Guest Post By Maneesh Sethi
The following is a guest post by Maneesh Sethi, the CEO of Pavlok, a new biohacking device that helps people change their habits. He’s also the editor-in-chief of an awesome blog called Hack the System. Maneesh and I were together on a panel at SXSW 2014 called Life Automation for Entrepreneurs [video] and he’s one of the go-to experts when it comes to behavioral psychology and habit development. I was one of the early investors in Pavlok, which just launched its crowdfunding campaign, and Maneesh was recently featured on Bulletproof Radio.
Gaining power over your Labrador brain (that operates your nervous system) is a key part of biohacking and Bulletproof principles. This post talks about the importance of habits and the most effective ways to hack them. Enjoy!
Close your eyes and visualize your morning routine.
As soon as your eyes open, what thoughts race through your head? What’s first on your list of to-do’s?
- Do you wake up, brush your teeth, then surf the internet half naked while your breakfast warms up?
- Or spend 25 minutes glued to CNN while getting dressed?
- Perhaps you continually press “snooze” every morning and never get out of bed on time
The interesting part here is that everybody has SOME sort of routine — even if we don’t consciously think about it.
Routines are automatic because we’ve done them for so long, there’s no longer any effort required.
They’ve become habits.
What is a habit?
At its core, a habit is simply a set of actions that has been automated. You don’t expend energy thinking about it — you just do it.
Simple habits like pouring your cereal every morning don’t require a lot of brain power.
More complex habits require considerably more brain power — and are often a chunking of several smaller habits.
Driving a car, for instance, is extremely complex. Just leaving your house and driving a mile to the store requires you to:
- Get to you car, open the door, and get in.
- Adjust your mirrors and your seat…and put on your seat belt.
- Start the car, and use complex spacial awareness of distance and time to leave your driveway…backwards.
- Start driving (even more steps if the car is a stick shift).
- Navigate to your destination (or set up your GPS and let it navigate for you).
- Move in speed and synchronicity with other cars. And the occasional idiotic motorcyclist with a death wish.
- Remember to put on your turn signal.
- Focus while the radio is playing. And pay attention to your significant other while you’re on the phone making dinner plans.
All this just to get from Point A to Point B. It should be extremely stressful — but somehow, it feels completely natural.
Now, consider all the complex habits (like driving) that are embedded into your daily routine without a second thought.
- Meal preparation
- Work-related tasks
- Basic motor skills like walking, running, and not tripping
According to a recent article in the New York Times, one Duke University study suggests that up to 40% of our entire life operates on “autopilot” which is dictated by our habits.
Imagine 2 people:
- Person A comes home every day from work and watches an episode of teletubbies.
- Person B comes home every day and writes a page of a novel he’s working on.
After 1 year, what’s happened?
Person A…well, he’s been able to watch every episode of Teletubbies EXACTLY once (because there are exactly 365 episodes in the Teletubbies series).
(On a scale of 1-10, how much better does this image make your life?)
Person B? He’s written 365 pages of his Great American Novel.
Now, here’s the FASCINATING part:
Person A isn’t “lazier” than Person B.
Person B isn’t more “dedicated” than person A.
In fact, both people exerted the EXACT SAME amount of willpower, even though they achieved drastically different results.
How is this possible? Because of habit.
It is AS DIFFICULT for Person B to not write a page, as it is for Person A to not watch teletubbies.
That is the power of habit.
(For a longer, in-depth analysis of habit change, read the ebook Habit Change: Theory & Practice)
What if we could rewire our habits?
What if we could optimize the 40% of our lives spent on “autopilot” to be positive, productive habits, rather than incidental or minor ones? One small choice, made daily, would lead to a powerful, serious impact.
Unfortunately, many negative habits control our time and energy. Such as:
- Waking up late
- Skipping the gym
- Eating junk (and forgetting to make bulletproof coffee!)
- Surfing the internet
What happens when these become our day-to-day baseline?
From personal experience, I can tell you that sometimes it feels almost impossible to escape a deeply ingrained negative habit — which is why I’ve spent the last 2 years developing Pavlok — the world’s first wearable device that not only tracks your habits, but actually helps you change them. More on that later.
In the meantime, this guide will teach how habits are formed in the brain, and the 3-step process you can use to catalyze them.
Then we’ll dive into the research we’ve done at Bolt Labs that’s led to fascinating, industry-leading discoveries in the field of behavioral science and reinforcement.
Finally, I’ll show you how it all fits together in what we call the “micro-habit” system — and how you can use the system to massively change your own life — whether you want to create a new positive behavior, or eradicate an old, negative behavior.
Understanding The 3-Step Habit Formation Process
First, remember this: We don’t want to change all our habits. We only want to change the bad ones. We want to remove the bad behaviors that impact our good behaviors.
So how are habits formed in the first place?
It begins with a 3-step process: Cue, Routine, Reward.
A cue is an often subconscious trigger that starts the habit process — almost like pushing “play” on a tape recorder. Everything starts with the cue.
If you have a habit of over-snacking while you watch television, turning on the TV is most likely a cue that starts the snacking process.
The routine is the habit in action. You’ve sat down at the couch after a hard day at work, and you turn on the TV. The cue has been activated, and now the snacking routine begins.
But remember, you over-snack….which means that something must be encouraging that mindless eating — even if you don’t realize it.
That’s where the reward comes into play. A reward reinforces a routine and solidifies the habit.
So where’s the reward in your over-snacking scenario? Let’s walk through it.
You get home, kick off your shoes and turn on the TV. That’s the cue.
You immediately start snacking. That’s the routine.
You have a great time watching your favorite shows, perhaps even sharing some laughs with loved ones. That’s the reward.
Dopamine fires to the brain, embedding the habit even further.
By tying the physical action of eating to the emotional feeling of happiness, you’ve solidified your routine with a reward.
Who wouldn’t want to eat AND feel happy? As you can see, sometimes our deeply embedded routines aren’t healthy or productive. How do we overcome these challenges and circumvent our own psychology?
One simple way would be to keep the cue (television) and the reward (good times with loved ones) and replace only the routine.
So in an alternate scenario, you’d still come home, flop down on the couch and turn on the TV. But this time, instead of shoveling down ice cream as your snack of choice, you’d replace it with frozen berries.
The frozen berries would not only satisfy some of the tactile sensation that you’re looking for — but over time, you’d begin to associate this new snack food with the feelings of happiness and contentment.
The habit would reset itself with a new, healthier routine.
Reptile Brain: 0
Positive vs Negative Reinforcement: Which Is More Effective?
The central premise of Pavlok is getting the user to take action and create a new habit — or change an existing one. To do this, we built “pattern interrupts” — jarring but effective stimuli — into the device that encouraged users to change their routines.
We then faced a difficult question that’s challenged behavioral psychologists for decades.
Which is more effective for behavior change: Negative or positive reinforcement?
Positive reinforcement is a reward for doing something well. Remember the joy of receiving gold star from your kindergarten teacher when you spelled your name correctly? That’s all positive reinforcement.
Negative reinforcement is a penalty for not doing something. Why do you go into work every day? If you’re like most people, you show up because if you don’t, you’ll get fired.
(Note: negative reinforcement is NOT the same thing as “punishment.” Punishment implies that you receive a penalty for doing something you’re not supposed to do — whereas negative reinforcement implies not receiving a penalty for doing something. For instance, if you misbehave and your mom spanks you, that’s punishment: adding a bad stimulus when you did something bad. If you get charged money–or electrically shocked by your Facebook friends—because you don’t exercise, that’s negative reinforcement:
Negative reinforcement occurs when an aversive stimulus (a ‘bad consequence’) is removed after a good behavior is exhibited. The difference is subtle, but very important.)
Do you think positive and negative reinforcement are equally effective?
In the end, it all comes down to pain versus pleasure.
Most would agree that running from painful circumstances is exhausting. It’s annoying. It’s the exact opposite of seeking pleasure.
Our research found that negative reinforcement is actually far more effective for sparking initial habit change.
In the context of the over-snacking example above, imagine that you got fined $50 for every spoonful of ice cream that you ate?
You probably don’t have to spend any time researching to know that you’d very quickly stop eating ice cream.
But here’s where things get interesting: If you were continually penalized for eating ice cream, the negative reinforcement would eventually stop working.
You’d become resentful of the constant punishment. Maybe you’d switch to cookies.
Long term, negative reinforcement doesn’t get the job done — and that’s where we bring back positive reinforcement.
If you allowed the new routine to take place, and you replaced the ice cream with berries successfully for a week, rewarding yourself with a small amount of ice cream on the last day will actually aid in maintaining that habit.
Negative gets you started. Positive keeps you going.
We call this “Push-Pull Motivation” — and it’s the foundation of Pavlok’s habit change technology.
Hacking The Habit Process: How to Leverage “Micro-Habits” and Make Permanent Behavior Change — Even When You Don’t Want To
Note: See how multiple people used microhabits to change their lives, including painting, running, and meditating in the special Pavlok ebook.
Turning ice cream into frozen berries is one thing — but establishing more complex habits like going to the gym and working out every day or quitting cigarettes is a whole different animal.
Habits that require you to change significant portions of your daily routine require much more of your brain power to solidify.
(Think about the example above of pouring your morning cereal versus driving a car — the amount of energy used is MUCH different.)
The first thing you have to understand is that the harder a behavior is to perform, the more initial willpower it takes to perform it. Stanford professor and behavioral psychologist BJ Fogg illustrates the concept here in his Fogg Behavior Model:
As you can see, there is a direct correlation between how hard a behavior is to perform and how much motivation it takes to execute that behavior.
This is potentially bad news for anybody looking to make serious, life-altering change. Especially considering research that shows our daily motivation predictably decreases as the day wears on, leaving us less capable of making harder choices at the end of the day.
Looks like there’s a scientific reason why that after work gym habit has been SO hard to implement.
Additionally, recent studies have proven there’s at on average a 21 day period of consistency that you MUST undergo with any new behavior in order to achieve automaticity and make it a habit.
The graph shows the “automaticity curve” which illustrates how long it took subjects to turn a new behavior into a fully automated habit.
Easier behaviors, like drinking a glass of water every morning, only took a week or so to fully automate for subjects. Uncomfortable behaviors that require more motivation, such as doing 50 sit-ups daily, took about 66 days to fully integrate into the subject’s brain.
The resulting average is about 21 days across the board for most behaviors to turn into automated habits.
So if all the really powerful behavior change takes an average of 3 weeks AND a significant amount of motivation to execute, how are we EVER supposed to make any positive change in our lives?
After all, you’re not just reading this guide so that I can tell you to “work really hard” and “don’t mess up” for a few weeks. You’ve already tried that. It doesn’t work.
The secret lies in creating powerful “micro-habits” that catalyze your brain to perform difficult new behaviors, even when your conscious brain doesn’t want to.
What is a “micro-habit”?
Simply put, a “micro-habit” is the smallest individual action you can take to spur the execution of a new behavior and turn it into a habit.
In combination with proper cues and rewards, “micro-habits” can help anybody execute even the most complex behavior changes without having to endure the long periods of forced, sustained willpower expenditure that typically exhaust and defeat you before reaching your goal.
Imagine a world where it’s actually more painful NOT to complete a new behavior than it is to just do it. That’s what “micro-habits” create.
Using “Micro-Habits” to Create New Behaviors
Assume you want to build the habit of going to the gym every day after work. How would you have attempted to build this habit in the past?
Maybe you’ve tried going home first, changing into your gym clothes and heading out again. This rarely works. Distractions loom as soon as you open the front door. The dog needs to go out. Your wife wants to talk. Your kids want to show you what they did at school. And you just realized how tired you are. It looks like you’ll be doing exactly one squat — directly into the couch.
But you’re serious about this gym thing. You really want to make it a habit. So you try something sneaky next week: You keep your gym clothes in the car. Perhaps just looking at those sad under-utilized New Balances will spur some resolve.
Monday and Tuesday, it works! You drag yourself, kicking and screaming, to the gym.
But Wednesday, there’s this weird “ache” in your knee. Must have overtrained, huh? You should probably let it rest today, right? And tomorrow, you promised your friends you’d get drinks. So Wednesday and Thursday off. And you told yourself that Friday-Sunday would be your rest days, remember? Can’t mess with the plan — you pulled it from Bodybuilding.com, and they know what they’re talking about.
Before you know it, you’ve already missed 5 days in a row. By next Monday, you’ve practically forgotten your way to the gym entirely, and also, you’re out of protein powder. So you should probably wait until you get some more.
On and on this goes, until the gym clothes move to the back seat (and eventually, the trunk…)
At this point, most people say something along the lines of, “I’m too busy for the gym” or “I’m just not motivated enough”…or the even more subconsciously pernicious, “I’ll pick this back up when I have more time” — which is an ego-saving codeword for “never.”
We’ve seen that willpower and motivation alone aren’t enough to make yourself do something — even if you really want to.
Now, let’s take another crack at installing the same gym habit, but instead of using the traditional “just do it” mentality to power through the discomfort — let’s use a “micro-habit” to install this new behavior.
What the step-by-step “micro-habit” process looks like:
The first step to installing a great “micro-habit” is choosing the correct cue to remind you of your goal and initiate the new behavior (this is all part of the 3-Step habit formation process we covered — see above).
In this instance, the cue should be something extremely simple and completely unavoidable, such as passing the gym on the way home. If you CAN avoid the gym on the way home, take a route that intentionally goes past it — even if that route is a little longer. If the gym isn’t on your way home, SWITCH gyms. Whatever it takes, make sure that you see the gym. That will act as your cue.
The next step is creating a meaningful routine that encourages you to execute the new behavior.
In the past, the behavior you tried to execute was complex and time consuming. In order to check off “go to the gym” on your daily to-do list, you had to:
- Drive to the gym, find parking and sign in
- Get your clothes on
- Figure out what your workout is going to be for the day
- Start the workout, fight with sweaty people to use the machines
- Struggle through the workout
- Drive home
- Make sure you have clean gym clothes in the car for tomorrow’s drudgery
Not to mention that if you’re smart, you should probably eat something before and after. The whole process might take 2-3 hours some days. No wonder you weren’t able to do it for more than a few days.
This is where 99% of people fail to create a new habit — and this is where the idea of “micro-habit” comes into play.
From now on, I want you to forget about the gym clothes. Forget about the rude sweaty dude hogging the squat rack to do 15 lb dumbbell curls. Forget about how tired you’re going to be afterwards.
I WANT YOU TO FORGET ABOUT WORKING OUT ENTIRELY.
You’re new goal is not a nebulous notion like “work out every day” — your new goal is one, single action.
All I want you to do is swipe your gym card.
No, that wasn’t a typo.
Every day, you’ll see the gym when you drive past it. Remember, you’ve already planned your route home to make this inevitable. As soon as you see the gym, that’s your cue. You’ll park for 3 minutes, walk to the front desk and scan your membership card.
Then you can leave.
You don’t have to work out. You don’t even have to touch a weight. You can walk in and right back out. This might take you a total of 20 minutes to perform total for the entire week.
That’s it. That’s your new routine. If you can do that every day for a week, it counts exactly the same as going to the gym and actually working out.
Now, let’s bring back the “Push-Pull” motivation we mentioned earlier: Every day you aren’t able to swipe your card, you’ll have invoke some sort of negative reinforcement as a penalty — and have an accountability partner check in to keep you honest.
Have your significant other or a willing friend ask you every day after work “Hey, did you swipe your card at the gym today?” If the answer is “no,” you owe them $50. No exceptions.
Even better? Have GPS auto detect when you arrive at the gym. Or, connect with the gym’s login system, to give instantaneous non-cheatable accountability. (In fact, this is one of our favorite features of the Pavlok app — it lets you choose a referee, and use non-cheatable accountability methods like GPS or heart rate to ensure you hit your goals).
(Trust me, after one or two $50 penalties for something that requires literally NO work on your part, your brain will get the message quickly.)
So how does merely swiping your card at the gym result in forming the habit of working out?
This ridiculously simple, seemingly dumb action is actually initiating a bunch of highly sophisticated psychological triggers behind the scenes:
- Setting the bar so low that it literally requires NO effort to complete a task means that according to the BJ Fogg Behavior Model, your ability to complete the task goes WAY up. The easier something is, the less willpower/motivation it takes to perform the action (see chart above).
- By intentionally setting a super easy goal, you’re purposely creating an environment that’s structured to give you consistent success and positive feedback on a daily basis. This repeated success builds confidence. Even if you’re only swiping your gym card, doing it 5 days in a row feels great since that was your goal for the week.
- MOST IMPORTANTLY: Intentionally setting a ridiculously simple goal and achieving it over and over again begins to agitate your brain after a while. It eventually becomes impossible NOT to follow through with the entire habit, since the tiny action has already set the entire process in motion.
Sure, the first few days, you might show up to the gym, swipe your card and leave. Sweet! Mission accomplished!
But as the week progresses, your brain begins to REJECT the idea of leaving the gym without working out.
The thought process might sound something like, “This is stupid. I’m already at the gym. Maybe I’ll just get a quick workout in.”
Before you know it, you’re in full length Spandex doing Zumba to a Britney/Beyonce remix, wondering where all the time has gone.
The next day, maybe you’ll go back to just swiping the card — and that’s totally fine. However, after a week or so, it will make less and less sense to show up in the gym without working out. You will forcefully change your own psychology.
Now, you’re on a roll.
Your new cue is in place, the “micro-habit” is in full effect, backed by the threat of losing money. You’re showing up to the gym and swiping your card. You’re even working out more — and the best part is, you’ve barely expended any willpower to do so.
Now, it’s time to activate the last part of the habit formation process by creating a reward to solidify the new “micro-habit.”
The reward can be something simple, like treating yourself to a massage or movie if you swipe your card every day for a week. The actual reward isn’t important — the important part is pairing positive reinforcement with completing your goal every week.
This is the “pull” part of the “Push-Pull” motivation.
The negative reinforcement (the monetary penalty) “pushes” you to get started on your new behavior and creates urgency.
The positive reinforcement (the massage, movie, etc) “pulls” you through the behavior change week-to-week, and encourages you to keep going by rewarding you for consistently completing the “micro-habit.”
Properly implemented, the “micro-habit” system is a psychologically bulletproof strategy for starting new, positive habits.
“Micro-habits” work when when you’re tired and just don’t feel like doing your new behavior. They work when you already have ten “pre-loaded” excuses ready to go for why you can’t get something done. They even work when you’re unsure of yourself, or lacking confidence in your new behaviors.
But what if you don’t want to start a new habit? What if you want to STOP an old, detrimental one?
From smoking, to drinking, to overeating, to Facebook addiction — we all have bad behaviors that we’d like to stop doing.
Unfortunately, “Micro-habits” won’t work well for eradicating bad habits.
Instead, you’ll need to use an even more powerful weapon: Classical conditioning.
The Holy Grail: Breaking Deeply Embedded Bad Habits With Classical Conditioning
For decades, behavioral scientists, psychologists and therapists have told us that truly breaking bad a habit is impossible.
Consider extremely bad habits that turn into full-blown addictions — such as drinking or drugs.
Even the most popular addiction support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous don’t offer a permanent solution beyond lifetime management of the behavior. The rhetoric is, “once an addict, always an addict.”
How can this be? Is the human brain truly that intractable?
For decades, the focus of addiction management has been on the substitution of a bad habit for a better one.
Tools like therapy, “staying busy” or changing your social circle are all helpful — but ultimately, they only temporarily distract you from self-destructive habits — not solve them.
Until today. Enter classical conditioning.
Classical conditioning, as the name would suggest, is not a new development.
The premise is simple: in order to create an intended response, pair it with a stimuli over and over again until the stimuli alone creates the response.
Remember Ivan Pavlov, the Russian physiologist who trained his dogs to salivate every time they heard a bell ring?
At first, they only salivated when food was in front of them. Eventually, Pavlov realized that the dogs even began to salivate when he walked in the room in anticipation of the food. Fascinating. Did that mean that the salivation response was subconsciously “hard-wired” into the dogs, whether food was present or not?
To test his theory, he created a simple experiment by ringing a bell every time he fed the dogs. After they’d become accustomed to hearing the bell at mealtime, he tested his theory by ringing the bell, WITHOUT providing the food.
True to his predictions, the dogs salivated as a result of just hearing the bell because they’d learned to associate it with food. He could create the desired salivation effect on demand by simply ringing a bell.
Pavlov’s dogs are a classic high school history lesson — but the implications of his work have far surpassed salivation in canines.
It turns out that classical conditioning is MORE than just high school science — it’s also the MOST PERMANENT and MOST EFFECTIVE way to BREAK bad habits.
Operant conditioning is the best way to form new habits. Classical conditioning is the best way to break bad habits. At Pavlok, we designed our wearable technology so that you can use the same powerful principles to break your own bad habits and addictions.
The secret lies in the instantaneous pairing of a negative stimulus with the undesired behavior. This is called aversion therapy.
Imagine you’ve been smoking for twenty years. You want to quit, but nothing has worked. You’ve tried everything, from traditional therapy, to prescription medication, to cold turkey. You even tried nicotine patches.
With aversion therapy, every time you smoke, you’ll receive a mild shock instantaneously.
It’s not painful, but it’s certainly annoying. After a very short time, your brain will actually begin to associate smoking with getting shocked. Eventually, not only will you lose interest in smoking…you’ll actually become REPULSED by the idea of picking up a cigarette.
This isn’t hype, and it’s not a gimmick. In fact, research at the Schick-Shadel Hospital has shown that simply self-administering a mild shock from a 9-volt battery as one smokes a cigarette has resulted in a 95% initial success rate in cessation of smoking — and a 50% rate the year after.
These results are far better than any other method of treatment — and the concept of aversion therapy can be applied to any deeply-ingrained negative habit that you want to break — from drinking, to drugs, to biting your nails.
How Pavlok Integrates Classical Conditioning to Change Your Most Difficult Habits
- First, set the bad behavior you want to eradicate
- Then, Pavlok will begin to monitor your behaviour using sophisticated sensors and algorithms
- When you perform that behavior, Pavlok will administer a mild shock that your brain begins to pair with the behavior
But don’t take the wristband off and try to “sneak in” a quick smoke outside, or grab a cookie. Pavlok will soon contain sensors that can measure almost any variable or vital sign, including nicotine levels, blood alcohol content and glucose level. As soon as you put the band back on, you’ll receive a shock.
Don’t want to put the the band back on? Fine. It will charge your bank account every day until you do.
With Pavlok, change is truly inevitable.
What To Do Next
The main reason most people have trouble changing their lives is because they don’t even know what real change feels like.
They don’t know how it feels to wake up at 5 a.m, fully rested, and get work done.
They don’t know how it feels to be so compelled to go to the gym every day that it actually hurts more to miss a session than to just go.
They don’t know how it feels to look at a pack of cigarettes, or a bottle of whiskey, and feel completely repulsed — even after 20 years of using.
If don’t know how it FEELS to be victorious over their own psychology.
With Pavlok, finally you can.