[Instrumental Rationality Sequence 4.3/7]

[Part three of a three-part series of habits.]

[We go over three techniques for creating habits: Going Upstream and Substitution. Then we conclude the mini-sequence on habits]

Techniques: Breaking Habits :

While creating new habits focuses on reinforcing the link between the Trigger and the Action, breaking habits is about finding ways to disrupt the typical context cue and response mechanism.

Thus, the techniques below sorta do the opposite of what the stuff in Creating Habits did. For example, by weakening the link between the context cue and the response, we can disable the automaticity. Or, we might substitute it with something more desirable.

The two techniques we’ll go over are Going Upstream and Substitution.

IMAGE: https://cdn-images-1.medium.com/max/1600/1*NtngNsQgX035it-vHTY0Jw.png


Going Upstream:

[Going Upstream is a set of concepts based around removing the context cues of unwanted habits beforehand so the habit doesn’t activate. It’s backed by experimental evidence, and it fits right in with our standard habit model.]


The idea behind Going Upstream is that one of the best ways to disrupt a habit is to go straight up to the top.

By that, I mean you’re targeting the source of the phenomenon, i.e. whatever’s causing it at the very top of the chain *33. Changes upstream should have effects that flow through to the bottom. It’s like how building a dam upstream of a river causes the water flowing down to slow to a trickle. Hence the name.

But this is probably still a little abstract. Let’s get a bit more specific:

We know from the standard habit model that habits fire in the presence of certain context cues. And many of these cues are in the environment.

Thus, one way to remove an unwanted habit through Going Upstream is to limit your exposure to the aforementioned cue. If you don’t encounter the cue, then the habit won’t fire at all.

For example, say you have an unwanted habit of going into a long bout of distracted browsing after opening your Facebook news feed. One way to make this habit less prevalent by Going Upstream would be to disable your Facebook news feed, removing any chance that you’d get distracted in the first place.

Going Upstream is functionally very similar to the idea of precommitment, the idea of cutting off some of your options ahead of time to make sure you can stick to your commitments *34.

An example might be if a dieter throws out all the unhealthy snacks in their house. Then, they replace them all with healthy options. Now, they have no choice but to snack healthily when hungry.

Or, consider the student who goes to the library to “force” themselves to study because there’s less distractions in the library’s study room than at home.

We see that principles based in Going Upstream have effects across varied domains, from reducing smoking to improving public transportation usage *35.



At its core, Going Upstream is about being able to make choices for your decisions where you have the most control. It’s far easier to remove affect your exposure to the context cue in the first place than to override a habit once the context cue kicks in.

Using this principle, we’ll go over three sub-techniques which each use the Going Upstream principle: Trigger Removal, Cue Disruption, and Changing Friction.


Going Upstream 1: Trigger Removal

As we already alluded to earlier, one of the most straightforward applications of Going Upstream is to simply remove the Trigger that leads to the habit.

The steps of Trigger Removal are:

  1. Put your unwanted habit into the TAP framework.
    EX: You want to stop consistently checking your phone for notifications. You ask yourself, “What conditions seem to lead to my checking of the phone?” Thinking back to the last few times you checked your phone, you look at the different parts that make you the habit.

  2. Identify the Trigger(s) that seem to lead you towards taking the Action.
    EX: You realize that it’s like that the “Ping!” sound of notifications seems to be the main Trigger. In situations, your phone will ring, and you notice yourself with the urge to flip your phone to see what happened.

  3. Take steps to remove the Trigger from your environment.
    EX: You decide to silence your phone’s notifications, so you aren’t prompted to check it on the audio cue. The end result is that your attention becomes less diverted by notifications.

That’s the gist of it—figure out what’s cuing your unwanted habit and remove it from the environment.


Going Upstream 2: Cue Disruption

The more extreme version of Trigger Removal is Cue Disruption, which is based off the idea that certain windows of opportunity make it a lot easier to Go Upstream and alter cues. Specifically, these opportunities happen when there are major shifts in your environment, like when you move to a new town.

As evidence, we see that when people move to a new, unfamiliar place, this is a prime time to form new habits and break old ones because of the absence of many of their old context cues *36. This seems to be valid for a variety of activities, from taking public transport to watching less TV *37.

For another example, switching to a new job is also a prime time to try and rid yourself of certain bad workflow habits. Now that you’re in a new environment, you’re sorta given a new slate. The old cues which might have had a major hand in leading to undesirable behaviors are gone, giving you space to try and mindfully create some better TAPs.

Capitalizing on this break in continuity of context cues forms the core of Cue Disruption. Because such changes are uncommon, I’d hesitate to really call this a technique. It’s more of just a general consideration to keep in mind if you find yourself changing environments.

And there’s really not too much to it:

  1. Undergo a change in your environment.
    EX: Move to a new city.

  2. Form new TAPs using the new environmental cues.
    EX: Stop eating junk food because you don’t know where the unhealthy restaurants are.

You might not get to use this often, but I mention this because I think it’s good to keep cached in your brain as a viable option when the opportunity does arise.


Going Upstream 3: Changing Friction

As a technique, Trigger Removal clearly doesn’t work for all habits. Not all Triggers are external environmental ones. Other harder-to-target Triggers might involve internal feelings or emotions. Or, the Triggers might be impractical to remove because they’re not something you have direct control over, like what words other people say.

Especially for situations where you don’t have complete control over the Trigger, the next best thing you can try is just to make it harder for you to access either the Trigger or the Action.

This is the idea behind Adding Friction.

“Friction” is being used here to mean additional barriers that prevent immediate access—like how friction in the real world makes smooth sliding more difficult. On the flip side, Reducing Friction is about having less barriers towards action, so that it’s easier to execute good habits.

An example of Adding Friction would be if you installed a Chrome extension to add a 30 second delay time each time you tried to visit Facebook. This might be preferable to simply blocking Facebook outright because simply removing the Action of “visit Facebook” doesn’t leave you with an alternative. By adding a delay time, you gain an additional opportunity to reconsider and check in with yourself to see if you really need to visit the site.

Part of Adding Friction, then, is also about finding additional opportunities to inject more time for reflection, so that you can see if the habit is aligned with what you really want.

An example of Reducing Friction would be if someone wanted to go to the gym every day, and they asked a good friend to bring gym clothes for them and pick them up. This makes it easier by removing barriers which, had they been unaddressed, could have been excuses for not going.

These might have taken the form thoughts like “Oh man…I can’t find my gym shorts…guess I won’t go exercising today, then…”.

(Though this section is mainly about breaking habits, Friction, as you can see, is applicable to either creating or breaking habits. It just depends on whether you’re adding or removing it.)

When applying the concept of Adding and Reducing Friction to habits, the step-by-step process looks a little like:

  1. Identify the TAP you’d like to affect.
    EX: You have a bad internet browsing habit that eats up a lot of time. Looking into yourself, you see that the habit roughly looks like [Feel tired and not engaged] → [Go on a browsing spiral].

  2. Look at the Trigger. Find a way to make it easier or harder to encounter. (This is habit-dependent.)
    EX: You ask yourself, “How can I change the frequency with which I encounter this Trigger?” You decide to take more frequent breaks while you’re on the computer. This thus reduces the probability of your getting tired and distracted so the TAP doesn’t fire as often.

  3. Look at the Action. Find a way to make it easier or harder to take. (Also habit-dependent.)
    EX: You could also block the actual sites that you commonly go on or use some web filters to ensure that your work time online is spent only on the places you decide beforehand.

Some of the examples for Adding Friction you can think of probably look a lot like the ones for Trigger Removal, and that’s fine. Overlap between the sub-techniques is okay. The main idea here is just being able to generalize the technique to situations where you might not be able to entirely remove things by thinking in terms of Friction.

Remember that all of these techniques are suggestions, and all of these techniques are my attempt to make more sense of out of largely general principles. If a different categorization yields results for you, I would recommend you do that instead.



[Substitution is where you swap out one Action for another one but keep the same Trigger. In essence, it’s concerned with finding ways to switch out your defaults with better responses.]


One problem with trying to break unwanted habits is that merely trying to “not do it” is largely ineffective.

For example, one idea that might appear clever is to create an “anti-TAP” for certain behaviors. While it sounds good to have a habit of not doing something, you’ll end up with TAPs like, “When I think of french fries, I won’t eat them.”

Which, as it turns, doesn’t work very well *38. Anti-TAPs are ineffective because when you tell yourself to not do X, the focus is still on X. This seems to be potentially due to ironic process theory, the idea that trying to suppress certain thoughts only brings them to mind.

It’s the same reason why telling someone to not imagine a red horse driving a blue convertible only makes the absurd image more vivid in their heads. Having a TAP that tells you what not to do isn’t useful when it doesn’t concretely provide an alternative.

Otherwise, all that’s bouncing around in your head is the very thing you told yourself not to do.

Thus, the more reasonable thing to do is to find ways to re-engineer your existing TAPs such that you can instead take an improved alternative action. This gives you another actionable to instead of just leaving you with no way out.

As a technique, Substitution is about trying actually specify what to do instead of just attempting to suppress the original response after encountering the context cue *39.

This is more reasonable because your focus can be directed on the alternative action instead of just dwelling on how much you don’t want to do something.


Substitution in a systematic layout looks like:

  1. Identify the TAP you’d like to change, specifically the Trigger.
    EX: You’d like to drink less soda. You notice that you typically think of getting sodas after ordering a burger.

  2. Find an alternative Action to replace it with that’s more satisfactory.
    EX: You decide to ask for an ice water instead.

  3. Do 5 mental run-throughs of the updated TAP and keep track of your progress with tools from Systematic Planning.
    EX: You do 5 mental run-throughs of ordering water instead of soda.

That’s it. Of course the rest of the guidelines from making TAPs still hold, like choosing concrete actions and writing it down. But the overall concept, like many of the techniques we’ve gone over, is quite simple.

Especially for habits with Triggers you don’t have complete control over, Substitution can be a useful intervention to improve your routines †6.

I think that Substitution sorta actually represents the core concept behind behavior change. When you want to do something different (and hopefully better), there’s necessarily some sort of swapping happening.

There’s roughly a 3-step process here that looks a little like this:

(Note the actual Substitution algorithm differs a little from the one below, but I claim the central ideas are very similar.)

  1. Notice a behavior.
    EX: “Huh, I just felt jealous when Mary got more attention than me.”

  2. Reflect on the action.
    EX: “Hm, that doesn’t seem to be very good. Mary’s had it hard the last few months. What can I do instead?”

  3. Swap out the default for something new.
    EX: “Okay, so instead, when someone compliments Mary, I can instead try to imagine how it feels to be her. I think that’ll dissipate some of my envy.”

And as we go on to delve into more ideas, this’ll be good to keep in mind. Much of improvement follows this sort of “overriding defaults” idea. You’re trying to answer the question of “How can I make things incrementally better?”



We’ve gone a whirlwind tour of the way that habits operate, from models to techniques. Here’s a short recap of all of the things we’ve covered.

  1. Habits can be basically thought of a combination of a Trigger and a responding Action.

  2. Habits are automatic and keep sticking around, even if you don’t want them to. And rewards don’t to much to change them.

  3. Habits take somewhere in the neighborhood of 2 months to form.

  4. Creating habits consists of explicitly building the Trigger and the Action you want. The rest of the techniques are ways to reinforce this connection.

  5. Breaking habits is about disrupting the chain between the Trigger and the Action. The rest of the techniques are ways to swap things up or modify the chain.



IMAGE: https://cdn-images-1.medium.com/max/1600/1*Xh0KRH_syx1lAvcoGAr00w.png

There's much more to habits than I’ve covered here. In the interest of accessibility, I’ve made lots of simplifications, and I’ve skipped over entire sub-fields like conditioning and learning theory.

If you want to read just one “real” paper on the topic for a more academic overview, I’d strongly recommend Psychology of Habit by Wendy Wood and Dennis Rünger. It’s a fantastic overview of the many facets of habits, and I copied a lot of the same categories they used in this Habits 101 doc.

But we covered a lot of stuff in this primer.

And building habits is hard.

And there’s still the question of “motivation”.

(Whatever that is.)

I know getting started might be effortful. Still, I hope that I’ve given you enough tools to at least have a structured way of thinking about habits.

When you decide that you want to start tinkering with your own routines, you’ll now have some effective tools to start experimenting with.


Footnotes (†):

†1. While this definition is what’s used by many papers on habits, note that disputes still exist between what the “best” definition is. See *3 for an in-depth discussion. In my opinion, most of the dispute is fairly pedantic, and for practical purposes, the one given is good enough.

†2. Addiction and habituation aren’t exactly the same thing, but my understanding is that they’re quite similar, so I equated the two for ease of understanding. For a deeper look, you can check out *40.

†3. While I think that the general point here stands, note that ego depletion, one of the core ideas behind the idea of willpower-as-a-resource is currently on shaky ground. See *41 for more information.

†4. Although there are some technical differences between how habits and implementation intentions operate, I’ll be using the two terms interchangeably, as our focus is on intentionally creating habits, which resolves much of the differences in definition.

†5. As we’re smashing two related concepts together without a concrete evidence base for the actual technique, it’s valid to point out that Scaling Up is less well-established than other things we’ve gone over.

†6. I do think that there’s bound to be some sort of cognitive dissonance when the old Action and the new Action both try to fire (although I didn’t find any papers on this specifically), which I agree is less than ideal.

However, we do have anecdotal evidence that people can overcome their bad habits, so I'm less concerned about this being a major problem. But it does seem good to acknowledge it.


References (*):

1. Wood, Wendy, Jeffrey M. Quinn, and Deborah A. Kashy. "Habits in everyday life: thought, emotion, and action." Journal of personality and social psychology 83.6 (2002): 1281.


2. Gardner, Benjamin. "Habit as automaticity, not frequency." European Health Psychologist 14.2 (2012): 32-36.


3. Gardner, Benjamin. "A review and analysis of the use of ‘habit’ in understanding, predicting and influencing health-related behaviour." Health Psychology Review 9.3 (2015): 277-295.


4. Wood, Wendy, and David T. Neal. "A new look at habits and the habit-goal interface." Psychological review 114.4 (2007): 843.


5. Abrahamse, Elger L., et al. "Control of automated behavior: insights from the discrete sequence production task." Frontiers in human neuroscience 7 (2013).


6. Wood, Wendy, and Dennis Rünger. "Psychology of habit." Annual Review of Psychology 67 (2016).


7. Same as 4.

8. Mirenowicz, Jacques, and Wolfram Schultz. "Preferential activation of midbrain dopamine neurons by appetitive rather than aversive stimuli." Nature 379.6564 (1996): 449.

(Couldn’t find PDF :’< )

9. Same as 4.

10. Same as 6.

11. Tricomi, Elizabeth, Bernard W. Balleine, and John P. O’Doherty. "A specific role for posterior dorsolateral striatum in human habit learning." European Journal of Neuroscience 29.11 (2009): 2225-2232.


12. Kane, Robert L., et al. "A structured review of the effect of economic incentives on consumers' preventive behavior." American journal of preventive medicine 27.4 (2004): 327-352.


13. Royer, Heather, Mark Stehr, and Justin Sydnor. "Incentives, commitments, and habit formation in exercise: evidence from a field experiment with workers at a fortune-500 company." American Economic Journal: Applied Economics 7.3 (2015): 51-84.


14. Hogarth, Lee, et al. "Associative learning mechanisms underpinning the transition from recreational drug use to addiction." Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1282.1 (2013): 12-24.


15. Dolan, Ray J., and Peter Dayan. "Goals and habits in the brain." Neuron 80.2 (2013): 312-325.


16. Neal, David T., Wendy Wood, and Jeffrey M. Quinn. "Habits—A repeat performance." Current Directions in Psychological Science 15.4 (2006): 198-202.


17. Wood, Wendy, Leona Tam, and Melissa Guerrero Witt. "Changing circumstances, disrupting habits." Journal of personality and social psychology 88.6 (2005): 918.

18. Ouellette, Judith A., and Wendy Wood. "Habit and intention in everyday life: The multiple processes by which past behavior predicts future behavior." Psychological bulletin 124.1 (1998): 54.


19. Neal, David T., Wendy Wood, and Aimee Drolet. "How do people adhere to goals when willpower is low? The profits (and pitfalls) of strong habits." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 104.6 (2013): 959.


20. Norman, Donald A. "Categorization of action slips." Psychological review 88.1 (1981): 1.


21. Kaushal, Navin, and Ryan E. Rhodes. "Exercise habit formation in new gym members: a longitudinal study." Journal of Behavioral Medicine 38.4 (2015): 652.


22. Lally, Phillippa, et al. "How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world." European journal of social psychology 40.6 (2010): 998-1009.


23. Gollwitzer, Peter M., and Paschal Sheeran. "Implementation intentions and goal achievement: A meta‐analysis of effects and processes." Advances in experimental social psychology 38 (2006): 69-119.


24. Gollwitzer, Peter M., and Veronika Brandstätter. "Implementation intentions and effective goal pursuit." Journal of Personality and social Psychology 73.1 (1997): 186.


25. Judah, Gaby, Benjamin Gardner, and Robert Aunger. "Forming a flossing habit: an exploratory study of the psychological determinants of habit formation." British journal of health psychology 18.2 (2013): 338-353.


26. Hagger, Martin S., and Aleksandra Luszczynska. "Implementation intention and action planning interventions in health contexts: State of the research and proposals for the way forward." Applied Psychology: Health and Well‐Being 6.1 (2014): 1-47.


27. Same as 5.

28. Sniehotta, Falko F., Urte Scholz, and Ralf Schwarzer. "Bridging the intention–behaviour gap: Planning, self-efficacy, and action control in the adoption and maintenance of physical exercise." Psychology & Health 20.2 (2005): 143-160.


29. Webb, Thomas L., and Paschal Sheeran. "Does changing behavioral intentions engender behavior change? A meta-analysis of the experimental evidence." Psychological bulletin 132.2 (2006): 249.


30. Sheeran, Paschal, and Thomas L. Webb. "The intention–behavior gap." Social and Personality Psychology Compass 10.9 (2016): 503-518.


31. Peterson, Gail B. "A day of great illumination: BF Skinner's discovery of shaping." Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior 82.3 (2004): 317-328.


32. Clark, David M., et al. "Cognitive therapy versus exposure and applied relaxation in social phobia: A randomized controlled trial." Journal of consulting and clinical psychology 74.3 (2006): 568.


33. Verplanken, Bas, and Wendy Wood. "Interventions to break and create consumer habits." Journal of Public Policy & Marketing 25.1 (2006): 90-103.


34. Ariely, Dan, and Klaus Wertenbroch. "Procrastination, deadlines, and performance: Self-control by precommitment." Psychological science 13.3 (2002): 219-224.


35. [Wood, Wendy, and David T. Neal. "Healthy through habit: Interventions for initiating & maintaining health behavior change." Behavioral Science & Policy 2.1 (2016): 71-83.]


36. Walker, Ian, Gregory O. Thomas, and Bas Verplanken. "Old habits die hard: Travel habit formation and decay during an office relocation." Environment and Behavior 47.10 (2015): 1089-1106.


37. Same as 35.

38. Adriaanse, Marieke A., et al. "Planning what not to eat: Ironic effects of implementation intentions negating unhealthy habits." Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 37.1 (2011): 69-81.


39. Lally, Phillippa, and Benjamin Gardner. "Promoting habit formation." Health Psychology Review 7.sup1 (2013): S137-S158.


40. Everitt, Barry J. "Neural and psychological mechanisms underlying compulsive drug seeking habits and drug memories–indications for novel treatments of addiction." European Journal of Neuroscience 40.1 (2014): 2163-2182.


41. Hagger, Martin S., and Nikos LD Chatzisarantis. "Commentary: Misguided effort with elusive implications, and sifting signal from noise with replication science." Frontiers in psychology 7 (2016).


42. Harkin, Benjamin, et al. "Does monitoring goal progress promote goal attainment? A meta-analysis of the experimental evidence." (2016): 198.



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7 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 1:54 PM

Hmm, sorry for the formatting bugs, but for now you probably want to avoid really really long URLs and replace them with links instead.

Great chapter. I've noticed I've been kinda applying similar strategies more and more in the last years, but it never occurred me to do this systematically. 

I think it could be improved by adding more examples. Breaking habits feels like a less intuitive process than making new ones. 

How do you go about identifying more subtle triggers/dealing with habits that seem (at least at first glance) triggerless. The example that makes me think this is biting my fingernails. There doesn't seem to be any particular trigger that's causing the response to trigger (at least that I can think of at the moment), but its still an automatic habitual behavior I would prefer to remove. In these more subtle contexts, are there any established mechanisms for working out what the trigger actually is or how to remove habits without knowing the triggers?

Hmmm. I agree with you that fingernail biting didn't seem to fit the paradigm. However, I did Google "stop biting fingernails", though, to see if there was any domain specific suggestions. (You may have already done this.)

Two things that maybe seemed promising:

  • Wear gloves to prevent easy access to hands
  • Getting a fidget toy to keep your hands otherwise busy

Something else which seems maybe useful is to be mindful/reflective after you've noticed that you've done it.

Otherwise, I (at least right now) don't know much about breaking habits without knowing the trigger.

My reply is likely late, but I think part of the trigger is having fingernails that are long enough to be bitten. You could make a habit of keeping them as short as you can.

I found this whole Sequence compelling and insightful so far. Any specific tips on how to break persistent habits that are context/cue independent? (eg: I twist my beard periodically, throughout the day, especially when engaged in some other activity, like say reading.)


Alas, for cue independent habits, I'm not quite sure what would be effective. (The literature doesn't cover these well.) For a probably ineffective start, maybe consider intentionally substituting something else at the times where you notice yourself doing the thing the most?