Part 1: An Introduction to the Basics
How To Build Habits In The Brain
Maneesh Sethi, CEO and founder of Pavlok introduces you to habit change. He discusses how to create good exercise habits in the brain, but the science works for any habit. Watch the video below.
Lesson 1: What is a habit?
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 your 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.
Lesson 2: What If We Could Rewire Our Habits
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.
Lesson 3: Understanding The 3-Step Habit Formation Process
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
Lesson 4: Which is more effective for behavior change: negative or positive reinforcement?
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.