Common failure modes in habit formation

In one project, 256 members of a health-insurance plan were invited to classes stressing the importance of exercise. Half the participants received an extra lesson on the theories of habit formation (the structure of the habit loop) and were asked to identify cues and rewards that might help them develop exercise routines.

The results were dramatic. Over the next four months, those participants who deliberately identified cues and rewards spent twice as much time exercising as their peers. Other studies have yielded similar results.

-”Lifestyle Intervention by Self-Regulation of Action (LISA)” study by Stadler, Oettinger and Gollwitzer 2005.

I don’t think this topic needs a huge introduction. Most of us have tried, at some point, to establish a new routine only to have it crash and burn. We came up with and discussed some of the more obvious failure modes at last week’s southbay meetup, which generated the material here. It would be awesome to further refine this. Particularly, some overarching ontology of failure modes would be useful for turning them into a more mentally compact checklist. So feedback on how this material can be organized and presented better is most welcome.

Failure is Always Failure

“I would have succeeded if it weren’t for those meddling kids!” The “perfect plan” that you can’t actually execute on is not the perfect plan. Take responsibility for the failure and figure out what’s really going on.

Mental cue: Bad news is good news.

Negative Reinforcement

Taking responsibility for failure doesn’t mean beating yourself up over it. If you have bad feelings every time you think about habit X due to past failures you are only reinforcing the act of not thinking about habit X. Failure means you are aware that something went wrong, which means you can improve.

Mental cue: The process failed, so fix the process. Failure and iteration is part of good processes.


That a good process will yield good results doesn’t mean we should fall prey to paralysis by analysis. It also doesn’t mean we should give up and go back to the drawing board every time we experience a bump in the road. People commonly engage in visualizing a perfect version of themselves, who obviously wouldn’t have failed. This is frustrating, demotivating, and possibly what is going on with the planning fallacy. Notice when you are constructing a fictional narrative about how well it is possible to do. How well would you expect a friend in the same situation to do?

mental cue: The perfect is the enemy of the good. You are your own worst critic.

Going too Big too Fast

In the perfect world of our minds, we choose big, exciting-sounding goals and execute on them flawlessly. We become fit, write the next Pulitzer-winning novel, and found a successful startup. We usually gloss over the fact that getting fit actually means doing pushups, writing a novel involves writing individual pages, and running a successful startup involves emptying your own wastepaper basket. When there is a disconnect between our big goals and everyday actions we don’t feel motivated to do those mundane tasks. Goal factoring, and other techniques for connecting our little goals to our big goals help here.

Mental cue: Granularize

Assuming Constant Motivation

When we create sub-goals we choose things we think we can do. “Of course I can walk 30 minutes everyday.” We ignore that when we are creating and evaluating plans we are likely to be in a highly motivated mood. Of course everything seems easy when we are in a motivated mood. Apportion your limited budget of highly motivated time to ensuring that you will be surrounded by cues that encourage your new habit, whether this be people, things, or situations. This can be as simple as “surrounding yourself” with alarm apps that cue you to do the things you precommitted to doing.

Mental cue: You are the average of your surroundings.

Not Quantifying the Results

Far goals are often qualitative. We’re not sure how much we want to improve by, we just know it’s a lot. The problem is that qualitative goals aren’t very motivating in terms of actual actions. “I want to get better about responding to emails.” Notice the word “better”. Contrast with “I want to cut the number of emails I don’t respond to by 50% over the next 2 weeks.” Now we’re getting somewhere, and we have somewhere to start. This is also related to the concept that motivation is hard to maintain when one of our sub-agents has an objection to what we’re doing (usually because they aren’t convinced it is a good use of time.)

Mental cue: Be specific.

Brittle Plans

This bit was somewhat disorganized. But it involves having a Plan B, as well as figuring out when you are going to reevaluate and update your plan. Also recognizing that what matters in habit formation is getting it mostly right and one shouldn’t give up just because they screwed up one time, or even several times.

I’m all fired up to form new habits, now what?

If you don’t have anything you’re currently working on I suggest instilling the habit of researching new, possibly beneficial habits to have.

Note: In writing this I’m noticing similarity to SMART goals. Perhaps adapting that would be better since it’s already nice and memorable.