How To Stop Doing Something – Part I

This is the first post in a series on how to stop doing something. It presents two approaches to behavior mod. A third approach is offered in the the second post. More to follow.

Think of the mini routines you do throughout the day that don’t take a lot of thought: like tying your shoes, brushing your teeth, checking your email, and ordering or shopping for food. Each one is a sequence of actions you’ve done over and over – enough for the brain to store the sequence as a “chunk.” Once that occurs, you can call up the sequence whenever you want and just do it, without much thinking.


Chunking is the brain’s mechanism for forming habits. It preserves mental energy for things requiring a lot of conscious thought – like writing, planning, doing business, connecting with others, and learning new things.

We often think of habits as either bad or good. We want to stop bad habits and get into good ones. That’s the focus of Charles Duhigg’s bestseller, The Power Of Habit.

In this post, I present two different approaches for getting yourself to stop doing something. I use two real-life examples: how Duhigg stopped eating a cookie in the afternoon, and how I stopped drinking hot chocolate in the afternoon. Compare what each of us did with your own approach to change.

Duhigg’s cookie

Duhigg offers a framework for habit change, based on his research. He calls it the habit loop, which is comprised of 3 parts: the cue (the trigger that makes us crave the reward), the routine (the behavior we do to get the reward), and the reward (the thing we crave that drives the whole loop).

His thesis is that if we can identify the 3 parts of habit’s loop, we can change the habit through what he callsThe Golden Rule of Habit Change – which is changing the routine and keeping the cue and the reward the same.

He uses his afternoon cookie habit as an example. Each afternoon at his office, here’s how the habit played out: Between 3:00 and 3:30, he’d get up from this desk, walk to the elevator, take it to the cafeteria, buy a cookie, and eat it while talking to his friends. (After a while, he gained 8 pounds, which he didn’t like (nor did his wife).)

To break the habit, he identified the 3 parts of the loop:

  • The cue was the time of day (the onset of mid-afternoon).
  • The routine was everything starting with getting up from his desk to eating the cookie while talking to his friends.
  • The reward was socializing.

Socializing? Wasn’t the reward the cookie itself? Duhigg says it wasn’t. Identifying the reward takes the most analysis, he explains. You have to do some detective work to figure out what the real reward is – starting with the cue. Duhigg knew that his cue was a time of day, i.e. mid-afternoon. So he did the following experiment, at mid-afternoon on 3 consecutive days:

  • On day #1, he got up from his desk and took a walk.
  • On day #2, he got up from his desk, went to the cafeteria, bought a candy bar, and went back to his desk to eat it.
  • On day #3, he went to the cafeteria and bought nothing. He just talked to his friends.

From that, he concluded that the reward wasn’t the cookie. It was socializing. So he started a new routine: getting up from his desk at mid-afternoon and going into a colleague’s office to socialize. After a while, this routine took hold and became a habit (and the cookie craving disappeared, as did the weight he’d gained).

In sum, he identified the 3 components of the habit loop (cue, routine, reward) and applied The Golden Rule (i.e. he changed only the routine, keeping the cue and the reward the same).

Duhigg’s thesis is that we can apply this paradigm to all habit change. I think the book is reasonably well done, but trying to follow it to the letter is bound to lead to some confusion. Here’s why:

1) The Golden Rule doesn’t always work the same. It depends on what the reward is. When the reward is something reasonably benign and manageable (like socializing), it can stay the same (as we see in Duhigg’s example). But when the reward is a cookie or some other highly salient substance, the person has to substitute the reward for something else. He can’t keep the reward the same or he’ll never stop eating cookies (or drinking alcohol or snorting cocaine or whatever). Duhigg does propose changing the reward in some instances, but he does so in the book’s appendix, without acknowledging that it’s a variation on The Golden Rule.

2) It doesn’t distinguish between habit and addiction, which are very different. As Harvard psychiatrist John J. Ratey, M.D. explains, whenever we’re in the process of building a habit, dopamine is released in the brain to fuel the learning. This dopamine release is the brain’s way of telling us: “this is good, learn how to do this so you can do it more.” Here’s the thing: With habits like putting your clothes on in the same order, once you learn the habit, the dopamine release trails off. Not so with addiction. When we consume addictive substances (sugar, chocolate, alcohol, heroin, etc.), dopamine floods the brain every time we consume them, whether it’s the first taste or hit or the thousandth. The existing paradigm doesn’t account for this flood factor. Thus, it’s unclear how it can adequately address addiction, absent some modification.

3) It’s heavily reliant on extrinsic rewards – everything from promising yourself a smoothie to get yourself to work out, to thinking about how you’re going to look in a bathing suit. Rewards like these may work, but the research is clear that they’re not as powerful as intrinsic rewards (which arise from learning to love how the process feels while you’re in it). The book doesn’t make this distinction or even point out that the two types of rewards – which is a pretty big omission given the level of focus on rewards.

As you’ll see in the next section, behavior mod doesn’t even have to be this complicated. There was a time that I had hot chocolate every afternoon, and I stopped, using a completely different approach (that felt good).

My hot chocolate

Every weekday, I used to have what may be the most decadent hot chocolate known to mankind. I’d pick up my daughter from school and we’d go to the most decadent eatery in the neighborhood, where sweets abound. She’d go to one counter and order an ice cream cone. I’d go to another counter and just stand there. I didn’t have to order, because the guys behind it knew just from seeing me that it was time to make my hot chocolate, my way (a melted chocolate bar of crack-like caliber, with just enough water to make it drinkable). Then I’d pay for both treats and my daughter and I would enjoy them on our walk home.

Was this even a habit? Duhigg tells us that there’s a certain mindlessness to habits. My afternoon hot chocolate was totally mindful. I didn’t think of it in terms of cue, routine, or reward – nor was it necessary. Because it was an addiction. My brain expected the dopamine flood in those circumstances, I was aware of it, and I knew how to get it.

One day I decided to solve the problem in the fastest way I knew. I decided to go to the eatery that day with my daughter and not get a hot chocolate – and let myself feel micro-mastery instead. And you know what happened? I loved the feeling much more than I ever liked the hot chocolate. As it happened, it took only one day. It might have taken more than that – and in other efforts, it has taken longer. The point is that it worked and I got to a state of not wanting.

I did it by applying app4Mind, the app this site is based on. The details:

  • Mindset (what I thought): I tapped into my growth mindset (my belief that I can change and grow throughout life). I thought about the many changes I’d already made, some of which required me to stretch myself and learn new skill (e.g. everything from changing careers to changing how I eat and work out). And from that, I figured that I could lose the chocolate.
  • Motion (what I did): I decided on a start day. I picked up my daughter and we went, as usual, to the decadent eatery. She ordered and ice cream cone. I saw the guy at my counter nod at me, as usual, to show he was getting ready to start making my hot chocolate. I politely told him I wasn’t having one. I paid for the ice cream and we left for our usual walk home.
  • Mastery (what I felt): You know that feeling you get when you’re trying to do something new, and you do it, not perfectly, but just enough to think, “I can do it” or “Now I get it”? That’s micro-mastery. It’s that micro-feeling you get, based on micro-evidence that you can do what you’re trying to do. That’s what I felt when I told the guy behind the counter not to make my hot chocolate, and it’s what I felt in all the next steps: paying for just the ice cream, walking out the door without the hot chocolate, walking home, etc. Micro-mastery is high octane fuel for change. It’s intrinsic reward that’s absolutely free. Notice how I didn’t look for another external reward? I didn’t order tea or espresso as a substitute. I know about micro-mastery, and I wanted it pure and uncut – instead of the hot chocolate.
  • Measurement (how I tracked): Like most of my changes, I made this one in the context of a 30 day challenge. Every day when my daughter and I got home, I put a check on my calendar to show that I didn’t get a hot chocolate. Sounds silly, doesn’t it? It’s not. I liked making the check each day. It empowered me – it added to my tenacity. It was how I journaled – which, as you may know, I highly encourage during the change process.

It didn’t take the full 30 days to work. Getting to the point of not wanting is the critical difference between what I did and conventional approaches. When you stop wanting something, it takes no discipline or willpower to not have it. With conventional means, you still want what you were addicted to, but you learn ways to control yourself. Staying in control takes mental energy. Not wanting something doesn’t. It frees you to focus on other things.

It’s true that Duhigg also got to a state of not wanting, but, as he said, he didn’t want the cookie in the first place. Socializing was his reward. For many of us, the reward is the cookie (or some other tasty or mood altering thing). So it’s a different ball game.

The loop vs. app4Mind

There’s more to habits than the habit loop itself, as Duhigg acknowledges. The habit loop is a framework, he writes. It’s a place to start. “Individuals and habits are all different,” he points out, “and so the specifics of diagnosing and changing patterns in our lives differ from person to person and behavior to behavior.”
I see Duhigg’s habit loop as one of many methods you could run through the motion loop of app4Mind – meaning that it’s one in a broad spectrum of things you could try in an effort to change something about yourself.

Note that Duhigg did detective work and changed his routine. My change didn’t require any. Because it was so obvious that the hot chocolate was the reward – a problematic one, given its caloric density and my love-hate relationship with it. So I substituted it with something I could only love: mastery (i.e. micro-mastery, that lovely internal feeling).

Over to you: What’s your take on the different ways Duhigg and I addressed our respective afternoon snacking issues?  What do you think of Duhigg’s idea that the cookie wasn’t the reward? What’s your experience with getting yourself to stop doing something? Is an addiction a kind of habit, or is it a separate thing?


  1. Susan,

    This is a tough one. I like 30 Day Challenges as a means of kind of jump-starting a desired course of action. I am not as big a fan for using them to stop a particular behavior. I believe that if somebody wants to stop doing something all they have to do is decide, I know there is the argument that if somebody wants to start doing something all they have to do is decide also, but a 30 Day Challenge puts it front and center in one’s focus and reinforces the desired behavior.

    The linking of habits and additions is also problematic. Is cigarette smoking an addiction or bad habit? By being able to call “a bad habit” an “addiction” doesn’t that take away some of the personal responsibility for one’s actions? Under that line of thinking can’t one become “addicted” to “anything” that causes a particular response in our body.

    In looking at Duhigg’s “Cookie Dilemma” is the “cookie” really the issue? Yes, he was not happy with the weight gain, but there was that “need behind the need” to socialize. Was he “addicted” to cookie or socializing? Was his need to socialize in the afternoon a well deserved & needed break or just an excuse to goof off? AND if it is a well deserved and needed break there is nothing wrong with having a cookie every now and again.

    In regard to your hot chocolate, take my word I understand chocolate, I have a bunch of questions. Did you ever think of just trying to have your hot chocolate and nut succumb to your want of more chocolate? Did you “substitute” the satisfaction of “checking the box” on your calendar for the satisfaction of the chocolate (good habit vs bad habit)? Did you continue to “check the box” after 30 days? Have you ever gone with your daughter and said to yourself, ” Today, I am going to have a hot chocolate?” Do you and your daughter still get her an ice cream cone daily, or has her satisfaction declined with that ritual because you are not “fully” participating?

    This gets down to personal motivations and there are many “tricks” that one play with themselves to get the desired results.


    • Jim:

      Please clarify something. You wrote “I believe that if somebody wants to stop doing something all they have to do is decide.” Do you mean you believe that’s how it actually is with everyone, or that’s how it should be?

      I think the distinction between habit and addiction is important – because how we characterize something can drive how we approach it. Deciding which one it is for a particular behavior takes honesty and awareness, as well as our own defining of terms. Some might feel more compelled to address an addiction than a habit, yet others might feel the opposite. And some might treat them as essentially the same, for purposes of analysis and change – as Duhigg does in his book.

      As indicated in the post, Duhigg is very clear on what he believed to be the reward part of the loop. He determined it was socializing, not the cookie. So he changed the routine and kept the cue and the reward the same. That’s his formula. As for your other questions about him, I haven’t seen the answers anywhere.

      On my hot chocolate: As I wrote, when I stopped, I didn’t want it anymore. So no, I didn’t have it again. Not having it felt better than having it – so for me, the reward changed. The routine the same, though – going to the same place with my daughter. It didn’t seem important to her that I stopped getting a hot chocolate. Our time together was about just that – being together – not about whether we both were having a treat at the same time. Thankfully, she’s always been adept at sorting what’s important from what’s not.

      I kept checking my calendar for the whole 30 days – even though I didn’t want the hot chocolate anymore after the first day. It was my way of finishing out the challenge. The checking wasn’t a substitute for anything. It was my way of journaling the challenge, i.e. the Measurement part of the mind app.

      Thanks, as always.


      • Susan,

        It all comes down to Motivation. If one wants to stop/start/do/not do/etc. it IS actually up to the individual. A very simple and mundane example, you have a to-do list and on the list is the item “Pick Up Dry Cleaning”. You are having a relatively busy day, so you just move the item to tomorrow. Same scenario, however this time you have a garment at the dry cleaner that you want to wear to an event this evening. I would hazard a guess that the dry cleaning will more than likely get picked up. The difference, Motivation.

        To borrow (steal) a phrase from Nike, Just Do It. If somebody wants to do something all they have to do is decide. You didn’t have to check the calendar every day in order not to have a hot chocolate. The checking of the calendar was the trick or game that you played with yourself in order for you to do what you already wanted to do. If you didn’t want to REALLY stop having the hot chocolate you could/would have “relapsed” on day 31, 101, 1001. You wanted to stop, so you did. Again Motivation.

        The 30 Day Challenge as I have said earlier is a trick or a game that one plays with themselves. The time period lends itself to the game because it is easily measurable and also a length that is not a daunting commitment. Because of the ease of the 30 Day Challenge it is no surprise that many take on that “Challenge” regardless of their level of motivation.

        What if you could have the time frame compressed and have the same result. Take for example smoking cigarettes. Some people feel is a bad habit and others feel is an addiction, but that is irrelevant in this example. For arguments sake an individual smokes one and a half packs (30) cigarettes a day. On a 30 Day Challenge they would check off each day (30) that they possessed the willpower not to smoke and have that satisfaction/positive reinforcement. Instead lets look at it as a Unit Challenge and each time the individual wants to have a cigarette and doesn’t they put a hash mark on their calendar. At the end of the day they should have 30 positive reinforcement and if they didn’t smoke today why would they have to smoke tomorrow. A motivated individual will be successful whether the unit of measurement is cigarettes/hours/days/etc. and the non-motivated individual will not be successful, even if they make it through the “Challenge Period”.

        A person truly motivated to make the change will make the change and the process starts with the decision to do so and they will be successful without having to play games/tricks on themselves. Make sense?


        • Jim:

          I suppose there are people in this world who can find motivation, make a decision, and follow through on what they decide. As you write, “they will be successful.” This blog is not for them. They don’t need it. They have their motivation, their decision, their follow-through, and their success. Nike’s marketing copy is enough for them.

          What about people for whom it’s not so simple? What about people who don’t like something about themselves, but they can’t find motivation? Or they don’t think they can make the change? Or they don’t know how? Or they’ve felt motivated and made decisions before, and those things, on their own, weren’t enough?

          They’re the people this blog is for, and the app it’s based on. The whole point is to give those people hope, as well essential principles they can remember and use to bring about change in their lives. The point is to give people a means for empowering themselves.

          As for the hot chocolate, you seem certain that I really wanted to stop. Actually, I didn’t feel that way. I loved the afternoon ritual with my daughter – including the hot chocolate part. The hot chocolate part wasn’t good for me, though. I recognized that. I’ve also recognized that: (a) I’m not the kind of person who can rely solely on motivation and decision; and (b) neither are a lot of people.

          Here’s the important part:

          1) Motivation and “wanting to” aren’t always there when we need them.
          3) We can get started without them. They’ll come, along with the balance of what we need, when we apply essential principles.
          4) That’s what I’ve spent so long figuring out and distilling down. That’s the app.

          That’s what I’m here to share.


  2. Great piece. I was reminded of this classic Op Ed — “What Shamu Taught Me About Happy Marriage” and, specifically, identifying incompatible behaviors.

    In my years as a corporate change consultant, we did recognize that often the hardest thing to do is to get someone to STOP doing something. Often the trick is to find something to do, in its place.

    I think your checkmark in the calendar serves that, partially (also of course it’s a great tracking and reward). But sometimes the “what do I replace the missing thing with” can prompt the shift. If you can figure out something that brings you utility or pleasure than it can supplant that which needs to disappear.

    • Thanks, Tereza.

      Thank you for sharing the Shamu article. The animal training techniques it describes mirror the ones I did with lab rats as a psych major in college. I seem to remember that rewarding small behaviors along the way is called “shaping.” It’s done to gradually “shape” the behavior we want, since the whole behavior doesn’t exist yet (and thus can’t be rewarded/reinforced).

      Brilliant for use in marriage. Applicable as well, I suppose, with people besides our spouse.

      What do you think of shaping our own behavior? As you point out, when it comes to stopping something we’re doing, it can be effective to find something to do in place of it. Interesting, what you wrote about the shift actually being prompted by the process of figuring out what the alternative behavior will be.

      I’m wondering what you think about rewarding ourselves for not doing the thing in question – as I did with hot chocolate. I set it up by telling myself I would consciously feel Mastery in place of getting a hot chocolate. By Mastery, I mean micro-mastery – that good feeling we get when we’ve done something just well enough to make us think “I can do this.” It’s highly powerful intrinsic reward. I like it because it’s simple – it cuts out the need for looking around for alternative behavior, etc. In my example, it felt so good the day I walked out of that little shop without a hot chocolate – it said an inaudible “Yessssssssss” to myself. It made me feel really strong – so much so that I came to want that feeling instead of the hot chocolate.

      Would love to know your thoughts. Thanks so much, Tereza!


      • My big change focus right now is sleep.

        I got a LARK sleep tracker for Xmas and have been using it.

        For years my husband would go to sleep by 10 and I’d say “I’ll be right up” and then wouldn’t get there til 3 hours later, and exhausted in the morning.

        And I just couldn’t adjust it, even though know it’s not helpful. At the same time, it bears noting, even on a full night’s sleep, i’m not particularly great in the morning, It’s just not my time.

        Using the LARK I learned i’m a “rookie erratic”, which means both not enough and also inconsistent sleep. That was pretty embarrassing but useful, given that it was totally data-driven. (the bracelet measures your sleep cycle). I respond to data — and also respond better to the bracelet’s waking vibration than a ringing alarm clock. So I’ve found that the “reward” of being told in the morning that I “slept well” entices me to go to sleep, if not at 10, at 10:30. (Just go to bed 30 minutes earlier, it told me. Achievable). I haven’t fully arrived on this, but compared to where I’ve been, this has been breakthrough.

        And I guess the “what I gave up” has been — walking away from the desk, not answer all the emails. Just getting more accepting of what I CAN’T do, because my getting sleep and having a fresh head is more important than responding to everybody. Knowing and accepting I can’t do it all and that is fine.

        • Thanks, Tereza.

          Great effort on your part to improve your sleep. LARK sounds very cool. The nice thing about being a “rookie” is that you can have “breakthroughs” on your way becoming a pro. Well done so far!

          I respond to data too. Tracking is good for info, and for mindfulness as well. To feel best, and get done what I need to do, I’ve learned, via trial and error, that sleeping from 10:00pm to 5:30pm works best for me (that’s 7 1/2 hours, which factors in 1/2 hour to fall asleep to get me to a full 7 hours).

          You’re right about being accepting of what we can’t do. I’m reminded of the video you did about palliative care and what people say at the end of life. I don’t think anyone ever says, “I wish I had answered more email.”

          One question I’ve learned to ask myself is, “What’s the best use of my time right now?” I keep a post-it reminder on my computer shortening that down to WTBUOMTRN?

          Sometimes, the answer is: SLEEP.

          Thought you might like this long but very informative guide to sleep. It makes a very strong case for getting 7 hours.

          Thanks for weighing in here, Tereza.


  3. Susan,
    Every night, well almost every night Gwen and I pick a TV show to watch together and unwind a bit. On the sofa between us is a bag of M&Ms. The really great thing about M&Ms is that they are so tiny that it’s like you are not even eating them. See? I don’t want to stop eating M&Ms because they are so small that I’m almost not eating anything anyway.
    In answer to your question: “Is there something you want to stop doing.” I would answer “no” because I’m almost not doing it to begin with because they are so tiny. With no disrespect, for the next 30 days I’m not going to think about M&Ms. I’m just going to eat one. Or two.

    • Thanks, Scott.

      You sound nicely self-aware about your M&Ms. If you don’t want to stop eating them, and there’s nothing about eating them that troubles you, then by all means, carry on!

      Keep in mind, though, that if there’s ever something you do want to stop, for whatever reason, this post will always be here for you, and I’ll be happy to help during the process, of course.

      Susan :-)

  4. Susan,

    I did not mean to be argumentative. All I’m saying and trying to point out is that the “Motivation” or “Why” is the most important piece of this puzzle. Some additional clarifying questions of oneself to find out the “Need behind the Need” will allow one to focus on the REAL/TRUE importance of making this change. It is not until one knows their “Why” that they can be properly motivated.

    Let’s look at Bill Gates and money as a motivator. Do you think/feel that Mr. Gates would be more motivated to have his net worth increased by $25b so that he can be number one on the Forbes List, or by the good that he thinks that the Gates Foundation could do with the money.

    A program can only assist you in doing what you want to do, it will not make you do something that you do not. I feel that a well defined “Why” will move you down that path much more quickly than any process, program, or challenge. It goes back to Simon Sinek’s “Start With the Why”. The “Why” will tell you where you are going so that you can start the journey. In absence of that, a challenge may have one “checking” in at random locations on their map getting them no closer to their destination.


    • Jim:

      Thanks for clearing things up. I’ve not seen “motivation” used as a synonym for “why” before.

      I agree that knowing one’s Why (for change and many things) is pivotal. It will likely impact the process and the outcome. I’ve cited Sinek many times. You’ve taken issue with his ideas in prior comments, so I’m a bit surprised to see you subscribe to them here.

      I have no idea what motivates Bill Gates.

      You’ve written about “want” as a prerequisite for change. I don’t believe that, and my research and first-hand experience show otherwise. There are many instances where change is made before “want” enters into the equation. There are times when people start the change process for reasons other than wanting to (like having to or seeing no other choice) – and the feeling of “wanting to” comes sometime during their efforts, much to their surprise. In other words, “having to” can become “wanting to.”

      This is important because the conventional message: “you have to want to” – can be taken to mean that we can (or must) wait around for the “want” feeling to hit us (which may never happen). This isn’t accurate, as explained in the prior paragraph. And it doesn’t comport with notions of personal responsibility, as I see it. In other words, if we’re doing something that’s not good for us (and may even be impacting others), waiting around for the feeling of “wanting to” isn’t taking full responsibility. The responsible thing, many times, is doing what we don’t want to do, and not doing what we do want to.

      The beauty is that we can learn to adapt, and we often end up like the change better than what we were doing before.


      • Susan,

        Sinek was cited because of all of your prior references. You’ve got me as far as somebody changing before they “wanted” to. I have not come across anyone who has made a change just for the sake of change. I have seen changes made because people felt that they needed a change or like they were getting in a rut, but that is in fact a reason, and if they were asked or asked some probing questions a subconscious “Why” may present itself.

        I stand by my feeling that one must “want” to, because nobody “has” to do anything. There are consequences for taking or not taking certain actions. One will be accountable and responsible for their actions, but one need not behave responsibly. There are countless of examples of people with all sorts of health problems that should, stop smoking, lose weight, exercise, eat better, etc.. Doctors have told them that they “have” to, but they don’t “want” to and the behaviors do not change.

        Now here is where the games/tricks come into play. You take what you feel is a “have” to and link some sort of reward to it so that it becomes a “want” to. However, if the reward is not sufficient the change in behavior will not stick.

        I would be interested in an example that you have where you made a change that you “had” to and that you didn’t “want” to without there being some sort of reward ,direct or otherwise.


        • Jim:

          Running through much of what you write are words like “must” and “will” and “will not.” There are ideas stated in the 3rd person and/or based on hypotheticals and supposition. I find them difficult to learn from and respond to.

          We’ve all see and experience the world in our own way. There always will be exceptions to patterns. There are many ways to do things. That said, can a set of guiding principles, codified into memorable form, be useful and valuable? I say yes.

          I’ve don’t think anything relating to change is absolute or immutable. I’m simply an aggregator of information, a distiller of a huge body of information that no one’s ever distilled before as I have. I’m offering a mind app that people can apply and customize to their needs. So, for example, if someone’s approach is to wait until he feels a strong sense of “wanting to,” before getting started with a change, then he’s free to wait. He’s still welcome to use the app – in whatever way fits him.

          I don’t claim to know what will come of anyone’s efforts. My purpose is to learn and help, not to prove. I understand that some people will be interested in and open to my ideas, and others will attempt to negate. That’s just the way of the world. What I’m doing here isn’t for everyone, and if people have a different approach, or they want to try a different approach, I think that’s a very good thing.

          What I’m most interested in is: Who can I help and how? I’m not for everyone. I know that.

          As for the example you’ve asked about, I’ve not written about change in the absence of reward. That’s not what this blog or the app it’s based on are about.

          Thanks, Jim.

  5. Hi Susan,

    Another great post on a subject dear to my heart. I’ve read and enjoyed Charles Duhigg’s book thanks to the kindness of a good friend of mine who sent me a copy :-) I think it’s genuinely a good read and contains some great info, enlivened by some super stories on habit change. It was interesting to me that Duhigg’s focus concentrates on a neurological perspective for much of the book but the story he used in much of the publicity and the one you highlight here was more about the effect of context/situation on behavior patterns. This happily coincides with the social psychological approach I think has so much to contribute to the study of habit and behavior change.

    I would not say that habits and addictions are the same. For me an addiction is that something that usually involves some activity which chemically alters bodily and mental functions. That said, habits are often closely related and particular rituals will often surround and reinforce an addictive act, such as smoking, alcohol or food related excesses. I wouldn’t attempt to tell you what your particular chocolate behaviour was; you know better than I but I suspect ‘ritual’ played a large part in that it formed part of an activity you were able to share and enjoy with your daughter. A similar point could be made for CD’s cookie.

    Fortunately you had a solid system of change in place that you were able to utilise in your quest for a healthier way forward (the RPM4 app). The key I would normally focus on is something you know a lot about – disruption. First of all we need to be aware of the habit that is having a negative impact. That’s perhaps one of the main problems. Habits are automatic responses so we might not even be aware of them. Once we are though, as CD was with his cookie, if we want to change it we need to find a way to disrupt it. In other words, it’s a habit, in part because it’s become easy to do. We need to make it more difficult to do. Some will be easier than others of course and I wonder if you have other habits you’ve had that were harder to alter?

    Once we are aware of the need to change then our motivation and willpower may be high. This is to be exploited in the initial process of change, as it will often be the time that requires the biggest effort ( for more difficult changes – diet, exercise program etc). However, both motivation and willpower tend to rise and fall in strength and sustainability and that is where the automacity of habits actually turns in our favor. Willpower can get us moving and allow us to establish an initial ‘conditioning’ period for change (30 day challenge!), which gives us enough time to set the wheels of habit change in motion. Of course there is no set time period that we can identify to successfully implement such changes. As I said it depends very much on how big a change we are attempting to make and how practised we are at making such changes.

    I could go on but realise this is getting a bit long and I might never shut up! So I will summarise: 

    With ‘bad’ habits, if you want elimination, it’s not just a question of motivation but one of facilitation. To remove the bad ones, make them harder to do. To form new better habits, find ways to make them easier to perform. There’s a lot more to it, as you know but it’s a start at least and hopefully a contribution to your great post.

    Back to you Susan :-)

    Warm regards,


    • Julian:

      Another very thoughtful comment. Thank you.

      I like your idea of habit and facilitation. Another word that comes to mind is “barrier.” When there’s something we don’t want to do, we can create a barrier between it and ourselves. An example is spending. If we want to curtail it, we could create a barrier by jettisoning our credit cards and limiting ourselves to cash purchases. That would, as you write, make the undesired behavior harder to do. With something we do want to do, we can remove barriers. An example would be saving. By setting up an automatic paycheck withdrawal, we would be removing the barrier of remembering to save. In doing so, we’d be making saving easier.

      As you point out, how practiced we are in making changes certainly factors into the process. I’ve found this to be very true in my own experience. A successful change in one area can become a “small win” that enables the change itself, as well as other changes. The term for changes that set the stage for subsequent changes is “keystone habit.” I wrote about these two concepts in this post.

      With my chocolate habit/addiction/ritual, one thing I had going for me was my own prior success in two areas: (1) in eliminating things from my diet; and (2) doing things that are difficult. For instance, at the time of the chocolate change, I had already given up many different foods AND completed a grueling bike tour in the French Pyrenees. The chocolate change paled in comparison. It didn’t take motivation or willpower. All I had to tell myself was that I could do it because I’d done harder things before, and since I had the strength and ability, there was no sense waiting around until I was “ready” or felt like I “wanted to.” I just thought I should get it over with so I could move on to bigger challenges.

      Like what? Giving up wine was harder. I truly liked drinking it with friends, learning about it, pairing it with food, and the other things people generally like about it. I didn’t feel addicted to it, but even a glass or so would interfere with my sleep and cycling, and it would dull my mood and energy the next day. After a while I came to realize that there was no day worth sacrificing, even a little bit, for the opportunity to drink some wine the night before. So, given my experience with change, my thinking was a lot like it was with the chocolate, i.e. “I may as well get this over with – no sense waiting around for some massive sense of motivation that may never come.”

      One thing I did that was hugely helpful was read (on a whim) Alan Carr’s book. Through it’s narrative, it creates an aversion to alcohol. In other words, it makes you think it’s gross – so you don’t want it anymore. And when you don’t want to, it takes no willpower not to. You can be around it and be completely unaffected. Which rocks.

      I’m hardly super human. Others can gain this kind of strength and confidence too – just by practicing change, as I have, and knowing how it works, as I do. It’s a skill in and of itself. A solid tactic is starting out with small changes and progressing to harder ones. There’s a nice example of that trajectory in The Talent Code (at 212-14).

      As I think you know, I agree that habit and addiction aren’t the same. I also agree, as you point out, that ritual can surround and reinforce addictive behavior. It’s a far cry from a truly mindless, inconsequential habit (e.g. one I identified recently is that I check my email immediately after getting out of the shower and wrapping myself in a towel – I wonder how long I’ve been doing that!).

      You’re exactly right about the need for awareness in breaking habits. I’m writing a post about that now. Stay tuned!

      Thanks, Julian. It’s a pleasure to exchange ideas with you.


  6. I’ve been able to kick habits in the past only by having a shift in desires and mindset. I once had an addiction to eating dairy (which I’m allergic to) and once I started viewing foods I craved as being toxic I immediately stopped wanting to eat them.

    • Samuel:

      Thanks for writing. I’m completely on board with you on aversions. I’ve developed many over the years with I used to eat and enjoy, just by viewing them as toxic (like artificial sweeteners, dairy, and grain – all of which lead to a rapid decline in how I feel whenever I have them). As you point out, the great thing about developing an aversion is that you don’t WANT whatever it is anymore. So no discipline or willpower required!

      It’s great you’ve caught onto this little trick because a lot of people don’t know about it. Way to go. :-)


      P.S. Love your name and gravatar.

  7. Hi Susan,

    I’ve developed an interest on your blog. You provide very good insights.

    Anyways, just to clarify, in order to stop doing something – be it habitual or addiction, one has to identify their ‘cues, routine and reward’ right? I was just wondering. For my case, i’m trying to stop being sad, missing my ex badly and move on with my life. My life condition seems to be very miserable at the moment. So does ceasing to want my ex back apply to this method? If so how does the ‘reward’ part count? I don’t seem to understand or am able to identify the ‘rewards’ of wanting my ex back or to go crazy just thinking about her. Please share with me some of your insights.

    Thanks very much, Mark.

    • Hey Mark:

      Welcome! Good to see you here.

      I’m thinking about what you’ve written and will respond substantively soon.

      Here’s a book I’m quite sure will help you, so be sure to have a look: The Power of Now


      P.S. I’m in the midst of transforming this blog into a new website, launching in a few weeks. If you subscribe to this blog, your subscription will automatically transfer to the new site – and you’ll get an email once it’s up. Cool?

    • Mark:

      Here is a more substantive reply.

      You asked specifically about reward. In your case, the reward might simply be the grieving process. You may be comfortable in your thoughts and actually prefer them to moving on. The closest you can get to your ex now is in thought, so it may be rewarding to you.

      The book I linked to in my last reply is likely to help. It shows you how to move your thoughts out of the past and future and into the now (the now meaning the present, i.e. what’s around you right now in your immediate life and surroundings, exclusive of concern for the past or the future). It’s a difficult state to describe. Tolle does a much better job than me, so be sure to give a read.

      Living in the now is comparable to Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of ordered consciousness, which I wrote about in this post, which also may help you.

      On a more concrete level, it’s key that you take especially good care of yourself now. John Ratey, M.D. has written at length about exercise and its role in helping people suffering from loss or trying to beat addiction. You may want to have a look at his book, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain.

      It’s key that you eat well and steer clear of substances that bring fast pleasure (sugar, alcohol, etc.). That, combined with exercise is very likely to boost your mood, help you feel better about yourself and your life, and set you up for a lot of good sleep. (I know these things from my own experience and from what many people have told me and written about.)

      I’ve also read that it’s helpful to designate a time each day to allow yourself to grieve. When it’s your time, you grieve. When your time is up, you move on and get your thoughts (and actions) into the present again.

      I hope these things help. Please let me know.

      Look forward to hearing more from you.


      • Thanks Susan, for the speedy reply. I have to agree with you when you explained the reward part regarding my case. Will check the links you gave me. Thanks so much. I’ve already suscribed without any hesistation. hehe.

        Sincerely, Mark

        • P.S : I can relate to exercise being a good thing. I used to enjoy working out so will being starting my exercise routine once again. I used to enjoy working out.


        • Mark:

          A bit more about reward. You’re in the midst of learning a lot of new things now (like how to think differently, how to go about your daily life differently, resuming exercise, etc.). In order to keep going with new things we try, it’s key that you find intrinsic reward within them. That reward is mastery, the micro kind we feel when we do something and we start feeling like we’re getting it – even just the tiniest bit that no one else notices but you.

          Make sure you let yourself feel mastery in that micro way. A couple of examples: If you made it through a short period of time without thinking about your ex; if you got through a work out; if you let yourself be in the present and enjoy something. Those are micro-experiences that could give you that “yeah, I can do this!” feeling of micro-mastery. It’s precisely this feeling that moves people forward in whatever they try. We humans like that feeling and are willing to work to feel it again. That’s why it serves so well as intrinsic reward.

          Carry on, Mark. It’s great you’ve reached out here, and I look forward to hearing how things go for you.


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