This essay is is broken up into 6 sections:
- Introduction: short intro
- A Habit Model: a way to think about habits we'll be using throughout this post.
- Habit Properties: four useful things about habits to keep in mind.
- Creating Habits: three techniques for habit creation.
- Breaking Habits: two techniques for removing habits.
- tldr; a summary of the above sections.
People, as the saying goes, are creatures of habit. Many of our actions every day are repeated often, typically without much thought. A 2002 study where university students were asked to write down their hourly tasks found that around 40% of daily activities were habitual (defined as regularly performed at the same time and location) 1.
Many people have habits they wish to start or habits they wish to break. My goal here is three-fold:
- Give an overview of the mechanisms/models behind habits.
- Clarify what is/isn't a habit, and when we have leverage to affect habits.
- Explain several evidence-backed concrete techniques to create/break habits.
A Habit Model
There are many definitions of habits which all try to triangulate the term in different ways. The model we'll be working with here, which is often overlapped in these definitions is this: a habit is an automatic behavior that is cued by context from the situation 2, 3, 4.
Habits can be thought of as your default responses to different situations. This model for habits is composed of two parts: the context cue and the response.
The context cue, also called the “trigger” or “situation”, is what first kicks off the entire process. Context cues are typically external things in the environment, from people to sensory details to preceding actions.
Once the cue occurs, the response is generated.
The response, also called the “action”, is the behavior that follows the cue. Responses are typically small, atomic actions, but there is also some research suggesting that a series of actions can be “chunked” together into a unit that follows from the response 5.
However, note that actions which require more thought and conscious effort don’t become habitual, even when repeated in the same context 6. Thus, I’ll be recommending simpler responses when we get to creating our own habits.
This [Context cue] → [Response] model is a core way think about habits. While this model might seem obvious, it also allows for templating much of what we intuitively label as “habits”.
Here are some examples:
Ring! Your alarm shakes you awake. In response, your arm slaps the alarm, hitting the Snooze button, and you go back to sleep. [Context cue] Shrill sound of alarm going off. [Response] Turn it off and go back to sleep.
"Hey!" Someone asks you “How are you doing?” and you instantly respond with “Good, you?” [Context cue] The words “How are are you doing?” [Response] Immediately saying “Good, you?”
Beep beep! You open the car door and get inside. After stepping into the car, your hands are already looking for the seatbelt. [Context cue] Opening the car door. [Response] Putting on the seatbelt.
This model is important in that it stresses how much of our behavior isn’t directly under our control. It highlights how habits can be seen as a way of outsourcing our behavior to the environment. There’s a very real sense in which the central point of control shifts from internal to external.
Much of the actual complexity is in figuring out how brains are able to somehow store the information about both the context cue and response together.
How are habits actually stored in the brain? One suggested mechanism for how this actually happens is motivated cuing 7. Motivated cuing claims that certain cues can cause us to act because we anticipate a reward as a result of our actions. Thus, the cue itself brings to mind a sense of “desiredness” which leads us to act.
One example is notifications on Facebook. Many people might feel a nagging draw to click on the red notification button as soon as they see it, like a sort of mental itch they need to scratch. There’s a two-step phenomenon here, something like [See Facebook notification] -> [Click on it].
Motivated cuing says that this is because past experience with the cue (i.e. the red notification icon) has led to rewards (i.e. information about online activity that involves you). This means that one way habits could come about is by triggering a motivation to act when we experience just the situation itself (even if the accompanying reward hasn’t shown up yet).
Okay, so this seems plausible. How do we know if something like this is actually happening in the brain?
One piece of evidence is a classic study involving monkeys and juice. We started with some monkeys, some juice, and a light. Next, we trained the monkeys to push a lever when they saw the light flash, which would then reward them with the juice. When the monkeys received juice, we saw a spike of brain activity (as we might have expected). Eventually, though, we saw the monkeys’ brain activity shift. Rather than spiking when they received the juice, we began to see the spike when they merely saw the light. In other words, the monkeys seemed to react to the context cue that signaled the reward rather than the reward itself 8.
However, I think the motivated cuing model alone is unsatisfactory for several reasons. Many of our routines don’t always have well-defined rewards, like folding laundry or drying off with a towel. Additionally, as we’ll see in the next section, rewards seem to have an overall negative effect on habit formation.
Cognitive scientists will also talk about direct cuing as an alternative explanation for how these associations are made, but all "direct cuing" means is that associations get made without needing an accompanying goal state 9. It also doesn't provide a very mechanistic explanation, so I'll stop the discussion here.
Apart from the standard habit model, there are a few other useful properties to keep in mind about habits. We’ll be going over insensitivity to reward changes, independence of intentions, automatic defaults, and base rates.
Insensitivity to Reward Changes
One property of habits is that they are largely insensitive to reward changes, meaning the habit persists even when the rewards are altered or removed. One study looked at people cued to press a button for a food reward; yet, even when the reward was removed, we saw that they continued to respond by pressing the button 10.
This gives some insight into why using only rewards and incentives usually isn’t enough to change your habits. Once you’ve internalized the habit loop, changes to the outcome don’t have much effect on altering your behavior. This might seem counterintuitive. Surely people are more likely to act on certain behaviors if you pay them, right?
Well, we do see that financial incentives, as one example of a reward, actually are often good at encouraging short-term activities. Compared to a control group, we see that people who receive incentives are more likely to perform the target behavior. But once the rewards stop, the behavior often does not habituate 11. For example, a recent study with over 1,000 subjects examined whether paying people to go to the gym would lead to increased gym habits. We found that about two months after the payment stopped, the increase in behavioral frequency went back down to roughly pre-incentive levels 12.
Lastly, we often see that drug addicts continue to use substances, even when such behavior turns self-destructive. This sort of behavior has also been replicated in animal studies, where rats continue to respond habitually to stimuli, even when the incentive is changed to a disincentive (EX: a poison) 13.
The takeaway here is that simply changing rewards isn’t enough to create or break habits.
Independence of Intentions
A common dichotomy for behavior is that between “goal-directed actions” and “habitual actions”.
Our intentions, i.e. our desires and thoughts, do a good job of predicting which goal-directed behaviors we’ll carry out. Goal-directed behavior refers to the category of actions where we act consciously on our preferences.
On the flip side, habitual behavior is quicker and largely unaffected by rewards, as we covered above. They are largely independent of intentions, meaning that they persist even if you don't want to continue the behavior 14.
In the earlier example with drug use, for example, it’s quite plausible to assume that the addict would have liked to stop due to the negative effects of continued use, but still found it hard to quit. We see that one’s intentions only affect behavior when the habit is weak. For example, people’s intentions to purchase fast food only affected their actual purchases in the absence of a strong habit 15. When habits become well-developed, intentions matter little.
On the flip side, several studies have shown that in new, unfamiliar contexts, our habits become disrupted, and our intentions once again become a stronger guide to behavior 16. We’ll formalize this dynamic later in the form of a technique called Cue Disruption in to help with creating and breaking habits.
Thus, there’s a sort of inverse relationship here between one’s intentions and one’s habits. When habits are not well-established, intentions are a strong determinant of behavior. When habits are well-established, intentions become irrelevant 17.
The important takeaway here is that simply “intending” to change your habits isn’t enough.
The last important property of habits is their automaticity. As alluded to earlier, habits operate without much conscious control. Though they might be deliberately overridden, they are what we default to in the absence of cognitive effort. Indeed, we see that when people become distracted, their habits take over, even in situations where a more reasoned decision might have been optimal 18.
This also helps explain why rewards don’t do much to influence habitual behavior: Incentives often work best when they are deliberately considered, but the automatic nature of habits means that they occur without much deliberation. Habits can bypass the explicit consideration process (which is also where rewards hold the greatest weight).
If we’re not careful, habits can show up when we don’t want them to. These are referred to as “action slips”, and common examples are situations like driving along the same route to one’s workplace on a Sunday or calling people “Dad” (even when they aren’t your father) 19. On the other hand, sometimes, the best performance in an art or sport comes from this automaticity. For example, in a basketball game, there’s little time to think over every shot; good form and accuracy must be automatic.
To avoid getting any unrealistic expectations on how long it’ll take to start seeing results, we can also turn to some empirical studies.
One study of around 100 people going to the gym found that about half of the people developed habits in about 40-50 days 20. An earlier study using a different methodology (and a smaller pool of people) found that the individual times varied very greatly, but the average time worked to be about 66 days 21.
Thus, for a conservative estimate, you want to scale your expectations to something in the ballpark of about two months. That’s a long-ish time. Probably longer than what most people naively estimate, I think. Also, in the second study, we found that only about half of the people even formed habits at all. This means the 66 day figure only came from the people who even succeeded in the first place.
This also means that if you tried to start a habit right now, your chances of sticking with a habit would naively be around 50%. My hope is that these evidence-backed techniques detailed below can bump you past the base rate.
As we touched upon in an earlier section, the process by which habits form, when simplified, looks roughly something like this:
- Figure out what you want to do.
- Identify the situation where you want the action to occur.
- Actually perform said action in said situation.
- Repeat the [Context cue → Response] loop until habituation occurs.
Therefore, from a theoretical standpoint, a useful intervention would try to affect at least one of the above steps. The three evidence-backed techniques we’ll go over are Trigger Action Plans (TAPs), Systematic Planning, and Scaling Up.
Often, the best results occur when they’re all used in tandem, as they each affect different steps of habit formation.
Trigger Action Plans (TAPs)
[TAPs are a way of framing intentional habit creation by focusing on both a salient trigger (i.e. context cue) and an action (i.e. response). They are well-backed by over two decades of research and build off the standard habit model.]
Trigger Action Planning is a technique by the Center for Applied Rationality (CFAR) that is an adaptation of the implementation intention technique by psychologist Peter Gollwitzer. Implementation intentions are also known as “if-then plans” because they take the form of a conditional, not unlike those used in programming, where one thing follows another. Basically it’s a way of chaining together actions and situations.
In writing, it roughly looks like:
“I intend to do action X when I encounter situation Y.”
As an example, a typical implementation intention for eating healthier might look like: “I intend to fill up half my plate with veggies whenever I am at a self-serve restaurant.”
Compared to many other behavioral change interventions, implementation have a stronger evidence base, and they’re simple to put into practice. In a meta-analysis of over 90 studies involving implementation intentions, we found that they “had a positive effect of medium‐to‐large magnitude ([effect size] = 0.65) on goal attainment” 22.
Thus, as one would expect, research that shows people who make implementation intentions have a far higher success rate of achieving their target behavior compared to people who merely hold normal intentions (EX: “I intend to do X”) 23. CFAR’s Trigger Action Plan model builds on the implementation intention model and tailors it to the standard habit model, focusing on selecting concrete context cues and specific actions.
TAPs combine what we know about the standard habit model of a context cue paired with a response with the if-then nature of implementation intentions.
Trigger Action Planning has us specify specifically when and how we’d like to behave via a Trigger and an Action. It deliberately utilizes the same process that our habits naturally arise, allowing us to intentionally create new habits.
A TAP takes the form of:
When [Trigger X] happens, I will perform [Action Y]. Schematically, it’s almost identical to the implementation intention setup. But the TAP model stresses a few different factors.
Here is how to think about TAPs step-by-step:
- Identify an Action you want to do.
- EX: “Go jogging more.”
- Find a concrete sensory Trigger for the situation where you want the action to happen.
- EX: “The feeling of the coarse rope that opens my curtains in the morning.”
- Describe the Action you’d like to perform, in detail. Be specific about the action you’d like to.
- EX: “Pick up my jogging shoes and walk outside the door to begin jogging.”
- Put the Trigger and Action in a “When [Trigger], then [Action]” loop.
- EX: “When [I feel the rough coarseness of my curtain rope,] then [I’ll go grab my jogging shoes and open the front door].”
- Write the TAP down somewhere you can find it again.
- EX: Having a digital or physical “TAPs List” document can be a very strong way to make it easy to review which habits you’re currently training. If you end up forgetting the cue or action, then it’s obvious you won’t be able to practice the behavior.
- Mentally rehearse the TAP at least 5 times.
- EX: Actually take the several minutes to do some visualizations—going over it in your mind helps you recognize the Triggers when they show up in the real world.
Specificity and concreteness are very useful here because a more salient cue is easier to recognize. Thus, for any TAP, the best Triggers are the ones that are a clear sensory sensation you can recognize. You don’t have to be limited by external cues, though; this can also be applied to internal sensations if you’re noticing them.
As an example, if you’re trying to avoid snapping at someone when they irritate you, you can try to break down the feelings right after they speak. Maybe it feels like a tightening in your chest, or a sinking feeling in your stomach. The important thing here is to describe the internal feeling with enough detail such that you can recognize it the next time it happens.
Questions to perhaps ask yourself are “Where in my body do I feel the sensation?” and “What does the sensation feel like it’s doing inside?”
Good places to insert TAPs are at the end of existing routines, a procedure called piggybacking. We see that people who put their implementation intentions at the end of habits they already have, like deciding to floss right after brushing, are more successful 24. TAPs can themselves be the Trigger for future TAPs!
The most important thing is that both the Trigger and Action are specific enough such that you just do it without thinking. Vaguely-specified Actions are not as good as well-quantified ones because you need to spend time trying to remember what it means.
For example, say we have this TAP:
Trigger: “When I finish a reading an online article…”
Action: “then I will summarize it.”
Both the Trigger and Action could be made more specific. Going into more detail, a perhaps improved version of the above might look like:
Trigger: “When I click the red ‘X’ to close a window after reading an online article…”
Action: “then I will set a 5 minute timer. For the next 5 minutes, I’ll type out a summary of what I just read on Microsoft Word.”
The second formulation is more specific about what the Trigger is, and it also unpacks the word “summarize” by turning it into a more concrete set of actions. Oftentimes, like above, it can be good enough to let the Action part of your TAP be the start of a longer action chain. The 5 minute timer is merely a way to get started; afterwards, intertia usually means you'll continue for longer.
Likewise, in the earlier exercising example, the Action simply has you go through the front door. But once that happens, the TAP doesn’t need to worry about describing the actual jogging; once you’re outside, the rest of your body can take over.
TAPs help you get started on things you already wanted to do, but might otherwise have forgotten. They’re a little like a reminder. Use them on things that you would feel driven to do if you had the opportunity to act on them in the first place.
[Systematic Planning is a synthesis of interventions based around planning and monitoring. It focuses on additional ways to increase habit strength and frequency by building off the TAP model.]
Systematic Planning draws from both two types nterventions: action planning and active monitoring.
Action planning, as the name clearly tells us, is a form of planning 25. It involves trying to answer questions like “What barriers would prevent me from carrying out my intended behavior? How can I remove those barriers?” It’s a very top-down approach to figuring out behavior change.
We’ve already covered how to plan better, and we can apply those lessons here. All our previous tools like Murphyjitsu and Reference Class Forecasting are relevant.
Five second summary: Murphyjitsu asks us to imagine the most common failure modes for our plans by first assuming that they’ll fail. Reference Class Forecasting says we should rely on past information to make more accurate predictions.
An example of action planning might look like this:
You’d like to stop watching television. So you ask yourself whether or not you’d be surprised if you went all of tomorrow without watching television. Your gut says no because Game of Thrones is on. So you decide to hide your remote and check your surprise level again.
Maybe this time you’d be more surprised if you found a way to still watch television. Maybe not.
Either way, the point here is that action planning allows you to perform these constant feasibility checks to see if you’d really be able to perform the target behavior.
Active monitoring refers to the act of checking in to track your progress on a habit and seeing how far along you are.
Both action planning and active monitoring take a sort of outside view, where you’re evaluating things without taking part in them. In contrast, TAPs are about being able to respond in the moment; they provide more of an inside view. Compared to action planning and active monitoring, TAPs are more reactive than evaluative.
For example, someone doing active monitoring on their vegetable-eating habit might spend some time every day tracking their meals. They might look at how many meals had vegetables, their relative hunger levels, and related metrics.
Both action planning and active monitoring have been shown to increase uptake of desired behavior. Action planning has been shown to be effective in several studies, including longer-term effects 26. A meta-analysis of monitoring in 138 studies showed that it had a small-medium effect size (0.4) on actual goal attainment 27.
Basically, we have the unsurprising result that making plans and writing things down helps make it more likely that people actually get things done.
As a technique, TAPs play the role of answering the question “How can I form intentional habits?” Conversely, Systematic Planning as a technique is about answering the question “How do I make sure I actually use my TAPs?”
As a result, Systematic Planning is less about providing an alternative model for forming habits. Rather, it’s about providing additional useful considerations when using the TAP model. This also means that it’s a combination of ideas rather than just one thing.
Also here’s something interesting to note about how planning and habits, Murphyjitsu and TAPs in particular, are related. You can run Murphyjitsu when making a new TAP, but you can also make a TAP out of Murphyjitsu.
An example of using Murphyjitsu when making a new TAP might look like this:
Say you would like to check email more on your phone. You make a TAP that looks like [Open phone] → [Check email]. Unsure if your TAP will be successful, you imagine that it’s a week later and you didn’t start developing your habit. Using Murphyjitsu, you ask yourself, “What is the most plausible reason that this TAP didn’t stick?” In response, your internal simulation of events tells you that it’s likely the Trigger wasn’t salient enough. So you update your TAP with a more specific Trigger.
An example of making a TAP out of Murphyjitsu might look like this:
Say that as you tell your friend what time you’ll meet them at the park, you pause—something about the situation feels odd. Internally, a TAP fires off: [Give a time estimate] → [Imagine one thing that might cause a delay]. As a result, you end up adding an extra ten minutes to your estimate to account for potential traffic. While what you’re doing isn’t exactly the whole Murphyjitsu process, you’re able to get most of the value by turning it into a quick TAP that habituates.
You can feed one technique into the other and vice-versa. They complement each other in part because each process involves the other—planning well is a habit, but you can also figure out how to make your habits better if you do some planning.
I bring this up to introduce the idea of meta-TAPs, that is to say, TAPs which are designed to help out your other TAPs.
Actively monitoring the progress on your habits is a strong way to improve your habits. This means you’re taking the time to sit down and track where you are in regards to learning all of your TAPs. Like most other routine activities, Active Monitoring is probably best done piggybacking off an existing part of your schedule. Mornings can be a good time, as you can review your TAPs once more before you go off on your day, where you’ll start to see all your potential Triggers.
While everyone’s actual monitoring questions might be different, here is a sample set of questions you can feel free to use:
- What is the TAP you are trying to learn?
- Did you do it sometime in the last week? Write down at least 1 example situation.
- What are 3 examples where the Trigger might come up?
- Visualize yourself doing the Action 3 times.
- Repeat these questions for each TAP on your TAPs list
This is what Active Monitoring might look like as a TAP:
Trigger: “After I finish eating breakfast…”
Action: “Then I will immediately go and fill out my Active Monitoring TAP Worksheet.”
Don’t worry if you’re not going through every question or you’re using a different format. In the studies involving active monitoring, the actual method of monitoring was less important than the actual monitoring itself.
Two other possible meta-TAPs that could be useful:
A “TAP Everything” meta-TAP: Trigger: “When I notice myself thinking, ‘I want to do X’…” → Action: “Look for a specific Trigger to do X and turn it into a TAP.”
A “Murphyjitsu Your TAPs” meta-TAP: Trigger: “When I think of both the Trigger and the Action for a TAP…” → Action: “I will imagine that it’s one week later and I haven’t done my TAP at all. What are the first two failures that come to mind? How can I patch my TAP to fix them?”
Once you’ve developed the “TAP Everything”-TAP, you now have a new routine action which would serve as a very good Trigger for your “Murphyjitsu Your TAPs”-TAP.
The end goal here would be for “TAP Everything”-TAP and “Murphyjitsu Your TAPs”-TAP to end up becoming chunked together, into one unit. Research in chunking shows that actions habitually done together can end up forming a cached sequence, where one action follows another 28.
So there’s some hope that we’ll eventually be able to “chain” habits together, in larger structures similar to how habits themselves consist of a context cue and a response.
[Scaling Up is one simple way to fight the “intention-action gap”, the phenomenon where our desires and actions don’t align. It involves gradually building up an action so that at every step, it’s not too difficult.]
Scaling Up is a technique intended to bridge the intention-action gap.
The intention-action gap is a term used in the research to point at situations where we might fail to take action, despite holding the intention to do so 29.
A typical example is someone who wants to exercise more, knows it’s good for them, yet still doesn’t find themselves doing it. Another everyday example is the dieter who’d like to eat more healthily, is aware of the benefits, but still isn’t doing so.
Why is this important when considering habits?
Well, when forming TAPs, we saw earlier that they work best on actions you already wanted to do. But what about actions you know are good for you, but don’t really want to get done? This is where finding concrete strategies to bridge the gap are important.
First off, it seems good to differentiate between roughly two relevant reasons here that a habit might not stick:
- You forget about the action when the opportunity comes.
- You don’t want to do the action when the opportunity comes.
Most of the research on crossing the intention-action gap seems to focus on planning or implementation intentions as a way to increase the chances of actually acting on desired behavior 30. This works for the first reason, and it’s where TAPs and Systematic Planning work best.
To try and address all of the second problem—the question of “wanting”—would likely require its own primer. There’s a lot of intricacies to breaking apart exactly what it means to “want” or to “want want” something. Thus, bear in mind that the actual technique for Scaling Up merely scratches the surface of what could be a much deeper discussion.
As the name suggests, Scaling Up suggests taking an action and gradually building on it. The physical analogy for what we'll be doing is finding ways to reduce the activation energy needed to start an action.
Scaling Up says if the action you’d like to turn into a habit is undesirable to you, start small and build up. You start with a watered down, doable version of the activity, and you gradually scale up.
The evidence base for this technique comes from a combination of shaping and exposure therapy.
Shaping is, roughly speaking, the idea of gradually rewarding behavior that gets closer and closer to the target 31. With incremental changes each time, this allows for the building up of even quite complex behaviors. When applied to habit learning, this means eventually doing the hard action you felt aversive to in the beginning.
The other part of the technique draws inspiration from exposure therapy, the process by which consistently being exposed to aversive phenomenon can decrease the degree of aversion 32.
Though this is speculative, it at least seems plausible that consistently successfully doing even an easier version of the hard or aversive action is useful. Doing so could provide additional experiential evidence that said action is not so bad after all, allowing your brain to update the negative feelings associated with the target behavior.
As an actual technique, Scaling Up is about finding first a manageable chunk of the actual target behavior you’d like to habituate and then gradually working towards the goal.
Step-by-step, it looks like:
Quantify the aversive Action you would like to be able to do. EX: “Every day, right after taking a shower, I want to write 1000 words.”
Find a smaller version of the Action you can take without much resistance. EX: “Every day, right after taking a shower, I will write 200 words.”
Scale up gradually and consistently (For a schedule, weekly is a good default, but pick what works for you.) EX: “Every week I’ll add 100 more words to my daily writing goal.”
Scaling Up is simple, I know, and it’s not always clear exactly what the smaller version of the Action is. However, I stand by its role as a useful consideration in building habits. For things like homework, exercise, or coding, finding ways to get started at all is very good.
Too often, I think, we wrongfully look at actions and goals as all or nothing, and we get more easily discouraged when we don’t immediately hit 100%. Being able to Scale Up helps also bridge the gap between our expectations and reality.
While creating new habits focuses on reinforcing the link between the Trigger and the Action, breaking habits is about finding ways to disrupt the typical context cue and response mechanism.
Thus, the techniques below sorta do the opposite of what the stuff in Creating Habits did. For example, by weakening the link between the context cue and the response, we can disable the automaticity. Or, we might substitute it with something more desirable.
The two techniques we’ll go over are Going Upstream and Substitution.
[Going Upstream is a set of concepts based around removing the context cues of unwanted habits beforehand so the habit doesn’t activate. It’s backed by experimental evidence, and it fits right in with our standard habit model.]
The idea behind Going Upstream is that one of the best ways to disrupt a habit is to go straight up to the top.
By that, I mean you’re targeting the source of the phenomenon, i.e. whatever’s causing it at the very top of the chain 33. Changes upstream should have effects that flow through to the bottom. It’s like how building a dam upstream of a river causes the water flowing down to slow to a trickle. Hence the name.
Let’s get a bit more specific:
We know from the standard habit model that habits fire in the presence of certain context cues. And many of these cues are in the environment.
Thus, one way to remove an unwanted habit through Going Upstream is to limit your exposure to the aforementioned cue. If you don’t encounter the cue, then the habit won’t fire at all.
For example, say you have an unwanted habit of going into a long bout of distracted browsing after opening your Facebook news feed. One way to make this habit less prevalent by Going Upstream would be to disable your Facebook news feed, removing any chance that you’d get distracted in the first place.
Going Upstream is functionally very similar to the idea of precommitment, the idea of cutting off some of your options ahead of time to make sure you can stick to your commitments 34.
An example might be if a dieter throws out all the unhealthy snacks in their house. Then, they replace them all with healthy options. Now, they have no choice but to snack healthily when hungry.
Or, consider the student who goes to the library to “force” themselves to study because there’s less distractions in the library’s study room than at home.
We see that principles based in Going Upstream have effects across varied domains, from reducing smoking to improving public transportation usage 35.
At its core, Going Upstream is about being able to make choices for your decisions where you have the most control. It’s far easier to remove affect your exposure to the context cue in the first place than to override a habit once the context cue kicks in.
Using this principle, we’ll go over three sub-techniques which each use the Going Upstream principle: Trigger Removal, Cue Disruption, and Changing Friction.
Going Upstream 1: Trigger Removal
As we already alluded to earlier, one of the most straightforward applications of Going Upstream is to simply remove the Trigger that leads to the habit.
The steps of Trigger Removal are:
Put your unwanted habit into the TAP framework. EX: You want to stop consistently checking your phone for notifications. You ask yourself, “What conditions seem to lead to my checking of the phone?” Thinking back to the last few times you checked your phone, you look at the different parts that make you the habit.
Identify the Trigger(s) that seem to lead you towards taking the Action. EX: You realize that it’s like that the “Ping!” sound of notifications seems to be the main Trigger. In situations, your phone will ring, and you notice yourself with the urge to flip your phone to see what happened.
Take steps to remove the Trigger from your environment. EX: You decide to silence your phone’s notifications, so you aren’t prompted to check it on the audio cue. The end result is that your attention becomes less diverted by notifications.
That’s the gist of it—figure out what’s cuing your unwanted habit and remove it.
Going Upstream 2: Cue Disruption
The more extreme version of Trigger Removal is Cue Disruption, which is based off the idea that certain windows of opportunity make it a lot easier to Go Upstream and alter cues. Specifically, these opportunities happen when there are major shifts in your environment, like when you move to a new town.
As evidence, we see that when people move to a new, unfamiliar place, this is a prime time to form new habits and break old ones because of the absence of many of their old context cues 36. This seems to be valid for a variety of activities, from taking public transport to watching less TV.
For another example, switching to a new job is also a prime time to try and rid yourself of certain bad workflow habits. Now that you’re in a new environment, you’re sorta given a new slate. The old cues which might have had a major hand in leading to undesirable behaviors are gone, giving you space to try and mindfully create some better TAPs.
Capitalizing on this break in continuity of context cues forms the core of Cue Disruption. Because such changes are uncommon, I’d hesitate to really call this a technique. It’s more of just a general consideration to keep in mind if you find yourself changing environments.
And there’s really not too much to it:
Undergo a change in your environment. EX: Move to a new city.
Form new TAPs using the new environmental cues. EX: Stop eating junk food because you don’t know where the unhealthy restaurants are.
Still, I mention this because I think it’s good to keep cached in your brain as a viable option when the opportunity does arise.
Going Upstream 3: Changing Friction
As a technique, Trigger Removal clearly doesn’t work for all habits. Not all Triggers are external environmental ones. Other harder-to-target Triggers might involve internal feelings or emotions. Or, the Triggers might be impractical to remove because they’re not something you have direct control over, like what words other people say.
Especially for situations where you don’t have complete control over the Trigger, the next best thing you can try is just to make it harder for you to access either the Trigger or the Action.
This is the idea behind Adding Friction.
“Friction” is being used here to mean additional barriers that prevent immediate access—like how friction in the real world makes smooth sliding more difficult. On the flip side, Reducing Friction is about having less barriers towards action, so that it’s easier to execute good habits.
An example of Adding Friction would be if you installed a Chrome extension to add a 30 second delay time each time you tried to visit Facebook. This might be preferable to simply blocking Facebook outright because simply removing the Action of “visit Facebook” doesn’t leave you with an alternative. By adding a delay time, you gain an additional opportunity to reconsider and check in with yourself to see if you really need to visit the site.
Part of Adding Friction, then, is also about finding additional opportunities to inject more time for reflection, so that you can see if the habit is aligned with what you really want.
An example of Reducing Friction would be if someone wanted to go to the gym every day, and they asked a good friend to bring gym clothes for them and pick them up. This makes it easier by removing barriers which, had they been unaddressed, could have been excuses for not going.
These might have taken the form thoughts like “Oh man…I can’t find my gym shorts…guess I won’t go exercising today, then…”.
(Though this section is mainly about breaking habits, Friction, as you can see, is applicable to either creating or breaking habits. It just depends on whether you’re adding or removing it.)
When applying the concept of Adding and Reducing Friction to habits, the step-by-step process looks a little like:
Identify the TAP you’d like to affect. EX: You have a bad internet browsing habit that eats up a lot of time. Looking into yourself, you see that the habit roughly looks like [Feel tired and not engaged] → [Go on a browsing spiral].
Look at the Trigger. Find a way to make it easier or harder to encounter. (This is habit-dependent.) EX: You ask yourself, “How can I change the frequency with which I encounter this Trigger?” You decide to take more frequent breaks while you’re on the computer. This thus reduces the probability of your getting tired and distracted so the TAP doesn’t fire as often.
Look at the Action. Find a way to make it easier or harder to take. (Also habit-dependent.) EX: You could also block the actual sites that you commonly go on or use some web filters to ensure that your work time online is spent only on the places you decide beforehand.
Some of the examples for Adding Friction you can think of probably look a lot like the ones for Trigger Removal, and that’s fine. Overlap between the sub-techniques is okay. The main idea here is just being able to generalize the technique to situations where you might not be able to entirely remove things by thinking in terms of Friction.
Remember that all of these techniques are suggestions, and all of these techniques are my attempt to make more sense of out of largely general principles. If a different categorization yields results for you, I would recommend you do that instead.
[Substitution is where you swap out one Action for another one but keep the same Trigger. In essence, it’s concerned with finding ways to switch out your defaults with better responses.]
One problem with trying to break unwanted habits is that merely trying to “not do it” is largely ineffective.
For example, one idea that might appear clever is to create an “anti-TAP” for certain behaviors. While it sounds good to have a habit of not doing something, you’ll end up with TAPs like, “When I think of french fries, I won’t eat them.”
Which, as it turns, doesn’t work very well 37. Anti-TAPs are ineffective because when you tell yourself to not do X, the focus is still on X. This seems to be potentially due to ironic process theory, the idea that trying to suppress certain thoughts only brings them to mind.
It’s the same reason why telling someone to not imagine a red horse driving a blue convertible only makes the absurd image more vivid in their heads. Having a TAP that tells you what not to do isn’t useful when it doesn’t concretely provide an alternative.
Otherwise, all that’s bouncing around in your head is the very thing you told yourself not to do.
Thus, the more reasonable thing to do is to find ways to re-engineer your existing TAPs such that you can instead take an improved alternative action. This gives you another actionable to instead of just leaving you with no way out.
As a technique, Substitution is about trying actually specify what to do instead of just attempting to suppress the original response after encountering the context cue 38.
This is more reasonable because your focus can be directed on the alternative action instead of just dwelling on how much you don’t want to do something.
Substitution in a systematic layout looks like:
Identify the TAP you’d like to change, specifically the Trigger. EX: You’d like to drink less soda. You notice that you typically think of getting sodas after ordering a burger.
Find an alternative Action to replace it with that’s more satisfactory. EX: You decide to ask for an ice water instead.
Do 5 mental run-throughs of the updated TAP and keep track of your progress with tools from Systematic Planning. EX: You do 5 mental run-throughs of ordering water instead of soda.
That’s it. Of course the rest of the guidelines from making TAPs still hold, like choosing concrete actions and writing it down. But the overall concept, like many of the techniques we’ve gone over, is quite simple.
Especially for habits with Triggers you don’t have complete control over, Substitution can be a useful intervention to improve your routines.
I think that Substitution captures a big part of the core concept behind behavior change. When you want to do something different (and hopefully better), there’s necessarily some sort of swapping happening.
There’s roughly a 3-step process here:
Notice a behavior. EX: “Huh, I just felt jealous when Mary got more attention than me.”
Reflect on the action. EX: “Hm, that doesn’t seem to be very good. Mary’s had it hard the last few months. What can I do instead?”
Swap out the default for something new. EX: “Okay, so instead, when someone compliments Mary, I can instead try to imagine how it feels to be her. I think that’ll dissipate some of my envy.”
Much of improvement follows this sort of “overriding defaults” idea. You’re trying to answer the question of, “How can I make things incrementally better?”
We’ve gone a whirlwind tour of the way that habits operate, from models to techniques. Here’s a short recap of all of the things we’ve covered.
- Habits can be basically thought of a combination of a Trigger and a responding Action.
- Habits are automatic and keep sticking around, even if you don’t want them to. And rewards don’t to much to change them.
- Habits take somewhere in the neighborhood of 2 months to form.
- Creating habits consists of explicitly building the Trigger and the Action you want. The rest of the techniques are ways to reinforce this connection.
- Breaking habits is about disrupting the chain between the Trigger and the Action. The rest of the techniques are ways to swap things up or modify the chain .
Same as 4. ↩
Same as 4. ↩
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Same as 5. ↩
Same as 26. ↩
Clark, David M., et al. “Cognitive therapy versus exposure and applied relaxation in social phobia: A randomized controlled trial.” Journal of consulting and clinical psychology 74.3 (2006): 568. PDF ↩