Changing Habits: Interview with Dr. Amy Bucher, a Behavior Change Designer

Changing Habits: Interview with Dr. Amy Bucher, a Behavior Change Designer

Nir’s note: I recently caught up with Dr. Amy Bucher, the author of Engaged, a compelling guidebook on designing products and services that change people’s lives. She talks about behavioral design, the science of crafting products and services in such a way as to shape or influence human behavior. Here is our conversation.

Feel free to check out my other articles about habits, motivation and self-control.

Nir Eyal: Why did you write your book?

Amy Bucher: My profession of behavior change designer is still very new. We haven’t quite coalesced yet as a professional community, and there’s not a particularly well-defined path to entering the field. I was having more and more people reach out to me wanting to know how they could get involved in behavior change design. I’d do phone calls or coffees but the demand was outpacing my capacity, and I was also left feeling frustrated that there was no resource I could put in people’s hands to help them. That was the first big reason I wanted to write Engaged. It’s a love song to what I do and an invitation to others to join me.

The second big reason is that I love to read and write, and always wanted to write a book. I can remember writing in my diary as a little girl, “I will be a writer,” and underlining the “will.” My favorite thing to read is fiction and for better or worse I’m lousy at writing it, so at some point I realized my writing would be non-fiction. When I realized I’d gotten to a point in my career where I knew enough to write a book, it was a no-brainer to do it and fulfill that childhood dream.

NE: You’ve done some fascinating research. From what you’ve learned, what surprised you the most?

AB: I still learn something surprising with every single research study I do, but nothing will ever match the surprise that got me interested in psychology research in the first place. When I was an undergrad I became a research assistant on a series of projects looking at how subtle environmental cues influence people’s performance outside of their awareness. The idea that behavior could be shaped by something we don’t even notice blew my mind. It’s continued to be something that fascinates me across different areas of research, from how habits drive so much of our daily behaviors to how cognitive biases affect how we interpret information.

I am surprised that even though environmental changes are one of the most effective behavior change techniques, whether you’re talking about habits or motivation, self-control and other personal variables are still so prominent in how people think about achieving goals.

NE: What lessons should people take away from your book regarding how they should design their own behavior or the behavior of others?

The closer you can get to a personalized approach, the better. Successful long term changes happen when a person buys into them—whether it’s because they cared enough about a goal to cultivate a series of habits, or because they’ve decided they’re willing to put in hard work for the duration. The more we can tie what we are asking people to do to reasons that matter to them, their goals and values and self-perceptions, the more we make it worth their while to try. There’s a lot we can do with technology to make a personalized approach scalable and realistic.

NE: Writing a book is hard. What do you do when you find yourself distracted or going off track?

AB: Having worked from home in the past, I already had good practices in place like designating a specific area to work in my house and carving out times dedicated to writing. But the hard thing about writing a book is that it’s done on a computer, which means I can wander off track without much effort at all. That’s how I found myself wrestling with both book-related and non-book related distractions.

The non-book related distractions were easier to combat. These were things like checking social media or answering emails. I suspended my Facebook account for a while and that really helped me cut down on using it.

animation of woman typing while distracted by phone and cat

After reading Indistractible I also deleted a number of apps from my phone to reduce the temptation further and started explicitly telling my husband when I was writing so he’d know to give me clearance. I would also close browser tabs that regularly distracted me, like Gmail; if I could see I had unread emails in the tab header, it was too hard not to click. At some point I upgraded my operating system and the notifications on Outlook and my chat program stopped working; I simply didn’t address the issue and haven’t much missed them.

Book-related distractions were trickier. I often needed to look something up to make sure I was discussing it correctly in the manuscript. That meant venturing out into the web and having to be very cognizant when I started clicking away from relevant material. I also audited hundreds of apps and collected screenshots to use as examples, which introduced lots of opportunities to get distracted. At some point, my desire to not be working helped me to ignore some of those book-related intrusions.

NE: What’s one thing you believe that most people would disagree with?

AB: I don’t know about “most people,” but I’ve had enough disagree with me that I think it’s contentious. I don’t think we can impose a moral value on most behaviors people do. We have a tendency in our language and our business goals to consider certain things as right or good, like eating vegetables or getting exercise or taking medications the way a doctor tells you to.

girls with judging you look on her face

After more than 15 years of doing research with people being asked to make these health changes, I firmly believe they need to want to do them if anything is going to stick. We can try to persuade people, or show them how these behaviors support other goals they have, but coercing them will not work in any sustained way. And I don’t think it makes someone a bad person if they prefer not to pursue these sorts of goals passed down from on high, even if they would contribute to objective improvements in some areas of their lives. The existing behaviors are clearly serving some purpose.

Another example is technology use. I know for you, and for me too, technology becomes a distraction from activities and people that we value more, and so cutting down on device use becomes a positive goal. I have to remind myself that some people derive pleasure from the technology in and of itself. It’s not necessarily wasting time to play a video game if that video game is making a person happy and is something they’re freely choosing to play. People have to raise their hands to say technology is a negative issue before it’s something they’ll work on changing.

The exception to being able to assign moral value to behaviors comes with anything that directly harms others. That gets us into edge cases—what if someone’s unwillingness to give up steak means their spouse will need to support their medical needs after a heart attack? What about the sustainability impacts of a meat-based diet? There’s a lively debate to be had there, and I do sometimes come down against personal autonomy. I’m glad people can’t smoke in restaurants anymore.

NR: What’s your most important good habit or routine?

AB: Probably running regularly. I got into running in my late twenties and it’s become a lifeline for me. I try to run between 20-30 miles per week and sign up for 1-2 half marathons per year. I struggle with it during the winter months (I live in Boston where it can get treacherous, plus I have severe Raynaud’s syndrome), but have found ways to cope. When I was unable to run for 6 weeks due to an injury a few years ago it became obvious how huge a role running plays in my ability to manage stress so now I prioritize it more.

That said, I don’t always feel like running so I’ve got a few mental tricks I use. When I’m traveling, I try to research good running routes so I don’t end up doing laps in parking lots, and then I think about the run as touring the new area by foot. I’ll also sign up for expensive treadmill speed workouts if I know I’m going to be pressed for time, because I’m sensitive to breaking commitments (and losing money). And connecting my Garmin watch to Strava means some of my friends can see when I run—I don’t want them to see me slacking.

NE: Are you working changing any bad habits?

AB: I have two big ones right now. One is that I don’t like to strength train, but I keep experiencing mild nagging injuries from running without balancing my muscles through deliberate exercise. I need to figure out how to work regular strength training into my routine.

The second is that I love food and drink. I really appreciate trying new cuisines, eating at restaurants, cooking and baking at home, having a nice bottle of wine, and so on. All of this is good in moderation but I’ve always struggled to find that right balance. I’ve made some headway by trying to be mindful about my choices. I’ll indulge on things I really love and try to savor them. It makes it easier to make healthier choices the rest of the time.

What one product or service has helped you build a healthy habit?

AB: I’ve really liked the Shapa scale, which is designed to get people into a habit of weighing themselves daily. Research shows that consistency in weigh-ins is a top predictor of weight maintenance, but like most people, I hated to do it because of the emotional reaction I’d have to the numbers. People’s weights naturally fluctuate a few pounds day to day for all kinds of reasons, but I’d see a small gain after a day of healthy choices and feel demoralized. The Shapa doesn’t have a display on the scale unit; you open an app while you stand on it, and then you get a color that lets you know if your weight is steady, rising, or declining. They use a z-score to factor out all the noise in your weight and only reflect significant changes.

It’s made a huge difference in my ability to be consistent about weighing myself. I’m approaching a 700 day streak . . . which leads to the other thing I love about my Shapa. It lets you go on vacation mode if you’ll be away from the scale. I travel a lot and it can interfere with consistency sometimes, so being able to still hit that streak makes me much more interested in getting right back on the scale when I’m home.

NE: What’s the most important takeaway you want people to remember after reading your book?

AB: I’d like to leave people with a sense of optimism and hope, that we can design products that are respectful of people while improving outcomes at scale. While I don’t think someone who fails to improve their health deserves judgment, I also recognize that the more people achieve healthy outcomes, the lower the costs to society and to loved ones. The magic is in the overlap of the Venn diagram between what people want and what benefits the collective. Behavior change can help find that overlap and design interventions to bring it to life.

Becoming indistractable requires an understanding of why you lose focus and learning the skills to do as you say. Establishing healthy habits, breaking out of your unproductive routines, and making time for what matters help you stay focused. By learning not to complain, scheduling indulgences, and understanding your internal triggers, you can harness the power to stay focused.

Nir’s Note: If you this interview got you interested in behavioral design, you might also like these other posts:

Do you follow any other thought-leaders in behavioral design? Please share them in the comments below!

“Addicted” to Technology? Why You Need To Turn The Tables And Hack Back!

“Addicted” to Technology? Why You Need To Turn The Tables And Hack Back!

Opinion: Telling ourselves that devices and platforms “hijack” our brains plays right into Big Tech’s hands.

Does repeating a falsehood make it true? It seems so, at least when it comes to the myth that technology is addicting us all. While a reassessment of the role our gadgets play in our lives is healthy, many people are buying into a self-defeating fallacy that ironically makes it harder to dial back.

Not only does the idea that technology “hijacks” our brains smack of the same moral panics leveled at previous pastimes—Novels corrupt women’s minds! Pinball machines create an unstoppable compulsion!—it also miscategorizes what addiction really is.

What addiction is and isn’t.

From a Latin word referring to enslavement, addiction is a compulsive dependency that harms the affected individual. It is a behavior or substance the person has a very difficult time stopping, even when someone wants to. An addiction, in the words of neuroscientist Marc Lewis, an addiction researcher and former addict, “is the brain focusing on just one thing, all else be damned.”

Addiction is a pathology. It is not simply liking something a lot.

In over a decade of researching, teaching, and writing about the power of technology to shape our behavior, I’ve come across many parents convinced their children are “addicted” to their phones. But when I enquire about the children’s behavior at home, most tell me they regularly have family meals with their kids and that their grades at school are fine. How can that be if they are using apps designed to addict them?

Many potentially addictive things do not addict everyone and can be used safely in moderation by nearly everyone. People drink alcohol and have sex, but that doesn’t make us all alcoholics and sex addicts. Addiction is a matter of who is using, how much they are using, and the harm done as a result. It’s never simply about the substance or behavior being used or abused.

We are quick to label behaviors we don’t like and don’t understand as “addictive” to provide a more satisfying reason to explain the things we (and others) do. It’s easier to say Netflix addicted me to binge-watching and that my child is addicted to Fortnite than to admit I didn’t spend any time planning something fun to do together as a family.

Watch what you say.

The words we use to describe our behaviors matter. While mental health professionals must offer resources for those struggling with technology overuse and the pathology of technology addiction, when we rush to call ourselves or our kids “addicted,” while doing little to try and change our ways beyond blaming big bad tech companies, we’re giving up our sense of agency when we need it most. Our perception of our own power to change is an important weapon against overuse.

A 2015 study of people addicted to alcohol found their level of physical dependency often mattered as much as their belief in their own power to change. Remember too that alcohol is a substance that crosses the blood-brain barrier; no one is injecting Instagram and freebasing Facebook. In most cases these are bad habits, not addictions.

It’s all in the brain.

But isn’t technology changing our brains? Doesn’t it send “squirts of dopamine” and activate the same brain regions cocaine does? These decontextualized, clickbaity ideas are repeated by people who haven’t comprehended the research.

Every repeated action, from learning to play the piano to studying a new language, rewires the brain and dopamine reinforces all forms of learning—neither of which are unique to online technology or necessarily sinister.

While some people with a predilection for addiction, such as those suffering from comorbidities like obsessive-compulsive disorder, may be at greater risk, the overwhelming majority of people will never become addicted to their phones. Furthermore, telling ourselves we are addicted promotes passivity instead of empowerment.

The government-waged “war on drugs” that began in the late 1960s has always been a losing battle precisely because it has often relied on the same outdated view of addiction, that the substance causes the addiction. We now know that addiction is typically a confluence of factors including the person and the psychological pain they seek to escape. For the vast majority, technology addiction will never be a problem, just as it isn’t with other substances and behaviors, so it’s senseless to regulate everyone’s use.

It’s ironic that at the same time states are deregulating cannabis, there is greater discussion of regulating the so-called addictive properties of personal technology. Nine percent of cannabis users suffer from a “cannabis use disorder” despite the fact that the psychoactive properties of cannabis are not addictive. How can this be? Because, with few exceptions, just about any analgesic is potentially addictive. Be it a substance or behavior, if it can take certain people’s minds off their problems and pain, someone is going to abuse it.

That’s why it is time for tech companies to help the small percentage of people they know are likely addicted. The silver lining of all the data being collected about each of us is that unlike other potentially addictive substances like alcohol, tech companies know how much each person is using their products. Through a “use and abuse policy,” companies could reach out to the people who spend an inordinate amount of time on their sites with a simple message: “Can we help?”

For most, it’s not about being addicted to technology, but getting the best out of it.

I’ve met with representatives from Facebook, Google, Reddit, and Snapchat, along with several other large consumer tech companies to discuss this solution. They’ve all assured me they’re looking into the proposition. But if they don’t act soon, use and abuse policies may be the basis of sensible regulation.

However, for those not actually addicted, the answer is not to vilify tech for its potentially addictive properties. After all, we want the products we use to be entertaining, sometimes even habit-forming. That’s what they’re designed to do and why we use them. We like that YouTube gives us topically relevant videos and that Instagram helps keep us in touch with friends. We want companies to use the same tactics that keep users hooked to social media or online games to also help us form healthy habits with apps encouraging exercise or learning a new language. Products designed to be engaging isn’t necessarily a problem, it’s often progress.

Of course, there are negative consequences to new, habit-forming technologies, such as the YouTube algorithm that has driven users toward extremist content. While those must be addressed, we must also not fool ourselves into thinking we’re hopelessly hooked. We don’t need to believe tech is addicting us to moderate its use. We can take steps to get the best out of tech without letting it get the best of us, like learning to cope with the emotional triggers that drive us to check our devices too much and by removing the pings and dings that don’t serve us. Remember, once we reclaim our phones and other devices to serve us instead of the tech companies, there’s little they can do about it. No matter how persuasive these companies’ products are, we are more powerful.

Clearly, there are many problems Big Tech needs to be held accountable for. I’m not giving them a free pass when it comes to privacy incursions, anticompetitive practices, and election meddling. But spreading the untruth that our devices are controlling all of our brains actually plays into these companies’ hands by making it so. The belief robs us of our agency to take action. If we hold our breath waiting for regulators to do something or tech companies to make their products less engaging, we’re going to suffocate. Instead, it’s time we stop relinquishing control and hack back.

This article also appeared on

Progressive Extremism: How To Be A Better You

Progressive Extremism: How To Be A Better You

I had just finished giving a speech on building habits when a woman in the audience exclaimed, “You teach how to create habits, but that’s not my problem. I’m fat!” The frustration in her voice echoed throughout the room. “My problem is stopping bad habits. That’s why I’m fat. Where does that leave me?” I deeply sympathized with the woman. “I was once clinically obese,” I told her. She stared at my lanky frame and waited for me to explain.

Whether it’s changing our penchant for eating unhealthy food or reining in our predilection for distraction, starting a new routine is very different from breaking an existing habit. For example, creating a habit requires encoding a new set of automatic behaviors, while breaking a habit requires a different set of processes. The brain learns causal relationships between triggers that prompt an action and the associated outcome. If you’d like to get in the habit of taking a vitamin every day, for instance, the key is to place the pills somewhere in the path of your normal routine—say, next to your toothbrush—so you remember to take one each morning before you brush. Doing so daily acts as a reminder until, over time, the behavior becomes something done with little or no conscious thought.

However, breaking an existing habit is an entirely different story, and the distinction is something many people mischaracterize. For example, Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, describes a bad cookie-eating habit that added eight pounds to his waistline. Every day, Duhigg says, he found himself going to the fourteenth floor of his office building to buy a cookie. When he began to analyze this habit, Duhigg discovered that the real reward for his behavior was not the cookie itself but the socializing he enjoyed while nom-nom-nom-ing with coworkers. Once Duhigg figured out that the reward was connecting with friends, he could get rid of the cookie-eating habit by substituting one routine for another. Voilà!

Duhigg echoes the popular belief that the key to breaking a bad habit is replacing it with another habit. I’m not so sure. Maybe replacing cookies with coworkers did it for Duhigg, but what if you’re the kind of person (like me) who loves the hell out of cookies? I was clinically obese precisely because I love cookies (among many other delicious things)! For me, ooey gooey chocolate chewy beats chatting it up with Mel from Accounting any time.

“Where does that leave me?” the woman in the audience wanted to know. Having struggled with my own weight for years, there was no way I was going to look her in the face and tell her she should chat it up with her coworkers the next time she has a sugar craving.

The ‘Progressive Extremism’ Technique

When it comes to gaining control over bad habits, like eating food we know isn’t good for us or succumbing to distraction, I shared a technique with the women in the audience that worked wonders for me. I call it “progressive extremism,” and it works particularly well in situations in which substituting one habit for another just won’t do.

To apply this technique, start by identifying the behavior you want to stop doing. For example, say you’d like to stop eating processed sugar. Taken all at once, cutting out the manufactured sweet stuff is too big of a goal for most people to quit cold turkey. Instead, think of just one specific sugar-laden food you’re able to cut from your diet and remove it from your life—sort of like the way a religious adherent or vegetarian gives up pleasures others might enjoy. Make your first elimination choice something you wouldn’t really miss and can be gone forever from your diet; that’s critical because starting with something relatively small and easy to quit begins the process of changing your habits and your identity for good.

To Be a Better You Takes Time

Unfortunately, the mistake most well-intentioned people make when attempting the “I can’t” to “I don’t” metamorphosis is biting off more than they can chew (excuse the pun). For example, do you like candy corn? I sure don’t. As a kid, the stuff was always the dregs of my Halloween haul. For me, removing candy corn for life was no big deal, so it was first on my list to ditch forever. I don’t eat candy corn, and I never will. Done!

The same practice goes for stopping other behaviors that don’t serve us. When I decided to stop reading articles in the web browser of my laptop and started using the Pocket app instead, I found it to be an easy elimination I’ll never go back to.

After picking the behavior you want to give up, be it eating an undesirable food or indulging in a distraction that doesn’t serve you, the next step is to write it down, along with the date you gave it up for good. This on-paper action marks the shift from a temporary “can’t” to a permanent “don’t.”

Once you’ve achieved that milestone, the final step is to be patient. This transformation takes time. Every few months, review your list of the things you’ve given up. I have a reminder set in my calendar to review my items every six months. Then, when you’re ready, reevaluate what else you can do. Find another unwanted behavior to remove that meets the criteria of something you can give up for life that you wouldn’t really miss. For me, after I kicked candy corn to the curb, I decided to never again have sugary carbonated drinks in my home. Easy peasy. When it came to digital distraction, I decided to take Facebook off my phone and commit to only use it at my desk instead. No biggie.

If the commitment feels like too much, you’re doing too much. Each step needs to feel almost effortless but involve something you can be proud to give up forever. It doesn’t matter whether the behavior is related to what you eat or how you use technology. This technique works for any distraction that gets in the way of our values and goals.

The process of unwinding bad habits takes years, but progressive extremism is an effective way I’ve found to stop behaviors that weren’t serving me. Occasionally, I look at all the unhealthy things that no longer control me the way they once did. And if I feel up to it, I find new bad habits to slay by making them something I just don’t do as part of my new identity. By slowly ratcheting up what you don’t do, you invest in a new identity through your record of successfully dropping bad habits from your life.

Excerpted from Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life by Nir Eyal, BenBella Books, Inc. Copyright 2019 Nir Eyal. All rights reserved.

This article also appeared on Behavioral Scientist.
Stop Confusing Habits for Routines: What You Need To Know

Stop Confusing Habits for Routines: What You Need To Know

Trying to build good habits can often backfire. Here’s why it’s important to know how habits are formed and when it’s better to stick with a routine instead.

Habits are hot. Self-help articles extol the power of habits and books on the topic sell by the millions. Yet, like many pop psychology topics, the conventional wisdom about the effectiveness and application of habits is frequently outdated, misapplied, or flat out wrong. Building habits to change behavior the right way can be a wonderful tool to improve your life. But false notions about what habits are and what they can do can backfire.

The idea of building a habit is very appealing. The popular notion that tasks can be put on autopilot makes habits sound effortless. Wouldn’t it be great if you could simply make a habit out of doing tasks like exercising, journaling, paying bills, or running a side business? Unfortunately, you can’t. Habits don’t work that way.

What are Habits?

According to Dr. Benjamin Gardner, a habit researcher at King’s College London, “habit works by generating an impulse to do a behavior with little or no conscious thought.” Habits are a type of learning. By forming a habit, the brain frees the mind to do other things without deliberation.

As a child, you needed reminding to wash your hands after using the toilet. Children must focus on the task of turning on the water, dispensing the soap, lathering up, and cleaning their hands. As an adult, you do this automatically (hopefully) and you’re able to think about other things as you take the steps to wash your hands.

Only Some Behaviors can Become Habits

By definition, behaviors that require concentration, deliberation, or extended effort, are not habits.1Mendelsohn, Alana I. “Creatures of Habit: The Neuroscience of Habit and Purposeful Behavior.” Biological Psychiatry 85, no. 11 (June 1, 2019): e49–51. … Continue reading This isn’t just semantics. We shouldn’t try to form a habit out of a task that can never become one. If we do, will be sorely disappointed.

When we fail at forming a habit, we tend to blame ourselves, rather than the bad advice we read from someone who doesn’t really understand what can and cannot be a habit.

If behaviors that require conscious thought, like cleaning your apartment or writing in a journal daily, are not habits, then what are they? They are routines. A routine is “a sequence of actions regularly followed.” 2New Oxford American Dictionary (Second Edition).

To change a behavior you need to understand the difference between a habit and a routine. Otherwise, it’s like using the blunt end of a screwdriver to bash in a nail. It’s possible, but you’re likely to give up or hurt yourself. You should have used a hammer instead.

How do we tell the difference between behaviors that are good candidates to become habits and those best left as routines? To answer that question we need to start with a more fundamental question, “Why do we do anything?”

Like what you’re reading? This article draws on my book, Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life. You can order it here and subscribe to my newsletter to receive more great articles.

What is Motivation?

For years, we thought that Sigmund Freud’s “pleasure principle” is the basis of human motivation. He promoted the idea that behavior is driven by the desire to seek pleasure and avoid pain. Behaviorists like B.F. Skinner popularized the notion that reinforcements and punishments drive conditioned behavior.

But, we now know that motivation is not driven by pleasure and pain. Rather, neurologically speaking, motivation is the desire to escape discomfort. All human behavior, even the itch of desire to do something pleasurable, is in fact prompted by pain. It’s called the homeostatic response.

Our brains get our bodies to do what they want through discomfort. When we’re cold, we put on a coat. When we feel hunger pangs, we eat. Does feeling warm again or eating food bring pleasure? Of course. But that good feeling comes after we’re spurred into action by an uncomfortable sensation prompting us to take action.

The same rule applies to psychological discomfort. When we feel lonely, bored, or uncertain, we act to relieve our emotional disquietude. We might see a friend to relieve loneliness, or watch a show on television when we’re bored. We may look up something online to satisfy our uncertainty — all because we seek to escape these uncomfortable sensations.

The Difference Between Habits and Routines

If all behavior is prompted by discomfort, then habits and routines must follow the same rule. How and when we feel the discomfort of doing, or not doing, a behavior is critical to understanding the difference between habits and routines.

Recall that part of the reason people find the idea of building a habit so appealing is the notion that they can put unfun tasks on autopilot. Tasks like paying bills or doing the laundry annoy us. They hang over our heads until the pain of not doing them gets to be too much. However, if some magic laundry-folding fairy appeared and told you not to worry about the task, you’d happily go about your day. Turns out your brain comes built in with just such a magic pixie, it’s called procrastination.

When we procrastinate, we tell ourselves we’ll avoid the task for later. Doing so is a telltale sign the task is a routine and not a good candidate to become a habit.

Imagine intending to wash your hands and the water suddenly shuts off. If you’re in the habit, not doing the behavior would feel strange, even uncomfortable. Even if the magic habit fairy told you your hands had been cleaned and there was no need to wash them, it would take you several days, if not weeks, to undo this habitual behavior.

I recently experienced just such a predicament when the water to my bathroom sink was shut off because of construction in my building. I needed to use the kitchen sink to wash my hands for a week. Even though I was fully aware that the bathroom sink wasn’t going to work, I kept turning it on day after day out of habit. Every time I lifted the faucet handle and no water came out, my habit was interrupted and I’d get annoyed. I knew the faucet wouldn’t work, but I kept attempting to do the behavior with little thought.

A habit feels uncomfortable when we don’t do it, exactly the opposite is true of routines. This is where people get into trouble confusing habits and routines. They expect routines to be as effortless as habits, while the only thing about routines that’s easy, is how easy they are to skip. Not doing an effortful task, like doing the laundry or writing in a journal, is easy to forget because such behaviors are not a habit, they are a routine that requires effort.

How Habits are Formed

Some self-help books claim habits form by simply providing a reward after a cued behavior. In the behaviorist tradition, they base their claims on research showing how a lab animal, like a mouse, can be taught to memorize a path through a maze in search of food. However, while this form of learning, called operant conditioning, works well for a mouse in a maze, the model is often misapplied for humans in the real world.

Operant conditioning can be effective when a scientist in a lab coat sets up the task for test subjects to complete. However, in life, we are thankfully not trapped in cages and mazes, we must moderate our own behavior. Unfortunately, we must be scientists attempting to design our own actions. Offering ourselves extrinsic rewards makes conditioning our own behavior very difficult. It can be exceedingly hard to resist cheating. Setting up arbitrary prizes risks overemphasizing completing a goal for the sake of the reward, instead of learning to enjoy the process.

Start with a Routine

First we have to accept that only certain kinds of behaviors can become habits, and that certain behaviors will never become habits. Only then can we take the first step to changing our repeated behaviors. For those actions that can turn into habits, we can begin by making them into routines. As long as we know the difference between a habit (a behavior done with little or no thought) and a routine (a series of actions regularly followed) we can plan accordingly and not be disappointed.

Hold the Time

Since we can’t count on routines to happen automatically the way habits do, we need to make sure to allocate time for them. Many people go through their days with aspirations to accomplish a list of tasks. But without dedicating time on their calendars to do them, they never get everything done.

Setting an “implementation intention,” which is just a fancy way of saying that you will plan what you are going to do and when you are going to do it, has been shown to boost the likelihood of following through.3Rogers, Todd, Katherine L. Milkman, Leslie K. John, and Michael I. Norton. “Beyond Good Intentions: Prompting People to Make Plans Improves Follow-through on Important Tasks.” Behavioral Science … Continue reading Without a dedicated time reserved for your new routine, chances are it’ll never get done.

If you’d like to know more about how to properly schedule your day, read this article and try this free online schedule maker tool you can use to plan your day.

Welcome Discomfort

It’s important to expect that learning and repeatedly doing a new behavior requires effort. Expect discomfort and know that you’ll have to push through it. Along with setting expectations that new routines won’t be effortless, you can learn coping techniques to deal with discomfort in a healthier manner.

For instance, you can learn to re-imagine the difficulty in a positive way by telling yourself a different story. Instead of focusing on how hard writing or exercising every day can be, think of the difficulty as part of the journey. Know that everyone who has ever made a routine out of this behavior has struggled at some point.

If you desire to go to the gym regularly but dislike exercise, find ways to see it differently. Envision every drop of sweat as a sign your body is getting stronger. Learn to see the burn as tiny muscle fibers getting better at doing their job, as your body rises to the challenge. Perception is a matter of perspective, no matter the routine, you can choose to re-imagine your discomfort as a good thing. This may seem like a stretch for someone who hates exercise, as I once did. But it’s useful to remember that many people have learned to love the very same difficulty you despise. If they can see it differently, why can’t you?


Before a behavior can become a habit, it needs to become a regularly performed routine. But given how effortful routines can be, it’s far too easy to skip a difficult task. Thankfully, making a pre-commitment is a fantastic way to ensure you do what you say you will do.

For instance, if writing or exercising daily is a routine you want to adopt, finding someone to hold you accountable will increase your odds of success. Sites like FocusMate, make finding someone to work alongside easy (note: I liked FocusMate so much I decided to invest in the company). You can also pre-commit to a routine by using software like Forest on your phone and Freedom on your computer to prevent distraction and keep you on task.

Do It Right

By not expecting every aspiration to become an effortless habit, you increase your odds of success. If it’s the right kind of behavior, one that can be done with little or no conscious thought, the routine can become a habit.

It’s important to remember not to try and turn hard-to-do behaviors into habits. Doing so risks frustration and failure. Instead, accept that it’s perfectly fine that some behaviors will remain routines and expect them to never become effortless. By focusing on forming solid routines through the steps outlined above, you’ll have a better chance of sticking to what’s important to you, while increasing the odds that some routines may blossom into habits.


  • When people say they want something to become a “habit” they mean they want it to be effortless. Wouldn’t it be great, the thinking goes, if we could do unfun tasks like exercising, eating healthy, or writing daily, on autopilot? Unfortunately we can’t.
  • To change a behavior you need to understand the difference between a habit and a routine. Otherwise, it’s like using the blunt end of a screwdriver to bash in a nail.
  • Knowing when to use the right tool for the job can prevent frustration and help you accomplish your goals.
  • All behavior is prompted by discomfort.
  • A habit is an impulse to do a behavior with little or no conscious thought. Not doing a habit feels uncomfortable, like not washing your hands after using the toilet or not flossing your teeth before bed.
  • A routine is a behavior frequently repeated. Unlike a habit, skipping a routine doesn’t feel bad and without proper forethought, can be easily skipped or forgotten.
  • Some routines can become habits but only if it’s a behavior that can be done with little conscious thought. Trying to turn a behavior that requires a lot of effort (like writing or breaking a physical fitness record) into a habit will backfire if you expect it to become effortless.
  • Forming a habit requires first sticking to a routine. To do that, make time in your schedule, expect and learn to cope with discomfort, and find ways to pre-commit to the task.


Why People Check Their Tech at the Wrong Times (and the Simple Trick to Stop It)


Illustration by Liz Fosslien

Chances are you’ve experienced the following: You’re with a small group of friends at a nice restaurant. Everyone is enjoying the food and conversation when someone decides to take out his phone — not for an urgent call, but to check email, Instagram, and Facebook.

Maybe you’ve witnessed this behavior and found it unsettling. So what do you do? Do you sit idly by, thinking disparaging thoughts? Or do you call out the offender?