The Science Of Making & Breaking Habits
“A lot of habit formation has to do with being in the right state of mind and being able to control your body and mind.”
Habits take different lengths of time to adapt depending on the person and the habit – a habit might take one person 18 days and another person 200+ days.
The goal of building habits is to overcome limbic friction (level of energy needed to engage in a habit) and enter it automaticity.
Leverage natural rhythms of brain & body hormones to make it more likely that you will engage or maintain habits.
In the first 0-8 hours after waking, your brain and body are more action and focus oriented – you can more easily overcome things with high limbic friction.
In the 9-15 hours after waking, leverage high serotonin and keep stress low by engaging in habits that don’t require a lot of limbic overrides.
A test of whether you’ve truly formed a habit is if you can perform that habit or behavior at any point in the day without thinking too much about it – e.g., exercise whenever you can fit it in.
The strength of a habit is dictated by how much limbic friction there is and how much context dependence there is.
Breaking a bad habit is more than just rewarding yourself if you don’t do it or punishing yourself if you do it – you want to change the neural circuitry involved.
To break a habit: bring conscious awareness to the fact that you participated in the habit you are trying to break – at that moment, capture the events and engage in positive replacement behavior immediately after.
What Is A Habit?
Habits involve learning something by our nervous system, consciously or unconsciously (unlike hardwired reflexes).
“What we do habitually make up much of what we do entirely.”
Neuroplasticity underlies forming new pathways under which some new habits are likely to occur and others are less likely to occur.
For a comprehensive article on habits, check out Psychology of Habit by Wood & Rünger.
Types Of Habits, Limbic Friction & Habit Strength.
Goal-based habits: designed to give you a specific outcome each time (e.g., the goal of 45-60 minutes of Zone 2 cardio per week).
Attaching a larger picture of yourself and what it means to do that habit (e.g., I want to become an athlete).
There’s an individual component to habit-forming – the same habit might take one person 18 days to form and another person 200+ days to form.
You might be able to form one habit easily but not another.
To build a new habit you have to overcome limbic friction: how much conscious override of your current state you have to have to execute the habit.
Limbic friction describes the strain required to overcome anxiety and lack of motivation or fatigue related to building the new habit.
It requires a varying degree of activation energy to overcome limbic friction and build a habit.
We are habitual organisms and carry things out the same way once the habit has formed.
Habit strength is measured by two criteria:
(1) how context-dependent a given habit is (i.e., whether you are likely to do the habit regardless of where you are);
(2) how much limbic friction is required to execute a given habit (i.e., how much energy is needed to overcome action).
The goal of any habit is automaticity – circuits perform automatically
It can be beneficial to move habits to different times of the day to develop context independence; this will allow the habit to become automatic.
How Visualization Helps Build Habits.
Episodic memory: memory of particular events that happened.
Procedural memory: holding in mind a sequence of things that need to happen for an outcome to occur (like following a recipe).
Procedural memory is an important component to overcoming limbic friction in building a new habit.
Tip: visualize the series of steps needed to adopt a specific habit – think through each step it takes to go for a run.
Visualizing the steps allows you to prepare and shift to a particular mindset that allows the anxiety involved in limbic friction to come down & increase the likelihood of the habit.
Basal ganglia are involved in the action (doing) and inaction (not doing) of certain things.
Task bracketing sets a neural imprint in your brain that a certain thing has to take place at a certain point during the day, so much so that it becomes reflexive.
Circuits in our brain are devoted to framing events just before and just after the habit.
Task bracketing underlies whether a habit will be context-dependent and strongly likely to occur regardless of external circumstances (e.g., zone 2 cardio even if you slept poorly).
You can orient the nervous system to task bracketing so the nervous system is primed to execute the habit.
Attaching a habit to a specific time of day may be helpful in the short term but not the long term – it’s the state your brain and body are in that is important to anchor yourself to.
How To Use Task Bracketing:
Phases Of The Day
To build new habits & behaviors, leverage your body’s natural brain and body rhythms.
Phases of the day will invoke a shift in mood and mindset that are more conducive to building and keeping habits.
Phase 1: 0-8 hours after waking up.
This phase comes with a more alert state which can be heightened by sunlight viewing, caffeine delaying, fasting, etc.
Norepinephrine, epinephrine, and dopamine are elevated during this phase.
Healthy cortisol is also elevated in the brain and bloodstream.
This is when you want to take on new habits and behaviors that are challenging for you – you are naturally more readily able to engage in activities with a high degree of limbic friction.
Phase 2: 9-15 hours after waking up.
Levels of dopamine, epinephrine, and cortisol start to come down.
Serotonin starts to rise and lends itself to a relaxed state of being – can be enhanced with a warm bath, yoga nidra, ashwagandha.
Taper the amount of bright light (unless it’s sunlight) & start dimming house lights a bit.
This is when you want to taper stress level and take on habits and things you are already doing that don’t require a lot of override of limbic friction – e.g., journaling, music.
Phase 3: 16-24 hours after waking up.
Keep environment very dark or dim & room temperature low.
The body needs to drop in temperature to fall asleep & stay asleep.
If you wake up in the middle of the night, use as little light as possible.
Deep sleep is critical to wiring neural circuits required for building habits.
This system predicts whether rewards are going to come.
Definition of reward-prediction error: if you expect a reward and that reward comes, a particular behavior associated with generating that reward is more likely to occur again.
Reward-prediction error is associated with dopamine.
Paradox of reward-prediction error: the amount of reward (dopamine) is greater if the reward is unexpected.
The reward-prediction error can reinforce or accelerate certain habits.
When we think a reward is going to come, the dopamine release starts in anticipation.
Reward-prediction error governs all aspects of learning and effort because dopamine changes the system.
Tip: think about events that precede and follow the habit you are trying to build positive association and trigger anticipatory dopamine release and increase the likelihood of executing that habit.
Write the sequence of events that need to lead up to habit, the habit, and the events that will take place immediately after.
Try This 21-Day System To Build Habit.
Step 1: Set out to perform six new habits over the course of 21 days, with the expectation that you will perform 4-5 of them each day – if you miss a day, there is no punishment.
Break the 21 days into 2-day chunks and reset.
Step 2: After 21 days, stop deliberately engaging in the 6 things per day and see what you naturally incorporate into your schedule.
Step 3: After 21 days, you are not adding in new habits or starting again – you are assessing how deeply you rewired your nervous system for these new habits.
Only after you have effortlessly incorporated the 6 habits you set out to build should you start a new 21-day program.
How To Break A Habit.
To break a habit we need to rewire the neural circuits.
Long-term depression (not depression as in mood): if neuron A is active and neuron B is not active within a particular time window, the connection between neurons A and B will weaken over time.
A lot of attempts to break habits involve rewarding if you don’t do it or punishing if you do it – but this is not a great approach.
Notification to engage or not engage in habits are not actually effective over time
Check out: Intervention to Modify Habits: A Scoping Review by Fritz, Hu, Gahman, et. al.
Dismantle the bad habit: bring conscious awareness to the fact that you participated in the habit you are trying to break – at that moment, capture the events and engage in replacement behavior immediately after.
Insert an adaptive behavior that is more positive than the habit you are trying to break.
For example, if you reflexively pick up your phone, set it down, and engage in some behavior that you deem positive – maybe it’s drinking a glass of water, doing breathwork, reading a book, etc.
Change the nature of the neural circuits so you can rewrite the script for that bad habit.