Habits: Forming and Breaking Habits 101

Introducing Habits; New Programs

Habits can be incredibly useful, as they allow us to perform certain behaviors without having to think too much about them.

This can be something as simple as brushing our teeth in the morning, or something more complex like exercising at a specific time each day.

However, not all habits are helpful and some may even hinder our goals for health and well-being.

But where do habits come from and how do we break them?

It turns out that there is a whole field of neuroscience and psychology devoted to understanding the biology of habit formation and habit breaking.

In this post, we will explore this science and provide specific, actionable steps for forming and breaking habits.

These programs are based on research and can be useful for those looking to make New Year’s resolutions or simply make changes to their daily habits.

Habits versus Reflexes, Learning, Neuroplasticity

 It is estimated that up to 70% of our waking behavior is made up of habitual actions, making habits a significant part of our daily lives. But how do habits differ from reflexes?

Pure reflexes are automatic responses to stimuli, such as the eye blink reflex or the reflex to move away from a sharp or hot object.

Habits, on the other hand, are learned behaviors, often developed unconsciously over time. They are not hardwired into our nervous system like reflexes are.

So what is involved in the learning process that leads to habit formation?

The answer is neuroplasticity, or the ability of the nervous system to change in response to experience.

This process involves the formation of new neural circuits and connections between neurons, which can support the development of certain habits.

Goal-Based Habits vs. Identity-Based Habits

Immediate goal-based habits are those that are designed to bring about a specific outcome each time they are performed.

For example, getting 60 minutes of zone two cardio four times a week is an immediate goal-based habit because the goal is to complete the exercise and check off the box each time.

Identity-based habits, on the other hand, are those that are linked to a larger goal or idea about oneself.

For example, becoming a fit person or an athlete is an identity-based habit because it involves attaching a larger picture of oneself to the habit.

This distinction is important because research has shown that different schedules of dopamine release can predict whether or not we will stick to a habit or not, and whether we will be able to form a habit quickly or not.

How Long It (Really) Takes to Form a Habit; Limbic-Friction

Have you ever heard that it takes 21 days to form a habit? 

Well, according to a study published in 2010, it can actually take anywhere from 18 to 254 days for different individuals to form the same habit. 

This study specifically looked at the habit of taking a walk after dinner, and found that it took some people 18 days to form the habit while others took 254 days. 

So why the variation? 

It has to do with something called “limbic friction,” which is the effort or activation energy needed to engage in a particular behavior. This limbic friction can come from feelings of anxiety or tiredness, and is related to the function of the autonomic nervous system. 

In order to overcome limbic friction and form a habit, it’s important to start small and gradually increase the frequency and duration of the desired behavior. 

It’s also helpful to have a clear goal in mind and to enlist the support of friends or a accountability partner. 

Remember, everyone is different and it may take longer for some people to form a habit, but with patience and persistence, it is possible.

Linchpin Habits 

Have you ever heard of “linchpin habits”? These are certain habits that make it easier to execute a lot of other habits.

For example, if you enjoy exercising and do it regularly, it can make it easier to have good sleep, stay hydrated, and make healthier food choices.

It’s important to identify which habits are easy or difficult for you to perform, and which habits you want to break.

Take a moment to think about the habits you perform on a daily basis and how they may be affected by “limbic friction,” or the effort or activation energy needed to engage in a particular behavior.

It’s helpful to start small and gradually increase the frequency and duration of the desired behavior, and to have a clear goal in mind and enlist the support of friends or an accountability partner.

Remember, everyone is different and it may take longer for some people to form a habit, but with patience and persistence, it is possible.

Mapping Your Habits; Habit Strength, Context-Dependence

In psychology, habit strength is measured by two main criteria: context-dependence and the amount of “limbic friction” required to perform the habit regularly.

Context-dependence refers to whether you tend to do the same thing in the same way at the same time of day, regardless of the environment you’re in.

For example, if you always brush your teeth first thing in the morning, this is a context-independent habit.

On the other hand, habits that vary depending on the context, such as what you eat or how you dress, are context-dependent.

The other aspect of habit strength is the amount of “limbic friction” required to perform the habit.

This refers to the conscious effort or activation energy needed to engage in the behavior.

For example, if you’re feeling tired and don’t want to get up and exercise, there is a high degree of limbic friction. On the other hand, if you’re feeling alert and motivated, there is less limbic friction.

As you work on building and consolidating new habits, it’s important to be aware of the amount of limbic friction involved and to start small, gradually increasing the frequency and duration of the behavior.

It’s also helpful to have a clear goal in mind and to enlist the support of friends or an accountability partner.

Remember, everyone is different and it may take longer for some people to form a habit, but with patience and persistence, it is possible.


The goal of forming habits is to reach a state of automaticity, where neural circuits can perform them automatically.

This is important because it requires less mental and physical effort and reduces “limbic friction” in our daily tasks.

Many popular psychology resources offer advice on how to form habits, such as organizing them by values or goals and scheduling them at certain times of day.

However, it is also useful to understand the scientific literature on how the nervous system learns and engages in neuroplasticity in order to effectively form, maintain, and even break habits.

Hebbian Learning, NMDA receptors

Hebbian learning is a term coined by psychologist Donald Hebb to describe the process by which neurons strengthen their connections with one another when they fire together.

This process plays a role in the formation of procedural memory, which is the type of memory that enables us to perform habits and routines automatically. 

One of the underlying mechanisms of Hebbian learning is the activation of NMDA receptors, which are found on the surface of neurons.

These receptors are normally not very active, but when a neuron receives a strong input or stimulus, the NMDA receptors trigger a series of events that make the neuron more responsive to input in the future.

This allows the neuron to fire more easily, which can facilitate the performance of habits and routines.

The process of stepping through the steps of a habit or routine in your mind can help to activate the neurons that are involved in performing that habit, and this can make it easier to adopt and maintain the habit.

The psychology and neuroscience literature supports the idea that this type of procedural memory exercise can be effective in helping us to form new habits or return to old habits that we have stopped performing.

If you are trying to develop a new habit or get back into an old one, try taking some time to mentally step through the procedure of what it will take to perform that habit. This can help to shift your nervous system towards a higher likelihood that you will be able to adopt and maintain the habit more easily.

States of Mind, Not Scheduling Time Predicts Habit Strength

Have you ever heard the saying “time is of the essence”? It seems like we’re always being told to plan out our days, set specific times for tasks, and stick to a schedule in order to be productive and successful. However, recent research suggests that this might not be the most effective way to form strong habits.

Contrary to popular belief, it’s not the specific time of day that determines whether or not you’ll stick to a habit in the long term.

Instead, it’s your state of mind that plays a much more important role. This includes factors such as your level of activation, focus, fatigue, and energy.

So, while it’s certainly important to have a schedule and plan out your day, it’s equally important to pay attention to your state of mind.

If you’re feeling focused and energized, take advantage of that by tackling a habit you’re trying to form.

On the other hand, if you’re feeling tired or distracted, it might be better to save that habit for a time when you’re in a more conducive state.

Habit Flexibility

Have you ever heard the saying “old habits die hard”? It’s usually used to describe how difficult it can be to break a bad habit, but it can also be applied to good habits.

Once a habit is ingrained in your routine, it can feel almost automatic to perform it at the same time every day. But is it really necessary to stick to the same time every day in order to maintain a strong habit?

According to research, the answer is no.

In fact, it can be beneficial to move a habit around somewhat randomly, rather than sticking to the same time every day. This is known as habit flexibility.

Habit flexibility is important because it demonstrates that a habit has achieved “context independence.”

This means that you can perform the habit regardless of the time of day or circumstances.

When a habit has achieved context independence, it has become reflexive, meaning it doesn’t require much activation energy to perform it.

So, if you’ve formed a habit and it feels automatic to perform it at the same time every day, go ahead and mix things up a bit. Try performing the habit at different times of day or in different circumstances.

If you’re still able to do it with ease, that means the habit has achieved context independence and has become truly ingrained in your routine.

Should We Reward Ourselves? How? When? When NOT to.

Rewarding ourselves can be a helpful tool in forming and reinforcing habits, but it’s important to consider how, when, and what we reward ourselves with. 

The concept of reward prediction error, which is related to the neurotransmitter dopamine, plays a significant role in learning and habit formation. 

When we expect a reward and receive it, it reinforces the behavior that led to the reward. However, we experience an even greater release of dopamine when a reward arrives unexpectedly. 

On the other hand, if we expect a reward but don’t receive it, our dopamine levels can drop below their baseline levels. 

This is why it’s important to think about when and how to reward ourselves. We shouldn’t reward ourselves for every effort, but rather for successful habit execution. 

It’s also important to consider the type of reward we give ourselves. 

An external reward, such as a treat or a material possession, can be effective in the short term, but internal rewards, such as a sense of accomplishment or feeling proud of ourselves, can be more sustainable in the long term. 

It’s also important to be aware of when to withdraw rewards, as we don’t want to become reliant on them. 

Punishment should generally be avoided, as it can lead to negative associations with the habit we’re trying to form. 

Overall, the concept of reward prediction error can help guide our decision making in terms of rewarding ourselves in the pursuit of forming and reinforcing habits.

Breaking Habits: Long-Term (Synaptic) Depression

Have you ever wanted to break a habit, but found it difficult to do so? This is a common challenge for many people, as habits can occur quickly and without much opportunity for intervention.

However, there are tools that psychology and neuroscience can offer to help us break habits. These tools include foundational practices such as stress reduction, good sleep, nutrition, and positive routines throughout the day.

While these practices can be helpful, they are not specific protocols that can be applied to breaking habits.

To identify a specific protocol, we must look at the mirror image of neuroplasticity, called long-term depression.

Long-term depression has nothing to do with psychological depression or mood, but rather it refers to the weakening of the connection between two neurons.

If neuron A is active and neuron B is not active within a certain time window, the connection between neuron A and neuron B will weaken over time through long-term depression.

This process is also involves the NMDA receptor, as well as other molecular components.

So how can we take two neurons that underlie a habit and make them fire asynchronously?

One way is through the process of counterconditioning. Counterconditioning is a technique in which we associate a new response to a stimulus that previously evoked a habit.

For example, if you have a habit of snacking when you watch TV, you can try counterconditioning by associating a new response, such as going for a walk, with the stimulus of watching TV. This can help to weaken the connection between the habit and the stimulus.

Another way to break habits is through the process of extinction.

Extinction involves the weakening and eventual disappearance of a learned behavior when it is no longer reinforced.

For example, if you have a habit of checking your phone first thing in the morning, you can try extinction by not reinforcing the behavior with the reward of checking your phone.

Over time, the habit of checking your phone in the morning will weaken and eventually disappear.

Breaking habits can be a challenging process, but by understanding the neurobiology of long-term depression and using techniques such as counterconditioning and extinction, we can effectively break habits that do not serve us well.

Notifications Don’t Work

One finding from a recent review is that notifications and reminders, whether they be physical or electronic, are not very effective in helping people stick to or break habits over the long term.

While they may be effective in the short term, they do not predict whether or not people will be able to maintain their habits in the long run.

This suggests that notifications alone may not be enough to effectively break habits.

Other methods, such as electric shock or monetary penalties, have been shown to be more effective in breaking habits. However, these methods may not be practical or desirable for most people to use on themselves.

Additionally, when people are not being monitored for habit use, they may not be able to effectively punish themselves enough to break the habit.

This highlights the power of habits and how difficult they can be to override once they become reflexive.

One key to generating long-term depression in habit pathways is to take the period immediately following the execution of the habit.

For example, if you find yourself picking up your phone or reflexively walking to the refrigerator despite trying to break the habit, focusing on this period after the habit has been performed may help to weaken the connection between the habit and the trigger.

By actively working to break the habit in this way, it may be possible to overcome it in the long term.

Addictions as Habits

Addictions are often thought of as severe habits, and breaking them can be a difficult task.

In a previous episode, we spoke with Dr. Anna Lemke from Stanford Medical School about addiction and the protocols and psychological factors involved in breaking these harmful habits.

If you’re struggling with addiction, be sure to check out that episode for more information on the biology of dopamine and how to intervene in addictive behaviors.

However, it’s important to note that while the principles of habit making and breaking can be applied to addiction, the consequences of these habits can be severe and require a more comprehensive approach.

Wrapping Up

Today we explored the science behind habit formation and breaking.

We discussed the difficulties in establishing and breaking certain habits, and how to determine which habits will be easier or harder for us to change.

For those interested in learning more about these programs, the Huberman Lab Podcast offers a monthly newsletter called the Neural Network Newsletter.

This newsletter includes a written version of the programs for habit formation and breaking, as well as other resources such as tools for sleep and neuroplasticity.

To sign up for the newsletter, visit hubermanlab.com and click on the menu.

Keep in mind that the newsletter is free and that email addresses are kept private and not shared with any vendors.

Previously published newsletters, which cover topics such as tools for sleep and neuroplasticity, are also available on the website.

By understanding the biology behind habits and utilizing these practical tools, we can work to establish healthy habits that support our goals and break unhealthy ones.

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Excellent review on science of habits – https://www.annualreviews.org/doi/abs/10.1146/annurev-psych-122414-033417

Meta-analysis on habits – https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1539449219876877


The content above is a summary from the Huberman Lab podcast. I’m not affiliated with him. This is an attempt to convert a podcast into a readable blog post.

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