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Still Not Getting to That Goal? Four Essential Factors



I started this blog about four and a half years ago and started doing energetic research into willpower and habit change two years before that. My belief when I started was that it would be possible to learn how to change nearly any habit, to summon far greater willpower, because it was clear that around the world, there are people who make these changes every day. So, is it true? Does learning about habits and willpower give you willpower and mastery of your habits? The answer is no … and yes.

The further I got into this subject, the more I kept wondering when I would break through. I lost weight, got much more fit, earned a black belt, finished writing books, eliminated some bad habits, improved my relationships, and otherwise made a lot of improvements in my life … but I would still sometimes waste time I needed for more important things, show up late now and then, make bad decisions, or otherwise demonstrate to myself that whatever willpower was, I hadn’t mastered it.

So I sat down the other day and pondered everything I’ve learned since 2007 or so. If learning all about habits and willpower doesn’t give you mastery over them, what does? As near as I can figure it, it comes down to four things that stand between us and change. I think when I describe them, you’ll see why learning alone doesn’t cover it (other than the facts that habit change takes time and that just knowing about something won’t automatically change our behavior).

1. Tools and Knowledge
Here’s an area where what I’ve learned and written about here has been powerful. Mental and emotional tools can cut through a lot of habit difficulties and get us on the right path. For example, we can learn to generate confidence and enthusiasm in place of depression and hopelessness with idea repair; we can clear our minds and let go of things that bother us through meditation; and understanding mental schemas can let us get to some of the root causes of our worst behaviors.

2. Thinking
How we think, what we tell ourselves, and where we put our focus make a huge difference in how we feel and what our lives are like. We can often change our thinking using tools like the ones I mentioned, but whether it occurs naturally or has help through mental tools, our thinking itself is crucial in determining our actions and decisions.

3. Lifestyle
Nutrition, sleep, exercise, friends, social contacts, activity, surroundings, physical tools, responsibilities, family, and many more external factors can influence our internal state. Here too, I’ve learned about many useful improvements through researching and writing about the psychology of habits on this blog, whether it’s a quiet walk in green space, having just the right tool, or keeping company with people who help us become better.

4. Commitment
Here’s the tough one: we have to care. Knowing how to do something or having a theoretical goal generally doesn’t carry us very far unless we’re strongly and consistently motivated by our own emotions.

I’m not just using “commitment” as a substitute for “willpower” here, creating a circular argument. What I’m talking about isn’t making the right decisions or doing the right things, but rather consistently caring about our decisions and what the right ones are.

Commitment can come from many different places, so fortunately we can influence it. It can come from our own emotional difficulties: for instance, a person who craves attention might use that to drive excellence in music, or a person who hates conflict may learn how to be a consummate peacemaker. It can come from thinking and understanding, when we get to know ourselves better and make important connections. (It’s one thing for me to know that doughnuts aren’t good for me, but it helps me more to realize how foods like that contribute to atherosclerosis, drain my energy, and give me a headache). It can be inspired by a role model or a clear picture of the future, be shocked into us through a tragedy, be nurtured by helpful surroundings, or rest on support from friends and family. Commitment is an emotional state in which we yearn toward a goal or state of being. Without it, it doesn’t matter how we can act, because commitment directs how we do act.

Which matters … why?
The point of bringing up these four aspects of willpower or habit change is to create a simple way to look at our goals and see what’s missing.

For example, why did I lose 60 pounds or so and then stop about 15 pounds heavier than my ideal weight? After all, I have the mental tools to lose weight and know how to direct my thinking, and my lifestyle is compatible with fitness and weight loss. What happened, I believe, is that my commitment dried up. Having reached this point, I’m fairly happy (though not ecstatic) with how fit I am, and my health is very good. Losing more weight would make me look better, which would be a fine thing both in terms of my self-image and my romantic relationship, but there’s nothing about it that would affect my life expectancy or my ability to be in my relationship in the first place, whereas my old weight years ago really could affect those kinds of things. To lose more weight, I’d have to find reasons to really, really care. This might involve hanging around with extremely fit people, finding more reasons to lose the extra pounds, or working on increasing my enjoyment of fitness.

In the same way, any of the four things above can be missing in a person’s quest to change. For example, a person might passionately want to quit smoking, might live in an environment that discourages smoking, and might be beautifully focused on the problem, but if that person doesn’t have a good working approach–that is, doesn’t have the right tools–then quitting may fail time and time again.

So I invite you to do in your life what I’m doing in mine these days: if you have an important goal that you’re having trouble reaching, look at it in terms of these four factors. Do you have all the tools and knowledge you need to succeed? Are you thinking thoughts that move you toward your goal? Is your environment helping or hurting you (or both)? Are you deeply and emotionally commited, and does that commitment stay strong even when trouble comes?

So, will I ever master willpower and habits? Somehow I suspect not, but it continues to be worth trying, and I continue to push hard. Maybe in another six and a half years. Who knows? It could happen. Check back with me then.

Photo by foxypar4

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You Change Your Brain; It Changes Back


Long Walk

Some readers may already know that I’m a big fan of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), a branch of psychology that deals with changing our emotions, choices, and experiences by changing our thoughts. There are two things I like especially about CBT. First, we can get a lot out of it on our own, without professional intervention (although good cognitive therapists can be worth their weight in iPhones), for instance through learning idea repair. Second, it really makes a difference. CBT has been known to work better than drugs for depression, for example, and works just as well for many other kinds of issues, big and small.

These two advantages are probably why researchers at the University of Chicago launched a study to see if teaching some basic CBT techniques to teens at high risk for committing violent crimes would make a difference in their lives (“Preventing Youth Violence and Dropout: A Randomized Field Experiment,” by Sara Heller, Harold A. Pollack, Roseanna Ander, Jens Ludwig, May 2013).

Did it work? Well, it was hugely successful … and then it was pretty much completely unsuccessful.

By “hugely successful,” I mean that in the first year of the program, incidence of violent crime was reduced by nearly half (44%) among teens who had taken the program–yet as NPR reporter Shankar Vedantam points out (“Therapy Helps Troubled Teens Rethink Crime“), the effects faded to nearly nothing within a year after the program ended. In other words, CBT techniques made a huge difference while they were in use, but the teens in the study seem to have forgotten or rejected the techniques after they had been away from them for a  while.

Unfortunately, this pattern is all too familiar to anyone trying to change habits: we have a behavior we want to change, we fumble around until we find an approach that works, we make a big change, we eventually become very confident and stop working at it so hard, and then often–not always, certainly, but often–we lose all the ground we gained. It certainly has happened to me. Unfortunately, while we can reprogram our brains, overwriting years and years of habit usually requires years and years of new behavior.

But all of this is good news. Why? Because it suggests one obvious, easy explanation for why we fail so often at habit change. It’s not the only reason we fail–habit change is hard–but it’s probably a key one, and it’s that once we see ourselves acting in a new way, it’s easy for us to think that we’ve changed for good and don’t need to do all the hard work any more to keep the change going. Apparently, we do need the hard work. I’m sure that sounds depressing, but think back to a time when you’ve made a positive change in your life, when things were going well. What sticks with you? I can’t speak for your experience, but for me, thinking back on those times, what sticks with me is not that it was a slog, but the happiness at what I was achieving and pride that I was achieving it. Hard work isn’t really so hard when we’re seeing real results, and while we can’t count on great results all the time, any approach that works in our lives is worth sticking with long after it seems to have had its effect. It’s the difference between tasting success and locking it in.

For the teens in the study, tasting success has already made a big difference in their lives. Quite a number of them have avoided imprisonment, injury, and even death just from that one small study. Even if the effects are temporary, the study is worth far more than it cost–but the techniques they’re learning, like the techniques we can learn in our own lives, will mean the most if they and we find ways to stick with them for life.

Photo by JonoTakesPhotos


Is Your New Year’s Resolution Doomed by Uncertainty?


uncertaintyA resolution, whether it’s made at the New Year or any other time, is a fragile thing. It can get swamped by other priorities, be badly chosen and never bloom, die stunted from being planted with too many other resolutions, wither from inattention, or fail to thrive in any number of other ways. But even if we’ve chosen our goals wisely and pursue them relentlessly, there’s one necessity that can make or break us: certainty about exactly what we’re doing.

I’m running into this problem at the moment with eating habits. I’m training for a half marathon in the Spring, my first, and at the same time I want to eat lower on the food chain so as to fight climate change. I also want to manage my cholesterol better, since I have a genetic predisposition to cholesterol problems, but there are at least two major schools of thought on how to do that, and they’re completely opposed to each other. So do I want to eat better in the New Year? Absolutely: that’s a very important priority for me. Do I know exactly how I want to eat better? Well, uh …

It probably seems obvious that I need to understand exactly how I want to be eating before I can follow through, but the truth is that the traditional way of setting goals or resolutions skips this essential step entirely: we resolve to lose weight or to be more organized, to have more time with family or to increase our productivity–but the truth is, none of these are really resolutions or goals. They’re wishes, aspirations, the ways we’d like to see things turn out. They’re important to think about, of course, but in order to be successful we have to know what exactly we plan to do. Track calories every day for six months at and go to the gym at least three times a week come Hell or high water? Plan a family activity every weekend? Spend ten minutes every workday morning to organize tasks? Those are goals. Those are resolutions.

I’ll point a couple of things out about those examples: first, each one of them is quantifiable. You don’t have to guess whether or not you’re on track with goals like those. Second, they’re focused on what we do, not on what we want to have happen. We can largely control what we do; what happens then is a lot less under our direction.

If you’re working on a resolution for the coming year, good luck! You can find more articles on the subject at

Photo by norsez

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Sleeping Less Leads to Eating More


Science Daily reported recently that a new study by researchers from St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital in New York City and Columbia University seems to have found a link between how well we sleep and how badly we eat. In the study, people who were didn’t get enough sleep tended to feel hungry more often, eat more, and gain more weight. While this doesn’t mean we can somehow “sleep away the pounds,” it does suggest that sleeping well makes it noticeably easier to eat well–and we already know that eating well, in turn, helps us sleep better.

In other words, paying special attention to getting enough sleep, which for most of us means making a decision to go to sleep earlier at night, can help us eat better and feel more healthy, which in turn can help us sleep even better: a snowball effect, though I can’t tell you whether the effect would be small or large.

You can read the Science Daily article here, or click on the following link to see the abstract for “Alterations in sleep architecture in response to experimental sleep curtailment are associated with signs of positive energy balance” from the American Physiological Society.

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The Case for Not Eating Breakfast


Disclaimer: I’m not a doctor or a nutritionist or a health professional of any kind. Don’t take anything in this post as official advice: I’m just documenting an experiment I’ve been trying.

Is breakfast really the most important meal of the day? For years I assumed it was. When I was a kid, I vividly remember a public service announcement starring Bill Cosby in which he illustrated how, if you don’t start the day with a good breakfast, you “run out of gas.” (Sadly, YouTube has failed me in finding that clip. Maybe my memory has glitched and it wasn’t Bill Cosby. Someone else on the Internet thinks it was O.J. Simpson.) Also, it just seems like common sense: food is fuel, and if you don’t fuel up at the start of the day, you won’t have any energy.

Except that I’ve been skipping breakfast most days for weeks now, and if anything I’m more energized–and freakishly, less hungry!–in the mornings. What gives?

Tempting ourselves because we’re not hungry?
About six weeks ago, I tweeted about  an article called “The Breakfast Myth” in which J. Stanton makes some thought-provoking points about breakfast. One that particularly struck me is how much breakfast often resembles dessert or snacks: it features sugary, starchy, and fatty foods like sweet cereals, pastries, sweetened yogurt, pancakes or waffles or french toast with syrup, toast with butter, bagels, granola, or even sweetened “protein bars.” True, there’s always the traditional fat-and-protein breakfast of eggs and bacon or the like, but at least here in the U.S., the snack/dessert breakfast seems to predominate.

There are a lot of different conclusions we could try to make from this information, but Stanton’s struck a chord with me: the reason we’re eating these treat-like foods for breakfast could be that we’re not really hungry in the morning, and so especially tempting foods are the only thing that can get us interested in eating. Sure, we’re used to having a meal at that time, and out of habit (both mental and physical) we expect to munch on something soon after we get up, but are our bodies really clamoring for food?

I can’t speak for anyone else’s body, but it appears that my body isn’t. In the past six weeks, I decided I would only eat breakfast in the morning if I were actually hungry. As a result, I find I eat breakfast, on average, maybe twice a week. I seem to be more likely to be hungry in the morning if I’ve had an intense workout the night before or (interestingly) if I’ve had a lot of sugar the night before–something I try to avoid.

I do sometimes feel mildly queasy for short periods during the morning, but this hasn’t felt like much of a problem. I’ve also found that sometimes when I feel as though I might be hungry, I’m actually thirsty, and some water hits the spot wonderfully.

The history of breakfast
Ever wonder where that saying “Breakfast is the most important meal of the day” came from? Stanton answers that question (I was also able to find some evidence to support his conclusion), and the answer isn’t some nutritional authority or medical association. Did you ever read Franz Kafka’s short story “The Metamorphosis” (“Die Verwandlung“), in which a young man named Gregor Samsa wakes up one morning to discover he’s turned into a giant cockroach? It appears to come from that story. The earliest appearance of that statement appears to be this passage:

The washing up from breakfast lay on the table; there was so much of it because, for Gregor’s father, breakfast was the most important meal of the day and he would stretch it out for several hours as he sat reading a number of different newspapers.

Gregor’s father is not especially demonstrating good nutrition or productive habits. He’s not making a general statement about human physiology. He’s not even an actual person! So let’s throw that one away right along with “It takes 21 days to form a habit” (it doesn’t: see “How Long Does It Take to Form a Habit?“).

Stanton suggests that humans didn’t evolve to eat breakfast because early humans wouldn’t have had anything lying around to eat when they woke up. That seems like a bit of a stretch to me: why not have a few berries or a root or some smoked antelope haunch sitting by, as long as you have a fire to keep the predators away? Whether I have an evolutionary explanation or not, though, I’ll go with my gut–literally. Generally speaking, it says it doesn’t want breakfast.

Other problems that didn’t come up
Some problems you might expect to see with leaving out breakfast haven’t materialized for me. As I mentioned, I have at least as much energy as when I ate breakfast, and possibly more. This may have to do with how we metabolize sugars (and starches, which break down into sugars): they can cause insulin spikes in our bodies that clean out all the sugars and can lead to a sugar crash, not to mention the mid-morning munchies (which I also haven’t had when skipping breakfast). I haven’t been eating more later in the day, either: so far, I have yet to find any ill effects at all. There have been studies, too, to try to determine whether people who miss breakfast make up the calories by eating more later in the day. As a rule, it turns out, they really don’t.

I should mention that by hungry I don’t necessarily mean I want something to eat–I mean that my body is actually asking me for nutrition. If some morning I start hankering after, say, toasted maple bread with marmalade, I just ask myself “Would you still want something to eat if it were some beans, or baked chicken breast?” Usually, the answer is no. Apparently, in those situations, my mouth just wants something entertaining to munch on. I generally don’t oblige it. Taste bud boredom is not the same thing as hunger.

But what if I like breakfast?
Of course, there’s no reason to give up on breakfast if it’s working out perfectly well in your life. If you’re happy with your nutrition and your morning routine, especially if breakfast gives you a little quality time with the family or something like that, then I say hey, bring on the English muffins.

On the other hand, maybe you’d like to lose some weight, or your mornings are very hectic and tied up in large part with making, eating, and cleaning up after breakfast. Alternatively, maybe you just want to see how you feel if you don’t eat breakfast. In that case, you might consider giving a no-breakfast-unless-you’re-actually-hungry approach a try.

Better breakfasts
Another alternative to consider is healthier breakfasts, especially ones that don’t have much in the way of sugars and starches and instead emphasize protein and fiber, perhaps with a modest amount of healthy fat. This rules out most of the traditional breakfasts and instead suggests things we’d be more likely to think of as dinners: meat, fish, poultry, other kinds of protein (like soy and seitan), some dairy, beans, and vegetables. Eggs are still in, and nuts work to some extent, although they have a lot more fat for the amount of protein they offer than some other protein sources and therefore are something that’s best eaten in moderation.

I started eating these kinds of “dinner” breakfasts when I tried Tim Ferriss’ “slow carb” approach to eating (which gave me some new nutritional tricks, but which overall I can’t really recommend), and I’ve certainly found I’ve been more satisfied by them and more energetic throughout the day than with sugar-and-starch-heavy breakfasts. Beans especially are great to have at multiple meals (though don’t eat the liquid they’re cook in, so as not to have to experience the traditional complications) because they offer vitamins, minerals, and plenty of protein and fiber to help keep hunger away for a good long while.

I have to admit, I rarely felt hungry in advance for a breakfast of, say, fish, kale, and lentils–but I almost always found once I started to dig in that I really enjoyed the food. On reflection, it doesn’t surprise me that I wasn’t hungry for them, since it appears I’m not especially hungry at all in the mornings; I had been used to the “treats for breakfast” mentality. Perhaps if I’d been raised in Japan, my stomach might think differently.

A Japanese breakfast

I’ve said already that I don’t have any credentials as a nutritionist or physician, and I’ll repeat that now just for emphasis. Who knows? Skipping breakfast may be the quickest route to some terrible disease. However, I’m betting the opposite, that listening to my body and not eating in the morning if I’m not hungry is going to be the most healthful approach I can take. For you, I wouldn’t even want to venture a guess, but here’s to whatever your healthiest breakfast turns out to be, whether that’s a traditional one, protein and vegetables, or nothing at all.

UPDATE: After a couple of months of experimentation, it seems that for me, at least, skipping breakfast results in plenty of energy and low hunger, but overall to conflict with even minor weight loss. It might be due to other factors, but when I tried to lose five pounds while skipping breakfast, I found the scale just didn’t budge. Please don’t take that as some kind of final determination in either direction, but it’s a bit of extra grist for the mill. These days I skip or eat breakfast as it suits me, and I don’t have the anxiety about skipping it that I used to when I do skip.

Top photo by lesleychoa
Japanese breakfast photo by herrolm 


Getting More Fit Without Hard Work


Between late 2005 and early 2010, I lost more than 60 pounds as I gradually got the hang of exercising regularly and eating well. From a starting weight of 238, I dropped in fits and starts to 175 while adding a substantial amount of muscle. For the first time in my life, people were calling me “thin” and worrying I wasn’t eating enough (though they don’t need to worry: I’m nowhere near starvation). Since then, I’ve remained fit and active, even while my weight goes modestly up and down within a healthy range.

It’s not just about diet
Eating habits are an important part of getting fit, but in many ways they’re both the harder part and the less important part. The other key piece, of course, is exercise. Does the word “exercise” bring to mind images of people sweating on treadmills while being slowly bored to death, or running beside the road at 5:00 in the morning? Because while it can take that form, exercise can also be easy and appealing. After all, it’s not automatically true that when we use our bodies, we’re uncomfortable or unhappy–in fact, the reverse is closer to the truth. If jumping into hard-core, sweaty, “no pain no gain” exercise doesn’t appeal to you, there are many more tempting ways to get started. The wonderful thing about this is that regular exercise, especially in certain forms, becomes a “keystone habit”: that is, a positive change in behavior that encourages other positive changes.

I’ve heard it said that walking burns about as many calories per mile as running, but this turns out not to be true. In fact, if you look at net calories burned (that is, how many extra calories we’re burning while exercising compared to the amount we burn to maintain basic bodily functions even if we’re just sitting on the couch), running burns about twice as many calories per mile. Since a typical running speed is in the neighborhood of twice the typical walking speed, this means running burns about four times as many extra calories per hour as walking. (If you’ve heard that walking and running burn about the same number of calories or are just interested in the topic, see this article for some details and the study on which the statement is based.)

However, so what? The time advantage may mean a lot to someone who has no time to walk, but it’s often much easier to make time for walking than for running. There’s little need for special clothing or for showering afterward, so walking is actually a bit more efficient than it might seem in the time department. Walks are also a good way to spend time with friends or family members and a free activity that’s good for everyone involved. Walking lifts moods and provides a good opportunity for conversation. Walks can provide quality time with a romantic partner, children, or adult family members. They can make it possible to meet and interact with neighbors, and they are often an excellent way to improve mood (see “The Benefits of Quick, Easy, Pleasant Exercise“). Walking isn’t just exercise: it can be a mood booster, social time, family time, time to yourself, or a way to get from Point A to Point B (and not be dripping with sweat when you arrive).

Other easy ways in
Other easy kinds of exercise can be more strenuous but more entertaining. Dancing, for example, can often keep a person interested and happy for hours while providing anything from a mild to an intense workout. Speaking from personal experience, you don’t even have to be very good at it to both enjoy it and get the exercise benefits.

In the same way, any safe activity that keeps us in motion and keeps us engaged provides an avenue for exercise as entertainment. At our house, for example, both kids and adults play the outdated “dancing” video game Dance Dance Revolution. Taekwondo is nearly always engrossing for me, in the same way that kickboxing or rock climbing might be engrossing for someone else. Other options include team sports, group walks and bicycle rides, hiking, swimming, and paddling.

It’s true that going for a walk twice a week or going out dancing every once in a while alone isn’t likely to make a dramatic difference in health–but it will make some difference, and even if it just means a few pounds lost over a month or two, that’s progress in the right direction. What’s important is that when any kind of exercise–whether it’s easy and entertaining or energetic and effortful–becomes a habit, that habit provides both a sense of competence and a metabolic boost that can set the stage for more improvements, with the end result of a dramatic change for the better.

Photo by Natodd

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Habit Change: Routine and Reward


Recently I posted about a habit change process detailed by Charles Duhigg in his book The Power of Habit, and I began by talking about how to identify cues–the things that trigger us to act out our habits. Today’s post digs into the reward, the intended result of a habit. Identifying our rewards is essential if you’re going to use this cue-routine-reward approach for habit change.

What’s so important about identifying the reward? Well, the reward is the entire reason the old habit came into existence. According to Duhigg, habits arise because of a want or need, and if we can fulfill that want or need some other way, we’re well on our way to replacing the habit.

Your mileage may vary
I’ll jump in here for a moment to mention that habits can become ingrained because of expected rewards and then stay in place long after those rewards have disappeared, so I’m not convinced that every habit is subject to the kind of change Duhigg describes. With that said, there appears to be good evidence that many habits can be altered this way, and if you can identify that a habit in your life that still delivers its reward, the approach Duhigg talks about may work well for you if you want to change that habit.

Discovering your reward
Rewards are not always obvious. Duhigg gives an example of a habit he had of going down to the cafeteria at his workplace every afternoon to buy a chocolate chip cookie. His reward, he discovered over time, was not the sugar rush or anything else having to do with the actual cookie, but rather the socialization that usually took place when he went down to the cafeteria. He eventually changed his routine to be seeking out people to socialize with for a short time or going down to the cafeteria for a cup of tea. This gave him the reward he needed (some time to chat with other people and recharge his mental batteries) with no cookies required, and he used that new routine to overwrite the old one and therefore to lay off the cookies.

Duhigg suggests guessing at what kinds of rewards a habit might be providing and experimenting with getting those rewards in other ways. For instance, if I had a habit of staying up too late at night by starting some kind of entertainment around 10pm, I might theorize that the entertainment distracted me from the cares of the day and allowed me to relax, or that it provided some alone time that I wasn’t getting while everyone else was up, or that it supplied me with topics of conversation to draw on the next day.

Experimenting with new routines
To experiment with the relaxation theory, I could swap two hours of TV watching or game playing for 30 minutes of meditation, or for a relaxation CD that I could play while going to sleep. If I wanted to see if the alone time theory might be the real reason for the habit, I could try going to bed at a reasonable time but getting up earlier than everyone else in the morning, or else exercising at night rather than looking for some kind of entertainment. To test the theory that I might just need topics of conversation, I could set up blog and news feeds that interested me in a news reader program and spend twenty minutes a night reading whatever interested me the most.

The ultimate question for any of these experiments would be whether or not I lost the desire to stay up late.

Overlaying the old with the new
Finding another way to get a habit loop’s reward undermines the old habit and the old way of getting that reward. This doesn’t mean that the old habit will go away automatically: after all, our brains build and strengthen neural connections to support each of our habits and make them easier and more automatic. If we don’t make a conscious decision to do something else, the old habit will usually take over again the first chance it gets. However, finding a different means to get the same reward lets us decommission the old neural connections and start taking over with new ones based on recognizing the same cue and then performing a different routine–the new routine we’ve found through experimenting–to get the same reward.

Photo by gsbrown99

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Habit Change: Identifying the Cue


Recently I posted about Charles Duhigg’s excellent book The Power of Habit, in which he talks about habits in individuals, companies, and cultures. I mentioned that toward the end of the book he gives a concise method for changing specific habits, using the example of his own habit (which as of the writing of the book he seemed to have entirely kicked) of getting a chocolate chip cookie in the mid afternoon every workday.

The habit process he describes, which seems to be backed up quite well by psychological reseach, has three parts: the cue, the routine, and the reward. The part we think about changing when we tend to think about kicking a bad habit or acquiring a good one is the routine: the action we take. In order to change the routine–or even in order to figure out what to change the routine to–it’s first necessary to identify the cue and the reward.

The cue can be practically anything, but Duhigg mentions that researchers have found it generally falls into one of the following categories. This is convenient: these categories give us obvious questions to ask ourselves when trying to identify our habit cues.

The categories are

  • place
  • time
  • people
  • emotional state
  • preceding action

For instance, if I have a habit of watching TV late into the night (which fortunately I don’t); it might be because I’m at home and that’s what I’m used to doing when I’m at home (place), because it’s 8:00 and I’m used to turning on the TV then (time); because I’m with my roommate, who likes a lot of the same TV shows I do (people); because I’m feeling anxious and want to be distracted (emotional state); or because I’ve just finished cleaning up from dinner and like to take a break after doing that (preceding action).

Sometimes it’s probably not quite that simple, as when a mix of cues are at work (for instance, I have to be at home and it has to be a certain time and I have to feel a certain way), but this approach is useful even if we’re breaking down a more complex habit.

To identify the cue, Duhigg proposes jotting down answers to each of those five questions every time you find yourself acting out your habit.

  • Where am I?
  • What time is it?
  • Who’s nearby?
  • What’s my emotional state?
  • What did I just finish doing?

Taking note of those five things, on paper, for (say) five or ten executions of the habit will often be enough to shed light on exactly what’s starting your habit process rolling.

Of course, you might recognize your cue just by thinking about your habit for a few moments. For instance, if the habit you’re trying to break is stopping at a particular bar every day on your way home from work, it’s likely that your cue is driving past that bar–a place cue.

Cues are also helpful for creating new habits. For example, I had trouble getting in the habit of flossing my teeth regularly when I first tried, because I would try to fit it in whenever I had time available, morning or evening. There was no clear and unique cue to use.

When I then tried adding it in the morning, I wasn’t successful because I’m often on a tight schedule in the morning, and I wasn’t willing to make myself late by adding flossing when I hadn’t planned time for it in advance.

The point at which I did become successful with that habit was when I started doing it at night, just before brushing my teeth. My cue was standing at the sink and looking over at my toothbrush in the evening, a combination of time, place, and attention. Even though focus or attention isn’t one of the five most common cue types Duhigg names, speaking from my own experience, it certainly seems to play a part in some of my habits.

Once the cue has been identified, there’s still the issue of figuring out a routine–either a changed one to preempt the habit you’re trying to break or a new one to lay the pattern for the habit you want to gain. I’ll talk more about the routine and the reward here in the near future.

If you’re working on ditching a bad habit or adding a good habit, I’d love to hear from you, whether privately (look for the contact form on the right) or through comments here, both to know about what you’re trying and to learn from your results.

photo by Vicious Bits

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Ignorant Redneck Earl Hickey Shows Us a Near-Perfect Model of Science-Based Habit Change


I’m not much of a fan of sitcoms, but here’s the voice over introduction to one that’s not only dang amusing, but also a surprisingly good course in habit change:

You know the kinda guy who does nothing but bad things and then wonders why his life sucks? Well, that was me. Every time something good happened to me, something bad was always waiting around the corner. Karma. That’s when I realized I had to change. So I made a list of everything bad I’ve ever done, and one by one I’m gonna make up for all my mistakes. I’m just trying to be a better person. My name is Earl.

I’ve enjoyed watching episodes of Earl via Netflix for a year or so, but it wasn’t until this morning, reading Charles Duhigg’s excellent book The Power of Habit, that I realized that Earl’s method of changing his life is a near-perfect model of real habit change, as supported by reams of research, a few superbowl championships, millions of now-sober alcoholics, and much other evidence.

Just trying to be a better person
Earl, played with innocence and a blind, cheerful, openness to whatever may come by Jason Lee, used to be a small-time criminal, stealing whatever he could, however he could–the dumber the idea, the better. In the series, he now spends his time hunting down people he’s hurt and trouble he’s caused, one item at a time, and making up for all those past mistakes. Compare this to Duhigg’s depiction of habit change, which has two main components: replacing the routine and cultivating belief.

Changing a habit by substituting a new routine
Habits, as Duhigg describes them, have three parts: a cue, a routine, and a reward. For example, the cue might be boredom; the routine, eating a bag of potato chips; and the reward, the physical pleasure of eating the chips.

Earl’s cue was anything that might get him some easy money or swag; his routine was committing the crime in whatever hare-brained way immediately came to mind; and his reward (when he got one) was acquiring some new stuff on his supposed path to the good life.

In present of the series, though, that’s all old news. Earl’s new cues are pretty much the same as his old ones: he hatches an idea or stumbles across a situation that provides an opportunity, but now it’s an opportunity to make up for something bad he’s done rather than a potential crime. He still uses whatever hare-brained approach leaps to mind to get the job done, but the core of the routine is different: instead of petty theft, it’s making up for wrongdoing. The reward is similar: he doesn’t get any physical wealth, but he counts his riches in karma now, and his satisfaction and pleasure at crossing off an item from his list is palpable, not to mention very similar to the satisfaction we see in flashback scenes of him successfully getting away with crime.

That’s the way to change a habit, says Duhigg: keep the cues and the rewards the same, but change the routine. Actually, I would suggest that should be amended to keeping the cues the same, change the routine, and allow for a modestly different reward: drinking a cup of tea doesn’t give the exact same payoff as smoking a cigarette, for instance, but the rewards are surprisingly similar.

You gotta believe!
It would be handy if changing habits were as simple as identifying cues and rewards and finding a new routine to sandwich in the middle, and in fact this seems to be a central part of habit change–but, as Duhigg points out, this isn’t enough. You have to believe. I’ll write about this more in separate posts, but this belief component has been identified as a key force in the psychological literature. In order to really change, we have to have a powerful faith that what we’re doing can–maybe even must–be done.

Earl exemplifies this through his faith in karma, which he pictures as a simplistic, tit-for-tat force that automatically responds to any good or bad deed with good or bad fortune somewhere in the space of the 22-minute episode. Since this is a sitcom, karma actually works that way in Earl’s world, which means that when Earl’s starves himself and his brother, runs out of gas, and has to walk miles and miles to dance with Too-Tall Maggy (whom he spurned in the 8th grade), by the end of the episode he has been amply rewarded and is back drinking cheap beer with no cigarette butts in it. This convenient help from the universe makes it easy for Earl to believe, and is the one place where Earl’s life change is very different from real world changes, even though both require belief to get through the trying times. Our belief doesn’t come as easily as Earl’s, and it can be difficult and sometimes impossible to maintain on our own without special circumstances.

How to believe without magical instant karma
So how do we come to believe powerfully enough that even when our efforts seem nearly pointless, we can soldier on? In real life, belief comes in two main forms: tragedies and groups. As I say, this subject will be worth a good bit of further discussion, but the short version is that most of us only really change when something earth-shaking happens in our lives or in the lives of people close to us, or else when we become part of a group that makes the possibility change seem real. This is why a person can sometimes quit drinking after a DUI incident or after joining AA, but often can’t when just trying to push through alone. Note that even the disaster approach may only provide enough belief to get started: durable belief often depends on having a group of people in our lives to permanently change our point of view.

Earl, by contrast, spends his time with the exact same group of unprincipled, dim-witted friends and associates who urged him on to crime in a former chapter of his life–but his remedial, absolute faith in karma carries him through beautifully.

Like Earl, many of us are just trying to be better people. As far as I’m concerned, we’re lucky to have people like Earl (and Charles Duhigg, and AA founder Bill Wilson, and others) to show us the way.

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Willpower Through the Holidays: Some Helpful Articles


The holiday season, at least here in the U.S., is a troubling time for habits. Diets get blown, budgets get overspent, time with family can make for difficult emotional situations, and good habits get disrupted by travel and celebrations. For all the cheer and New Year’s Resolutions, the Thanksgiving to New Year’s period is a dangerous one. With that in mind, here are some articles from the site that may help with some of the tricky parts.

If you’ve been working on building a new, good habit (or on shedding an old, bad habit), you may be interested in reading (or re-reading) “How Long Does It Take to Form a Habit?” The key thing to take away from that article is not the time period, which depends on a lot of things anyway, but how habits are successfully formed: with consistency. If you are wondering whether giving yourself a break from your great new eating plan over the holidays or smoking a couple of cigarettes with your cousins is really such a big deal, the answer seems to be that it’s not the end of the world, but it’s going to be very disruptive and set you back a ways. Exceptions seriously weaken new habit formation.

That’s not to say there’s never a reason to ease up over the holidays, just that if we’re considering it, we should probably try to be extra sure we like the bargain we’re getting. If not, there are options, even if they involve annoying family members and breaking traditions. After all, stodgy family members and unhealthy traditions are not on your side if you’re trying to do something new.

On that topic, if eating is a concern, you may be interested in “How Not to Blow a Diet Over the Holidays” and (if things don’t go well, or if you’re reading this too late to prevent some missteps) “Recovering After a Failure of Willpower.”

If you expect there may be some family friction over the holidays, while those kinds of patterns can be hard to break, there’s some usable advice in the article “How Not to Get Into an Argument.”

Considering a New Year’s Resolution, or a list of them? They’re not always a good idea, and when they are, there are more and less successful ways to go about them: see “Should You Make a New Year’s Resolution?” and “Why New Year’s Is Such a Good Time to Make a Resolution.”

Regardless, here’s hoping you have a great time winding up the old year and that you start the new one with strong relationships, deeper self-understanding, and joy.
Photo by R. Motti

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