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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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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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In Which Elizabeth Shack Continues Her Quest for a Simple Way to Track Habits

Guest posts

Here’s a handy guest post from fellow writing and fellow Codexian Elizabeth Shack, originally published here. If you’re interested in the topic, you might also like my posts  “Harnessing a Winning Streak” and “How Long Does It Take to Form a Habit?

The apps here are all iPhone ones. If anyone has suggestions for Android, PC, Mac, or Web-based solutions, please holler them out (via comments)!

About a year ago, I was looking for a habit-tracking app and never found a really good one. I wanted to make a list of 2-3 things I want to do every day, and check them off, without cluttering up my to do list or my calendar. For example: writing new words.

Maybe I was using the wrong keywords, or maybe tons of app developers secretly read my blog, because now there seem to be a lot of good apps. I’ve been playing with three of them.

Good HabitsGood Habits (free) – This is the simplest and cleanest. It displays how many days in a row you’ve done each thing, and your maximum days in a row. Clicking on the name of a habit opens the calendar, where you can edit past days and see a monthly view of which days you did that habit. You can also set reminders.

That’s it. It’s almost exactly what I want, though it’d be nice to include things I only want to do once a week.

Habit ListHabit List ($1.99) – Not quite as pretty, but still nicely designed. It lets you set whether you want to do something every day, or on specific days of the week, or at a certain interval, or a certain number of days a week. That has the side effect of making me want to add more things to it, and it’s also a little confusing–my list for today includes everything that I’ve set to do only once or three times a week, so I see it on my list even if I don’t plan to do it today. (Setting something for a specific day like Friday makes it not show up unless it’s Friday, though.)

If you really need more specific habit scheduling than daily, this is a great app.

Habits ProHabits Pro ($2.99) – This adds more features and is the only app I’ve tried that has an export option. In addition to a daily checklist or monthly calendar view, it shows graphs by day, week, and month. You can also change the item type–instead of a simple yes/no checklist, you can have a counter (how many times you did something), a timer (how long), or a note (where you can enter details about whatever, like what book you read instead of just checking off that you read something).

It’s a little clunky to use and not nearly as pretty as either of the other two apps, but definitely more flexible in what you can track.

So after this research, what am I going to use? Well, I printed out some calendars that I can tape in my journal, where I can see the whole year on one page. If I want to stick with something electronic (and I haven’t quite decided), probably Habit List until Good Habits adds flexible scheduling.

Elizabeth grew up near Johnson Space Center and earned two physics degrees, so of course she writes more fantasy than science fiction. She now lives in central Illinois, where she performs cooking experiments, brings up the rear in 5k races, and does excessive amounts of yard work. 

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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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If You Think People Don’t Change, You Need to Get Out More

Society and culture

Recently I had the misfortune of seeing the movie Young Adult. It offers some interesting story elements, with very good acting and direction, and it does a great job of realistically depicting a writer’s job (something most movies about writers fail at miserably, despite presumably having been written by writers) but the storyline is appalling, and I can’t recommend the movie at all. The end of the movie actually had me shouting at the television with indignation and disgust … although really, I was shouting at the screenwriter, Diablo Cody.

Ms. Cody wrote one of my favorite movies of all time, Juno, so I don’t mean to suggest that she writes only bad movies. I got some insight into where she was coming from when I read this excerpt from a Huffington Post article about the movie:

“I feel like Facebook is, in a lot of ways, proof that people don’t change,” Cody said. “The fact that we can keep up with the people that we used to know and watch them progress or not progress — which is the case most of the time — it’s interesting and it’s a little sad.”

So in that framework, the movie makes sense. If you believe people don’t change, you might then write a movie about a person who is a mess and doesn’t change. However, writing a movie like that doesn’t make it a workable story–nor does it make it true.

People who think people don’t change need to spend time with more and different people.  Have you ever met a recovered alcoholic? Ever met someone who went back to school later in life and started a new career? Someone who lost a bunch of weight and got the fitness bug? I certainly do.

Facebook certainly isn’t proof that people don’t change: in fact, the primary reason I seek people out on Facebook is to find out how they have changed. What are their relationships like now? What kind of work do they do? What’s important to them? Where do they live? How are they spending their time? Are they happy? What happened later in the story of that person I used to know and have lost touch with?

It’s true, though, that we’re built to resist change. Our habitual behaviors are expressed in our brains as neural connections that strengthen over time, and it takes concerted effort or a stark change of circumstances to build new connections. However, this is worlds away from saying we don’t change. With the right influence or effort, virtually anything about us can change. Unskilled people can become masterful (see “Do You Have Enough Talent to Become Great at It?“); unhealthy people can become healthy (“Finding Exercise You Love: The Taekwondo Example“); and unhappy people can get used to having joy in their lives (see “The Best 40 Percent of Happiness“), for example.

The thing that most upsets me about the idea that people don’t change is that it tends to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. In a meta-study about willpower done a few years back, a key finding was that individuals who were trying to change their habits generally didn’t succeed unless they believed they could. This makes sense: how much effort will we realistically invest in something that we feel won’t pan out?

Trying to convince people wholesale that change isn’t possible hacks away at the foundation of confidence we need to be able to change, and that foundation is essential even when we fail at first. For example, consider that a smoker who has unsuccessfully tried to quit before has a better chance of quitting now, statistically, than a smoker who has never tried to quit before. In some cases, the mistaken belief that the smoker could quit on the first or second attempt allowed that person to get far enough along to successfully quit on a later attempt.

People accomplish real change every day, but it’s far more likely that change will happen when we understand and believe it’s possible in the first place.


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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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Useful Book: The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business


New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit, which came out in February of this year, stands apart from anything I’ve ever read on the subject of habits, in more than one way. Personally, I’m much more interested in the impacts on individuals than on figuring out how to use habits to, for instance, increase your company’s bottom line, a topic that takes up a substantial piece of Duhigg’s book. At the same time, Duhigg writes engagingly, constantly bringing in surprising pieces of information, and I was easily carried through reading the whole book. This isn’t a tough read.

There are a lot of facets to habit development, but Duhigg focuses on the mechanics in a revealing and practical way. While this is a bit of a spoiler, I don’t think you’ll enjoy the book any less if I tell you in advance that he breaks habits down into three pieces: cue, routine, and reward. We’ll talk about this in more detail in other posts, but the short version is that the cue is the thing we’re used to responding to (e.g., passing the doughnuts on the weekly shopping trip, arriving home from work, feeling angry); the routine is what we usually do (buy a doughnut, sit down in front of the TV and turn it on, yell at the dog); and the reward is the need the habit developed to fill (a few moments of uninterrupted pleasure while eating the doughnut; a means of disconnecting from the cares of the day; no longer feeling powerless).

Duhigg talks about this habit loop first in terms of how we individually take part in it, then goes on to explain how Starbucks has used it to develop employees who are much more likely to cheerfully serve you your latte no matter what goes wrong and how Target used it to increase shopping in their store from new parents. He then expands the subject to change in society, describing how habits helped drive the Civil Rights movement, for example. Finally, almost as an afterthought, he lays out a very clear and useful process for changing a habit.

Whether your interest is improving a business, changing your own habits, or just understanding better what makes people tick, I highly recommend this book. It doesn’t begin to cover everything we need to know about habits–for instance, where ingrained problem emotional patterns like negativity or alienation begin, or the importance of belief–but the material it does cover is useful, well-researched, and interesting to read.


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Your Favorite Habit and Willpower Posts

Luc's writing projects

In and among my other current writing projects, I’m beginning to put together a book based on about 100 of the posts here on that have the most useful information on habits and motivation. I’m quickly filling up the list with posts I like, but before I take up all the slots, I’d love to hear nominations from you, whether in comments or through the contact form over on the right here at the Web site. Any suggestions?

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