True Habits

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Habits have been ex­ten­sively writ­ten about in pop-liter­a­ture for the last cou­ple of years. Many claims have been made!

Want to get an awe­some body? Habitify it!

Want to be­come great at your stud­ies? Place gummy-bears on each page to train your pesky mind.

Want to get rid of stress? Sit in the same spot and breathe through your nose for 5 min­utes, and to en­sure you keep do­ing it, track it in a spread­sheet.

But how well does this fit with the habit liter­a­ture? And why don’t more peo­ple train them­selves with gummy-bears? Let’s find out!

A note on “why now”

Many of us are in un­fa­mil­iar con­texts, be­ing forced to work from home to re­duce con­ta­gion.

This pre­sents to us both a challenge and an op­por­tu­nity.

We’re forced to work in un­fa­mil­iar con­texts and, if you’re any­thing like me, this means that your work time is now be­ing in­truded upon by a bunch of thoughts re­lat­ing to habits that are great when you re­lax – but gam­ing isn’t go­ing to get your the­sis done.

Luck­ily, habits are more eas­ily changed when con­texts change. If you want to get new, ap­pro­pri­ate habits at home, or get rid of some­thing you’ve been do­ing, the time is now!

(A short side-note: This will not be a re­view of all habit-liter­a­ture, but rather small dives into re­sults I’ve en­coun­tered that were in­ter­est­ing and/​or ran counter to what I ex­pected).

What defines a true habit?

If you’re like me, you’re slightly pro­voked by the ti­tle. “True habits” you say? What are “false” habits?

I used to think that do­ing the same task repet­i­tively would be suffi­cient to form habits, or was in fact, the en­tire defi­ni­tion of a habit.

To ques­tion that as­sump­tion, we must first ask our­selves, “why do we pre­fer habits to to-do lists?”. If we can just do what we want, when we want to, with­out get­ting tired, why bother with this habit busi­ness at all?

The an­swer lies in au­to­mat­ic­ity. We want to be able to perform our morn­ing rou­tine with­out think­ing too much about it, while tired, stressed and un­der time-pres­sure.

It turns out that some ac­tions that change be­hav­ior are detri­men­tal to form­ing au­to­mat­ic­ity. This is (ob­vi­ously) re­ally im­por­tant, and runs counter to much of what’s writ­ten in the pop-psych lit­ter­a­ture.

But first, what is au­to­mat­ic­ity?

In the habit liter­a­ture, it’s op­er­a­tional­ised as a high score on the Self-Re­port Be­havi­oural Au­to­mat­ic­ity In­dex (SRBAI) (Gard­ner 2012). Once again, sci­ence ex­cels at acronyms that are both im­pos­si­ble to pro­nounce and re­mem­ber.

Luck­ily, the ques­tion­naire is sim­ple. Par­ti­ci­pants are asked to rate how much they agree with the state­ment: “Be­hav­ior X is some­thing I”:

  1. do automatically

  2. do with­out hav­ing to con­sciously remember

  3. do with­out thinking

  4. start do­ing be­fore I re­al­ize I’m do­ing it

Im­pres­sively, this ex­plains a large amount of the var­i­ance in whether the be­hav­ior is ex­e­cuted (r+ = .47, 95% CI .39; .43), (Gard­ner 2012).

How do habits work?

Habits work through a sim­ple loop, Cue->Ac­tion->Feed­back. You see pop­corn (cue), you buy and eat pop­corn (ac­tion), you taste the salty, but­tery good­ness of pop­corn (feed­back) (Duhigg 2012).

The cue ini­ti­ates the ac­tion which is re­in­forced or weak­ened by the re­ward.

How come, then, that we don’t mas­tur­bate fu­ri­ously when we see a sexy per­son on the street? After all, sexy fea­tures are a typ­i­cal cue, and mas­tur­ba­tion feels good (feed­back). Few of us have tried it, so we haven’t got­ten any nega­tive feed­back ei­ther.

We’ll turn to this ques­tion, and how to use the an­swer(s) to our ad­van­tage, in the next sec­tion.

Tak­ing charge: In­ten­tional (de)training

Be­fore un­der­tak­ing any en­deav­our, we must con­sider the costs and the benefits. Chang­ing habits, es­pe­cially ones that don’t fit our goals, can ob­vi­ously come with great benefits – but how much effort must we in­vest?

You may have heard that “it takes 66 days to form a habit”. Like any fact with­out con­fi­dence in­ter­vals or er­ror bars, be­ing skep­ti­cal of this num­ber is good prac­tice. Where does it come from?

Turns out this is all from one study, Lally 2009. They had 39 par­ti­ci­pants train a va­ri­ety of habits, like do­ing 50 sit-ups af­ter their morn­ing coffee or go­ing for a 10 minute walk af­ter break­fast. Once each day, each par­ti­ci­pant filled out the Self-Re­port Be­havi­oural Au­to­mat­ic­ity In­dex (SRBAI).

Fit a quadratic re­gres­sion, mea­sure time to 95% of asymp­tote (ie. when the curve flat­tens out) and hey presto, you’ve got your­self a pop-psych num­ber!

66 is a pretty num­ber, I’ll ad­mit. And I think the method­ol­ogy of the study is sound, if the Self-Re­port Be­havi­oural Au­to­mat­ic­ity In­dex (SRBAI) can be used se­quen­tially. The au­thors ac­knowl­edge these limi­ta­tions.

But what is of­ten for­got­ten is the var­i­ance. The 25% and 75% per­centile are at 39 and 102 days. This means that only 50% of par­ti­ci­pants reached 95% of “peak au­to­mat­ic­ity” some­where be­tween 39 days and 102 days af­ter start­ing the habits. 25% took a shorter amount of time, 25% took a longer amount of time.

What can we take away from this? Habits are formed over weeks or months, so ex­pect to wait some time be­fore you can do them with­out pay­ing at­ten­tion. And don’t ex­pect there to be a magic thresh­old; ex­pect steady im­prove­ment.

The effort is of­ten worth it, though.

Bad habits and good habits

The point of mas­ter­ing your habits is, at least in my view, not to force our­selves to do things we don’t want, or to re­move fun and plea­surable ex­pe­riences. Guilty plea­sures are still plea­sures af­ter all.

But some­times the cost of a habit is higher than the benefit. And some­times a habit is ac­ti­vated in cir­cum­stances where it doesn’t bring much benefit at all!

Con­sider Neal 2011. Par­ti­ci­pants were sent to a the­ater to watch a movie and served ei­ther fresh or stale pop­corn.

To the sur­prise of no one, par­ti­ci­pants liked fresh pop­corn more than stale.

For par­ti­ci­pants with low ha­bit­ual pop­corn-eat­ing, the stale pop­corn was less at­trac­tive, so they ate less of it. But for par­ti­ci­pants with high ha­bit­ual pop­corn-eat­ing, the taste of the pop­corn had no effect on the amount con­sumed!

This is the first half of the an­swer to “why don’t we mas­tur­bate in the street”. For ac­tions with low ha­bit­u­al­ity or strong in­ten­tions, we choose what suits our goals best. Since very few of us en­joy a night in jail, mas­tur­bat­ing doesn’t even en­ter con­scious­ness.

How­ever, ga­bit­ual be­hav­ior can clearly be mal­adap­tive. How, then, do we take charge?

Break­ing con­flict­ing habits

For strong habits, your in­ten­tion is weak sauce. We saw this already with fresh vs. stale pop­corn. What about some­thing stronger than a taste cue, like Im­ple­men­ta­tion In­ten­tions (Trig­ger-Ac­tion-Plans)?

Some suc­cess has been noted, but only 1 study was done out­side of the lab. Webb 2009 ran­domised ado­les­cent smok­ers who wanted to stop smok­ing to ei­ther im­ple­men­ta­tion in­ten­tions or a con­trol con­di­tion (list­ing ad­van­tages of seat­belt use).

They found a mod­er­ate effect of form­ing im­ple­men­ta­tion in­ten­tions, mod­er­ated by habit strength.

If in­ten­tion is weak, what works, then?

1. Re­move the cues/​change the context

Con­text-changes are a great time to change habits! Some habits don’t even gen­er­al­ize across con­texts; for the pop­corn eat­ing ex­per­i­ment, no differ­ence was found if the movie was shown in a meet­ing room rather than a the­ater.

Be it chang­ing travel habits dur­ing office re­lo­ca­tions (Walker 2015), op­ti­mis­ing your com­mute dur­ing worker strikes (Lar­com 2017), or a host of other cases (Ver­planken 2016, Bam­berg 2006, Thøgersen 2012), con­text-changes are where it’s at!

This is the sec­ond half of why we don’t mas­tur­bate in the street: It’s an un­known (and in­ap­pro­pri­ate) con­text.

How can you im­ple­ment this in your life? Per­son­ally, dur­ing the be­gin­ning of the COVID-19 quaran­tine I had tremen­dous difficul­ties fo­cus­ing on work. Every time I was switch­ing be­tween tasks, I was tempted to “just play one game”. I had to fight urges all the time. This led to me get­ting much less work done.

Armed with the in­sights above, I added two desks to my room; 1 for work, 1 for leisure. Two days later, my de­sire for gam­ing dur­ing work was com­pletely gone.

2. Make the habit harder to perform

If you like gam­ing with your friends, but you find your­self gam­ing more than you’d like, why not change your pass­word to some­thing ran­domly gen­er­ated and give it to your friend?

If you find that vis­it­ing red­dit or hacker news has be­come en­coded in mus­cle mem­ory, you can break the cue->ac­tion->re­ward cy­cle.

You can use the Chrome add-on Leech­block to block web­sites. Or, if you want some­thing stronger, don’t just block, redi­rect it to a web­site that’s aver­sive to you. I used a poli­ti­cal party I’m strongly op­posed to. This will break the near-un­con­scious habit in no time.

> Have you de­trained habits? Which benefits did that bring you?

Once again, the goal is not to re­move all guilty plea­sures. Leech­block al­lows man­ual over­rides, so I can still ac­cess those sites when I choose to de­liber­ately. But the ha­bit­ual “this task is difficult” (cue) → browse red­dit (ac­tion) → fun gifs (re­ward) loop has been bro­ken.

If Leech­block isn’t your cup of tea, you might con­sider Crack­book or In Mo­tion. For Gmail, I highly recom­mend In­box When Ready.

Th­ese two rather sim­ple strate­gies have been tremen­dously use­ful for me. Now we turn to how to add new habits to your stack.

Form­ing en­dorsed habits

To in­ten­tion­ally form habits, we must change our be­hav­ior and/​or our en­vi­ron­ment to fa­cil­i­tate habit for­ma­tion.

Use Im­ple­men­ta­tion In­ten­tions as train­ing wheels

Im­ple­men­ta­tion in­ten­tions are based on a trig­ger and an ac­tion, eg. “When I sit on the edge of my bed, I will do 10 push-ups”. They are pretty good at chang­ing be­hav­ior, too! A 2006 meta-anal­y­sis (Gol­lwitzer 2006) found a medium-large effect size (Co­hen’s d = 0.65).

How­ever, as im­plied in the tech­niques name, im­ple­men­ta­tion in­ten­tions need in­ten­tion. They’re de­pen­dent on you re­mem­ber­ing to do the ac­tion based on the trig­ger.

How­ever, if you choose your trig­ger care­fully, im­ple­men­ta­tion in­ten­tions can tran­si­tion into habits.

Which trig­gers are good, then? Most habit-apps would have you be­lieve that you can rely on their re­minders – but is that re­ally a good idea?

Stawarz 2015 had par­ti­ci­pants send in a text with what they ate af­ter each meal. The trig­ger group were told to do it right af­ter lunch, and the re­minder group re­ceived a text at a set in­ter­val.

Un­sur­pris­ingly, the re­minder group were re­minded to send the text and had higher ad­her­ence.

Er­ror bars are stan­dard-de­vi­a­tions.

How­ever, they also had a lower au­to­mat­ic­ity score, im­ply­ing that they performed the ac­tion not out of habit, but be­cause they were re­minded.

Er­ror bars are stan­dard de­vi­a­tions.

This im­plies that act­ing on re­minders re­quires in­ten­tion­al­ity. That’s all fine and good, but that’s not why we’re try­ing to habitify our ac­tions.

In­stead, set a good trig­ger. Make it spe­cific (rather “af­ter finish­ing my plate” than “af­ter din­ner”), choose some­thing that’s con­sis­tent (pre­fer “af­ter get­ting dressed” to “af­ter get­ting ready for work”) and prefer­ably chain it to some­thing else in your rou­tine.

There is a bunch more good ad­vice out there for im­ple­ment­ing habits. I’ve made a short spread­sheet here, with some added mo­ti­va­tion from the WOOP-tech­nique. It’s definitely a lit­tle rough around the edges, but rather share some­thing that isn’t perfect, right?


I hope you found this in­ter­est­ing! We’ve talked about what sep­a­rates habits from re­peat in­ten­tional be­hav­ior, how long it takes to make or break a new habit, when habits are strong and weak and how to use these in­sights to your ad­van­tage.

Now is the time to put it to use. Which habits would you like to add? And which habits are stand­ing in your way? They’re in your hands now.

If you have any ques­tions/​com­ments, I’d love to hear them be­low.