It can be extraordinarily difficult to stop habits head-on. Brain damage, surgery, even Alzheimer’s disease and dementia sometimes fail to stop them.1But why are they so difficult to change? First, it’s because habits are automatic, and not conscious. The conscious part of our minds, the part that would seek to remove habits, is only vaguely aware of their execution;2we often don’t notice habits when they occur and we don’t remember doing them afterwards. Across dozens of studies on behavior change interventions, researchers have found that the conscious mind’s sincere, concerted intention to change behavior has little relationship to actual change in behavior.3
Second, it’s because habits never truly go away – once a habit is formed (i.e. the brain is rewired to associate the stimulus and response), it doesn’t normally un-form. It can remain latent or unused, but under the right circumstances, that circuitry in the brain can be activated and cause the habitual behavior to reappear.
Another way of thinking of habit cessation is this: if breaking bad habits were easy, we wouldn’t need so many darned books on everything from stopping smoking to dieting. Nevertheless, we can draw lessons from the literature on habit formation and change – which can save product teams needless pain and suffering. Three strategies for handling an existing habit include:
- Avoid the cue
- Replace the routine
- Cleverly use consciousness to interfere
In each case, the person doesn’t just engage in a direct confrontation to suppress the habit. That takes constant willpower, which is finite and unsustainable in most cases. Instead, the person takes a more subtle, and powerful, route. In each case, product teams can better help users change habits.
Option 1: Help the person avoid the cue
Habits are an automatic reaction to a cue, signaling the mind to undertake a learned routine. One way to stop a habit is to avoid the cue altogether.4For example, in addiction counseling, counselors advise addicts to change their environment so that they don’t encounter the things that remind them to act. If you always stop for a drink when you see the bar on the way home, then change your route home so you don’t see the bar anymore.
Designing a product to help people avoid cues is especially tricky. First of all, most cues for bad habits are, by definition, outside of the behavior-change product. People use the product in order to change the habit; the habit doesn’t have a prior direct connection to the product. The product must help a person avoid the cues themselves by offering guidance and instruction. And the individual must first know what the cues are – and be able to successfully avoid them.
Second, because the routine is outside of the product, the application usually won’t know if the person has engaged in the behavior. It’s up to the user to report falling off the wagon, which is doubly difficult. External monitoring systems are required – like the breathalyzers that alcoholics install in their cars to stop them from driving drunk. While interventions to fight chemical addiction obviously involve other techniques as well, but we can learn from these monitoring efforts as we design products to stop less intractable habits.
While this route is clearly challenging, there are products that have been successful. One example is Covenant Eyes – software that helps people who are struggling with sexual addiction or who want to avoid the temptation before a habit is formed. It helps users avoid cues (by filtering out sites with explicit content) and/or automatically monitors web usage to inform accountability partners when the user does access pornography.
Covenant Eyes: an application to stop the habit of viewing sexual material online, via filtering and automatic monitoring.
Option 2: Change the habit into something else
Another strategy that products can use to help users change bad habits is to transition an existing cue and reward to a different (more beneficial) behavior. Charles Duhigg, in The Power of Habit, describes two elements that are needed: routine replacement, and a real belief that the habit can change.
Routine replacement works by hijacking the cue and the reward, and inserting a different routine between them. He uses the example of taking a snack break when you’re not really hungry. The cue may be that you’re having a down moment at work or watching a commercial on TV. The reward would be the relief of (momentary) boredom and the pleasant crunching sensation of the snack. To hijack this process, one needs to:
- Identify the trigger, and the reward (when appropriate);
- Consciously do a different routine when the trigger occurs, that provides the same reward (like doing a crossword puzzle when bored during commercials);
- Continue that conscious switching of routines until the new habit is instilled.
The process of consciously replacing routines is also known as “competing response training”. It is used in the treatment of people with Tourette’s syndrome (involuntary tics), and has shown dramatic results in experimental testing.5
How does routine replacement work in practice? One of two ways. First, you can ensure that the product itself is present at the moment when the cue normally occurs. At that moment, it would remind or entice the user to do the new routine instead of the old one. After, the routine is done, it would reward the user – or encourage them to reward themselves.
The other route is trickier, and is needed when the product isn’t present when the user encounters the cue. As with avoiding the cue (previous section), the product must advise and prepare the individual for the moment of temptation, and find some way of tracking what action the person took. ChangeTech.no has an intensive program of support and tracking that accomplishes this, with over 400 points of contact with individuals during their smoking cession program. And, their method has shown positive results in randomized control trials.6
An example of in-the-moment hijacking of habits that we’re all familiar with is shopping in brick and mortar stores with a smartphone:
- Cue: see a camera, computer, etc. you like.
- Old Routine: pick it up, go to the cash register, buy it.
- New Routine: look it up on the phone, compare price (usually lower), and buy it.
- Reward: feel great about saving money, receive item, imagine yourself using the cool camera, etc.
This habit hijack is killing brick and mortar stores. It’s not a “beneficial behavior change”, but it’s the same underlying process.
Option 3: Use conscious interference
Our big brains are really good at blocking our own autopilot; properly deployed they can interfere with habits in progress without requiring direct willpower to overcome the action. Thinking = bad, for a habit at least. In sports, masters of their game sometimes “choke” because they consciously cut into a process that normally runs on autopilot, and this happens in any field of mastery.7To interfere with a habit: think about it. Look especially for what triggers it. Then closely examine the routine that’s normally automatic – just by thinking about it (consciously) we can interfere with its smooth execution.
Products that do this should be present at the time of action, and can grab the user’s conscious attention to their behavior. The Prius is well known functioning this way. The car’s consumption monitor provides ongoing, immediate, feedback about the car’s gasoline consumption. This in-the-moment feedback that can break people out of their existing driving habits by making them consciously aware of what’s going on, and causing them to use less gasoline: aka “the Prius Effect”.
In order for this approach to work, like all habit-intervention (and habit formation), approaches, it must be voluntary. If people don’t care about their mileage, or find the car’s consumption monitor annoying, they won’t listen to it. It starts with the conscious choice to act.
On a Napkin: Changing Habits
- When breaking habits, cleverly attack the habit’s structure to hinder it from occurring. Don’t ask users to forcibly overcome their habit with willpower alone.
- Tactic 1: Help users avoid whatever cues them to start the habit -- like the sight of the liquor store that triggers cues to them buy alcohol.
- Tactic 2: Routine replacement - keep the cue, but associate it with a new routine. Amazon successfully taught shoppers that when see something they like in a store (cue), to search Amazon for it on their phones (new routine) instead of immediately picking it up and buying it (old routine).
- Tactic 3: Interfere with the habit by asking users to think about it as it occurs. For example, the “Prius Effect” entails bringing conscious awareness to a normally non-conscious process (how you drive), with constant feedback about speed and energy usage.
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