Welcome to the Huberman Lab Podcast,
where we discuss science
and science-based tools for everyday life.
I’m Andrew Huberman,
and I’m a professor of neurobiology and ophthalmology
at Stanford School of Medicine.
Today, we’re talking all about habits.
In particular, we’re going to discuss the biology
of habit formation and the biology of how we break habits.
I think we can all appreciate the value of having habits.
Habits organize our behavior
into more or less reflexive actions,
so we don’t have to think too much
about performing the various behaviors that,
for instance, allow us to brush our teeth
or which side of bed we roll out of in the morning.
And then of course, habits can be more elaborate too.
We can be in the habit of exercising
at a particular time of day.
We can be in the habit of eating certain foods.
We can be in the habit of saying
or not saying certain things.
But of course, there are many habits
that don’t serve us well,
or that perhaps even undermine our immediate
and long-term health goals and psychological goals,
and even some habits that can really undermine
our overall life goals.
So today, we’re going to talk about making,
meaning forming, and breaking,
meaning stopping various habits.
There’s a lot of information out there about habits.
You’ll find this in the popular sphere.
There are books, there are articles,
there are workshops, and so forth.
However, lesser known is that there’s a whole neuroscience
of habit formation and habit breaking,
and there’s a whole field of psychology devoted
to understanding habit formation and habit breaking.
And within those scientific literatures,
I think there are some real gems that,
at least to my knowledge,
we haven’t paid too much attention to in the popular sphere.
So today, we’re going to talk about the biology
of habit formation and habit breaking.
I’m also going to spell out two specific types
of habit formation and habit breaking programs.
I’m going to boil these down to some very explicit steps
that anyone can use.
My reasoning for doing that is,
first of all, it’s the end of 2021.
Many people are thinking about New Year’s resolutions.
They’re thinking about leaving some things behind
from 2021 and previous,
and acquiring some new behaviors,
taking on some new challenges,
and trying to bring new things to their lives.
But regardless of when you’re listening to this,
the programs that I’ll outline are grounded
in the neuroscience and biology of habit formation,
and they map very well to what the psychologists
have described in terms of habit formation and breaking.
So today, you’re going to learn a lot of science.
You’re also going to come away with some practical tools,
and I’m certain that regardless of your present state
or goals, there’ll be something of value to you.
Before we begin, I’d like to emphasize
that this podcast is separate from my teaching
and research roles at Stanford.
It is, however, part of my desire and effort
to bring zero cost to consumer information about science
and science-related tools to the general public.
In keeping with that theme,
I’d like to thank the sponsors of today’s podcast.
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Let’s talk about habits.
And anytime we’re talking about habits,
that means our nervous system learns something.
Now, many people think that habits are just like reflexes,
but pure reflexes are things like the eye blink reflex.
You know, something comes toward your eye
and you don’t want it to get in your eye, you’ll blink.
Or if you happen to step on a sharp object
or get too close to something that’s too hot,
you’ll reflexively move away.
Those aren’t habits.
Those are what we call hardwired reflexes.
Habits are things that our nervous system learned,
but not always consciously.
Sometimes we develop habits that we’re not even aware of
until they become a problem,
or maybe they serve us well, who knows?
But the fact of the matter is that habits
are a big part of who we are.
What we do habitually makes up much of what we do entirely.
In fact, it’s estimated that up to 70%
of our waking behavior is made up of habitual behavior.
So you can imagine that there’s a lot of biology,
meaning cells and hormones and neural pathways, et cetera,
that are going to support the development of those habits.
So if habits are largely learned consciously
or unconsciously, we have to ask ourselves,
what is learning?
Well, learning is neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity is simply the process
by which our nervous system changes
in response to experience.
We have to ask what changes?
Well, what changes are the connections between neurons?
Neurons are just nerve cells.
They communicate with one another by electricity
and by sending chemical signals to one another
that inspire the next neuron and the next neuron
to either be electrically active or not.
But at the end of the day,
neuroplasticity is about forming new neural circuits,
new pathways by which certain habits are likely to occur
and other ones are less likely to occur.
So we’ve got habits.
We have that habits are learned.
We have that learning involves neuroplasticity
and that neuroplasticity involves changes
in the connections between neurons, nerve cells.
Okay, so that describes habits
through the lens of neuroscience and biology.
But as many of you are well aware,
there are popular books about habits
and there’s a whole psychological literature about habits.
And those two areas point to some very interesting aspects
of habits that I think are worth mentioning.
First of all, is this notion of immediate goal-based habits
versus identity-based habits.
Immediate goal-based habits are going to be habits
that are designed to bring you a specific outcome
as you do them.
So each and every time you do them.
So for instance, it might be that you want to develop
a habit of getting 60 minutes of zone two cardio each day
or perhaps three, four times a week
as we head into the new year.
I’ve talked before on the podcast
about the fact that the scientific literature
and the health literature really points
to the incredibly positive effects
of getting 150 minutes to 180 minutes per week minimum
of what’s called zone two cardio.
Zone two cardio is basically any cardiovascular exercise
that gets you moving and your heart pumping and breathing,
but not so hard that you can’t hold a conversation.
As it kind of puts you at the threshold
of being just able to have a conversation
that’s a little bit strained.
But if you were to exercise a little bit harder,
you know, run a little bit faster, et cetera,
you wouldn’t be able to talk while you did it.
There’s a lot of literature that points to that
as a healthy practice.
So maybe you’re somebody that wants to get more
of zone two cardio, for instance.
That would be an immediate goal-based habit.
If your goal is to get that cardio maybe four times a week,
every time you do it, you could check off a little box
and you’d say, okay, I did it, you met the goal.
That is different than so-called identity-based habits
where there’s a larger overarching theme to the habit
where you’re trying to become, quote unquote, a fit person,
or you’re somebody who wants to be an athlete
or something of that sort.
It’s where you start to attach some sort of larger picture
about yourself or what it means for you to do that habit,
where there’s both the immediate goal, right?
Complete the exercise, complete the session
or whatever it is, check off that box,
but that you’re linking it to some sort of larger goal.
Now, why am I making this distinction?
I mean, first of all,
I’m not the one to first make this distinction.
Others have made the distinction between identity
versus immediate goal-based habit formation.
But the reason I’m making the distinction
is that pretty soon in our discussion today,
we are going to talk about dopamine,
a molecule that’s associated with motivation and reward
that we make in our brain
and how different schedules of dopamine release
predict whether or not we will stick to a habit or not.
And in particular, whether or not we will be able to form
that habit quickly or not.
Now, this is absolutely critical to understand
for the following reason.
Another thing that you’ll hear out there in the literature
is that it takes 21 days to form a habit.
Some people say 18, some people say 21,
some people say 30 days, some people say 60 days.
So which one is it?
Does it depend on the habit that one is trying to form
or does it depend on the person
that’s trying to form the habit?
Well, it turns out that there’s excellent
peer-reviewed data on this.
There’s a study published in 2010,
first author Lally, L-A-L-L-Y.
This study found that for the same habit to be formed,
it can take anywhere from 18 days to as many as 254 days
for different individuals to form that habit.
The reason I bring this up is that I always get asked,
is it true that it takes 21 days to form a habit?
Is it true that your nervous system changes in six days
when you’re doing something repeatedly?
And the answer is, as I mentioned before,
it’s highly variable.
What I didn’t tell you actually was what specific habit
they were looking at in that Lally study.
And it’s interesting that the specific behavior
was a health-related behavior.
That’s pretty relevant to our discussion here
on the podcast, which was taking walks after dinner.
There’s actually a really nice literature
showing that walks after a meal
can speed glucose clearance from the bloodstream,
can be beneficial for not just weight loss,
but cardiovascular health, et cetera.
So a walk after dinner seems pretty straightforward, right?
Well, in order to form that habit,
it took some people 18 days and other people 254 days.
How did they know when they formed the habit?
Well, they were doing it about 85% of the time.
And they also reported not having to spend
that much mental effort in order to get into the mode
of taking a walk after dinner.
So for those of you listening,
some of you might be thinking,
I can’t believe that it would take some people 254 days
to get into that habit.
But as I said, people are highly variable.
And if you can’t form one habit easily,
it doesn’t mean that you can’t form other habits easily.
The mystery of why certain people can form certain habits
more easily than others probably has something to do
with how well people manage what’s called limbic friction.
Now, limbic friction is not a term
that you’re going to find
in the formal neurobiological literature
or even psychological literature.
It’s frankly a term that I coined to encompass
a number of different pieces of the psychology
and neuroscience literature.
Limbic friction is a shorthand way
that I use to describe the strain that’s required
in order to overcome one of two states within your body.
One state is one of anxiousness
where you’re really anxious
and therefore you can’t calm down, you can’t relax,
and therefore you can’t engage in some particular activity
or thought pattern that you would like.
The other state is one in which you’re feeling too tired
or lazy or not motivated.
Both of those states, feeling too alert and too calm,
if you will, relate to the function
of the so-called autonomic nervous system,
a set of neurons and hormones and chemicals
in your brain and body that act as sort of a seesaw.
You’re either alert or calm.
You’re either asleep or stressed.
Those two states are not compatible with one another.
You’ve probably heard of wired and tired,
but that’s really once you’ve been very stressed
for a long time to the point where you’re exhausted.
What does the autonomic nervous system
have to do with any of this?
Well, limbic friction is a phrase that can be used
to describe how much effort,
how much activation energy you need
in order to engage in a particular behavior.
So using this Lally study as an example,
some people would eat dinner and then say,
oh, that’s right, I’m trying to develop the habit
of taking a walk after dinner, so let’s get up and go.
Other people will feel like I just don’t want to do it today.
They’re going to feel too much limbic friction,
and that limbic friction could arrive, again,
from one of two sources.
It could be because they are too tired to do it,
or it could be because they’re too anxious
and distracted in order to do it.
So this is a key distinction.
A lot of habit formation has to do
with being in the right state of mind
and being able to control your state of body and mind.
So as we march forward, what you’re going to find
is that this phrase or this term limbic friction
is going to be a useful metric
or way for you to touch in with yourself
and address whether or not you are likely to be able
to form a certain habit easily,
or whether or not it’s going to be very challenging.
And I’m going to teach you a way to measure
your degree of limbic friction,
that is how much activation energy it will take
in order for you to execute a new habit.
And I’m going to teach you how to measure
your limbic friction and activation energy
for how likely it is that you’re going to be able
to break a habit that you don’t want to have.
The other key concept for us to address
that’s really mainly found in the books
and articles out there about habits
is this notion of what I call linchpin habits.
Lynchpin habits are certain habits
that make a lot of other habits easier to execute.
Now, the sorts of lynchpin habits that I’m referring to
are always going to be things that you enjoy doing.
I’ll just give you an example from my life.
I happen to like exercise, not all forms of exercise,
but I happen to like resistance training
and I happen to like running.
So I’m personally in the habit
of getting cardiovascular exercise
three or four times per week,
maybe 30 to 60 minutes per session.
And I’m in the habit of doing resistance training
three or four times per week,
typically also for about 45 to 60 minutes per session.
Now I enjoy those.
And for reasons that I’ll get into a little bit later,
I place those activities typically early in the day
because of the neurochemistry
and the various types of hormones, et cetera,
that are associated with performing those activities.
But I really place those activities
under the umbrella of what I call lynchpin habits.
Because those particular habits are easy to execute
because I enjoy them,
but they also make a lot of other habits
easier to execute.
Things like being alert for work,
things like making sure that I get good sleep
the night before,
things like hydration,
things like making sure that I eat the foods
that are better for me
than maybe some of the other foods
that I would more reflexively reach to
if I weren’t doing that training.
So certain habits act as lynchpins,
meaning that they shift a lot of other things.
They can control and bias the likelihood that,
in this case, you or me,
will perform other habits that are harder to access,
that we have less of an affinity for.
So again, there’s three concepts
that we need to include here.
We’ve got identity-based versus goal-based habits.
We’ve got the concept that different habits
take different periods of time to adopt
depending on the person and the habit,
and that there are these, what I call lynchpin habits,
certain habits that make other habits easier to execute.
And those lynchpin habits always, always, always
are things that we enjoy doing.
So our goal throughout this episode
is for you to identify which habits
are easy for you to perform,
which ones are hard for you to perform,
and which habits you want to break.
If you want to grab a pen and paper, you can do that,
or if you want to dictate some of that into your phone,
you can, but right now, actually,
if you just want to think about these concepts,
you can always go back later.
I’ll make sure to spell out a very specific way
that you can chart out a map towards forming
particular habits and breaking particular habits later on.
What I’d like us to do at this point
is to take that concept of limbic friction,
and for you to ask yourself,
what habits you perform on a daily basis?
And these could be things as basic
as brushing your teeth before breakfast,
or brushing your teeth after breakfast.
It could be, for instance, that you get exercise,
or you get it at a particular time of day,
or even that you take a particular route to work, right?
We are very habitual,
and we tend to do things more or less
over and over in the same way,
unless we intervene in ourselves.
That’s just the way that we are wired.
So now I’d like to shift to thinking
about a particular aspect of habits,
and that’s habit strength.
Now, you all have different habits.
You probably brush your teeth at a particular time of day.
You probably exercise at particular times of week.
You probably go to the refrigerator in a very habitual way.
We are incredibly habitual organisms.
Unless we intervene in our habits,
they tend to carry out the same way
that they always have once they’ve formed.
So you can do this exercise now.
You don’t have to write this down if you don’t want to,
but you certainly are welcome.
We’re going to evaluate what’s called habit strength.
That’s not a concept that I created.
Habit strength is something that you will find
in the psychological literature.
Habit strength is measured by two main criteria.
The first is how context dependent a given habit is.
So context dependence is,
if you go from one environment to the next,
do you tend to do the same thing in the same way
at the same time of day?
So for instance, brushing your teeth
first thing in the morning,
maybe some of you do that before breakfast.
Maybe some of you do that later.
Maybe some of you like me don’t even eat breakfast.
But when I travel, I tend to brush my teeth
at more or less the same time of day
relative to when I wake up as I do when I’m at home.
So it’s context independent.
So it’s a very strong habit, right?
There are certain behaviors like perhaps what you eat
or perhaps how you dress that are context independent
that you might perform one way in one context
and another way in another context.
The other aspect of habit strength
is how much limbic friction is required
to perform that habit on a regular basis.
This is extremely important
because if you were in the process of building habits
and consolidating those habits,
then it’s probably going to take more limbic friction
to execute those habits.
What do I mean by that?
Well, let’s say you set out to get,
let’s say 45 minutes of zone two cardio exercise every day,
five or maybe even seven days a week.
Well, if at first you’re highly motivated,
limbic friction might be pretty low.
Limbic friction is how much top down,
meaning from your forebrain to your limbic system,
the part of your brain that generates autonomic responses,
how much limbic friction,
meaning conscious override of your state
is required in order to engage in that particular behavior.
So if you’re feeling particularly tired
and you don’t want to get up out of bed
and you don’t want to go out and do your zone two cardio,
then there’s a high degree of limbic friction.
Some people think of it as motivation,
but motivation is a bit of a vague concept
whereas limbic friction involves specific neural circuits.
And you can think of it in a more or less quantitative way.
You can think of that your body is very tired,
so it’s going to take more limbic friction
in order to get into action, right?
You’re going to have to overcome more limbic friction,
Whereas if you’re very, very alert,
there’s less limbic friction
because you’re moving towards something
that’s action oriented.
However, the inverse is also true.
Let’s say that you are trying to get into the habit
or you’re in the early stages of forming a habit
to meditate regularly.
That’s a pretty quiescent or calming activity.
So if you’re somebody who comes home from work
and you’re very anxious and you have a lot of work to do
and you have to deal with a bunch of things,
there’s a lot of limbic friction to overcome
in order to get into that calm state.
So these two aspects, context dependence,
whether or not you’re likely to do the thing
regardless of where you are, right?
On travel, at home, on vacation, with people around,
not people around, et cetera.
And how much limbic friction is required
to execute that habit will tell you whether or not
that habit is deeply or just shallowly embedded
within your nervous system.
The goal of any habit that we want to form
is to get into what’s called automaticity.
Automaticity is fancy language
for the neural circuits can perform it automatically.
And that’s the ultimate place to be, right?
If you have all these goals and things that you want
to be doing on a regular basis,
you’d love for them to be habitual
because it takes less mental and physical effort,
less limbic friction in order to execute those.
And so much of what’s out there,
again, in the popular psychology literature,
in books that you’ll find on the bookstore shelf
and on Amazon and in the airports
are about how to get from that mode
of high degree of limbic friction to automaticity.
And they offer a number of different ways.
I think many of which are useful,
trying to get you to organize different types of habits
into different bins like value-based and goal-based
and trying to persuade you that structuring habits
at the particular times of day
or in a particular way are going to be beneficial.
And indeed, I think they have helped a lot of people.
So what I’d like to do is to take the scientific literature
of how the nervous system learns
and engages in neuroplasticity
and apply that to habit formation, habit maintenance,
and if so desired, how to break particular habits.
I’d like to give you a particular tool
that’s gleaned from the research psychology literature.
I should mention that I learned about this
from an excellent review article that’s available online.
It’s called Psychology of Habit.
The authors are Wendy Wood and Dennis Runger.
This is published in Annual Review of Psychology.
The Annual Reviews series is a very high quality series.
There are annual reviews of neuroscience,
annual reviews of psychology,
annual reviews of nutrition science, et cetera.
For those of you that are interested
in exploring review articles
that are grounded in hundreds
of quality peer-reviewed studies,
the Annual Review series is really terrific,
certainly among the best, if not the best.
And they also tend to be quite long and quite comprehensive.
So this review, Psychology of Habit
by Wood and Runger is excellent.
And here I’m more or less paraphrasing from them.
So I want to be clear that these are their words, not mine.
They’re talking about the various ways
that habits form in the nervous system.
And they mention with each repetition of a habit,
small changes occur in the cognitive
and neural mechanisms associated with procedural memory.
So I just want to talk for a second
about what procedural memory is.
In the neuroscience of memory,
we distinguish between what’s called episodic memory
and procedural memory.
Episodic memory is a recall
of a particular set of events that happened,
whereas procedural memory is holding in mind
the specific sequence of things that need to happen
in order for a particular outcome to occur.
So think of it like a recipe or a protocol,
or if for sake of exercise, it’s like sets and reps
or a particular course that you’re going to run or cycle
or the number of laps you’re going to swim
and how you’re going to perform it.
It’s very clear that for anyone trying to adopt new habits,
getting into the mindset of procedural memory
is very useful for overcoming that barrier
that we call limbic friction.
How do you do that?
A simple visualization exercise,
or it doesn’t even have to be done eyes closed.
Oftentimes we hear visualization exercise.
You think about sitting in a lotus position, eyes closed,
and trying really hard to visualize something.
It doesn’t need to be anything like that.
It can simply be, if you are deciding to adopt a new habit,
to just think about the very specific sequence of steps
that’s required to execute that habit.
And I’ll use a trivial example,
but this could be applied to anything.
Let’s say I want to get into the habit of making myself
or someone else in my household
a cup of espresso every morning.
I would actually think through each of those steps,
walk into the kitchen, turn on the espresso machine,
draw the espresso, walking through each of those steps
from start to finish.
It turns out just that simple mental exercise done once
can shift people toward a much higher likelihood
of performing that habit regularly, not just the first time,
but as they continue out into the days
and weeks that follow.
So that’s remarkable to me.
And the literature is really robust.
Just one mental exercise of thinking through
what are the sequence of steps required
in order to perform this habit from start to finish
can shift the likelihood of being able to perform that habit
from unlikely or moderately likely to very likely over time.
And that’s because it pulls from this process
that involves our hippocampus and our neocortex
and other areas of our brain and nervous system
that engage in procedural memory.
It shifts the brain towards a mindset, if you will.
It’s more of a neural circuit set, it would be more accurate
but a mindset slash neural circuit set
of doing things in a particular sequence,
which allows that limbic friction to come down
and increases the likelihood
that we’re going to perform that thing.
Simple tool, but very powerful tool
according to the psychology literature.
And actually the cellular and molecular mechanisms
that underlie that sort of procedural memory
stepping through phenomenon are known.
In this article, I mentioned this beautiful review.
They talk about so-called Hebbian learning.
Donald Hebb was a psychologist in Canada
and birthed this field that has now lasted, gosh,
more than 50 years and is still very strong
in neuroscience and psychology of Hebbian learning.
Hebbian learning is when particular neurons are co-active,
meaning when they fire together,
they tend to strengthen their connections with one another.
And it has a number of different underlying cellular
and molecular features
that we don’t have to go into in detail.
But for those of you that want to know,
I know some of you are hungry
for a little bit more neuroscience.
This involves things like NMDA receptors,
NMDA receptors are really important,
I think for everyone to understand.
So I’ll just tell you a little bit about them.
These are receptors that are on the neuron surface.
And normally they don’t contribute much
to the activity of those neurons.
Those neurons are perfectly capable of doing their thing
without activation of this NMDA receptor.
But when a neuron gets a very strong input,
a strong stimulus,
that NMDA receptor triggers a number of mechanisms
that recruit to the surface of the neuron
more other receptors.
In other words, it makes that neuron more responsive
to input in the future,
such that it doesn’t require so much input.
In other words, it takes a neuron
that is very unlikely to fire
and makes it more likely to fire.
So this procedural stepping through
of the steps of the recipe
or the series of action steps that are involved
in sitting down to study and writing for an hour
or generating exercise,
whatever it is the habit that you’re trying to learn,
when you’re doing that exercise,
it’s not as if your nervous system
thinks you’re actually performing the behavior.
Your nervous system isn’t stupid.
It’s actually a lot smarter than that.
It knows the difference between a thought and an action.
But when you do that,
it sets in motion the same neurons
that are going to be required
for the execution of that habit.
And so when you actually show up to perform that habit,
it’s as if the dominoes fall more easily.
It’s a lower threshold, as we say,
in order to get the habit to perform.
So Hebbian learning, NMDA receptors,
all that nuts and bolts stuff
are really the guts of the mechanisms of how this works.
But for those of you that just want to be more habitual
about certain things,
be able to perform certain things more reflexively
that you would like in your life,
simply take the time, do it once, maybe twice,
and just sit down, close your eyes if you like,
and just step through the procedure
of what it’s going to take in order to perform that habit.
The psychology literature, as I mentioned,
and also the neuroscience literature
strongly supports the fact
that it is going to make it far easier
for you to adopt and maintain that habit.
And if you are somebody who used to perform a habit
and you don’t understand why you dropped it
and you’re frustrated with yourself
and you’re trying to figure out
how you can get back into that habit,
well, by all means, lean right back into that habit.
But if you’re having trouble doing that,
also just use the procedural memory exercise
in order to shift your nervous system
toward a higher likelihood
that you will return to that habit,
just the same way I described
for trying to initiate a new habit.
So now I’d like to discuss a second
and what I think is perhaps the most powerful tool
for being able to acquire and stick to new habits.
This tool is rooted in what we call neural circuits.
And I do think it is important to understand a little bit
about how those neural circuits work.
For those of you that are saying, just tell me what to do,
I have to say, as I always say,
understanding a little bit or a lot of underlying mechanism
will help solidify these concepts for you
and will help ensure that the tools that I offer
are going to make sense
and that they’re going to make sense in different contexts
and for different types of habits
that you’re trying to learn.
So rather than just tell you what to do,
I’m going to tell you how this particular tool works.
And then in doing that,
you should be able to apply it to any habit
under any conditions.
The tool that I’m referring to
is something called task bracketing.
And the neural circuits associated with task bracketing
are basically the neural circuits
that are going to allow you to learn any new type of habit
or break any habit that you’d like to break.
We have in our brain a set of neural circuits
that fall under the umbrella term of the basal ganglia.
The basal ganglia are involved in action execution,
meaning doing certain things,
and action suppression, not doing certain things.
In the experimental realm,
these are referred to as go, meaning do,
or no go, don’t do certain things.
And some of us fall more into the category
of we find it very easy to do certain things,
but harder to not do other things.
Some people have a lot of no-go type circuits
that are very robust,
and they have a lot of behavioral constraint,
but they have a harder time getting into action.
And some people have a perfect balance of both,
but I’ve never met one of those people.
So again, drawing from and more or less paraphrasing
from this beautiful review that I described earlier
in annual review of psychology, excuse me,
by Wood and Runger,
task bracketing involves a particular set of neural circuits
within the basal ganglia.
So I’m going to describe this here again,
paraphrasing a sensory motor loop.
Sensory means just input coming in about sight,
sounds, tastes, et cetera.
And then the motor systems,
the systems of the brain and body that generate action,
taking that information and generating action.
So it turns out that there’s an area of our basal ganglia
called the dorsolateral striatum.
We can use the acronym DLS.
Again, dorsolateral striatum.
Dorsal means up, lateral means to the side,
And striatum is a subdivision of the basal ganglia.
And it’s very important for the establishment of behaviors
that are associated with a habit,
but not necessarily the habit itself.
And beautiful studies in both animals and humans
that record the electrical activity
in the dorsolateral striatum,
find that the dorsolateral striatum is associated,
meaning it becomes active
at the beginning of a particular habit
and at the very end and after a particular habit.
Hence the phrase task bracketing, it brackets the habit.
Now, other sets of neurons are going to be active
during the actual execution of the habit.
But what the literature on the dorsolateral striatum
tells us is that we have particular circuits in our brain
that are devoted to framing the events
that happened just before and as we initiate a habit
and just after and as we terminate a habit.
In other words, it acts as a sort of marker
for the habit execution,
but not the execution of the habit per se.
This is very important because task bracketing
is what underlies whether or not a habit
will be context dependent or not,
whether or not it will be strong and likely to occur
even if we didn’t get a good night’s sleep the night before,
even if we’re feeling distracted,
even if we are not feeling like doing something emotionally,
or if we are completely overwhelmed by other events,
if the neural circuits for task bracketing
are deeply embedded in us,
meaning they are very robust around a particular habit,
well, then it’s likely that we’re going to go out
for that zone two cardio no matter what,
that we’re going to brush our teeth no matter what.
In fact, brushing our teeth is a pretty good example
because for most people,
even if you got a terrible night’s sleep,
even if everything in your life is going wrong,
chances are, unless you’re very depressed,
if you’re going to leave to work, or even if you’re not,
that you’re going to still carry out the behavior
of brushing your teeth in the morning.
I would hope so, actually.
But you are probably less likely
to perform particular habits
that are not what you deem as necessary.
But if you think about it, brushing your teeth,
exercise, eating particular foods,
maybe engaging socially in particular ways,
you are the one that places any kind of value assessment
on which ones are essential and which ones are negotiable.
So task bracketing sets a neural imprint,
a kind of a fingerprint in your brain
of this thing has to happen at this particular time of day,
so much so that it’s reflexive.
And as we’ll talk about in a moment,
there’s a way that you can build up task bracketing
so that regardless of what it is you’re trying to learn,
there’s a much higher probability
that you’re going to do that thing.
And when I say learn, meaning,
let’s say you’re trying to acquire a habit
that for you is really challenging.
Maybe it’s that you’re going to write for an hour a day
on a book project that you’ve been thinking about,
or you’re going to work on mathematics,
or you’re going to do any sort of thing
that for you there’s a lot of limbic friction.
While it is important to think about the sequence of events
that would be required in order to engage in that behavior,
that procedural memory visualization exercise
we talked about before, that will help.
There is a way also that you can orient your nervous system
toward this task bracketing process
so that your nervous system is shifted
or oriented towards the execution of a given habit.
So this is sort of like warming up your body to exercise.
When the dorsolateral striatum is engaged,
your body and your brain are primed to execute a habit.
And then you get to consciously insert
which habit you want to perform.
So in order to leverage the neural mechanisms
of task bracketing, in order to increase the likelihood
that you’re going to perform a particular habit,
I have to break it to you that one thing
that you’ve probably heard over and over
about habit formation is not true.
And what I’m referring to is this idea
that if you are very specific about exactly
when you’re going to perform a particular habit,
that you are more likely to perform that habit.
And while that is true in the short-term,
it is not true in the long-term.
And the reason for that is that our nervous system
tends to generate particular kinds of behaviors
based not on time, but on our state,
meaning what level of activation is taking place
in our brain and body, how much focus we happen to have,
how fatigued we are, how energized we are.
So while schedules are important,
it’s not the specific time of day per se
that’s going to allow you to get into a habit
and form that habit and consolidate that habit.
Rather, it’s the state that your brain and body are in
that’s important to anchor yourself to.
So now I’m going to offer you a tool.
It’s actually an entire program
by which you can insert particular habits and activities
at particular phases of the day,
not times of day, but phases of the day,
because it turns out that particular phases of the day
are associated with particular biological underpinnings,
chemicals and neural circuits and so forth.
And in doing so, it will make it far more likely
that you’ll be able to regularly engage
in these habits and activities over a long period of time.
Now, whether or not that will move you from somebody
who ordinarily would take 200 days to form a habit
to one of those 18 days to habit people
in that earlier study I mentioned, I don’t know,
but I am certain that it will have a significant shift
on allowing you to engage in particular habits more easily
and to consolidate those habits more quickly.
So the program I’m about to describe,
I formulated for you based on the neuroscience literature
and the psychology literature of learning
and this concept of task bracketing.
It involves dividing the 24 hour days
into what I call three phases.
The first is phase one,
which is zero to eight hours after waking up,
You can put a plus or minus 30 minutes on this for yourself.
The second phase is the nine to 14,
maybe 15 hours after you wake up.
And the third phase is 16 to 24 hours after waking up.
So we’ve taken the 24 hour cycle,
we’ve carved it up into three phases,
phase one, phase two, and phase three.
Now, everything I’m describing,
or at least the way I’m going to describe it
is based on what I would call a typical schedule,
You’ve heard of nocturnal?
Well, we are diurnal.
Most of us are asleep at night and awake during the day.
I do realize that a number of people have shift work
or they have newborns or other reasons
why they have to be up in the middle of the night
and sleeping during the day.
If that’s the case,
please listen to the episode that we did
on jet lag and shift work,
because it has a lot of tools
specifically for that population.
But most people go to sleep somewhere around 10 p.m.,
plus or minus two hours,
and wake up sometime around 7 a.m.,
plus or minus two hours.
So today I’m going to use the to bed at 10 p.m.
and the wake up time of 7 a.m.
as the framework for this,
but you could adopt it easily to your particular schedule.
Phase one, which again is zero to eight hours after waking,
has a particular neurochemical signature.
Regardless of what you do,
the neuromodulators norepinephrine,
as well as epinephrine,
so that’s noradrenaline and adrenaline,
as well as the neuromodulator dopamine
tend to be elevated during that first
zero to eight hours after waking.
There are a number of reasons for this
related to the fact that also cortisol
is higher in our brain and bloodstream.
It’s a healthy level of cortisol upon waking.
Body temperature is increased, et cetera.
And there are several things
that perhaps we should all be doing.
I’ve talked about many of these on the podcast before,
that in addition to those chemicals
further support an alert and focused state.
And I’ll just list those off.
I’ve done many podcasts on each of these.
If you’d like to access those podcasts,
you can find them in the menu of podcasts
on YouTube, Apple, Spotify, et cetera.
They involve, for instance,
viewing sunlight or bright artificial light
if you can’t access sunlight
within the first 30 minutes of waking,
physical exercise of some kind
in this first phase of the day,
zero to eight hours of the day,
ideally pretty early in that phase.
But if it has to be at the seven to eight hour
transition point, that’s fine too.
Cold exposure in the form of cold showers or ice baths
or outside with minimal clothing,
appropriate yet minimal clothing.
Caffeine ingestion, fasting, for instance,
not ingesting calories also will lend itself
to increased norepinephrine, dopamine, et cetera.
If you are going to consume foods,
foods that are rich in things like tyrosine,
which is a precursor for dopamine,
you can look up which foods are high in tyrosine.
And for those of you that are interested
in supplementation and like to use those routes,
things like alpha-GPC or phenolethylamine
or L-tyrosine if that’s in keeping
with what you’re able to do.
Of course, consult your doctor
if you’re going to rely on supplementation.
What’s this all about?
Well, the already elevated norepinephrine and dopamine,
the sunlight, exercise, cold exposure,
caffeine, tyrosine, et cetera,
all of those place the brain and body into a state
in which you are better able,
or I would say more easily able to engage in activities
that have a high degree of limbic friction
and where you need to override that limbic friction.
We’ve heard that the morning is kind of sacred,
conquer the hardest things first thing in the morning.
And that’s been discussed in the pop psychology literature
and in the habit formation literature
merely from the perspective of get it out of the way
so you can feel good about having done it.
But what I’m referring to is quite different.
What I’m referring to is a particular phase of day
that after rising, after waking up that is,
for zero to eight hours, right, in that first phase,
your whole system is action and focus oriented.
And we know that when you are action and focus oriented
and because of the neurochemicals
that are naturally released into your brain and body,
that you will be more likely to overcome
any limbic friction that stands in the way
of performing particular habits.
So as you list out or think about the various habits
that you’d like to adopt in your life,
take the habits for which you know
there’s the highest degree of limbic friction.
They are the hardest for you to engage in.
They require the most activation energy
and put those in this zero to eight hours after waking.
This will greatly facilitate your performance
of those new habits.
I’m certain of that.
And in addition to that,
by doing them in this particular phase of the day,
not necessarily at the same time.
I mean, if you want to be very habitual
and you want to do the exercise or the sunlight viewing
always at the same time, or you want to do,
you want to drink your caffeine
always at the exact same time, that’s fine.
But by placing them in this broader window
of zero to eight hours after waking,
what you’re doing is you’re creating task bracketing.
You’re making it such that your nervous system
will predict when you are going to lean in
against limbic friction
in order to perform particular types of habits.
And this is very different than saying,
I’m always going to run,
or I’m always going to study from 10 to 12 a.m.
And if you can do that, terrific.
But the literature indicates that people who do that,
who are very rigid about when they do things
tend because of context dependence
to not necessarily stick to those habits over time.
Some people do, but many, many people don’t.
So think about the hardest habits to form
and the habits that you most want to form
that are hardest for you to adopt and to maintain.
And I highly suggest placing those somewhere
within this phase one of zero to eight hours after waking.
Now, of course, some of the things I listed out,
sunlight viewing, exercise, cold exposure,
those might be the actual habits themselves.
But here I realize, or rather I want to acknowledge
that many people, including myself,
are doing some or all of these things already.
And many people, including myself,
are trying to adopt new habits
that don’t fall into the category
of just trying to set your overall state.
Again, norepinephrine, dopamine,
and all these neural systems will be greatly elevated
in this zero to eight hours after waking.
However, the other things I mentioned,
sunlight exposure, exercise, cold exposure, caffeine,
fasting, if that’s for you,
or if you’re eating during that phase,
eating things that contain some
or elevated levels of tyrosine,
maybe supplementing LGPC or L-tyrosine, et cetera,
all of those things further facilitate the neurochemistry
and therefore the state of mind that’s going to be ideal
for leaning into limbic friction
and overriding that limbic friction
so that you can regularly perform that habit.
What we’re really talking about here
is leveraging neural systems in order to help you
make it more likely that you’re going to be able to engage
and maintain a particular habit.
So what I’m referring to as phase one of each day
is useful for acquiring certain habits,
but there are other phases of the day
and those turn out to be useful
for acquiring other types of habits.
Phase two, as I mentioned, is about, again,
these aren’t specifics,
but about nine to 14 or 15 hours after waking.
During this phase of the day,
because of the circadian shifts in our biology,
the amount of dopamine and norepinephrine
that’s circulating in our brain and bloodstream
tends to start to come down
and levels of cortisol tend to start to come down.
That’s the ideal circumstance.
In fact, you don’t really want elevated cortisol
late in the day.
That’s actually a signature of depression and anxiety
and a number of other unfortunate things.
So nine to 14 hours after waking,
dopamine and norepinephrine and cortisol
are starting to taper down just naturally
and a different neuromodulator, serotonin,
is starting to rise.
Serotonin is definitely going to be highest
in this second half of the day
and tends to lend itself to a more relaxed state of being.
Now, of course, I do realize that some people
are less of morning people
and find that they really come alive
and awake in the afternoon,
but most people don’t fall into that category.
Most people feel more alert early in the day,
even anxious early in the day.
And then as the afternoon progresses,
they tend to be a bit more sleepy, a bit more relaxed,
a bit more calm.
There are certain things that we all can and should do
during this phase two of each day
that lend themselves to a state of mind
and a state of body that is going to be beneficial
for the generation and consolidation
of certain types of habits.
What are those things?
First of all, as the day goes on,
you should try if you can to start tapering
the amount of light that you’re viewing.
Now, this doesn’t mean putting yourself into dim light
at three o’clock or four o’clock in the afternoon.
That’s certainly not the case.
Simply that you want to start tapering off
the amount of really bright light that you’re getting,
unless it’s sunlight.
Talked about this before on the podcast,
but if you haven’t heard,
viewing the sun as it’s what we call low solar angle.
So as it’s headed toward the horizon,
you don’t necessarily have to watch the sunset,
although that can be nice,
but getting some sunlight in your eyes
in the second half of the day can also be beneficial
for a number of brain systems and psychological systems.
So you can get some sunlight in your eyes.
You can certainly have artificial lights on,
but you want to start dimming those lights
and bringing them actually physically lower in the room
because the neurons in your eye
that view the upper visual field,
they actually trigger this alertness mechanism
in the brain and body.
And in the second half of the day,
even if you’re humming around and doing work
at three and four or five or even 7 p.m.,
you are probably headed towards sleep a few hours later.
So things like limiting the total amount of light,
if you can.
Things like NSDR, non-sleep deep rest.
Another thing that I’ve talked about on this podcast,
if you haven’t heard about this before,
non-sleep deep rest is an umbrella term
for things like meditation, for yoga nidra,
a very powerful science-supported tool
for teaching you how to relax.
Things like self-hypnosis,
which might sound a little kooky to some of you,
but actually is a clinically-based tool
for which there’s a lot of scientific literature.
If you’re interested in that,
there’s a great free resource called Revri, R-E-V-E-R-I.com.
There’s a app for both Apple and Android.
This is an app that was developed by colleagues of mine
and researchers at Stanford School of Medicine.
You can do these short 15-minute self-hypnosis scripts,
as they’re called,
that can teach you how to relax yourself.
There’s even ones for focus, for sleep, for chronic pain.
Again, all very strongly supported
by quality peer-reviewed literature.
So things like Revri, meditation.
Things like heat and sauna, hot baths, hot showers.
Those are terrific things to do
in the second half of the day.
They tend to support this serotonergic
or high serotonin-like state
and lend themselves to more calm and relaxation.
For those of you that are interested in supplementation,
there’s always ashwagandha, which reduces cortisol.
Again, peaks in cortisol late in the afternoon and evening
are associated with depression, anxiety, and so forth.
Ashwagandha is a pretty potent cortisol-inhibiting tool.
I personally don’t use it very often,
and I caution people about using it
for longer than two-week periods of time
without taking some breaks.
You can look up more about ashwagandha on examine.com.
There’s a lot of terrific literature
with links to studies there.
But basically this phase two of the day
is one in which you’re alert, you are present,
you are working, you are engaging socially.
You’re cooking dinner,
probably paying attention to a number of things,
but you should really be trying
to taper off your stress level.
So how do you leverage phase two of the day
for habit formation?
Well, given what we know
about the neurochemistry of learning and memory,
given what we know about task formation
and its reliance on certain forms of neuroplasticity,
the second half of the day is a terrific time
to take on habits and things that you’re already doing
that require very little override of limbic friction.
So these might be things that you could categorize
in common terms as kind of mellower activities.
It might be journaling.
It might be that you already are performing music,
or I should say practicing music regularly,
but that there’s a particular type of music
that is hard for you
or that you’re working on a particular piece of music
or you’re trying to learn a language,
something that’s a little bit challenging,
but doesn’t require a ton of energy
in order to override that limbic friction.
The second half of the day
is a much better time to do that.
Less resistance, as we might say.
But of course, resistance has a neural substrate.
And the reason for doing those things
in the second part of the day,
the so-called phase two, as I’ve called it,
part of the day,
is because your ability to override resistance
is really diminished in this second phase of the day.
Some of you might say,
well, wait, I like to exercise
in the second half of the day.
That’s actually when I have the most energy.
That’s when I feel warmer.
I’m not a morning exerciser.
That’s absolutely fine.
What I’m referring to is the acquisition of new behaviors
and placing those consistently
at the second half of the day
in order to engage this task bracketing mechanisms
that I talked about before.
One of the hallmark features
of those basal ganglia circuits for go and no-go
is that they are associated with certain neurochemicals,
dopamine and serotonin, acetylcholine,
and other neurochemicals.
And by placing particular habits
at particular phases of the day,
those neurochemical states start to be associated
with the leaning in and the process of beginning
and, as I mentioned, ending those particular habits.
And in doing so, they shift the whole nervous system
toward being able to predict
that certain things are going to happen
at particular times of day,
that you’re going to be leaning very hard
against limbic friction early in the day in phase one,
and that you’re going to be doing things
that require less conscious override
of limbic friction in phase two.
And in doing so, set up this task bracketing system
so that the individual habits that you’re learning
or that you’re trying to learn
have a much greater probability
of being executed and consolidated,
meaning that pretty soon
they will just naturally become reflexive.
And as with phase one,
many of the things that I mentioned
that support this, what I’m calling a serotonergic state
or a more relaxed state in phase two,
things like seeing some light in the afternoon,
but not a lot of bright light from artificial sources,
things like NSDR, things like heat and sauna,
hot baths, et cetera, ashwagandha.
Again, all of those things themselves
could be habits that you’re trying to adopt, right?
In that case, do those if you’d like to explore them.
They are quite beneficial for a number of reasons,
not just related to execution of particular habits
in phase two of the day,
but also for improving quality of sleep
and consolidating any learning
that you might’ve triggered early in the day.
I’ve talked about that before,
but just briefly as a relevant aside,
neuroplasticity involves triggering the neuroplasticity,
setting it in motion,
but the actual rewiring of the brain
and the reconfiguration of neurons
that will allow that learning to be reflexive,
that actually occurs during states of deep rest,
like NSDR and like deep sleep.
And I should just mention for those of you
that can only exercise or prefer to exercise
in phase two of the day, right?
Nine to 14 hours or 15 hours after waking,
that’s absolutely fine.
However, because of the importance of sleep
and in particular deep sleep throughout the night
for not just neuroplasticity,
but recovery of muscle and other tissues
that are taxed during physical exercise,
if you do train in phase two,
I highly recommend, highly recommend
that you start doing some sort of NSDR type activity
after you train within an hour or two,
because that will allow you to taper down and relax
so that you can get into the next phase
we’re going to talk about, which is phase three.
Phase three of the 24 hour schedule
runs from about 16 to 24 hours after waking.
During that period of time,
there are a few things that are going to support
being in a state of mind, state of body
that are going to allow neuroplasticity to occur,
that are going to allow the rewiring that you’ve triggered
during the waking part of the day to actually take place.
Those things are very low to no light,
meaning keeping your environment very dark
or very, very dim.
I don’t think it’s necessary to sleep in a room
that’s complete blackness.
I think that’s a little bit overkill,
but for most people keeping the room dark
and keeping the room temperature low
is very beneficial for getting and staying in deep sleep.
The body has to drop by about one to three degrees
in order to get into sleep and to stay asleep.
So low light, low temperature environment,
you can always pile on blankets, of course,
if you don’t want to be cold at night,
you want to be warm enough,
but you want your environment to be cold.
Typically people aren’t eating in the middle of the night.
Although one thing that can be useful
is to make sure that you’re at least well-fed enough
when you head into this third phase of every 24-hour day
that you’re not awake because you’re hungry.
Now, a lot of people recommend putting a gap
between your final bite of food
and when you go to sleep at night.
Some people will say that gap should be four hours.
Other people say two hours.
If you’re me, I generally have something, I don’t know,
within two hours or 90 minutes of going to sleep,
but it’s not a big meal, but that’s just me.
And I fall asleep and stay asleep fine with that.
You have to experiment for yourself.
I’ve talked about supplements that can support sleep
in previous episodes of the podcast,
things like magnesium threonate or magnesium bisglycinate,
things like theanine, apigenin.
If you’d like to read more about those,
we actually have a newsletter
that I’ll just quickly refer you to.
This is the Huberman Lab Neural Network newsletter.
You can sign up for it by going to hubermanlab.com.
It’s very easy to find.
But even if you don’t sign up,
you can go to the toolkit for sleep that’s listed there.
And that toolkit is not just supplements.
That toolkit is a number of different things,
both behavioral and supplement-based
and nutrition-based, et cetera,
that can allow you to get into sleep
and to stay asleep more readily.
It’s totally zero cost.
You can find that again at hubermanlab.com.
So things like low light, low temperature,
the supplements I mentioned,
adjusting your eating schedule appropriately,
obviously not drinking caffeine in the middle of the night
or too close to bed.
That’s going to be critical.
In fact, ideally you wouldn’t ingest any caffeine
in phase two of the day
so that you could get into this deeper state of rest
in which habit formation and neuroplasticity can occur.
What if you wake up, right?
The way I’ve cast phase three
is that you’re supposed to be in this deep slumber.
You’re not supposed to wake up at all.
You’re supposed to be in low light
and your brain is rewiring
and those habits are getting consolidated, et cetera.
Well, if you’re like me,
you probably get up once in the middle of the night.
Maybe you go use the restroom.
Perfectly normal, perfectly normal.
But a lot of people have trouble falling back asleep.
Very important if you get up in the middle of the night
to use a minimum of light
in order to navigate your surroundings,
just as much as you need in order to safely do so
because light inhibits the hormone melatonin,
can make it very hard to fall back asleep.
If you inhibit melatonin,
the effects of light inhibiting melatonin
are actually very potent, happens very, very quickly.
So try and keep the lights low.
And if you have trouble falling back asleep,
that’s when you might also want to use
something like the Reverie app.
They have a sleep script there
that can hopefully help you get back to sleep
or something like NSDR.
You can find NSDR scripts on YouTube.
These are zero cost.
You can look up one that I particularly like
is NSDR Made For.
It’s a company I’m associated with,
but the NSDR is completely zero cost.
And there are other things like Yoga Nidra,
which you can find scripts for elsewhere.
Again, all of these habits or these behaviors,
these do’s and don’ts around phase three themselves
might be habits that you’re trying to create for yourself.
But again, phase three is really about making sure
that whatever limbic friction you’ve been able to override
in phase one and trigger some new habit, right?
Forcing yourself to write or forcing yourself to study
or forcing yourself to exercise
during that high limbic friction state.
And then whatever things you’ve been doing in phase two,
which are habits that hopefully have moved
a little bit further along the continuum of newly formed
versus all the way to reflexive
or things that take less limbic friction in order to do.
Phase three is when all of that gets really locked
into the nervous system through those heavy in mechanisms
like NMDA receptors, et cetera, that I talked about before.
Again, neuroplasticity is the basis of habit formation
and neuroplasticity and the rewiring of neural circuits
happens in these states of deep sleep.
So if you’re not obeying this phase three,
if you’re not giving phase three the materials it needs
and you’re not avoiding the certain things like caffeine
and bright light and stress during phase three,
you’re simply not going to be able to build those habits
that you’ve been working so hard to trigger in phase one
and phase two of the day.
Again, these are things that I’ve talked about
in previous episodes of the podcast and elsewhere,
but really this is about habit formation.
And the whole reason for placing particular types
of behaviors at particular phases of the day
is to set a framework for that task bracketing.
Again, task bracketing and those circuits
of the basal ganglia indicate that it’s not just
the neural circuits that are engaged by the task itself,
but the neural circuits that are engaged before
and after that task execution,
that’s what gets consolidated.
So when you do things at particular phases of the day
under particular conditions of neurochemistry,
what you’re doing is you’re giving the brain
a very predictable set of sequences that during sleep,
it can start to put into your hard drive, if you will,
it can really program it into your nervous system
so that within a short period of time,
hopefully within 18 or maybe even six days or who knows,
maybe even fewer days,
you’ll find that executing those behaviors
is very, very straightforward for you
and that you won’t have to feel so much limbic friction
or override so much limbic friction.
Some of you are probably asking,
okay, if I perform a particular habit during phase one,
and then I do other habits during phase two,
and I eventually get to the point where I’m engaging
in those habits in a pretty effortless way,
do I keep them in the same phase of the day?
And the good news is the literature says it doesn’t matter.
And in fact, moving that particular habit
around somewhat randomly can actually be beneficial to you
because actually moving it from one time of day to the other
is that context independence that we really are seeking.
By being able to do the same thing that we want to do,
regardless of time of day or circumstances,
that’s how we know that we’ve achieved
a real habit formation.
That’s how we know that the habit has been moved
into certain components of our neural circuitry
that just allow us to do it what seems like reflexively.
Although earlier I pointed out that these aren’t reflexes
in the traditional sense.
The reason for that is that this brain area,
the hippocampus that many of you know
is associated with learning and memory
is not actually where memories are stored.
The hippocampus is where memories are formed.
It’s where procedures like I talked about before,
procedural memory of how you’re going to execute
a particular sequence where that’s maintained.
Sort of like if we use the recipe model,
that’s where the recipe is maintained
until you know how to cook that dish.
And then the procedural memory literally migrates off
into a different set of neural circuits,
which are the neural circuits of the neocortex
where we have maps of sensory experience,
maps of all kinds of experiences,
including motor maps of how to execute things.
So we use one part of the brain to learn something,
but then that information in the form
of the electrical activity of neurons
is passed off to a different brain area.
Now the neurons themselves don’t move
from the hippocampus to the cortex, that doesn’t happen.
What happens is the signals,
the sequence of electrical firing,
much like a script for a movie
or the notes on a sheet of paper
for a particular musical piece
is transferred off to a different brain area.
So that whole process of really leaning
into something that’s hard, then it becoming easier.
And then eventually that thing becoming
more or less reflexive involves a migration
of the information in the brain.
And once it’s migrated out
to a different location in the brain,
at that point it’s achieved context independence.
It doesn’t have to be bracketed by, you know,
your caffeine and your lunch.
It doesn’t have to occur immediately
after your afternoon NSDR,
but before your four o’clock meeting on Zoom
or something of that sort.
So all this is to say
that once something has become reflexive,
you should play with it a little bit about time of day.
If you want to keep it in the same phase of day, great.
But if you one day decide
you’re going to exercise in the afternoon,
next day you decide you’re going to exercise in the morning
and that’s the habit that you’re concerned with,
If you’re able to do that,
that means that it’s truly achieved context independence.
It means that you have officially formed that habit.
And as I mentioned earlier,
much earlier at the beginning of the episode,
the strength of a habit is dictated
by how much limbic friction, that was one,
and how much context dependence there is.
So when it doesn’t take much activation energy
to get into the execution of that habit
and you can do it in any context,
well, then you have formed a habit.
We really can’t have a discussion
about learning anything, habits or otherwise,
unless we talk about reward prediction error.
Reward prediction error
is associated with the molecule dopamine,
although I should say there are other neurochemicals
in our brain and body that are also related
to reward prediction error.
But reward prediction error is a very good system
or I should say a lens through which to think about
whether or not we should reward ourselves
for performing a given habit.
And this is a much larger discussion
that actually relates to things like parenting
Should we reward kids just for effort?
Should we reward ourselves just for effort?
What should we reward?
How much should we reward ourselves?
When should we withdraw a reward?
Should we use punishment?
These kinds of things.
This is a vast literature.
We don’t have time to go into all the details,
but the notion of reward prediction error is so powerful
that it can predict most, if not all forms of learning,
including habit formation.
And you can deploy or use particular features
of reward prediction error,
if you would like to reinforce
or accelerate the formation of certain habits.
So reward prediction error, quite simply,
is if you expect a reward and the reward comes,
a particular behavior that was associated
with generating that reward is more likely to occur again.
That’s pretty straightforward.
However, the amount of reward
in the form of this molecule dopamine
that you will experience is even greater
if a reward arrives that’s unexpected, okay?
So let me repeat that again.
If I think that something’s coming,
that’s going to be great,
that let’s say I lean into a habit,
I managed to override my limbic friction
and I’m doing my 45 minutes of writing in the morning
with no phone and no internet,
and I’m getting toward the end and I’m anticipating,
huh, I’m actually doing this.
This is great.
I did it.
I’m feeling really, really good.
I finish, I definitely will receive a dopamine reward.
I’ll make my own dopamine reward.
That’s where it comes from.
Remember, this is all internal.
However, I will also receive dopamine reward
if unexpectedly something positive happens.
And typically if something unexpected but positive happens,
the amount of dopamine reward that we get
is actually much greater than in any other conditions.
However, it’s hard to surprise yourself
about a behavior that you’re deliberately engaging in.
So that becomes a bit of a tricky one.
Reward prediction error also says
that if we expect a reward and the reward doesn’t come,
that the pattern of dopamine release
will follow a particular contour.
And that contour is very important.
Here’s how it goes.
Let’s say that I’m writing
and I’m about 30 or 45 minutes in,
and I’m thinking, oh, this is great.
I’m actually, I managed to do this.
I’m succeeding in executing the behaviors that I need to
in order to perform this habit.
I’m overriding limbic friction.
Just that series of thoughts will start to generate
a dopamine release within my brain and body.
However, if at the 50 minute mark,
the phone rings and I pick up the phone
or I break my own protocol, I break my own self-discipline
and I go on and check social media
or I do something that takes me out of that,
what’s going to happen is that my level of dopamine
is actually going to drop below the baseline,
meaning below the level of dopamine I had
before I even started the habit execution.
So what this is, is this is a system that predicts
whether or not rewards are going to come.
When we think a reward is going to come,
it starts to actually arrive earlier
in the form of dopamine release.
This is the feeling that we experience
as in positive anticipation.
You tell a kid, hey, we’re going to go to the amusement park
or we’re going to go get ice cream.
They haven’t had the ice cream yet.
They’re not at the amusement park, but they’re excited.
The dopamine release comes earlier, okay?
They get to the amusement park or they get the ice cream,
they will also have some dopamine release
associated with that.
But most of it, believe it or not,
came in the form of the anticipation.
And dopamine has some qualities that make
the actual ice cream and the actual amusement park experience
more pleasurable than it would be
had that dopamine release not happened.
Now, of course, the other way to do it
is to surprise a kid.
You tell them, listen, we’re going to the class
that you absolutely hate,
or we’re going to go see the person
that you absolutely despise,
and then you drive them to the amusement park.
That’s the big release of dopamine.
But reward prediction error also says
that if you tell the kid or yourself,
okay, we’re headed to the amusement park,
we’re going to get some ice cream.
They’re really, really excited.
And then you get there and it’s closed
or they’re not letting any more people in.
Well, then the dopamine level drops way below what it was
before you told them that you were headed there, okay?
I’ve given a number of different examples
that hopefully make this clear.
Reward prediction error governs virtually all aspects
of effort and all aspects of learning.
Because when dopamine is released in the brain and body,
the neural circuits of our brain and body change.
There’s a state change.
Our overlevel, excuse me, our overall level of energy,
but also the sorts of sensory events
that we’re paying attention to changes
when there’s a lot of dopamine in our system.
Now you can leverage this for habit formation.
Think back to task bracketing.
Think back to limbic friction.
If you are considering adopting a new habit
or if you are trying to break a habit,
something we haven’t talked too much about,
but we will in a moment,
it’s very useful to think not just about the procedural
aspects of what you’re going to do,
but also think about the events that precede
and follow that particular habit and the execution,
or at least the effort to execute that habit.
What you’re doing is you’re casting a kind of a spotlight
or around a bin of time or a set of events
for which dopamine can be associated.
What does this look like in the practical sense?
Well, again, I’ll just try and use
very simple concrete examples,
but this could carry over to anything.
Let’s say I were somebody who has a hard time
getting in that 30 to 60 minutes
of zone two cardiovascular exercise mid-morning.
This is actually an issue for me.
I much prefer to do resistance exercise
than cardiovascular exercise.
Although once I do it,
I always feel much better that I’ve done it.
What I should do is positively anticipate the onset
and the offset of that session, right?
So thinking about leaning into the effort,
going out and doing that zone two cardio session,
and I should think about how I’m going to feel after.
So not just thinking about how great
I’m going to feel after,
but also thinking about how hard it’s going to be
at the beginning and then trying to reward myself
subjectively for the entire experience.
In other words, start rewarding task bracketing
in addition to rewarding the execution of the habit itself.
Now, some of you might be saying,
well, wait, this is all self-talk.
This is just positive self-talk,
but it’s not positive self-talk.
It’s not saying, you know,
I feel so great about doing something that I actually hate.
You can’t lie to yourself,
or you’re welcome to lie to yourself,
but the neuroscience literature,
the literature of growth mindset,
all the literature basically of mindset
speaks to the fact that when you lie to yourself,
you know you’re lying
and you actually set up the opposite of a reward system.
So you have to be brutally honest with yourself
that for instance,
I don’t like initiating this cardiovascular exercise,
but I do like the fact that I’ve done it after I’ve done it.
So what you are doing
is you are applying reward prediction error
to the entire sequence of things
that’s involved in getting into the habit execution,
getting through the habit execution
and getting out of the habit execution.
How do you do this?
Well, I take us back to our procedural
memory visualization exercise that we talked about earlier.
When I talked about it in that context,
I talked about walking through mentally
the series of steps that’s required
to perform a particular habit.
So in the case of the zone two cardio thing,
it would be, okay, I’m going to put on my shoes,
then I’m going to head out the door,
then I’m going to drive up the road.
There’s a particular Canyon near here
that if I’m going to run,
I happen to like running or I don’t hate running enough
that I tend to do it.
Going through that, heading back, et cetera, et cetera.
But even better would be to broaden the time bin
and start to positively anticipate
the period headed into the habit.
So even before you put on your shoes,
the fact that you are successfully placing the habit in,
in this case, phase one of the day,
and that afterwards I’m going to feel
a particular set of positive benefits,
elevated mood, et cetera.
I like being hungry and typically after exercise, I’m hungry.
So I like being hungry because I like eating.
And so there’s a whole set of things
that link up with one another.
So I’m not just thinking about habit execution
as this isolated little set of events
or this little time bin,
but rather I’m drawing a larger envelope around it
and starting to positively associate dopamine reward
with that larger envelope.
And for those of you that are thinking,
well, this is just a psychological trick.
You know, you’ve kind of,
this is sort of like lying to yourself.
It’s not because you’re not actually contradicting
the fact that some of this is unpleasant.
What you’re doing is you’re taking
this entire series of events,
what I’m calling this kind of time envelope,
and you’re associating it with a particular reward
that comes later, which for me would be the feeling
that, you know, that I’ve completed this, right?
Because for me, that’s usually a good feeling.
So reward prediction error is beautiful,
not just because it’s a sort of math
of anticipation and reward
or a math of anticipation and disappointment.
It’s beautiful because you can stretch out
or make more narrow the time bins
in which reward prediction error works.
Reward prediction error is the way
in which people navigate four-year degrees, right?
I mean, you go, sure, final exam to final exam, et cetera,
but ultimately there’s a big payoff at the end
and it’s all basically for that big payoff.
And of course, I understand that it’s the journey,
not the destination, but let’s face it for a lot of us,
goals and habits are about achieving
some sort of destination.
In the case of zone two cardio for me,
it’s about trying to stay alive for as long as I can,
as long as I can with vitality that is.
And it’s also the fact that if I’m doing that,
I get to eat the foods that I like.
I tend to be able to eat more,
which I happen to really enjoy eating so much
so that I’d like it just as an activity.
So basically what you’re trying to do
is not restrict your thinking to just the habit
that you’re trying to form,
but rather to grab a hold of the timing before and after
that particular habit and start to positively associate
reward mechanisms in your brain with that entire time bin.
This is a very useful and very powerful tool
in order to form habits.
And I should say that it’s not something
that comes naturally to most people.
In fact, even as I describe it,
you might find it’s still a little bit abstract,
but what I encourage you to do
if you are finding it to be a little bit vague
would be to pick the habit that you want to form,
write down or think about very concretely,
what is the sequence of steps involved
in the execution of that habit?
And then write down or think about
what is the sequence of events
that need to precede that habit?
Maybe the immediate 10 or 15 minutes before,
as well as the immediate sequence of events
and or feelings that will occur after that habit.
And then call the whole thing a habit execution.
The whole thing,
a effort to engage in that particular habit.
And in doing that and in positively associating
with the idea that you’re going to complete
that entire sequence,
you will engage reward prediction error
in the proper way that the dopamine surge
can lend itself toward motivation.
Because ultimately dopamine is not about feeling good,
it’s about feeling motivated.
This is something that I’ve talked about
numerous times before,
but dopamine contrary to popular belief
is not a reward molecule
as much as is a molecule of motivation and drive.
And the natural consequence of doing the exercise
I just described of writing things out that proceed
are involved in the immediate execution of the habit
and follow the habit
will allow you to experience an increase in energy
and thereby an increase in likelihood
that you’re going to engage
in that entire sequence of events.
And the reason for that is that dopamine gives us energy.
And the reason for that is that the molecule epinephrine,
adrenaline is actually manufactured from dopamine.
Biochemically, it comes from dopamine.
So dopamine is powerful
and you can access more dopamine around
even habits that you haven’t yet formed
by taking this broader time envelope
and task bracketing that specific task execution
or habit execution.
Way back at the beginning of the episode,
I promised you that I would deliver two programs
that are geared towards habit formation.
And I promised that I would give you ways
in which you could gauge whether or not
certain habits had moved from high effort,
what I call high limbic friction to reflexive.
We talked about a number of ways to gauge that.
In researching this episode,
I found a tremendous number of different systems
for habit formation.
It’s really amazing how much is out there.
There are ones that are 60 days to this
or 21 days to that, or 18 days to this.
I mean, it’s just rampant in the popular psychology
literature and in the self-help literature.
I want to spell out a particular system
that I think could be very useful to most,
if not all people that’s rooted in the biology
of habit formation,
rooted in the psychology of habit formation,
and that is entirely compatible with that phase one,
phase two, phase three type program
that I talked about earlier,
but encompasses a bit of a longer time scale
and really arrives at a kind of a system, if you will,
for how to build in habits and then to test
whether or not those habits have really stuck
and whether or not they’re likely to stick going forward.
And so this is, at least for sake of this example,
a 21 day system.
I picked 21 days because that seems to be the average
or most typical system for engaging neuroplasticity
as it relates to the formation of new habits.
This 21 day system actually is one that someone
I know very well uses and has used for a long time.
Actually use them, their kids use it as well.
And it has a certain elegance to it.
And I think as I describe it,
that elegance will begin to reveal itself.
So basically what this involves is
that you set out to perform six new habits per day
across the course of 21 days.
Why six and why 21?
Well, we’ll talk about that in a moment.
But the idea is you write down six things
that you would like to do every day for 21 days.
What phase of the day those things fall into?
Well, that will depend on what they are
and how they relate to those earlier phase one,
phase two, phase three.
But for now, 21 days, six things per day.
However, the expectation
is that you’ll only complete four to five
of those each day, okay?
So built into this is a kind of permission to fail,
but it’s not failure because it turns out
that this approach to forming habits
is based not so much on the specific habits
that you’re trying to form,
but the habit of performing habits, right?
It’s the habit of doing a certain number of things per day.
So you set out to perform six.
Now, another reason for not necessarily performing all six
is that some activities
probably shouldn’t be performed each day.
For instance, in my case,
if I were to weight train or even run every day,
I’m of the sort or my biology is of the sort
that I don’t recover so well.
So I wouldn’t want to do resistance training every day,
but I might want to do it four days a week, for instance.
So by having six things in that list,
I could shuffle out that particular activity
on particular days of the week
and simply do four or five other activities.
So 21 days, you list out four to five things.
So it might be zone two cardio resistance training,
sunlight viewing, writing, it could be journaling.
It could be learning a language, mathematics.
Again, this is going to vary
depending on your particular goals
and the habits that you’re trying to create,
but no more than six.
And the expectation is that you’re not going to perform
more than four to five.
If you miss a day,
meaning you don’t perform four to five things,
there is no punishment.
And in fact, it’s important that you don’t actually
try and do what in the literature is called
a habit slip compensation,
which is just fancy psychological language
for if you screw up and you don’t get all four or five
in one day, you don’t do eight the next day
in order to compensate.
This actually brings me back to an example
I had from graduate school.
I remember when I started graduate school,
feeling very excited, but a little bit overwhelmed
by the amount of things that I had to do
because I had to both do research.
I was doing coursework at the time,
graduate student stipends,
and still now, unfortunately, we’re depressingly low.
So it was financially stressful.
There were a number of things happening.
And I remember a neurologist, this was at UC Berkeley.
It’s really fantastic scientist and person.
His name is Bob Knight.
Some of you may know him.
I remember he, I went to him and I asked,
what is the process by which someone actually
navigates graduate school successfully?
And he said, listen, you don’t want to do anything
or engage in a routine in any way
that you can’t keep up consistently for at least five
and ideally six days per week.
I thought, oh, that’s pretty good.
And he said, every four or five years,
you might have to update that,
but you need to decide what you can do consistently,
what you can do every day or at least six days a week
or five days a week.
And that was very, very useful to me.
And it fits well with this notion of habit slips
that if you happen to screw up
and not be able to engage in whatever habits
you’re trying to learn for whatever reason,
that the next day you just get right back
on the horse, so to speak.
However, there’s a really interesting feature
from the neuroscience literature
and from the psychology literature
that says that chunking this 21 days into two day bins
can be very, very useful.
While it is true that the unit of the day
that our cells use is a circadian one, a 24 hour clock,
there does seem to be something powerful
about engaging in particular habits in a particular sequence
for two days in a row and then resetting.
So thinking, okay, I can do this for a day.
And if I can do it for a day,
I can probably do it for two days and then resetting.
So every two days you’re resetting.
So you’re chunking this 21 days into a series of two day bins
in which you are trying to perform four to five new habits
and then completing that 21 days.
Now, everything I’ve described about this 21 day program
with six things that you’re trying to do as new habits
and only performing four to five
and not compensating, et cetera,
there’s nothing neuroscientifically unique about it,
except for the fact that it’s not just 21 days
broken up into two day chunks.
After 21 days, you stop engaging in this 21 day
deliberate four to five things per day type schedule.
And you simply go into autopilot.
You ask yourself how many of those particular habits
that I was deliberately trying to learn
in the previous 21 days
are automatically incorporated into my schedule.
How many of them am I naturally doing?
In other words, every 21 days,
you don’t update and start adding new habits.
You simply try and maintain the ones that you’ve built
in that first 21 days.
And this I think is extremely important
because in all of the habit literature that I could find,
sure, there was a lot of psychological data,
neuroscience data, behavioral science data
around here’s how you form a habit.
Here’s how you break a habit.
There was even some kind of tests
for whether or not a habit
had really achieved context independence,
whether or not it was a strongly formed habit.
But there wasn’t a lot of information,
at least by my search,
of what to do once you’ve formed a habit
and how to evaluate whether or not that habit
is likely to persist long into the future.
So here’s the idea.
You set out these six things that you would like to learn
or that you would like to acquire in your life,
You only expect that you’re going to perform
four or five each day.
You do that for 21 days.
Again, if you miss a day,
you just hop right back on the next day.
However, you should think about the functional units
within this 21 day period as two days.
You’re going to try and nail four to five of these things
for two days.
If you happen to get all six, great,
but that’s not necessarily required.
So you can do it for two days,
then reset two days, then reset two days.
And then in the next 21 days,
you’re not trying to acquire any new habits.
You’re not going to throw in six more habits
that you want to learn.
You’re simply going to assess how well,
how deeply you’ve rewired your nervous system
to be able to perform those six habits
of the previous 21 days.
And this is extremely useful, I believe,
because it will allow you to assess whether or not
you can indeed make room, if you even have room,
I should say, for more habits, right?
Many people are trying to cram so many new behaviors
into their nervous system that they don’t stand a chance
of learning all those behaviors.
What you may find is that you kept up two of those things
very consistently throughout the 21 days.
And perhaps there was one of them that you did sporadically
and that there were three others that, frankly,
you didn’t manage to execute.
You may also be one of these people,
one of these mutants that sets out to do six new things
per day for 21 days and performs every single one of them.
Terrific, more power to you in that case
for the following 21 days.
Let’s see whether or not you can continue to perform
those very same six things every day for 21 days.
And then, and only then,
would you want to add more habits in?
So you could repeat this 21 day process,
21 days of new habit, 21 days of testing those new habits
as whether or not they’re reflexive or not.
You could do that forever if you wanted.
But the idea is that this isn’t something
that you’re doing all year long.
It’s that you perhaps starting the new year,
or regardless of when you’re listening to this,
you set out to make that 21 day really the stimulus period
in which the habits get wired in.
And then the following month,
and maybe even the following months or periods of 21 days
are really that kind of thermometer,
the test bed of how well you’ve embedded
those particular habits.
And if indeed you want to continue to add new habits,
or you find that certain habits that you weren’t able
to embed in your nervous system and make reflexive,
you want to then bring those in, fantastic.
But it’s only once you’ve achieved all those six habits
as reflexive that you would move forward.
And I think this sort of system,
while it could have been replaced
with many other different systems,
again, there’s nothing wholly about the system,
but this particular system has a number of features,
the lack of compensation for missed days,
the fact that it’s a fairly high intensity program
for 21 days, but then you test yourself,
a kind of a competition test with yourself, if you will.
Those features and the fact that habit slips,
missing of particular habits and not doing all six
is kind of built into the system.
I think makes it a very reasonable one.
It’s very adaptable to the real world.
And I think it’s one that provided you obey the phase one,
phase two, phase three type system
that we talked about earlier.
You collapse these two programs with one another,
which hopefully will be easy based
on the descriptions I’ve given.
Well, if you do that,
and I think there’s a very high probability
that the habits that you try and form
will achieve this context dependence
and that it will take progressively less
and less limbic friction to perform them.
Thus far, we’ve almost exclusively been discussing
how to form habits.
But what about breaking habits?
Certainly many people out there would like to break habits
that they feel don’t serve them well.
One of the challenges in breaking habits
is that many habits occur very, very quickly.
And so there isn’t an opportunity to intervene
until the habit has already been initiated
and in some cases completed.
Well, there are a couple of tools
that neuroscience and psychology
tell us can be very beneficial.
Some of those things are somewhat intuitive
and relate to what I call foundational practices,
meaning things that set the overall tone
in your body and brain,
such that you would be less likely
to engage in a particular habit
or that would raise your level of awareness,
both of your situation and to how you feel inside.
So things like stress reduction,
things like getting good sleep,
things like quality nutrition,
things like having positive routines
arranged throughout your day.
All of those, of course, will support you
in trying to break particular habits.
And while that can be very useful,
it’s admittedly very generic advice.
It doesn’t point to any one specific protocol.
In order to identify a specific protocol
that one could apply in order to break habits,
we have to look at the mirror image
of the sort of neuroplasticity that we talked about
at the beginning of the episode.
At the beginning of the episode,
we talked about a form of neuroplasticity
called long-term potentiation involving the NMDA receptor.
Just to refresh your memory a little bit,
it basically says that if a set of neurons
is very electrically active,
it’s likely that over time,
those neurons will communicate with themselves more easily
because of changes in things like NMDA receptor activity,
the recruitment of additional receptors, et cetera.
It’s essentially a cellular and molecular explanation
for how something goes from unlearned to learned
Now, in order to break synapses
or to break apart neural connections
that are serving a habit that you don’t want to engage in,
we need to engage the process called long-term depression.
And long-term depression has nothing to do
with a state of mental depression or a reduction in mood.
So I really want to be clear
that when I say depression in this context,
it has nothing to do with psychological depression.
It has nothing to do with mood.
It’s simply called long-term depression
because just as long-term potentiation says,
if neuron A triggers the firing of neuron B
and it does so very robustly over and over and over again,
the neuron A will not have to fire as intensely
or as frequently in order to activate neuron B
in the future because they become potentiated, right?
The threshold for co-activation has been reduced.
There’s a much higher probability
that they will be activated together
at low levels of intensity.
That’s essentially what long-term potentiation is.
Long-term depression says that if neuron A is active
and neuron B is not active within a particular time window,
then the connection between neuron A and B
will weaken over time,
even if they started off very strongly connected, okay?
So I’m going to repeat that
because this is a pretty detailed neurobiological mechanism
whereby if neuron A is active and neuron B is active,
but at a different time or outside a particular,
what we call temporal window,
meaning outside a particular time window,
then through long-term depression,
the connection between neuron A and neuron B will weaken.
And just as a point of interest,
the NMDA receptor is also involved in long-term depression,
although there are other molecular components
involved as well.
So how do you take two neurons
that underlie a habit out of synchrony?
How do you get them to fire asynchronously?
This is pretty interesting
with respect to the cellular molecular biology,
but at the behavioral level, it’s especially interesting.
The way that one would do this is let’s say for instance,
you have a habit of picking up your phone mid work session.
Okay, that’s a reflexive habit
I think that most people have experienced.
And we often hear the idea that,
oh, you know, the phone is so filled with access to dopamine
and incredible things that we’re just drawn to it.
But if you notice what’s happened with phone use over time,
most people, including myself sometimes, I admit,
find ourselves just looking at our phone
or find ourselves in a particular app
without actually having engaged
in the conscious set of steps of,
oh, I’m really curious what’s going on
in this particular app.
I’m really curious what’s going on
in this particular website.
And you just kind of find yourself in air quotes.
For those of you listening, I’m making air quotes.
You just sort of find yourself doing it
because of the behavior of picking up your phone
is sort of reflexive or has become fully reflexive.
You see this a lot at meals
where multiple people are there
and no one’s looking at their phone.
And then all of a sudden someone takes out their phone
and you’ll notice that other people
just naturally take out their phone.
It’s this kind of observed observation induced reflex.
And I would wager that most people aren’t consciously aware
of the immediate steps involved.
So the literature says there are a number of ways
to break these sorts of habitual behaviors
or reflexive behaviors.
Most of those approaches involve establishing
some sort of reward for not performing the activity
or some sort of punishment for forming the activity.
I’ve heard of some basic things that people will do.
Like they’ll even put like a rubber band on their wrist
and every time they complain
or every time they do some behavior,
like pick up their phone,
they’ll give themselves a snap on the wrist.
The rationale there is that you’re trying to create
a somatic, a very physical representation
of something that makes it very real
and harder to overlook.
Other people will just do a tick mark on a piece of paper.
The sort of what gets measured
is what gets managed kind of mindset,
where if every time you do something,
you take away the judgment.
This is very new agey, I realize,
but this is what you find out there
if you search the literature.
Even on PubMed, peer reviewed articles,
that every time you engage in a behavior,
you just measure the fact that you did that behavior.
You just mark it down at the end of the day.
People are supposed to look at that and say,
oh my goodness, I can’t believe that I spent,
you know, three hours doing something
or I did it 46 times.
And in fact, a lot of apps, social media apps,
will start to give you warnings now
if you opt in that you’ve been on the app for an hour,
would you like to leave?
Most people just click right past and go back in.
I think very few people say, oh my goodness,
it’s been an hour and therefore you’re right.
I absolutely shouldn’t engage in this anymore.
It’s just far too easy to just blow past those reminders.
Well, the literature on habit formation
and habit reduction, breaking habits, has been analyzed.
There’s a beautiful meta-analysis,
which involves looking at a number of different studies
all together, comparing the statistical strength
of each of those studies, looking in different conditions,
what sorts of habits were trying to be made or broken.
The first author on this review is Fritz, F-R-I-T-Z.
I’ll certainly put a link to this.
It’s Heather Fritz and it’s
Intervention to Modify Habits, a Scoping Review.
And it is indeed a very broad scale review.
It’s from the Journal of Occupation, Participation,
and Health, it’s published in 2020.
It’s a really nice article.
A couple of things I learned from this article,
and then I’ll get into the specific tool
for breaking habits.
Perhaps the most interesting thing
that I took from this review was the finding
that notifications to either engage in habits
or to not engage in habits actually
were not very effective over time.
They were effective in the immediate period
when people started using these notifications
as were little sticky notes,
like don’t go into the refrigerator
between the hours of whatever and whatever,
or just visual reminders, physical reminders
or electronic reminders were effective
in the immediate term, but in the long-term
did not predict whether or not people
would effectively stick to habits
they were trying to stick to or break habits
that they were trying to break.
So sadly, that doesn’t seem to work very well.
And perhaps they just need to come up
with more robust reminders.
I don’t know, mild electric shock or something like that,
because what we do know, only sort of kidding
about mild electric shock, but what we do know
from both human and animal studies
is that things like electric shock,
things like monetary penalties, right?
Having to pay out every time you engage
in a particular behavior, those are pretty effective ways
to break habits.
The problem is when people are not being monitored
for habit use, for instance, you can imagine a situation
where you say, I’m not going to pick up my phone
for the four hours in the early part of the day
so that I can get real dedicated focus work done.
Unless someone’s monitoring them,
then people don’t tend to monitor themselves
completely enough that they punish themselves
completely enough that they break the behavior.
In other words, the punishment isn’t bad enough
in order to break the habit, which just speaks
to how powerful these habits are
once they become reflexive.
They’re just very, very hard to override.
So it turns out that the key to generating
long-term depression in these pathways
is actually to take the period immediately following
the bad habit execution.
Meaning, let’s say you tell yourself,
you’re not going to pick up your phone,
you’re not going to bite your nails,
you’re not going to reflexively walk to the refrigerator
a particular time of day,
but you find yourself doing it anyway.
And what actually has to happen
is bringing conscious awareness to the period
immediately afterward, which I think
most people recognize.
They realize, oh, I just did it again.
I just did it again.
And in that moment, capture the sequence of events,
not that led to the bad habit execution,
but actually to take advantage of the fact
that the neurons that were responsible
for generating that bad habit were active a moment ago,
and to actually engage in a replacement behavior
Now, this is really interesting and I think powerful
because I would have thought that you have to engage
in a replacement behavior that truly replaces
the bad habit behavior, right?
That you would have to be able to identify
your state of mind or the sequence of events
leading into the bad habit,
but rather the stage or the period immediately
after the bad habit execution is a unique opportunity
to insert a different type of what we would call
adaptive behavior, but that could be any behavior
that’s not in line with the bad behavior.
So let’s give it an example.
Let’s say you find yourself,
you’re trying to do focused work, you pick up your phone,
you’re disappointing yourself for picking up your phone.
You could, of course, just put it down
and re-engage in the work behavior,
but if you were good at that,
then you probably wouldn’t have done it in the first place.
And so what turns out to be very effective
is to go engage in some other positive habit.
Now, this has two major effects.
The first one is you start to link in time
the execution of a bad behavior to this other good behavior.
And in doing so, you start to recruit other neural circuits,
other neurons that can start to somewhat dismantle
the sequence of firing associated with the bad behavior.
In other words, you start to create a kind of a double habit
that starts with a bad habit and then ends with a good habit
and that seems to create enough of a temporal mismatch
so that then recognizing
when you’re heading toward the bad habit
becomes more apparent to you.
So again, I want to make this very, very concrete.
Let’s say that the behavior
is reflexively picking up one’s phone.
You do that, you think, oh goodness, I did it again.
Here’s what I’m going to do.
You would set that down
and then you would engage in some other positive behavior
that you’ve deemed positive.
And here it’s very subjective.
So it’s hard for me to give an example
that will necessarily make sense to everybody,
but perhaps you’re working on hydration.
So maybe you go have a glass of water.
Maybe you are trying to do breath work or something.
Maybe you are trying to enhance
your language speaking skills.
And so you go and you spend five minutes
doing a particular type of language learning.
You literally exit whatever you are doing
and perform that other new positive habit
in the immediate period right after that,
even for a short period of time.
It’s a little bit counterintuitive,
but what this does is it creates a kind of a cognitive
and a temporal mismatch between the initial bad behavior,
which before is what we would call sort of a closed loop
and the engineers out there
will know what I’m talking about, but in closed loop,
so one behavior, one set of neural firings
leads to another, leads to another,
and then just kind of sets the same thing in motion.
It can be kind of a self-perpetuating system.
By changing the number of features that are in that loop,
it disrupts the closed nature of that loop.
It creates what we call an open loop.
And in an open loop, you are better able to intervene.
So as I mentioned before, this might seem counterintuitive.
You might think, why would I want to reward
the execution of a bad habit with a good habit?
I don’t want to reward myself for the bad habit,
but really what you’re trying to do
is you’re trying to change the nature of the neural circuits
that are firing so that you can rewrite the script
for that bad habit.
A different way to put it would be,
imagine that the bad habit is like a chord on the piano
that you play or a chord of notes
or a sequence of notes that you would play.
And it comes very easily.
You can play it every single time,
but let’s say as you’re trying to learn
a new piece of music,
you’re just constantly inserting that
at the inappropriate times.
That was a, you know,
I think it’s a decent enough analogy for a bad habit
because it involves some motor execution.
You just find yourself doing it.
Rather than trying to prevent yourself from doing it,
the next time you do it,
add in a new chord or sequence that you’re trying to learn.
What this does then is it changes the whole nature
of the sequence of neurons that are firing
from bad habit through to the end
of this newly applied good habit.
This is the way in which you start to dismantle,
or when I say dismantle,
really weaken the likelihood that if neuron A fires,
neuron B will fire.
Because as you’re starting off in the mode
of very reflexively performing a bad habit,
those neurons are firing together
without you consciously being aware of it.
It’s almost impossible for you to intervene in yourself
without a number of other features like severe punishment,
severe consequence type outcomes.
Rather, tacking on some additional sequences,
like if neuron A fires, neuron B fires,
and then you’re saying, okay, well, if neuron B fires,
I’m going to start inserting neuron CDEF to fire, right?
That’s the CDEF being the positive behavior
that you’re going to insert.
And in doing so, you create a chain of neuronal activation
that then is very easy to dismantle.
And so when people have applied this kind of approach,
it removes the need to have constant conscious awareness
of one’s own behavior prior to that behavior,
which is very, very difficult to achieve.
Rather, what they find is that they are able to engage
in remapping of the neural circuits
associated with bad habits
in ways that are very, very straightforward, right?
Because you can always identify
when you’ve done the thing you don’t want to do,
and then tack onto that something additional
Now, the nature of that positive thing is important.
You don’t want it to be something
that’s very hard to execute.
You want it to be something that’s positive
and fairly easy to execute
so that you’re not struggling all the time
to insert this on top of this bad behavior,
whatever that bad behavior might happen to be.
But again, this is rooted
in the biology of long-term depression.
It maps very well to the behavioral change literature
that I was able to glean that really shows
that rather than just get reminders,
rather than try and instill punishment,
rather than setting up reward for breaking bad habits,
that perhaps the simplest way to approach this
is to tack on additional behaviors to the bad habits,
make sure those behaviors are good behaviors
or behaviors that are adaptive for you.
And in doing so, you will soon find
that the initiation of the bad habit
takes on a whole new form
or that you’re not even inspired to do it at all.
And of course, I want to acknowledge
that breaking bad habits is really hard.
We had an episode all about addiction
with Dr. Anna Lembke from Stanford Medical School.
She’s a colleague of mine
who runs the Dual Diagnosis Addiction Clinic at Stanford.
And in that episode,
we talked a lot about how addicts for drugs, alcohol,
people who have addictions to certain types of behaviors
or avoidance behaviors even,
that in the case of addiction,
there has to be a tremendous kind of full-scale campaign
for them to be able to intervene in their behavior.
So for those of you that are thinking
about bad habit breaking
in the context of addictive type behaviors,
definitely check out that episode.
Addiction does employ some of these principles
around habit making and habit breaking, as it were.
But of course, because the consequences
of certain habits in addiction can be so severe,
there’s other sets of protocols
and there’s a kind of a psychological backdrop to it
that’s very important.
It also relates to the biology of dopamine
and you can find all of that
in the episode with Dr. Anna Lembke.
So today we’ve covered a lot about the biology
and psychology of habit formation and habit breaking.
We talked about why certain habits are so hard to wire in,
why certain habits are so hard to break down and eliminate,
and how we can determine which habits
are going to be easier for us to access
and which habits are going to be harder
for us to access and break.
We talked a lot about this notion of limbic friction
and we talked about context dependence
and we talked about a number of different things
as it relates to neural circuits
and the formation of new connections in the brain
and strengthening and weakening
of connections in the brain.
We also discussed two programs,
programs designed specifically for you
on the basis of the neurobiology literature
and the literature on the psychology
of habit formation and habit breaking.
Just to briefly recap,
one program involves dividing the 24-hour day
into three phases, phase one, phase two, phase three,
and to try and tackle specific habits
at particular phases of the 24-hour cycle.
The second program involved a 21-day process
of engaging approximately six new habits per day,
although the expectation, as I mentioned earlier,
is that you’re not going to perform all six of those,
and an assessment in the following 21 days
as to whether or not you have indeed
formed those new habits or not.
And there were a number of other features that I mentioned
that were related to those two general programs,
phase one, phase two, phase three,
and the 21-day program
and how those could be meshed together.
So I’m guessing some of you will probably have questions
about those programs and how to apply them,
but hopefully they were clear enough for you to get started.
This is a good opportunity for me to mention
that the Huberman Lab podcast
has something called the Neural Network Newsletter
that is sent out approximately once a month.
For the next newsletter,
I will release a on-paper version of these two systems
and how they mesh together
for habit formation and habit breaking.
And if you’d like to access that,
you can go to hubermanlab.com, you go to the menu,
you can sign up for the newsletter.
First of all, it’s zero cost.
but I can tell you right now,
we don’t share your email with any vendors
or any other sources.
Those emails stay internal to us.
And if you’d like to see what the sort of flavor
of those newsletters is, the previous newsletters,
for instance, one on tools for sleep
that I mentioned earlier or tools for neuroplasticity
in the classroom and outside the classroom as well,
for teachers and for students of various kinds,
those are also posted there.
So you can access any of the previous newsletters.
My hope is that today you’ve learned
both the biological mechanisms and the practical tools
by which you can start to establish habits
that for you, you deem adaptive, healthy,
and that are going to support you and your goals.
And that you can start to dismantle some of the habits
that you find to be unhealthy or maladaptive
for you and for your goals.
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If you go to livemomentous.com slash Huberman,
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And you will find various protocols
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There, I teach neuroscience
and neuroscience-related tools in short format.
Some of that material overlaps
with what you hear on the podcast.
Some of it is unique and different
from what’s on the podcast.
And once again, I want to thank you
for going on this journey of exploring the neuroscience
and the psychology of habit formation and habit breaking.
I hope it supports you in your goals.
And last but certainly not least,
thank you for your interest in science.