Unlocking the Science of Habits: How to Hack the Habit Loop & Become the Man You Want to Be

by Brett & Kate McKay on November 20, 2012 · 70 comments

in A Man's Life, Personal Development

For better or for worse, our habits shape us. A good habit is a strong ally in our journey to becoming the men we want to be, while a bad habit acts like a millstone around our necks. (Want to know why? Read this Manvotional.) To achieve our goals, whatever they may be, it’s necessary to defeat our bad habits and encourage the good ones. But how do you go about doing that? We’ve written about making and breaking habits before, but honestly, most of what I suggested  was based off of anecdotal evidence of what’s worked in my life. Sure, those tips can work, but since then I’ve continued my search for more efficient, science-based ways to improve my habits.

Fortunately for me, a book was published earlier this year that highlights the latest research by psychologists and neuroscientists on the science of habit formation. It’s called The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, and it’s among the top five books I’ve read in 2012. In The Power of Habit, Duhigg explains how habits work in our brain. More importantly, he reveals the process by which a habit becomes a habit. By being aware of what he calls the “Habit Loop” we can take control of the habits in our lives.

Below, we take a look at the science of habits and how we can hack the Habit Loop in our lives to break bad habits and make better ones.

Our Brain on Habits

Just beneath our gray and squiggly cerebral cortex sits a small piece of neural tissue called the basal ganglia. For years, researchers really didn’t know what the basal ganglia did except that it might play a role in Parkinson’s disease. But beginning in the 1990s, researchers at MIT had a hunch that the basal ganglia had something to do with the formation of habits.

The inspiration came after researchers noticed that mice with injured basal ganglia developed problems with learning how to run through mazes. Curious, researchers surgically placed wires and probes inside the brains of healthy mice so they could see their brain activity as they got better and better at making it through a maze.

During the first maze runs, mental activity in the mice’s cerebral cortex was high. Because the maze was new to them, the mice had to sniff and scratch the walls in order to make it to the end of the maze. They really had to think about which way to go. But as the days and weeks progressed, navigating the maze became more and more automatic for the mice. It was as if they didn’t even have to think about it, and, according to the brain probes, they weren’t. The activity in the cerebral cortex went almost silent when the well-practiced mice scurried through the maze. Even the parts of the cerebral cortex related to memory showed decreased activity.

But while activity in the cerebral cortex, or the “thinking” part of the brain, decreased, the probes showed that the mice’s basal ganglia were working in overdrive. The MIT researchers concluded that the brain essentially off-loaded the maze-running sequence from the cerebral cortex to the basal ganglia where it was stored as a habit. What’s more, the “maze running” habit was initiated whenever the mice heard a certain clicking noise. The “click” acted as cue to the basal ganglia to run the maze-running script (we’ll come back to this important bit of knowledge later).

Since the initial research with mice, researchers have found that habits work pretty much the same way with us humans. Whenever we go into “habit mode,” our brain activity shifts from our higher-thinking cerebral cortex to our more primitive-thinking basal ganglia. It’s one of the ways our brain works more efficiently. By freeing up mental RAM from our cerebral cortex, our brains can use that mental energy for more important stuff like creating a life plan, starting a business, or even researching the science of habits!

Neuroscientists have also learned that once our brain encodes a habit into our basal ganglia, that habit never really disappears. It’s always there looking for that certain cue to initiate the habit sequence. That wouldn’t be a problem if all our habits were good for us. Unfortunately, our brain doesn’t distinguish between good habits and bad ones. It will off-load any repeated activity to the basal ganglia, even if it’s to our detriment.

The permanence of bad habits shouldn’t discourage you: Change is still possible according to the latest habit research. While you can’t really get rid of a bad habit, it is possible to create more powerful good habits that simply override the bad ones. To do so, you need to understand exactly how habits are formed. Once you know the process by which our brain encodes habits, you can start tweaking the various components to change and create any habit you want. Author Charles Duhigg calls this habit forming process the Habit Loop.

The Habit Loop

The Habit Loop is sort of like a computer program — a very simple one, albeit — consisting of three parts:

  1. Cue. According to Duhigg, a cue is “a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use.” For the mice in the MIT experiment, the cue was a “click” sound; for us a cue could be “sitting down at the computer,” or “boredom,” or “lunch time.”
  2. Routine. The routine is the activity that you perform almost automatically after you encounter the cue. A routine can be physical, mental, or emotional.
  3. Reward. The reward is what helps our “brain figure out if [a] particular loop is worth remembering for the future.” A reward can be anything. For the mice in the MIT experiment the reward was chocolate. For us it could be the feeling we get after eating a Five Guys burger, smoking a cigarette, or watching porn.

As we encounter this three-part loop over and over again, the process slowly becomes more automatic. What really cements the habit in our brain is when the Cue and the Reward work together to form powerful neurological cravings that compel us to perform the Routine.  In short, cravings are the fuel for the Habit Loop.

Here’s how this happens: Whenever we crave something, our brain experiences the same sort of pleasure response that we get when we actually experience a reward — be it a tasty burger or an orgasm. But this anticipatory pleasure creates some cognitive dissonance within us — there’s a conflict between what our brain feels (the pleasure of eating a burger) and what we’re actually experiencing (I’m not eating a burger right now). Our brains don’t like this disconnect and will quickly close the gap by compelling us to engage in the Routinethat will give us the pleasure we’re anticipating (hitting the drive-thru).

When something is a habit, our brain strongly associates certain Cues with certain Rewards. In the case of the MIT mice, the “clicking” noise cue was strongly associated with the reward of a piece of chocolate. Just by hearing the click, the mice began experiencing the pleasure of eating the chocolate, which created a craving to actually eat the chocolate. Sort of like Pavlovian’s dogs. That craving then compelled the mice to go into automatic mode and run through the maze in the pursuit of chocolate without even thinking about it.

And as it is with mice, so it goes with humans.

Like it or not, we all have cues that we associate with certain rewards that create almost insatiable cravings within us. For many modern men, the buzz or chime of incoming email is a cue that initiates a powerful craving to check our inbox to see if we’ll be rewarded with some life-altering or exciting email. For other men, the cue of a putting on their running shoes creates a craving for the reward of a runner’s high, which compels them to get out the door and start running. Once our brain associates a Cue with a Reward, an un-erasable habit begins to encode itself within our basal ganglia.

Hacking the Habit Loop to Change Bad Habits

While habits never really disappear, we don’t have to be slaves to them. Research has shown that by becoming aware of the Habit Loop in our lives and making simple tweaks to it, we can change bad habits to good ones.

To change a habit, you must simply follow the Golden Rule of Habit Change: Keep the Cue and Reward; Change the Routine. 

That’s it.

“It seems ridiculously simple, but once you’re aware of how your habit works, once you recognize the cues and rewards, you’re halfway to changing it,” said Nathan Azrin, a habit researcher Charles Duhigg interviewed for The Power of Habit. “It seems like it should be more complex. The truth is, the brain can be reprogrammed. You just have to be deliberate about it.”

Below is a step-by-step guide that Charles Duhigg suggests using to identify the component parts of the Habit Loop in your life so that you can begin taking deliberate action to change how it runs.

Step 1: Identify the Routine

The first step is to identify the routine you want to change in your life. Do you want to stop checking your email incessantly? Do you want to stop watching porn every night? How about quitting your caffeine habit? Or maybe you want to quit playing video games all weekend and start working out? This is the part of the Habit Loop that we’ll be tweaking in order to change our undesirable habits.

Step 2: Experiment with the Reward

“Rewards are powerful because they satisfy cravings. But we’re often not conscious of the cravings that drive our behaviors,” says Duhigg.

It’s easy to identity our rewards – pizza, orgasm, drinking – but what are we really craving when we go after those things? And is there a different reward that will satisfy the true craving, but in a more positive way?

To answer those questions, you need to conduct a series of experiments designed to test various hypotheses. Don’t get frustrated during this process if it takes too long or doesn’t have the results you had predicted – think of yourself like a scientist who is led by curiosity and dispassionately seeks to uncover the truth.

For example, let’s say you have a habit Routine of going to the vending machine to get a Diet Mountain Dew every day. You want to change it because it’s costing you money and Diet Dew isn’t very good for you, so you need to figure out the craving that’s driving you to seek that Reward, and whether a different Reward might satisfy it equally well.

To begin your experiments, the next time you feel that all-too-familiar pull towards getting that delicious neon nectar, adjust your Routine so you get a different Reward. On the first day of your experiment, buy a 7-Up instead; on the second day just drink water from the water fountain; on another day simply surf the web or take a walk outside. When you commence the substitute activity (or after say, drinking the 7-Up), set a fifteen-minute alarm on your watch or computer. Then when the fifteen minutes is up, ask yourself: “Do I still feel the urge for Diet Mountain Dew?” Evaluate the state of your craving. If you still feel an urge to do the Dew after surfing the web, then you’ve discovered that your habit isn’t motivated by a craving for distraction. On the other hand, if the craving for Dew disappears after taking a walk outside, then perhaps your Dew habit was being driven by a craving for a quick energy boost. By substituting the soda-Routine for the walk-Routine, you can satisfy your craving for a pick-me-up-Reward, but do it in a healthier, more positive way.

Step 3: Identify the Cue

Once you identify the reward, it’s time to identify the cue: the thing that triggers the craving. Habit researchers have shown that almost all habit cues fall into one of five categories:

  • Location
  • Time
  • Emotional State
  • Other People
  • Immediately-preceding action

Whenever you get the urge for a Mountain Dew, write down answers that correspond to the five possible cue categories. Do this for an entire week. After a while, you should be noticing a reoccurring cue. For example, you might get the craving for a Diet Mountain Dew at a certain time of day or maybe whenever you feel tired and bored. Make note of what you believe your Diet Mountain Dew Habit Cue is.

Step 4: Create a Plan

After you identify the Cue and Reward, you can start making plans to change your routine. According to researchers, the best way to plan your habit change is through implementation intentions. We wrote about these earlier this year. In a nutshell, an implementation intention is an “if-then” phrase that links a situational cue to a specific action.

So let’s use our Diet Mountain Dew example to create an implementation intention to help us kick the habit. Through days of experimenting you discovered that you get the urge to drink a Diet Mountain Dew right around 2PM. You also uncovered by experimenting with different rewards that it wasn’t really the Diet Dew you craved, you were just craving an energy boost. Fortunately, you found that walking outside for 15 minutes gave you the same boost as chugging the sweet stuff. So you could create an implementation intention that looked like this:

When I feel tired at 2PM, I will get up and walk around outside for 15 minutes.

You’ll need to be methodical about actually implementing your implementation intention. You can’t half-ass it. The goal is to associate taking a walk with your tiredness-energy boost cue/reward combo. Depending on how entrenched your bad habit was, overriding it with your new good habit could take a few weeks. Be patient, stick to your implementation intention, and change will come.

Step 5: Believe You Can Change

A final ingredient necessary for lasting habit change is to believe that change is possible. Researchers have found that the best way to foster that belief in yourself is to surround yourself with a supportive group of people. According to psychologist Todd Heatherton, “Change occurs among other people. It seems real when we can see it in other people’s eyes.”

The ability of groups to encourage belief that change is possible is one of the reasons researchers believe Alcoholics Anonymous has been so successful with helping people beat their alcohol habit. Every week they go to a meeting where everyone believes that they can change.

Your group doesn’t have to be as large as an AA meeting. In fact, just having one other person to turn to as you change your habit can foster the belief that you can change your bad habit. Find an accountability partner that you can meet with on a regular basis to report on your progress and get encouragement. Ideally your partner would be somebody that you can meet with face-to-face, but even virtual check-ins can work.

How to Form a New Habit Using the Habit Loop

Understanding how the Habit Loop works can also help you create new habits that you’ve been meaning to establish, but never had the wherewithal to follow through on. You just need to design a cue-routine-reward loop and work through it until a craving is created that drives the loop. It may take some tinkering and experimentation, but with enough patience and diligence, you’ll strike on something that works.

Your Man-Up Challenge

I have two challenges for you today. First, pick a habit that you want to change and start experimenting to find out what your Habit Loop is. I’d love to hear what habit you plan to work on, so share it with us in the comments. Second, I highly recommend you pick up a copy of The Power of Habit at a book store or library. I just scratched the surface of the Habit Loop in this post. Duhigg goes into much more detail and provides compelling examples of the Habit Loop in action. You’ll be a better man after reading.

Watch a Video Summary of How to Hack the Habit Loop

{ 70 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Travis November 20, 2012 at 10:47 pm

I’m going to work on smoking cigarettes. After thinking about it.. I don’t really think the feeling I get from smoking is the reward I crave. It seems like the actual reward is just the feeling of stepping outside for a minute and gathering my thoughts.

Something tells me there are way healthier ways to go about that.

Great article!

2 Jeisyn Murphy, Bright Mind CEO November 20, 2012 at 11:10 pm

Love posts dealing with self-improvement and I love it even more that you’re writing it from a guy’s perspective.

Habits can be changed and we should all feel encouraged by your practical steps.

I also appreciate that someone out there in the blogosphere is tackling the crippling, marriage-killing monster: porn.

I hope all those trapped in any loop they don’t want to be in will find a way out using this technique or any other that works.

May we be strengthened!

3 Rick November 20, 2012 at 11:35 pm

I am going to work on getting out of bed the first time my alarm goes off. I, like most people, have a tendency to make the snooze button my best friend. That extra 15-30 minutes of extra sleep is debilitating to the rest of my day, because the aren’t true rest.

Let’s be our best men! Best of luck to you all who are accepting this challenge!

4 Matt November 20, 2012 at 11:39 pm

I’m going to kill my despised porn habit of two years. Thank you for this post, I think it’ll help. I’m sick of the weight around my neck.

5 Jake November 20, 2012 at 11:42 pm

I personally need to work on my habit of surfing the internet when I need to be working, which is how I ended up here ironically…back to the homework…

6 DAL November 20, 2012 at 11:46 pm

This post is spot on. I used to have a problem with watching porn nearly every single day. I don’t think porn is evil but it was personally making me unhappy. I found that I would start watching porn whenever I was down or depressed, and was looking for a way to take my mind off things. So what I started doing instead whenever I got down or bored, was to go running or call up a friend, just fill that time with something positive instead falling into the routine. It really worked.

7 Adam November 20, 2012 at 11:56 pm

While this article explains how to substitute one routine for another. I still fail to see how this can be applied to setting up a habit for something that doesnt have a short term reward. E.G. starting a workout routine. Ive tried many times to start exercising regularly but I recieve no tangible imediate reward i simply end up having spent an hour of my day becoming tired and sore. So how could a reward be worked into this kind of situation where a habit is necessary but it not something i find rewarding?

8 Renan Braulino November 21, 2012 at 12:08 am

Hello all,

Brett and Kate, congratulations on another amazingly written and profoundly powerful and pertinent article!

While on the topic of porn, there is much psychological research about addiction and bad cyclonic habits, and if you’re a person who likes a good scientific argument – especially about addiction – I’d recommend watching this TED presentation called The Great Porn Experiment:


It has scientifically sound arguments, and it makes an incredibly strong case against porn.


9 Nic November 21, 2012 at 2:16 am

It does take some mental fortitude on your part to form a habit as well.

Specifically, for getting into the habit of exercise, if you’re looking for a reward, you’re going to have to look at a longer period of time. 6 weeks is the minimum, but I would give it 3 months. Commit to a good exercise program (there are many good articles on this site with recommendations for good manly ways to be active). At the beginning of the period establish some metrics by which you will measure your performance, i.e. take a before picture, get on a scale, take some measurements (waist, arms, chest, neck), go for a timed 1 mile run, see what your one rep max on a given lift is, … Then come back in 3 months and compare those same metrics. If you’ve been faithful to a good program for that time, it will show not only in the metrics, but also in how you feel about yourself, and how other people perceive you.

If you still need motivation, just tell yourself you can’t do something you enjoy, like video games, until after you workout.

10 Samuel November 21, 2012 at 3:35 am

Personally I like the soreness and tiredness of exercise… I guess that’s my reward! I want to work on getting up on the first alarm as well. Really enjoy your website, thank you for the articles,


11 John D. R. November 21, 2012 at 5:02 am

I have the habit to surf the net while I eat a meal. That needs to stop. I want to focus on one thing. Nothing wrong with surfing the web for half an hour if I have the time, but meal time is for eating.

So for me the cue is clear: Immediately after I sit down at my desk, I start the computer and the browser, open the same 3 tabs (mail, facebook, calendar). I just don’t know what the reward is …

I recently began to avoid the cue, which I find kinda interesting. But I will need to sit at my desk from time to time…

Thanks for this article!

12 Kevin November 21, 2012 at 5:17 am

Aww man, I just finished doing all that stuff when I switched from regular Mountain Dew…

13 Tim Osborn November 21, 2012 at 5:28 am

I’ve had bad habits in my life but I’d like to share a story of a good one.

Every morning I go for a 30 minute jog. I love it and it’s a definite habit. My cue is waking up in the morning feeling a bit tired and morning-ish. I put on my headphones and out the door I go.

Because my job means I sit at a desk all day my job makes me feel so much better all day than if I had not have gone for my run. This is my reward. Also, I rarely have any trouble going to sleep at night but before I started my routine this may have been a problem sometimes.

I guess the tricky part is getting started. That was motivated in part by my dislike of exercise but a want to get it out of the way early in the day cause I know I needed to do it.


14 Andy Morris November 21, 2012 at 6:51 am

Wow… what an excellent article on habits… I will keep this one for reference later…

15 Mato Tope November 21, 2012 at 7:28 am

Sow a thought, reap an action; sow an action, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a nature; sow a nature, reap a fate…
Another great article from AoM which positively echoes the words of Aristotle;
“Whatever it is in our power to do, it is in our power not to do.”

16 Kevin November 21, 2012 at 7:35 am

Great article, I’ve been working on quitting smoking and a lot of the articles on AoM have been very helpful. In particular, I’ve been reading up on the articles on willpower and resiliency and this is another great article that will help make sure this happens!

17 bobster November 21, 2012 at 8:19 am

the real habit you need to break is the habit of wanting an immediate reward.
get it into your head that those who seek immediate reward end up as failures.

the ability to defer gratification is the key to success. generally, the more valuable a thing is, the longer it takes to achieve it! good habits are included in this.

I encourage you, bro, to look at that. you can do it. you were made for excellence. Reject Quitting.
spend time looking at examples of excellence, both people who have achieved and wonderful projects that have been accomplished.
physically smile when you do well, physically frown at ‘slacker’ ideas.
mentally savor the rewards at the end of your goal. associate with others who are doing what you want to become.

shortcuts are the enemy, they are a lie. we wanna believe them because there is a part of our animal nature that seeks the path of least resistance.

so, develop your wise mind, read stuff on AOM about will power, and know that tons of other guys have followed this same path to excellence. I know you can do it.

18 Matthew November 21, 2012 at 8:56 am

Diet Dew … How did you know?

Only mine is first thing in the morning.

19 Ian Connel November 21, 2012 at 9:26 am

Habits are huge in martial arts. Keep dropping your hands? Not properly going to open guard and getting passed? The fix is practicing it until you do it without thinking. I write it down, scold myself until it gets better, and soon I’m performing better in sparring and grappling.

Once you don’t have to think about it, you can think about other/finer processes and combinations. Chess and Tai Chi push hands master Josh Waitzkin described it as “making smaller circles” in The Art of Learning. Good book on that.

20 James November 21, 2012 at 9:32 am

My example is a recent change I made to my daily routine.

Every morning I would ride by the small local convince store and every morning I would stop… EVERY morning. This not only was an expensive habit, but it revived another. Smoking. I had been smoke free for 9 years. But something inside said “May as well make the trip worth it”. I picked up smoking small cigars for almost three months. Always pleasure at first, then guilt as I thought about it, and then shame when I had to hide it from my family. I would be in the red financially at the end of a pay period, so I checked the books. Any where from a 7 to 10 dollar A DAY habit was killing my wallet.

I fought with myself… my co-workers and friends said “” hey, you know you’re killing yourself right?”… My wife giving accusing glances when I coughed.

One day on the way to work there was a traffic jam, so knowing the area a bit I turned off on a side street. After a pleasant five minute drive through a nice wooded area, I emerged… right behind my job.

Ever since then I take that road. I enjoy the light playing through the branches, My mind is clear of money stress, I arrive to work early, and I can breathe easier.

All because of one right turn.

21 Andy S. November 21, 2012 at 9:42 am

I want to kick my video game habit entirely. I’m 28 years old and have never been a “gamer” per say but have had almost every system since Nintendo. I have a PS3 now and have become completely addicted to one certain game. I go home at night, eat dinner, take care of a few random things and play this game until 10 at night. Then I read and go to bed. For me, I think the reward is just clicking any higher-order brain functions off. Kind of like an escape; although I love my career, girlfriend, family and friends. Its not a dire situation but sometimes I waste an entire Saturday. I’ve finally seen the light and realized that video games, although they are crazy fun, are a complete and utter waste of time. They contribute nothing positive to a man’s life. I have been wrestling with the idea of selling (or donating) my PS3 and every game I own. This article reinforces that I am stuck in a bad habit loop and need to take action! I’ve always been into the outdoors as well and have recently taken up hunting on a very serious level. Hunting and fishing are my favorite past times and are similar to games, in that they’re somewhat of an escape, but are much more rewarding and beneficial to a man’s life. Time for some real habit-changing action. Thanks AoM.

22 Vincent November 21, 2012 at 9:50 am

Thanks for this interesting article. A few weeks ago I sold all my video game equipment and took up a few more useful habits to kill time. I bought a few good books and now I read when I have some spare time in the evening. Never had any regrets on selling my game equipement and I’m feeling great.

With the use of this article and the book of Charles Duhigg I’m going to try and quit my nasty smoking once and for all. I will follow the routine you suggest above and I hope to report how this helped me.

Thanks again for the great articles and the website Brett and Kate.

23 Thomas November 21, 2012 at 10:47 am

I have fought the battle of the bulge for many years myself. It was not until I started tracking several markers that I was able to keep motivated. Tracking weight alone wasn’t enough. I tracked weight, gut size, reps and mileage working out. Anytime my weight didn’t change, I had the other numbers to look at and keep me going.

24 Michael November 21, 2012 at 11:02 am

I think it is an interesting concept, however I have found that I can form a habit that is time based, (every time after I finish X class I go to the gym) but after the semester is over my schedule changes to something else, so some semesters I do well others I do poorly.
I long for a 9-5 job where I can finally set up a routine that won’t change after 16 weeks. and I will use this to do it. great post and if anyone is looking for an Econ major in may let me know :)

25 Joel D Canfield November 21, 2012 at 11:18 am

Adam, Duhigg’s book talks about how to use short-term rewards to work up to long-term rewards. Of course, we’re better off when we can delay gratification, but that’s a follow-up to building the habit, not a substitute.

Pick something healthy or at least health-neutral as a reward and treat yourself every time you make it to the gym or whatever. In fact, you can take tiny steps: have your significant other give you a big kiss every time you put on your jogging shoes, or always play your favorite song right after you’ve laced ‘em up.

Then do that for each little step of the exercise routine: getting there, getting started, even showering afterward.

Humans are only motivated by two things: avoiding pain, or pursuing pleasure. While we’re all better off when we pursue needs higher up Maslow’s Hierarchy, it’s devilish hard to seek the Good of Mankind when you’re frustrated because you can’t even get to the gym twice a week.

26 Jordan November 21, 2012 at 11:47 am

I’m a sophomore in college and have gained some weight. I’ve read several places that in college that due to eating habits people will gain up to half a pound a week up to their sophomore year. Where I suppose they realize how fat they’ve gotten then decide to try crazy diet’s (definitely never done that…) But seriously, I’ve gained about 15-20 pounds. I weighed 175 and was very athletic in high school and I miss it. So thanks to your article I’ll try and break my bad habit loop and create one of working out (along with my vegetarian 6 days out of the week diet haha).

27 Alex November 21, 2012 at 12:43 pm

Question: what if the routine is doing nothing? What if the soul crushing laziness that has taken over my life has no cue? And since nothing is being done, there is no tangible reward. Any advice on how to break this habit, if it can be called one, would be helpful as my life needs to get back on track very soon.

28 Jonathan S November 21, 2012 at 4:04 pm

@Alex — One possible answer might be to change your friends, social circle, or city. If you want to be motivated, you need to be around motivated people. Whatever your goals are, it helps to be surrounded as much as possible by like-minded people. To get away from some of my patterns of life, I moved across the country and started life over from scratch. So far it has paid off greatly.

Good article, by the way — I’m going to have a look at this book.

29 Rob C. November 21, 2012 at 9:16 pm

Hmm, I just need to change my whole life around. Become a different person altogether. Where to begin though? Let’s see if I actually change something.

30 Alex November 21, 2012 at 10:20 pm

I just wanna bring up some points about a couple things. I know marijuana hasn’t been mentioned here in the comments, but most people look at that as a “bad habit.” To me, sitting in my recliner after a hard day at work and smoking a bowl is extremely relaxing and I sleep absolutely great. Now, as for video games, some people on here call them a waste of time. While that IS a reasonable statement, you have to separate HABIT from ADDICTION. This is true for all things. If you like to sit down for an hour a night and play video games, I don’t think that’s unreasonable. Us men, good men, strive to be the best we can be in every aspect. We need to blow off some steam and kick back here and there. As long as you do more than play video games all day, or smoke pot all day, or drink Diet Dew all day, it should be fine. Hell, even a cigar or a drink or two. These are just my personal thoughts.

31 Ankur Nigam November 22, 2012 at 3:09 am

@Travis: I completely agree with you on that smoking thing. I too suffer from the same. I have somehow convinced myself that I concentrate best when I’m alone and smoking, so being a software programmer, whenever I find myself facing a challenging problem I turn to smoking :( I’m surely going to try this Habit Loop thingy.. Thnx !

32 Colin November 22, 2012 at 9:33 am

Great stuff! This is just the kind of thing I’ve been tinkering with, going off the theory that we have finite willpower. I’ve been trying to change one habit at a time.

My ultimate goal is to lose about 25 lbs. But I had some unhealthy habits in my way.

First came the Dew. I had been gearing up for a camping trip anyway, so I bought a durable water bottle I could attach to my pack. After the trip this thing became my baby. I took the thing to work, used it around the house, even took it to church. The whole thing was: crave a dew, take a sip. And every time I drove by that gas station that sold my delicious soda, I forced myself to look at the other side of the road. If I needed gas: just pump and go man. In about 2 weeks I didn’t feel a craving at all.

Second, I had to change my eating habits. Not that I was a fried food junkie, but I didn’t make the wisest choices and usually ate big quantities. In a nutshell I just had to pack my lunches with healthy, small foods and be deliberate with when I’d eat them. I’d start to get hungry, want to hog out, but I’d tell myself to wait 10 minutes then eat that apple or half a sandwich.

Point is, we can all be retrained. Don’t think anything you do is hopeless. Just be intentional and don’t give up men.

33 Len November 23, 2012 at 2:02 pm

Love the article! Just so happens that I’m currently reading a book on this topic called Change Anything: The New Science of Personal Success. Great book!

34 Julian R. November 23, 2012 at 5:07 pm

@Brett & Kate McKay- Another great article and I also plan to check out the recommended book. Is there any chance that the website will add a more interactive page if there isn’t already one in existence? I’ve noticed that there seems to be some need for camaraderie that goes beyond the comment section. Have you ever considered adding a forum page to this site or the Facebook page? Thanks again for the great article.

35 Brett McKay November 23, 2012 at 5:12 pm


Glad you enjoyed the article. There has been a forum/community in place almost since the site started 5 years ago (although its format changed a couple years back). There are over 27,000 members. There is a main forum, but much of the action goes on in groups members have created around different interests. Some guys have even met up in real life through the community,


36 Joe S. November 24, 2012 at 10:45 pm

I bought a $20 book on this exact subject. I can tell you that with this guide and determination, this method will work. I can also tell you that you don’t need the $20 book. This sums it up right here.

37 king November 26, 2012 at 2:05 am

I’m going to change my sleeping time from 1am to 12am.

I’m going to identify my Habit Loop and develop a cue-routine-reward to create a new and better habit, which is sleep early.

38 Nate November 26, 2012 at 10:50 am

Brett, Kate, I get the feeling that you guys are always putting effortful work into always getting better at what you do. This site/blog just gets stronger and stronger.

39 Nate November 26, 2012 at 11:00 am

“Step 5: Believe You Can Change”

I sort of feel strongly that this should be step 1, step 5 feels like its lower priority or an afterthought. There’s 2 quotes I read yesterday actually that illustrate my thinking:

“If you believe you can win, you can win. Faith is necessary before every victory.”


“Technique beats strength, but spirit beats technique. Often a person can have many excellent techniques, but if he lacks spirit, he will be unable to use them. That is why spirit beats strength.”
-Lyoto Machida, former UFC division champion, “Dragon Philosophy” on youtube

40 Dan M November 26, 2012 at 5:09 pm

You guys can do this. I just recently quit smoking a few months ago and boy is it worth it! Travis, you’re absolutely right. I too realized that it wasn’t the physical reward of smoking that I craved, but that moment to be outside and gather my thoughts. I’ve found running to be an incredibly beneficial substitute that allows me to think and clear my head in ways that smoking never did. And Ankur, you’ll be amazed at how much better you can concentrate on a task without having the cravings for a cigarette every hour. Good luck to both of you! I believe you can do it and if you do to then you should have no problems!

41 Dan M November 26, 2012 at 5:11 pm

@Travis and Ankur

Sorry, I forgot that part.

42 Chris Q November 27, 2012 at 12:58 pm

Damn, If I wasn’t so perfect I could participate in this…

No, Seriously, I’m looking forward to moving to the next town and into my first house. I think it will be the perfect shake-up to my life to begin creating new, good habits.

43 Jonathan November 28, 2012 at 9:20 pm

I’ve found that one of the best ways to build a habit, or break a habit, is to publicize your goal and the steps you’re going to take to accomplish it.

Fear usually prevents this from happening — whether it be the fear of condemnation, the fear of admitting you have a problem, the fear of weakness — but, then again, fear overcome is usually the predecessor of accomplishment.

44 Andrew November 29, 2012 at 7:33 am

I’m going to work on my temper. I work in a call centre, and dealing with an uncooperative customer can be very frustrating for me. I tend to deal with it by punching or kicking the desk, which can be very disturbing for others, so I’m going to try to replace that with a short break when I’m feeling stressed, and a few minutes of meditation (or at least calm, controlled breathing).

45 Saad Ghazipura November 29, 2012 at 9:32 am

The way you explained the workings of a the brain basal ganglia, cerebral cortex, and habits in terms of scripts, ram memory etc is simple and very effective. As a Med student I should know. I’ve gotten some crappy explanations from profs over the years.

46 Sean November 29, 2012 at 10:39 am

Want to break the habit of sleeping late, & make a new one for jumping out of bed in the morning? Here is a tip I picked up from Steve Pavlina that I had 100% success with the FIRST day!

The key is to practice the new habit BEFORE the time comes to implement it.

So for waking up early you would recreate the conditions when you wake up the day before. Dim the lights, get undressed & hop into bed. Set your alarm 5 minutes forward. When it goes off you jump straight out of bed, go get a glass of water & brush your teeth. The next day your body will instinctively follow this new routine.


47 Noelan November 30, 2012 at 10:20 am

Hi Guys,

So ive decided to use you guys to help me break my habit! :) I totally agree with Jonathan who wrote above the best way is to publicize. My habit is a VERY difficult one to break and i could use your guys help.

My gf and I occasionally engage in sexual immorality, not all the way to home base, but def 3′rd. Its something our God condemns and also something we do not wish in our hearts to keep doing to ourselves. We have plans to marry this year and would like to show each other self respect and true love by holding off on that gift till after marriage. Ps. we both have very healthy sexdrives so this makes it difficult, and self control is BOTH of our weaknesses. That being said we’ve been focusing on improving this for a while and are getting better : )

The reward: The sexual high we get while engaging in the activity. Also the ending.

The Cue: us being in the car together… this seems to be the only place we actually engage in misconduct… occassionally on the phone too.

Here’s my problem, can you guys help? Obviously there are times its necessary for us to be in the car together, and many times we manage to successfully handle it. The danger time seems to be at night, after a dinner out, or a night out on some sort of date.

What i have noticed is that we never run into this issue during the day time.

Any suggestions for the implementation challenge?
- maybe no late night dates alone?
- maybe always call someone to let them know we are on our way home?

Any suggestions for alternatives when our brain craves the reward>?

Any help you guys can provide i would appreciate :)

Thank you.

48 Greg November 30, 2012 at 3:28 pm

I had a similar problem with my wife before we were married. After being engaged we made a solemn pact to refrain from any funny business past “2nd base”. We made it to the end of our engagement and the wedding night. It was probably the worst decision we ever made. From that point on it was always awkward because we forced ourselves to shut down what was a natural and healthy feeling: sexual attraction. I would say to just keep it special by staying chaste and not going beyond what you have already done, that way the desire is still there on your wedding night. Just my opinion.

49 Isaac December 1, 2012 at 12:34 am

I’m going to work on changing my habit of goofing off before doing what’s really important in life. If I can successfully change that, I have more things to work. Thanks for posting this, it has been one of my favorite reads on here.

50 Isaac December 1, 2012 at 12:37 am

Oh BTW, Noelan, I appreciate how forthcoming you are about something like that. I’ll be praying for you.

51 Jonathan December 1, 2012 at 1:20 am


I, and I’m sure any other religious guys on here, completely understand what you’re dealing with.

At some point, your motivation has to come from somewhere other than yourself, in “the moment,” fighting yourself. For instance, if you know that it’s going to result in your girlfriend feeling terrible, then you need to build your self control out of a love for her and her heart.

With that being said, I would recommend legitimate, in-your-life accountability. Voice to each other what you want your standards to be and why, then each of you should find someone to hold you accountable.

If all else fails, avoid the situation that triggers the result — the car, in your case. If you don’t trust yourself, then don’t trust yourself.

Best of luck to you.

52 Vincent December 3, 2012 at 9:11 am

Just finished the book, very interesting read. Thanks for the suggestion and I would recommend it to everyone who wishes to dig deeper in the creation of habits in their personal life and professional life.

53 Noelan December 4, 2012 at 10:11 am

Great suggestions guys, i appreciate your support.

I’m definitely going to apply the “i dont trust myself” guide.

Really appreciate the whole AOM website, you guys are awesome at helping us chaps become gentleman.

54 Adam December 5, 2012 at 1:02 pm

this article is great. I love this website. I have a few bad habits I would love to change, Ill get a jump on my new years resolution.

55 Edin December 14, 2012 at 2:38 am

Speaking about porn, these are two web sites anyone doubting the harm of it should visit:

56 Mark Hansen, Candeo CEO January 3, 2013 at 2:38 pm

Happened upon this article because someone clicked on the link Edin (whom I don’t know) posted.

Great article. I’ve actually been a fan of artofmanliness.com for a while and even enjoyed some great Christmas presents from my wife thanks to the gift idea post.

It’s interesting that one of the topics and one of the directions in the comment threat went towards pornography. At Candeo we don’t care if it’s officially classed as an addiction or not, we care about what a few of you have said. That it’s a “weight” you’d rather not have. We call it an unwanted behavior. The brain is amazing, but part of it’s wonder is it’s neural-plasticity.

Look, I honestly don’t care if you click a link, I’m just glad to see a conversation that involved some straight talk about pornography. Keep up the conversation, here or anywhere.

57 James February 6, 2013 at 4:12 pm

I changed a small, life-long habit about 7 years ago, as an experiment in habits and changing them. From the time I first had a wallet, I always kept it in my left rear pocket (I’m left-handed). My keys went in my front left pocket. My change was to move them to the opposite (right hand) pocket. Simple, right? Wrong! It took months to get over the instinctive left hand move. It took years to make the move to an instinctive right-hand pocket insertion. I still sometimes use the left pocket. It’s been an education.

58 James February 19, 2013 at 7:41 pm

Timeless advice as always. In the Bible David slew Goliath in his youth because of habits developed as a shepherd, but when he failed to act consistently as King, he fell into sin, and sorrow. The Scripture tells us that at the time “when Kings go out to war” David was at home, and saw Bathsheba bathing, lusted, and fell into tragedy.

59 Marco March 9, 2013 at 8:26 am

break habits tees ;)

60 Mr Kneebone June 22, 2013 at 7:42 pm

I’m back from university for the summer, and I’ve stopped cleaning my teeth in the mornings. My lack of routine at this moment has made me really lazy. The other day I forced myself to clean my teeth after breakfast and I listened to my favourite song while I did it. Now I listen to that song during breakfast and it actually makes me crave the action of cleaning my teeth.

It seems that the reward from cleaning my teeth has become more pleasurable than not doing it, and so a good habit has overridden a bad one.

61 Mister Anon June 24, 2013 at 2:43 pm

Several men have mentioned their porn habit. An excellent resource for dealing with this is Your Brain on Porn. http://yourbrainonporn.com/

62 Vinicius June 25, 2013 at 10:16 am

I really want to thank you, @Brett McKay , for this article. I work at home as a translator and it have been such a challenge stop procrastinating. So, here goes an idea: make a study case applying this method on that kind of job, or in porn. It will help readers to see how it actually works when practicing that rules.

Greetings from Brazil

63 JeffC June 25, 2013 at 4:04 pm

Great article; very practical.
In his distraction, Brett wrote:

Sort of like Pavlovian’s dogs

Of course, it’s Pavlov’s dogs, but that’s a great example to use to get us thinking about taking control of the cues and rewards to change our habits. We are actually in control, if we’ll just take the reins into our hands.

64 James November 12, 2013 at 2:37 pm


I am inspired by your article. I am going to quit using smokeless tobacco. I am sure there are healthier ways to go about dealing with stress, than tobacco. Thanks for the motivation.

65 Jonathan November 15, 2013 at 10:13 pm

Great article. This is definitely a great topic to cover and I’m sure can be beneficial to everyone.

One thing I’ve been trying to break for some time is the habit of going back to sleep after my alarm goes off. I’ve tried everything. I’m WAY past the point of setting several ones and placing them around the room. But without fail each morning, I get up very annoyed and exhausted feeling and turn them off and almost unconsciously get back in bed. I’m sure the Cue is feeling drowsy and exhausted the first few seconds of rising, the Routine being me getting back under the covers, which brings me the Reward of a warm bed and sleep!

But I really need to break the habit, obviously, because I’m always late for things… How could I substitute in a new Routine the moment I feel like falling back into bed?

66 Dal November 19, 2013 at 5:23 pm

All the self reflection and examination is great, but don’t underestimate the importance of brute willpower. At the end of the day, no matter what habit you are trying to change, its going to be the following through with a conscious, deliberate decision to not engage the habit that is going to cause the change. And several weeks of deliberate non-engagement, as your body and mind adapt to the sudden withdraw from a regularly expected chemical stimulation, as everything you feel is a chemical response.

67 Dale November 19, 2013 at 6:01 pm

Jonathan, first make sure you’re getting good solid sleep (might need to drop the caffeine or staying up late).

Find an alarm that does not have a snooze button. You’re giving yourself too many chances to get out of bed.

Alarm goes off, get out of bed, shut it off, hit the shower, get dressed.

The opportunity to sleep a few more minutes courtesy of a snooze button or multiple alarms is crippling your morning.

68 Kevin November 19, 2013 at 8:46 pm

I’ve been struggling with a bad habit of poping / picking at acne for the past 4 years. I have gone as long as an entire summer breaking the habit but then somehow fall back into it. This article has inspired me to give it another go with hopes of never looking back. From the information above, I believe my cue is simple boredom or stress and reward is almost like a meditation state; from this I want to try doing deep breathing with my eyes closed or stretching whenever I feel the urge.

What helps me to start the process is giving deep thought to the consequences of the habit. For me, I am often insecure when i wear short sleeves or tank tops where you can see all the irritated places on my skin and use that to motivate me.

69 Ethan December 6, 2013 at 7:17 pm

Hey! Thanks so much for all the tips! I truly appreciate how committed you guys are to bringing about self-improvement in the world. I believe many of these articles have helped and brought change not only amongst men but even amongst women who happen to pass by this site. Thank you. Cheers to everyone who is trying to improve their lives!

70 Al March 11, 2014 at 10:58 am

There was a ‘quit smoking’ product in the past called Zyban. Along with some kind of pill (not nicotine) I quit a 5 pack a day habit. They followed the EXACT formula you listed above. AND IT WORKED. In the end it was not so much the pill but the plan. They may have been placebos for all I know. Follow these 5 habits and you can quit painlessly. I know, thanks for posting this, I hope it helps alot of guys.

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