Why Some Habits Feel Impossible to Break
Do you ever catch yourself not doing the things you say are important to you?
Have you thought about why?
In my experience, most people assume it has something to do with will power, motivation, or self-discipline, and we all know what those voices sound like:
“After the holidays I’m going to get on track…”
“That won’t work for me – you have to be really disciplined for that…”
“I’m too busy right now/I don’t have the time…”
Many of us go through life assuming those voices are right. We condition ourselves to believe that something about us is deficient or broken. We may even decide that we pulled the short straw in life or were dealt an unlucky genetic hand of cards.
There’s only one problem with that perspective.
It isn’t true.
During World War II, scientists became intensely interested in a new field: the science of persuasion. They wanted to learn how to make government communication programs more effective (Robert Cialdini; Pre-Suasion). Since then, the field of behavioral science has conducted thousands of studies in an effort to understand a single question: what makes humans tick?
While there are still many aspects of this question that require further study, today we largely know what drives human behavior…and it doesn’t have anything to do with work ethic, self-discipline, or being the “right kind of person”.
For the purposes of this discussion, let’s focus on two specific ideas: (a) the foundational behavioral concept most people miss, and (b) how a relatively unknown piece of tech is being used to change the game.
REWARDS – THE GOAL OF HABITS
There is a fundamental law in behavioral change: “That which is rewarded is repeated; that which is punished is avoided.”
That seems simple enough, but there’s a catch. The odds of a behavior being repeated or avoided are not only contingent upon the intensity of the reward/punishment, but the timing of it. As a result, the fundamental law of behavioral change is more accurately stated as: “That which is immediately rewarded is repeated more often – that which is immediately punished is avoided more often.”
The difference between those two statements may appear semantic, yet that seemingly small difference is one reason why some of your change efforts are successful while others never get off the ground.
To understand why, we need to understand something peculiar about our brains.
Our brains have evolved to do lots of incredible things, but there is a single feature that underlies most of our brain activity: pattern-recognition.
Whether you notice it or not, your brain is constantly scanning the environment in an effort to identify patterns. More precisely, it is on the lookout for “solutions to recurring problems in your environment” (Jason Hreha).
The way your brain identifies these solutions is through an internal reward system. As habit researcher James Clear writes in his book Atomic Habits:
“Your brain is a reward detector. As you go about your life, your sensory nervous system is continuously monitoring which actions satisfy your desires and deliver pleasure. Feelings of pleasure and disappointment are part of the feedback mechanism that helps your brain distinguish useful actions from useless ones.”
James points out that all habits go through a four-part process:
Here’s an example from Atomic Habits:
Cue: You hit a stumbling block on a project at work.
Craving: You feel stuck and want to relieve your frustration.
Response: You pull out your phone and check social media.
Reward: You satisfy your craving to feel relieved. Checking social media becomes associated with feeling stalled at work.
Neurotransmitters like dopamine are part of the reward system that our brain uses to identify patterns. This plays an important role in learning and memory since the brain learns to associate specific patterns of neurotransmitters (Reward) with specific patterns of behaviors (Response), thereby creating the phenomena we call habits.
Now, what does all of this have to do with you wanting to build better habits?
First, a bit of important theory:
For the vast majority of our evolutionary history, the consequences of a given behavior – whether positive or negative – were immediately evident. Just as importantly, they evolved in a specific context. For example: imagine it’s 15,000 B.C. and you see a bunch of ripe fruit. Your reward mechanisms have evolved to crave sweet things, so you eat as much as you can. This is fine because (a) the fruit is probably only available for a few weeks or months at most, (b) fruit in the wild is nothing like the fruit in a grocery store, and (c) you will spend the next ~4-6 months in a mild (or not so mild) calorie-deprived state due to winter.
Our reward mechanisms evolved in an environment of immediate survival. They did not evolve to help us make multi-decade decisions.
Modern society faces a (good) problem: by and large, we don’t struggle for survival. The same reward systems that served us well for hundreds of thousands of years now work against us because we created an environment of relative abundance. So, we’re left with two options:
Revert back to an ancestrally-consistent environment (not great)
Design systems that align our long-term goals with our brain’s need for immediate rewards (much better)
TECHNOLOGY: THE PROBLEM…AND THE SOLUTION?
Remember our friend “dopamine” from earlier? Effective habits minimize the time between the action you take (i.e. the Response) and the production of molecules like dopamine (i.e. the Reward). In other words, we need to shorten the feedback loop. Your brain needs more signals to know what matters and what doesn’t, which means we need to introduce consistent rewards into the process.
Habits don’t repeat if rewards are absent. Period.
Most big changes – dietary patterns, money habits, exercise, etc. – are hard to do, in part, because most of the rewards we get are delayed by months or even years. Our brains simply aren’t wired for those time-scales.
If you want to solve this challenge, I can highly recommend reading Tiny Habits by BJ Fogg, and Atomic Habits by James Clear. If you want the user’s manual for how to start or stop any habit at will, those two books are a great place to start (particularly Tiny Habits).
However, I want to show you some lesser-known ways technology is solving the very reward/feedback loop problem it created in the first place.
Increasingly, new technologies are allowing us to reduce feedback loops from months or years down to hours or even minutes.
Let’s consider a classic example: diet.
Changing dietary patterns is hard. Part of what makes it so difficult is that it can take decades before the implications of our food choices become apparent to us. Consuming too many refined foods (vegetable oils, processed carbohydrates, sugars) won’t necessarily show up tomorrow, next month, or even next year on a blood panel.
We have good evidence that too many refined foods can lead to a vicious cycle: higher blood glucose levels —> higher insulin levels —> insulin resistance —> even higher blood glucose levels —> even higher insulin levels —> more insulin resistance. But this is often a decades-long process, and by the time most people realize it’s happening, much of the damage has already been done.
But what if you could see the process happen in the next five minutes?
Continuous Glucose Monitors (CGM)
It turns out you can – it’s called a continuous glucose monitor (CGM). A CGM is a small medical device that tracks glucose levels in real-time by directly measuring glucose concentration levels in the interstitial fluid (the fluid between cells).
CGMs entered commercial use in 1999 to help diabetics more accurately measure and manage glucose levels. Improving glucose control results in fewer hypoglycemic events (the “sugar crash”) and fewer hyperglycemic events (the “sugar rush”). But don’t be fooled by the words “sugar crash/sugar rush” – in someone who can’t produce insulin (e.g. Type 1 diabetics), the results can be fatal.
Prior to CGMs, diabetics had to manually prick their fingers with a needle multiple times per day to determine their blood glucose levels. The invention of CGMs eliminated the delayed feedback loop imposed by manual finger pricks and replaced it with nearly instantaneous feedback. Diabetics with CGMs benefit from more stable energy levels and fewer medical complications (including death). Win-win.
But glucose control isn’t just for diabetics – it’s important in non-diabetics, too. In some respects, glucose is like the energy bar you’d see in old arcade video games. Remember how the video game character had an energy/life bar?
If the energy bar gets too low, then bad things happen. Every cell in your body can use glucose for fuel, and some cells (certain brain cells, red blood cells, kidney cells) can only run on glucose to do their work. Not surprisingly, we know that glucose management plays a critical role in the development of diseases like Alzheimer’s, cancer, and even susceptibility to diseases like COVID-19.
So, how can a non-diabetic benefit from a CGM?
Suddenly, you have access to what’s happening inside your body in response to the foods you eat:
You no longer have to wonder what types of food work for you and which ones don’t
You no longer have to rely on constantly-shifting news articles and dietary fads
Most importantly, you no longer have to wait 30+ years to find out if your dietary strategy is helping you or hurting you
You now have the data, and as business consultant Peter Drucker famously said, “What gets measured gets managed”. CGMs can even show you the impact that sleep, exercise, and stress have on your glucose levels. It’s an incredibly powerful tool.
And the best part? A CGM doesn’t need to be worn forever to glean the benefits of using it. In fact, even a period as short as 2-4 weeks can have dramatic results. Think about it:
Traditional approach = annual doctor’s visit = 30 points of data over the next 30 years (assuming your doctor even runs a blood panel)
Using a CGM = collects data every 5 minutes = 3,153,600 points of data over the next 30 years
That is 288 opportunities - every day - to engage the Response/Reward habit loop.
How could it not give you better results?
That is the power of immediate feedback loops.
***NOTE: It’s important to point out that a CGM is a life-changing piece of technology for those with diabetes (particularly Type 1 diabetes). While I am primarily interested in discussing the ancillary benefits it can provide to non-diabetics, we shouldn’t lose sight of how critical these devices are to those who depend on accurate glucose & insulin management. CGMs are not toys. My writing about these devices should not be construed as a flippant or careless attitude regarding their usage. It is an unfortunate reality that even those who need it most – people with diabetes – can’t always get access to CGMs due to finances, insurance requirements, or blatant dysfunction in our current healthcare system. Treat the technology – and the people involved – with respect.***
In the coming years, advances in sensor technology will hopefully open up real-time tracking for all sorts of metrics: insulin levels, cortisol levels, triglycerides, ketones, and more. In the meantime, however, a CGM may be one of the most powerful behavioral modification tools that exist when it comes to changing health behaviors.
And the market is responding. CGMs used to only be obtainable through a doctor’s prescription, and unless you were a Type 1 diabetic, it was difficult to get authorization from the doctor or the insurance company. Today, companies like NutriSense are going direct-to-consumer and allowing anyone* willing to invest in their health to get access to these transformative devices. (*Some restrictions apply - check their site for more info)
Nothing is a guarantee when it comes to behavioral change. But that’s okay – all we are trying to do is increase our probability of making the right choice. If we can increase our odds enough then over time our chance of success becomes nearly inevitable.
I’ll leave you with a final story from my time training to be an amateur blackjack player.
Many don’t know that there is a correct set of decisions to use when playing blackjack. This set of decisions even has a name: Basic Strategy. Depending on the house rules (i.e. the style of game the casino has set up), playing perfect Basic Strategy can reduce the casino’s advantage down to 1%. In other words, the player will win 49.5% of the time and the casino will win 50.5% of the time, given a long enough time frame.
Every blackjack dealer is trained to memorize Basic Strategy, and amazingly, they will share that knowledge with you if you ask for help when deciding on a hand. Why? Because they know the casino still has a 1% advantage, and given enough hands, the casino will always come out on top.
The only way for a player to gain an advantage over the house is to use advanced techniques like card counting and betting deviations. (Incidentally, this is why card counting is highly frowned upon by casinos and will get you escorted from the premises.)
Real life isn’t so different. If you want to get yourself to do the things you say are important to you, then you’ll have to do more than just play by the rules that evolution handed down. Beating the “house” requires using every tool and strategy at your disposal. We’ll never be perfect in our attempts at changing behavior, but we don’t need to be. As long as we can tip the odds in our favor, and continue to play the game, then achieving our goals is only a matter of time.
Learning how to manipulate feedback loops is one such strategy, and I hope this article gives you some ideas for how to do that.
Questions? Witty comments? Snarky remarks? Leave them below and let’s discuss it further.