The Science Of Making & Breaking Habits


Key Takeaways

  • “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.” ­– Dr. Andrew Huberman

  • 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.” – Dr. Andrew Huberman

  • 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)

  • Identity-based habits: 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

Task Bracketing

  • 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


Reward-Prediction Error

  • 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


 

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