more plausible because it’s able to (sort of) model a greater range of habit formation, while motivated cuing is stuck to a stricter type of habit.
Ultimately, I just want to stress that I am not an expert in neuroscience. Please take both explanations as my humble attempt at a plain English translation. In addition to simplifications I made to aid in explanation, I’m sure I also made a few straight-up errors along the way.
Apart from the Standard Habit Model, there’s some additional detail that I think is worth a deeper look. Habits have several interesting properties that set them apart from other behaviors. We’ll be going over how habits are insensitive to reward changes, independent of intentions, and automatic defaults.
Insensitivity to Reward Changes:
One property of habits is that they are largely insensitive to reward changes, meaning the habit persists even when the rewards are altered or removed *10.
As evidence, there was one study where we trained people to press a button for a food reward. Yet, even when the reward was removed, we saw that they continued to respond by pressing the button *11.
This gives some insight into why using only rewards and incentives usually isn’t enough to change your habits. Once you’ve internalized the habit loop, changes to the outcome don’t have much effect on altering your behavior.
Hold on, though. Are all incentives really worthless? Surely people are more likely to act on certain behaviors if you pay them, right?
Well, we do see that financial incentives, as one example of a reward, actually are often good at encouraging short-term activities. Compared to a control group, we see that people who receive incentives are more likely to perform the target behavior.
But once the rewards stop, the behavior often does not habituate *12. For example, a recent study with over 1,000 subjects examined whether paying people to go to the gym would lead to increased gym habits. Alas, we found that about two months after the payment stopped, the increase in behavioral frequency went back down to roughly pre-incentive levels *13.
As a final piece of evidence, we often see that drug addicts continue to use substances, even when such behavior turns self-destructive †2. This has also been replicated in animal studies, where rats continue to respond habitually, even when the incentive is changed to a disincentive (EX: a poison) *14.
The takeaway here is that simply changing rewards isn’t enough to create or break habits.
Independence of Intentions:
A common dichotomy for behavior is that between “goal-directed actions” and “habitual actions”.
Our intentions, i.e. our desires and thoughts, do a good job of predicting which goal-directed behaviors we’ll carry out. Goal-directed behavior refers to the category of actions where we act consciously on our preferences.
On the flip side, habitual behavior is quicker and largely unaffected by rewards, as we covered above *15. They are largely independent of your intentions, meaning that they persist even if you desire for the habit to stop.
(Such a view has many parallels to other dual-process theories like System 1 and System 2, popularized by Daniel Kahneman in his phenomenal book Thinking Fast and Slow.)
In the earlier example with drug use, for example, it’s quite plausible to assume that the addict would have liked to stop due to the negative effects of continued use, but still found it hard to quit.
We see that one’s intentions only affect behavior when the habit is weak. For example, people’s intentions to purchase fast food only affected their actual purchases in the absence of a strong habit *16. When habits become well-developed, intentions matter little.
Here’s a visual illustration:
On the flip side, several studies have shown that in new, unfamiliar contexts, our habits become disrupted, and our intentions once again become a stronger guide to behavior *17. We’ll explore this dynamic later in the form of a technique called Cue Disruption in to help with creating and breaking habits.
Thus, there’s a sort of inverse relationship here between one’s intentions and one’s habits.
When habits are not well-established, intentions are a strong determinant of behavior. When habits are well-established, intentions become irrelevant *18.
But the important takeaway here is that simply “intending” to change your habits isn’t enough.
The last important property of habits is their automaticity. As alluded to earlier, habits operate without much conscious control. Though they might be deliberately overridden, they are what we default to in the absence of cognitive effort.
Indeed, we see that when people become distracted, and their willpower depleted, that their habits take over, even in situations where a more reasoned decision might have been optimal *19 †3.
This also helps explain why rewards don’t do much to influence habitual behavior: Incentives often work best when they are deliberately considered, but the automatic nature of habits means that they occur without much deliberation.
Thus habits (due to their automaticity) can be thought to bypass the explicit consideration process (which is also where rewards hold the greatest weight).
The automaticity of habits is a double-edged sword:
If we’re not careful, habits can show up when we don’t want them to. These are referred to as “action slips”, and common examples are situations like driving along the same route to one’s workplace on a Sunday or calling people “Dad” (even when they aren’t your father) *18.
On the other hand, habits can often free our time and attention to focus on other things. It’s what allows our thoughts to drift even when we’re driving on the road. Sometimes, the best performance in an art or sport comes from this automaticity. In a basketball game, there’s little time to think over every shot; good form and accuracy must be automatic.
Before we dive into some evidence-based interventions to create and break habits, I think it’s useful to quickly look at some base-rate statistics. To avoid getting any unrealistic expectations on how long it’ll take for some of this stuff to work, I think it’s a good idea to look at the data.
How long does it really take to form a habit?
Well, it varies. One study of around 100 people going to the gym found that about half of the people developed habits in about 40–50 days *21. An earlier study using a different methodology (and a smaller pool of people) found that the individual times varied very greatly, but the average time worked to be about 66 days *22.
(Stats for habit creation were actually fairly hard to mind, so pardon that there’s only two sources for this section. Definitely happy to update if someone finds additional info)
Thus, for a conservative estimate, you want to scale your expectations to something in the ballpark of about two months. That’s a long-ish time. Probably longer than what most people naively estimate, I think.
Also, in the second study, we found that only about half of the people even formed habits at all. This means the 66 day figure only came from the people who even succeeded in the first place.
This also means that if you tried to start a habit right now, your chances of sticking with a habit would only be about 50%.
But fear not! Starting with the next section, we’ll be going over obvious-but-still-useful-advice cleverly disguised as special techniques, to improve your chances. My goal is that, by the end of this Habits 101 primer, you’ll be far better informed and in a much better position to handle things.
I can’t make any concrete promises, but it does seem plausible to me that making a habit could perhaps be done in 30 days or less, if you actually do some of the below techniques.
Let’s dive in.
Techniques: Creating Habits
[The Techniques section has been broken up into sections: one on creating new habits and one on breaking existing habits. They are split up based on what they do rather than what they are because I think it makes more sense.
Splitting things up by function allows the given examples for the techniques to be more focused on one of the two uses at a time, which I think makes the explanations easier to understand.]
As we touched upon in an earlier section, the process by which habits form, when simplified, looks roughly something like this:
- Figure out what you want to do.
- Identify the situation where you want the action to occur.
- Actually perform said action in said situation.
- Repeat the [Context cue → Response] loop until habituation occurs.
Therefore, from a theoretical standpoint, a useful intervention would try to affect at least one of the above steps.
The three evidence-backed techniques we’ll go over are Trigger Action Plans (TAPs), Systematic Planning, and Scaling Up.
Often, the best results occur when they’re all used in tandem, as they each affect different steps of habit formation.
Trigger Action Plans (TAPs):
[TAPs are a way of framing intentional habit creation by focusing on both a salient trigger (i.e. context cue) and an action (i.e. response). They are well-backed by over two decades of research and build off the standard habit model.]
Trigger Action Planning is a technique by the Center for Applied Rationality (CFAR). It’s an adaptation of the implementation intention technique by psychologist Peter Gollwitzer.
Implementation intentions are also known as “if-then plans” because they take the form of a conditional, not unlike those used in programming, where one thing follows another. Basically it’s a way of chaining together actions and situations.
It roughly looks like: “I intend to do action X when I encounter situation Y.”
As an example, a typical implementation intention for eating healthier might look like: “I intend to fill up half my plate with veggies whenever I am at a self-serve restaurant.”
Compared to many other behavioral change interventions, implementation have a stronger evidence base, and they’re simple to put into practice.
In a meta-analysis of over 90 studies involving implementation intentions, we found that they “had a positive effect of medium‐to‐large magnitude ([effect size] = 0.65) on goal attainment” *23.
Thus, as one would expect, research that shows people who make implementation intentions have a far higher success rate of achieving their target behavior compared to people who merely hold normal intentions (EX: “I intend to do X”) *24.
CFAR’s Trigger Action Plan model builds on the implementation intention model and tailors it to the standard habit model, focusing on selecting concrete context cues and specific actions †4.
TAPs combine what we know about the standard habit model of a context cue paired with a response with the if-then nature of implementation intentions.
Trigger Action Planning has us specify specifically when and how we’d like to behave via a Trigger and an Action. It deliberately utilizes the same process that our habits naturally arise, allowing us to intentionally create new habits.
A TAP takes the form of:
When [Trigger X] happens, I will perform [Action Y]. Schematically, it’s almost identical to the implementation intention setup. But the TAP model stresses a few different factors.
First, though, is a step-by-step walkthrough of how to make your own TAP:
1. Identify an Action you want to do.
EX: “Go jogging more.”
2. Find a concrete sensory Trigger for the situation where you want the action to happen.
EX: “The feeling of the coarse rope that opens my curtains in the morning.”
3. Describe the Action you’d like to perform, in detail. Be specific about the action you’d like to.
EX: “Pick up my jogging shoes and walk outside the door to begin jogging.”
4. Put the Trigger and Action in a “When [Trigger], then [Action]” loop.
EX: “When [I feel the rough coarseness of my curtain rope,] then [I’ll go grab my jogging shoes and open the front door].”
5. Write the TAP down somewhere you can find it again.
EX: Having a digital or physical “TAPs List” document can be a very strong way to make it easy to review which habits you’re currently training. If you end up forgetting the cue or action, then it’s obvious you won’t be able to practice the behavior.
6. Mentally rehearse the TAP at least 5 times.
EX: Actually take the several minutes to do some visualizations — going over it in your mind helps you recognize the Triggers when they show up in the real world.
Specificity and concreteness are very useful here because a more salient cue is easier to recognize. Thus, for any TAP, the best Triggers are the ones that are a clear sensory sensation you can recognize. You don’t have to be limited by external cues, though; this can also be applied to internal sensations if you’re noticing them.
As an example, if you’re trying to avoid snapping at someone when they irritate you, you can try to break down the feelings right after they speak. Maybe it feels like a tightening in your chest, or a sinking feeling in your stomach.
The important thing here is to describe the internal feeling with enough detail such that you can recognize it the next time it happens.
Questions to perhaps ask yourself are “Where in my body do I feel the sensation?” and “What does the sensation feel like it’s doing inside?”
Good places to insert TAPs are at the end of existing routines, a procedure called piggybacking. We see that people who put their implementation intentions at the end of habits they already have, like deciding to floss right after brushing, are more successful *25.
Thus, TAPs can themselves be the Trigger for future TAPs.
The most important thing is that both the Trigger and Action are specific enough such that you just do it without thinking. Vaguely-specified Actions are not as good as well-quantified ones because you need to spend time trying to remember what it means.
For example, say we have this TAP:
Trigger: “When I finish a reading an online article…”
Action: “then I will summarize it.”
Both the Trigger and Action could be made more specific. Going into more detail, a perhaps improved version of the above might look like:
Trigger: “When I click the red ‘X’ to close a window after reading an online article…”
Action: “then I will set a 5 minute timer. For the next 5 minutes, I’ll type out a summary of what I just read on Microsoft Word.”
I think the second formulation is better because it’s more specific about what the Trigger is, and it also unpacks the word “summarize” by turning it into a more concrete set of actions.
Oftentimes, like above, it can be good enough to let the Action part of your TAP be the start of a longer action chain.
Above, the 5 minute timer is merely a way to get started. After the 5 minutes are up, you can continue writing your summary, especially if you find yourself in the middle of something interesting.
Likewise, in the earlier exercising example, the Action simply has you go through the front door. But once that happens, the TAP doesn’t need to worry about describing the actual jogging; once you’re outside, the rest of your body can take over.
For both of these examples, TAPs are used as a way to simply get started in the first place.
In terms of habits, TAPs help you get started on things you already wanted to do, but might otherwise have forgotten. They’re a type of reminder of sorts. You’ll typically want to use them on things that you would feel driven to do if you had the opportunity to act on them in the first place.
[Systematic Planning is a synthesis of interventions based around planning and monitoring. It focuses on additional ways to increase habit strength and frequency by building off the TAP model.]
Systematic Planning draws from both two interventions: action planning and active monitoring.
Action planning, as the name clearly tells us, is a form of planning *26. It involves trying to answer questions like “What barriers would prevent me from carrying out my intended behavior? How can I remove those barriers?”
In essence, it’s a very top-down approach to figuring out behavior change. When you’re action planning, you’re literally just planning for the action. You’re trying to make the task as frictionless as possible for Future You by identifying potential problems and making contingency plans.
Given that we’ve already covered how to plan better, we can apply those lessons here.
All our previous tools like Murphyjitsu and Reference Class Forecasting once again come into play.
(Five second summary: Murphyjitsu asks us to imagine the most common failure modes for our plans by first assuming that they’ll fail. Reference Class Forecasting says we should rely on past information to make more accurate predictions.)
An example of action planning might look like this:
You’d like to stop watching television. So you ask yourself whether or not you’d be surprised if you went all of tomorrow without watching television. Your gut says no because Game of Thrones is on. So you decide to hide your remote and check your surprise level again.
Maybe this time you’d be more surprised if you found a way to still watch television. Maybe not.
Either way, the point here is that action planning allows you to perform these constant feasibility checks to see if you’d really be able to perform the target behavior.
Active monitoring refers to the act of checking in to track your progress on a habit and seeing how far along you are.
Both action planning and active monitoring take a sort of outside view, where you’re evaluating things without taking part in them. In contrast, TAPs are about being able to respond in the moment; they provide more of an inside view. Compared to action planning and active monitoring, TAPs are more reactive than evaluative.
For example, someone doing active monitoring on their vegetable-eating habit might spend some time every day tracking their meals. They might look at how many meals had vegetables, keeping track of their progress over time.
Both action planning and active monitoring have been shown to increase uptake of desired behavior. Action planning has been shown to be effective in several studies, including longer-term effects *26. And a meta-analysis of monitoring in 138 studies showed that it had a small-medium effect size (0.4) on actual goal attainment *42.
Basically, we have the unsurprising result that making plans and writing things down helps make it more likely that people actually get things done.
As a technique, TAPs play the role of answering the question “How can I form intentional habits?”
Conversely, Systematic Planning as a technique is about answering the question “How do I make sure I actually use my TAPs?”
As a result, Systematic Planning is less about providing an alternative model for forming habits. Rather, it’s about providing additional useful considerations when using the TAP model. This also means that it’s a combination of ideas rather than just one thing.
First, though, there’s something interesting to note about how planning and habits, Murphyjitsu and TAPs in particular, are related:
You can run Murphyjitsu when making a new TAP, but you can also make a TAP out of Murphyjitsu.
An example of using Murphyjitsu when making a new TAP might look like this:
Say you would like to check email more on your phone. You make a TAP that looks like [Open phone] → [Check email]. Unsure if your TAP will be successful, you imagine that it’s a week later and you didn’t start developing your habit.
Using Murphyjitsu, you ask yourself, “What is the most plausible reason that this TAP didn’t stick?” In response, your internal simulation of events tells you that it’s likely the Trigger wasn’t salient enough. So you update your TAP with a more specific Trigger.
An example of making a TAP out of Murphyjitsu might look like this:
Say that as you tell your friend what time you’ll meet them at the park, you pause — something about the situation feels odd. Internally, a TAP fires off: [Give a time estimate] → [Imagine one thing that might cause a delay].
As a result, you end up adding an extra ten minutes to your estimate to account for potential traffic. While what you’re doing isn’t exactly the whole Murphyjitsu process, you’re able to get most of the value by turning it into a quick TAP that habituates.
So there’s something interesting going on here where you can feed one technique into the other and vice-versa. They complement each other in part because each process involves the other — planning well is a habit, but you can also figure out how to make your habits better if you do some planning.
I bring this up to introduce the idea of meta-TAPs, that is to say, TAPs which are designed to help out your other TAPs.
As a collection of considerations, I think that Systematic Planning is clearer to understand when the concepts are shown as practical meta-TAPs you can start doing right away.
Thus, I’ll be framing Systematic Planning as a series of three techniques: Active Monitoring, TAP Everything, and Murphyjitsu Your TAPs.
Systematic Planning 1: Active Monitoring
As we covered, actively monitoring the progress on your habits is a strong way to improve your habits.
You’re checking to see whether or not you’ve been executing your TAPs and mentally rehearsing the Triggers. You’re taking the time to sit down and track where you are in regards to learning all of your TAPs.
Like most other routine activities, Active Monitoring is probably best done piggybacking off an existing part of your schedule. I’d recommend the mornings as an especially good time, as you can review your TAPs once more before you go off on your day, where you’ll start to see all your potential Triggers.
While everyone’s actual monitoring questions might be different, here is a sample set of questions you can feel free to use:
- What is the TAP you are trying to learn?
- Did you do it sometime in the last week? Write down at least 1 example situation.
- What are 3 examples where the Trigger might come up?
- Visualize yourself doing the Action 3 times.
- Repeat these questions for each TAP on your TAPs list
(If you for some reason want to print out a hard copy, here is a Google Drive link.)
This is what Active Monitoring might look like as a TAP:
Trigger: “After I finish eating breakfast…”
Action: “Then I will immediately go and fill out my Active Monitoring TAP Worksheet.”
Don’t worry if you’re not going through every question or you’re using a different format. While people often tell you not to half-ass things, I think that I’d recommend consistently doing a poor job rather than sometimes doing in-depth Active Monitoring.
In the studies involving active monitoring, the actual method of monitoring was less important than the actual monitoring itself.
Systematic Planning 2: TAP Everything
By now, I hope it’s clear that the TAP framework is a simple and flexible way to frame behavioral change. Yet, thinking of new behaviors in this model isn’t always our default mode of thinking. We’re often thinking about just what we want to do, rather than the when, where and how.
Having a structured way to make new habits like the TAP model is good, but you also need to get into a habit of actually using it. Thus, one way to make this process more habitual is to have a TAP designed to look for new opportunities to make TAPs.
(“Yo, so I heard you like TAPs…”)
For example, say you’re talking to someone who opens up with a very nice conversation starter:
Initially, you might think, “Oh, that was a pretty cool way to start things, I should try that next time.”
If you’re trying to keep it practical, though, you might want to think, “Huh, that phrase was a neat way to start things. Let’s make a TAP out of this. Maybe something like [Next time I meet a nice stranger] → [Say these words]…”
This way, you’re turning your desires into actual actionables and habits.
The important thing here isn’t to conform exactly to the specifics TAP model, but to get in the habit of viewing things in the “if-then” style, which makes it easier for you to actually execute on the actions you prefer.
A “TAP Everything” meta-TAP might look like this:
Trigger: “When I notice myself thinking, ‘I want to do X’…”
Action: “Look for a specific Trigger to do X and turn it into a TAP.”
Basically, I’m suggesting you should make a habit out of making habits.
Systematic Planning 3: Murphyjitsu Your TAPs
We touched upon this earlier in the example about how different techniques can feed into one another, and this section just states it a little more clearly.
Murphyjitsu and the related set of planning prompts is very useful, and having them fire off when making a TAP can make them more robust and likely to succeed.
We can also make a TAP for this!
TAPs work best when the Trigger is clear and the Action is explicit, so most of the common failure modes are because either one or both of the two components are unclear.
So an example “Murphyjitsu Your TAPs” meta-TAP might look like this:
Trigger: “When I think of both the Trigger and the Action for a TAP…”
Action: “I will imagine that it’s one week later and I haven’t done my TAP at all. What are the first two failures that come to mind? How can I patch my TAP to fix them?”
It’s less important that we plan for all failures and more important that we just do this in the first place, like in Active Monitoring. We can get most of the value by just checking for a few of the most common failure modes.
This is where things get interconnected and fun:
Once you’ve developed the “TAP Everything”-TAP, you now have a new routine action which would serve as a very good Trigger for your “Murphyjitsu Your TAPs”-TAP.
The end goal here would be for “TAP Everything”-TAP and “Murphyjitsu Your TAPs”-TAP to end up becoming chunked together, into one unit. Research in chunking shows that actions habitually done together can end up forming a cached sequence, where one action follows another *27.
So there’s some hope that we’ll eventually be able to “chain” habits together, in larger structures similar to how habits themselves consist of a context cue and a response.
Although this is more geared towards motor skills, it at least seems plausible that mental actions work in a similar way.
[Scaling Up is one simple way to fight the “intention-action gap”, the phenomenon where our desires and actions don’t align. It involves gradually building up an action so that at every step, it’s not too difficult.]
Scaling Up is a technique intended to bridge the “intention-action gap”.
The intention-action gap is a term used in the research to point at situations where we might fail to take action, despite holding the intention to do so *28.
A typical example might be that of someone who wants to exercise more, knows it’s good for them, yet still doesn’t find themselves doing it. Or, the dieter who’d like to eat more healthily, is aware of the benefits, but still isn’t doing so.
Why is this important when considering habits?
Well, when forming TAPs, we saw earlier that they work best on actions you already wanted to do. But what about actions you know are good for you, but don’t really want to get done? This is where finding concrete strategies to bridge the gap are important.
First off, it seems good to differentiate between roughly two relevant reasons here that a habit might not stick:
- You forget about the action when the opportunity comes.
- You don’t want to do the action when the opportunity comes.
Most of the research on crossing the intention-action gap seems to focus on planning or implementation intentions as a way to increase the chances of actually acting on desired behavior *29. This is for the first problem, and it’s where TAPs and Systematic Planning work best.
To try and address all of the second problem — the question of “wanting” — would likely require its own primer. There’s a lot of intricacies to breaking apart exactly what it means to “want” or to “want want” something. Thus, the actual technique for Scaling Up merely scratches the surface of what could be a much deeper discussion.
As the name suggests, Scaling Up suggests taking an action and gradually building on it.
In short, Scaling Up says if the action you’d like to turn into a habit is undesirable to you, start small and build up. You initiate with a watered down, doable version of the activity, and gradually scale up.
The evidence base for this technique comes from a combination of shaping and exposure therapy †5.
Shaping is, roughly speaking, the idea of gradually rewarding behavior that gets closer and closer to the target *31. With incremental changes each time, this allows for the building up of even quite complex behaviors. When applied to habit learning, this means eventually doing the hard action you felt aversive to in the beginning.
A good example may be something like walking across a balance beam, where you don’t try to go all the way across on your first time.
Perhaps you first start out by just standing still and balancing. Then you try to take 3 steps with good form before falling. Then maybe 6 steps. And after that maybe halfway across the entire beam.
The point is that every step of the way, you’re working to an intermediate goal which brings you closer to the final step. You’re never biting off more than you can chew.
One of the main lessons here is that expanding your expected timeframe for goal achievement can make scaling up to the hard thing more bearable.
While this seems to be obvious for things like exercise, I don’t think people always translate this idea into other contexts like studying, which ends up with people doing things like trying to write an essay the night before.
The other part of the technique draws inspiration from exposure therapy, the process by which consistently being exposed to aversive phenomenon can decrease the degree of aversion *32.
Though this is speculative, it at least seems plausible that consistently successfully doing even an easier version of the hard or aversive action is useful. Doing so could provide additional experiential evidence that said action is not so bad after all, allowing your brain to update the negative feelings associated with the target behavior.
If we go back to the balance beam example, walking only a few steps is likely lower resistance. Then, the next time you go to the balance beam, your locally cached feelings of “Hey, that wasn’t so bad last time!” can help make it a little more palatable as well.
Taken together, these two parts form the evidence base for scaling up in level as a potentially viable solution for dealing with trying to habituate aversive behaviors. (Remember that there’s far more depth here, and the following technique merely scratches the surface.)
As an actual technique, Scaling Up is about finding first a manageable chunk of the actual target behavior you’d like to habituate and then gradually working towards the goal.
Step-by-step, it looks like:
- Quantify the aversive Action you would like to be able to do.
EX: “Every day, right after taking a shower, I want to write 1000 words.”
- Find a smaller version of the Action you can take without much resistance.
EX: “Every day, right after taking a shower, I will write 200 words.”
- Scale up gradually and consistently (For a schedule, weekly is a good default, but pick what works for you.)
EX: “Every week I’ll add 100 more words to my daily writing goal.”
Scaling Up is simple, I know, and it’s not always clear exactly what the smaller version of the Action is. However, I stand by its role as a useful consideration in building habits. For things like homework, exercise, or coding, finding ways to get started at all is very good.
Too often, I think, we wrongfully look at actions and goals as all or nothing, and we get more easily discouraged when we don’t immediately hit 100%. Being able to Scale Up helps also bridge the gap between our expectations and reality.
Techniques: Breaking Habits
While creating new habits focuses on reinforcing the link between the Trigger and the Action, breaking habits is about finding ways to disrupt the typical context cue and response mechanism.
Thus, the techniques below sorta do the opposite of what the stuff in Creating Habits did. For example, by weakening the link between the context cue and the response, we can disable the automaticity. Or, we might substitute it with something more desirable.
The two techniques we’ll go over are Going Upstream and Substitution.
[Going Upstream is a set of concepts based around removing the context cues of unwanted habits beforehand so the habit doesn’t activate. It’s backed by experimental evidence, and it fits right in with our standard habit model.]
The idea behind Going Upstream is that one of the best ways to disrupt a habit is to go straight up to the top.
By that, I mean you’re targeting the source of the phenomenon, i.e. whatever’s causing it at the very top of the chain *33. Changes upstream should have effects that flow through to the bottom. It’s like how building a dam upstream of a river causes the water flowing down to slow to a trickle. Hence the name.
But this is probably still a little abstract. Let’s get a bit more specific:
We know from the standard habit model that habits fire in the presence of certain context cues. And many of these cues are in the environment.
Thus, one way to remove an unwanted habit through Going Upstream is to limit your exposure to the aforementioned cue. If you don’t encounter the cue, then the habit won’t fire at all.
For example, say you have an unwanted habit of going into a long bout of distracted browsing after opening your Facebook news feed. One way to make this habit less prevalent by Going Upstream would be to disable your Facebook news feed, removing any chance that you’d get distracted in the first place.
Going Upstream is functionally very similar to the idea of precommitment, the idea of cutting off some of your options ahead of time to make sure you can stick to your commitments *34.
An example might be if a dieter throws out all the unhealthy snacks in their house. Then, they replace them all with healthy options. Now, they have no choice but to snack healthily when hungry.
Or, consider the student who goes to the library to “force” themselves to study because there’s less distractions in the library’s study room than at home.
We see that principles based in Going Upstream have effects across varied domains, from reducing smoking to improving public transportation usage *35.
At its core, Going Upstream is about being able to make choices for your decisions where you have the most control. It’s far easier to remove affect your exposure to the context cue in the first place than to override a habit once the context cue kicks in.
Using this principle, we’ll go over three sub-techniques which each use the Going Upstream principle: Trigger Removal, Cue Disruption, and Changing Friction.
Going Upstream 1: Trigger Removal
As we already alluded to earlier, one of the most straightforward applications of Going Upstream is to simply remove the Trigger that leads to the habit.
The steps of Trigger Removal are:
- Put your unwanted habit into the TAP framework.
EX: You want to stop consistently checking your phone for notifications. You ask yourself, “What conditions seem to lead to my checking of the phone?” Thinking back to the last few times you checked your phone, you look at the different parts that make you the habit.
- Identify the Trigger(s) that seem to lead you towards taking the Action.
EX: You realize that it’s like that the “Ping!” sound of notifications seems to be the main Trigger. In situations, your phone will ring, and you notice yourself with the urge to flip your phone to see what happened.
- Take steps to remove the Trigger from your environment.
EX: You decide to silence your phone’s notifications, so you aren’t prompted to check it on the audio cue. The end result is that your attention becomes less diverted by notifications.
That’s the gist of it — figure out what’s cuing your unwanted habit and remove it.
Going Upstream 2: Cue Disruption
The more extreme version of Trigger Removal is Cue Disruption, which is based off the idea that certain windows of opportunity make it a lot easier to Go Upstream and alter cues. Specifically, these opportunities happen when there are major shifts in your environment, like when you move to a new town.
As evidence, we see that when people move to a new, unfamiliar place, this is a prime time to form new habits and break old ones because of the absence of many of their old context cues *36. This seems to be valid for a variety of activities, from taking public transport to watching less TV *37.
For another example, switching to a new job is also a prime time to try and rid yourself of certain bad workflow habits. Now that you’re in a new environment, you’re sorta given a new slate. The old cues which might have had a major hand in leading to undesirable behaviors are gone, giving you space to try and mindfully create some better TAPs.
Capitalizing on this break in continuity of context cues forms the core of Cue Disruption. Because such changes are uncommon, I’d hesitate to really call this a technique. It’s more of just a general consideration to keep in mind if you find yourself changing environments.
And there’s really not too much to it:
- Undergo a change in your environment.
EX: Move to a new city.
- Form new TAPs using the new environmental cues.
EX: Stop eating junk food because you don’t know where the unhealthy restaurants are.
Still, I mention this because I think it’s good to keep cached in your brain as a viable option when the opportunity does arise.
Going Upstream 3: Changing Friction
As a technique, Trigger Removal clearly doesn’t work for all habits. Not all Triggers are external environmental ones. Other harder-to-target Triggers might involve internal feelings or emotions. Or, the Triggers might be impractical to remove because they’re not something you have direct control over, like what words other people say.
Especially for situations where you don’t have complete control over the Trigger, the next best thing you can try is just to make it harder for you to access either the Trigger or the Action.
This is the idea behind Adding Friction.
“Friction” is being used here to mean additional barriers that prevent immediate access — like how friction in the real world makes smooth sliding more difficult. On the flip side, Reducing Friction is about having less barriers towards action, so that it’s easier to execute good habits.
An example of Adding Friction would be if you installed a Chrome extension to add a 30 second delay time each time you tried to visit Facebook. This might be preferable to simply blocking Facebook outright because simply removing the Action of “visit Facebook” doesn’t leave you with an alternative. By adding a delay time, you gain an additional opportunity to reconsider and check in with yourself to see if you really need to visit the site.
Part of Adding Friction, then, is also about finding additional opportunities to inject more time for reflection, so that you can see if the habit is aligned with what you really want.
An example of Reducing Friction would be if someone wanted to go to the gym every day, and they asked a good friend to bring gym clothes for them and pick them up. This makes it easier by removing barriers which, had they been unaddressed, could have been excuses for not going.
These might have taken the form thoughts like “Oh man…I can’t find my gym shorts…guess I won’t go exercising today, then…”.
(Though this section is mainly about breaking habits, Friction, as you can see, is applicable to either creating or breaking habits. It just depends on whether you’re adding or removing it.)
When applying the concept of Adding and Reducing Friction to habits, the step-by-step process looks a little like:
- Identify the TAP you’d like to affect.
EX: You have a bad internet browsing habit that eats up a lot of time. Looking into yourself, you see that the habit roughly looks like [Feel tired and not engaged] → [Go on a browsing spiral].
- Look at the Trigger. Find a way to make it easier or harder to encounter. (This is habit-dependent.)
EX: You ask yourself, “How can I change the frequency with which I encounter this Trigger?” You decide to take more frequent breaks while you’re on the computer. This thus reduces the probability of your getting tired and distracted so the TAP doesn’t fire as often.
- Look at the Action. Find a way to make it easier or harder to take. (Also habit-dependent.)
EX: You could also block the actual sites that you commonly go on or use some web filters to ensure that your work time online is spent only on the places you decide beforehand.
Some of the examples for Adding Friction you can think of probably look a lot like the ones for Trigger Removal, and that’s fine. Overlap between the sub-techniques is okay. The main idea here is just being able to generalize the technique to situations where you might not be able to entirely remove things by thinking in terms of Friction.
Remember that all of these techniques are suggestions, and all of these techniques are my attempt to make more sense of out of largely general principles. If a different categorization yields results for you, I would recommend you do that instead.
[Substitution is where you swap out one Action for another one but keep the same Trigger. In essence, it’s concerned with finding ways to switch out your defaults with better responses.]
One problem with trying to break unwanted habits is that merely trying to “not do it” is largely ineffective.
For example, one idea that might appear clever is to create an “anti-TAP” for certain behaviors. While it sounds good to have a habit of not doing something, you’ll end up with TAPs like, “When I think of french fries, I won’t eat them.”
Which, as it turns, doesn’t work very well *38. Anti-TAPs are ineffective because when you tell yourself to not do X, the focus is still on X. This seems to be potentially due to ironic process theory, the idea that trying to suppress certain thoughts only brings them to mind.
It’s the same reason why telling someone to not imagine a red horse driving a blue convertible only makes the absurd image more vivid in their heads. Having a TAP that tells you what not to do isn’t useful when it doesn’t concretely provide an alternative.
Otherwise, all that’s bouncing around in your head is the very thing you told yourself not to do.
Thus, the more reasonable thing to do is to find ways to re-engineer your existing TAPs such that you can instead take an improved alternative action. This gives you another actionable to instead of just leaving you with no way out.
As a technique, Substitution is about trying actually specify what to do instead of just attempting to suppress the original response after encountering the context cue *39.
This is more reasonable because your focus can be directed on the alternative action instead of just dwelling on how much you don’t want to do something.
Substitution in a systematic layout looks like:
- Identify the TAP you’d like to change, specifically the Trigger.
EX: You’d like to drink less soda. You notice that you typically think of getting sodas after ordering a burger.
- Find an alternative Action to replace it with that’s more satisfactory.
EX: You decide to ask for an ice water instead.
- Do 5 mental run-throughs of the updated TAP and keep track of your progress with tools from Systematic Planning.
EX: You do 5 mental run-throughs of ordering water instead of soda.
That’s it. Of course the rest of the guidelines from making TAPs still hold, like choosing concrete actions and writing it down. But the overall concept, like many of the techniques we’ve gone over, is quite simple.
Especially for habits with Triggers you don’t have complete control over, Substitution can be a useful intervention to improve your routines †6.
I think that Substitution sorta actually represents the core concept behind behavior change. When you want to do something different (and hopefully better), there’s necessarily some sort of swapping happening.
There’s roughly a 3-step process here that looks a little like this:
(Note the actual Substitution algorithm differs a little from the one below, but I claim the central ideas are very similar.)
- Notice a behavior.
EX: “Huh, I just felt jealous when Mary got more attention than me.”
- Reflect on the action.
EX: “Hm, that doesn’t seem to be very good. Mary’s had it hard the last few months. What can I do instead?”
- Swap out the default for something new.
EX: “Okay, so instead, when someone compliments Mary, I can instead try to imagine how it feels to be her. I think that’ll dissipate some of my envy.”
And as we go on to delve into more ideas, this’ll be good to keep in mind. Much of improvement follows this sort of “overriding defaults” idea. You’re trying to answer the question of “How can I make things incrementally better?”
We’ve gone a whirlwind tour of the way that habits operate, from models to techniques. Here’s a short recap of all of the things we’ve covered.
- Habits can be basically thought of a combination of a Trigger and a responding Action.
- Habits are automatic and keep sticking around, even if you don’t want them to. And rewards don’t to much to change them.
- Habits take somewhere in the neighborhood of 2 months to form.
- Creating habits consists of explicitly building the Trigger and the Action you want. The rest of the techniques are ways to reinforce this connection.
- Breaking habits is about disrupting the chain between the Trigger and the Action. The rest of the techniques are ways to swap things up or modify the chain.
Here’s a composite image of all the concepts we’ve gone over:
As you’ve probably guessed, there’s so much more to habits than I’ve covered here. In the interest of accessibility, I’ve made lots of simplifications, and I’ve skipped over entire sub-fields like conditioning and learning theory.
If you want to read just one “real” paper on the topic for a more academic overview, I’d strongly recommend Psychology of Habit by Wendy Wood and Dennis Rünger.
It’s a fantastic overview of the many facets of habits, and I copied a lot of the same categories they used in this Habits 101 doc.
But we covered a lot of stuff in this primer. A lot. Creating habits is hard. Breaking habits is hard.
And there’s still the question of “motivation”. (Whatever the hell that is.)
I know getting started might be effortful.
If this becomes a reference you come back to several times, then that’d be awesome. If not, I hope that I’ve given you enough tools to at least have a structured way of thinking about habits. When you want to start tinkering with your own routines, you’ll now have some effective tools to start experimenting with.
Just remember to eventually cash out all this thinking and just get started.
†1. While this definition is what’s used by many papers on habits, note that disputes still exist between what the “best” definition is. See *3 for an in-depth discussion. In my opinion, most of the dispute is fairly pedantic, and for practical purposes, the one given is good enough.
†2. Addiction and habituation aren’t exactly the same thing, but my understanding is that they’re quite similar, so I equated the two for ease of understanding. For a deeper look, you can check out *40.
†3. While I think that the general point here stands, note that ego depletion, one of the core ideas behind the idea of willpower-as-a-resource is currently on shaky ground. See *41 for more information.
†4. Although there are some technical differences between how habits and implementation intentions operate, I’ll be using the two terms interchangeably, as our focus is on intentionally creating habits, which resolves much of the differences in definition.
†5. As we’re smashing two related concepts together without a concrete evidence base for the actual technique, it’s valid to point out that Scaling Up is less well-established than other things we’ve gone over.
†6. I do think that there’s bound to be some sort of cognitive dissonance when the old Action and the new Action both try to fire (although I didn’t find any papers on this specifically), which I agree is less than ideal.
However, we do have anecdotal evidence that people can overcome their bad habits, so I’m less concerned about this being a major problem. But it does seem good to acknowledge it.
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3. Gardner, Benjamin. “A review and analysis of the use of ‘habit’ in understanding, predicting and influencing health-related behaviour.” Health Psychology Review 9.3 (2015): 277–295.
4. Wood, Wendy, and David T. Neal. “A new look at habits and the habit-goal interface.” Psychological review 114.4 (2007): 843.
5. Abrahamse, Elger L., et al. “Control of automated behavior: insights from the discrete sequence production task.” Frontiers in human neuroscience 7 (2013).
6. Wood, Wendy, and Dennis Rünger. “Psychology of habit.” Annual Review of Psychology 67 (2016).
7. Same as 4.
8. Mirenowicz, Jacques, and Wolfram Schultz. “Preferential activation of midbrain dopamine neurons by appetitive rather than aversive stimuli.” Nature 379.6564 (1996): 449.
(Couldn’t find PDF :’< )
9. Same as 4.
10. Same as 6.
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27. Same as 5.
28. Sniehotta, Falko F., Urte Scholz, and Ralf Schwarzer. “Bridging the intention–behaviour gap: Planning, self-efficacy, and action control in the adoption and maintenance of physical exercise.” Psychology & Health 20.2 (2005): 143–160.
29. Webb, Thomas L., and Paschal Sheeran. “Does changing behavioral intentions engender behavior change? A meta-analysis of the experimental evidence.” Psychological bulletin 132.2 (2006): 249.
30. Sheeran, Paschal, and Thomas L. Webb. “The intention–behavior gap.” Social and Personality Psychology Compass 10.9 (2016): 503–518.
31. Peterson, Gail B. “A day of great illumination: BF Skinner’s discovery of shaping.” Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior 82.3 (2004): 317–328.
32. Clark, David M., et al. “Cognitive therapy versus exposure and applied relaxation in social phobia: A randomized controlled trial.” Journal of consulting and clinical psychology 74.3 (2006): 568.
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34. Ariely, Dan, and Klaus Wertenbroch. “Procrastination, deadlines, and performance: Self-control by precommitment.” Psychological science 13.3 (2002): 219–224.
35. [Wood, Wendy, and David T. Neal. “Healthy through habit: Interventions for initiating & maintaining health behavior change.” Behavioral Science & Policy 2.1 (2016): 71–83.]
36. Walker, Ian, Gregory O. Thomas, and Bas Verplanken. “Old habits die hard: Travel habit formation and decay during an office relocation.” Environment and Behavior 47.10 (2015): 1089–1106.
37. Same as 35.
38. Adriaanse, Marieke A., et al. “Planning what not to eat: Ironic effects of implementation intentions negating unhealthy habits.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 37.1 (2011): 69–81.
39. Lally, Phillippa, and Benjamin Gardner. “Promoting habit formation.” Health Psychology Review 7.sup1 (2013): S137-S158.
40. Everitt, Barry J. “Neural and psychological mechanisms underlying compulsive drug seeking habits and drug memories–indications for novel treatments of addiction.” European Journal of Neuroscience 40.1 (2014): 2163–2182.
41. Hagger, Martin S., and Nikos LD Chatzisarantis. “Commentary: Misguided effort with elusive implications, and sifting signal from noise with replication science.” Frontiers in psychology 7 (2016).
42. Harkin, Benjamin, et al. “Does monitoring goal progress promote goal attainment? A meta-analysis of the experimental evidence.” (2016): 198.