Using Your Brain to Make Habits that Stick

Using Brain Science to Make Habits that Stick

I love new beginnings.  This week, when we get to experience both the end of one year and the beginning of the next, we will be celebrating by releasing ourselves from the shackles of bad habits and replacing them with new and improved lifetime behaviors.  Today I am going to use knowledge learned during my day job to let you in on how you can use a little brain science to make habits that stick.  I learned these skills personally by Nir Eyal author of “Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products”.

I use these lessons on habits to create technologies like mobile games that achieve high consumer adoption of health and wellness behaviors.  I’m guessing that of all things in your life your mobile phone ranks up there in firmly implanted habits.  We know that mobile devices change our day-to-day behavior, but why are mobile devices so good at changing our habits?  To understand how, we must understand what habits are and the brain mechanics at work used to change them.

What are Habits?

Habits are impulses to do a behavior with little to no conscious thought.  When you think about it, social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and SnapChat get us to do some pretty bizarre behaviors as habits.  Now, over the span of just a few short years, billions are using these social platforms as day-to-day habits that require little to no conscious thought.

It goes to say, then, that creating a habit-forming activity, like saving money or exercising, would require us to speak directly to the unconscious mind.  To do this, Eyal advocates what is called the “Hook Model”.  This Hook Model has us use a specific series of experiences with enough frequency to create a habit.

Using the Hook Model to Form Habits

To use your brain to form new habits, it is critical that you take advantage of the following four  experiences:

Trigger: A trigger is a cue to action that prompts you to perform a habitual action.  These triggers come in two forms.  You have external triggers in the environment that tell you what to do next.  A friend telling you to try something new is a powerful external trigger.  So are all of those “calls to action” you find in advertising and marketing materials.  However, it is the internal trigger that is the most important.  Internal triggers are associations in your own mind that inform what to do next.  These associations come from emotions, routines, situations, people, and places. Ultimately, this requires you to have an intimate understanding of your own impulses and how you respond to those impulses.  How can you create your own triggers?  I recommend that you reverse engineer them by creating a ritual around a new behavior that you would like to make into a habit. For example, I wanted to keep a cleaner house.  I made a habit of this by putting a reminder in my phone for every night at 9:00.  At 9:00 I get up, turn my kitchen timer to 20 minutes, and then I look around the house seeing what needs to be cleaned.  When the timer goes off at the end of 20 minutes, I stop cleaning.  The alarm and timer become my trigger.  I discuss this at length in “Cleaning Your House a Little Bit Every Day“.

Screen Shot 2014-10-26 at 8.08.31 PMAction: An action is defined as the simplest behavior done in anticipation of reward. Want examples of the most compelling actions used by developers to manage your habits online?  Here they are:

  • Scrolling on Pinterest
  • Searching on Google
  • Hitting the play button on YouTube.

These are all “actions in pursuit of rewards” in that studies have shown they relieve enough tension in the human mind to create an addiction to our mobile phones.  There is a formula you can use to predict the power of reward found in these singular behaviors. That formula is:

B(ehavior) = M(otivation) + A(bility) + T(rigger)

According to BJ Fogg, in order for any behavior to occur, we need motivation, ability, and a trigger.  Motivation is the “energy for action” (how much we want to do a behavior). You can use these six factors to increase motivation:

  1. seeking pleasure
  2. avoiding pain
  3. seeking hope
  4. avoiding fear
  5. seeking acceptance
  6. avoiding rejection.

Ability is the capacity to do an action (how easy or difficult it is to do).   Six factors can increase or decrease ability.  These include:

  1. time
  2. money
  3. physical effort
  4. brain cycles
  5. social deviance
  6. non-routine

This is why we are more likely to do something when we see someone we know doing it. We are also more likely to do something we’ve done before because we have factored in our ability.

Reward: To get at the heart of reward, we have to start in the brain.  More specifically we have to start in a portion of the brain called the nucleus accumbens, which has some unusual properties. When they allow lab animals to trigger this portion of the brain by pushing a button, those animals will continue to do so obsessively.  In fact, the machines have to be forcibly removed in order for the obsession to push the button to stop.  At first it was assumed that this portion of the brain activated a pleasure center.  That was not correct.  The nucleus accumbems actually activates the “stress of desire”.  It’s that sensation of an itch that we crave to scratch,  and there is a way to trick your mind into this stress of desire.

Within the premise of “the unknown is fascinating”, variability causes us to increase focus and not let go. If a reward is given on a variable basis, then it spikes activity in the nucleus accumbens. Here are some important rewards to consider that create such variability:

  • Rewards of the Tribe:  These are rewards that we receive from other people like empathetic joy, partnership, and competition. This is why exercising with friends is more habit forming than exercising alone.  Social media is a treasure trove for rewards of the tribe.  With rewards of a tribe there is inherent variability because you cannot predict human behavior.
  • Rewards of the Hunt: This reward is all about exercising our curiosity.  Rewards of the hunt, like gambling, also provide the variability that we desire. The information rewards we receive from search engines like Google are good examples of a reward of the hunt as well. The social media activity feed works in the same way.  As you scroll through an activity feed your nucleus accumbens is stating, “that’s not interesting, that’s not interesting, wait, that’s interesting!”.
  • Rewards of the Self: A search for self-achievment has an important element of variability, which is why people are happiest when they are trying to reach a goal (as opposed to having already achieved that goal).   Mastery, competency, and control are rewards of the self.

Ultimately, variable rewards are about scratching an itch but leaving yourself open to the mystery of what will happen next.  One of the ultimate examples is the email inbox.  The quest to clear your inbox can be seen as a game because of that pesky little icon signifying that you have mail.  Making that little icon go away is an important variable reward that keeps us coming back for more. Damn email inbox.  You get me every time.

Investment: This is a variable of the hook that most people neglect, and, therefore, presents the greatest opportunity for growth.   “Investments” are defined as the incentive for the next trigger.  Unlike physical products that deteriorate over time, good habits appreciate and get more valuable the more they are used because of the investments we make in their stored value.  Let’s use technology as our example again.  The more content that is collected in your iTunes account, the more value it has and the better it becomes. The more accounts you collect in, the more valuable it becomes because it then provides a more holistic view of your finances.   The more followers you have the more interesting Twitter becomes.  These are all examples of investments.

You need to be able to store value in a meaningful way in order to keep good habits.  For example, if you are looking to lose weight, then it helps to have an app like Lose It where you can track our calorie intake and exercise over time.  Investment is a double edged sword, however.  Have you ever noticed how you can keep a good habit going for a while and then, for whatever reason, you skip that habit once.  Don’t you find it hard to pick the habit up again?  The investment factor of the hook is why.  In order to get yourself going again you have to use your trigger, which is why having those rituals around your action prove even more valuable.

A Better You is 18 Days Away

If you are trying to develop a new habit, then you need to ask these five questions to know if you will be successful:

  • What internal trigger is this habit addressing?
  • What external trigger will move me towards action?
  • What is the simplest behavior I can perform in anticipation of reward?
  • Is the reward fulfilling yet leaves me wanting more?
  • What “bit of work” is done in the form of investment to increase the likelihood of returning to this habit again?

Science has shown that it only takes 18 days to make a new habit stick.  You are even more likely to do so now that you understand how your brain functions around habits.  Now go use that knowledge to manipulate your brain towards good behaviors.  Good luck!

Melody grew up in poverty, and she was homeless throughout most of her childhood. Even after the hard work of getting out of poverty was accomplished, she still lived in fear of the next bad thing that could happen. She knew that, without the security of a safety net, one misstep would mean certain disaster. It was not until this safety net was established that she truly felt liberated and free from the anxiety of living in poverty once again. She is now motivated to share this sense of freedom with all women.


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