Building Better Habits And Breaking Bad Ones | Hidden Brain At the beginning of the year, many of us make resolutions for the months to come. We resolve to work out more, procrastinate less, or save more money. Though some people stick with these aspirations, many of us fall short. This week, psychologist Wendy Wood shares what researchers have found about how to build good habits — and break bad ones.

Creatures Of Habit

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


From NPR, this is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam.

Thank you.

Seattle is a city with plenty of well-known tourist attractions - the Space Needle, Pike Place Market, the Seattle Art Museum. Today, though, I'm venturing out in the rain to visit a different sort of Seattle attraction. It's an office building called the Bullitt Center. I'm here to meet Brian Court, one of the architects.

Hey, Brian. Shankar.

BRIAN COURT: Shankar, nice to meet you.

VEDANTAM: Very nice to meet you. Thank you for doing this at short notice, and...

Brian and I are headed to the top floor. My first instinct is to find the elevator, but it's nowhere in sight.

Did you forget to put an elevator in the building, Brian?

COURT: We do have an elevator through the door to the left.


COURT: If you're in a wheelchair or you're not able to climb the stairs, you just hit the button there with the wheelchair and the door will open. But we were trying to give people an option to take the stair first.

VEDANTAM: Those stairs, they're six floors of Douglas-fir steps built on an outer wall of the building. Each floor has expansive landings that allow people to congregate and chat. The best views of the Bullitt Center are not from the CEO's office. You get those views when you climb what people here refer to as the irresistible staircase.

COURT: So you walk into the stair enclosure. You look up. You see the stair all the way up to the sixth floor of the building. And that's hopefully going to draw you up the stair.

VEDANTAM: The designers wanted to build a staircase that would help people become healthier. Their intuition was that if the stairs were appealing and prominent, people would use them. What you see as you climb to the sixth floor are sweeping views of Seattle.

COURT: And you'll notice as we get higher, the views of the city really start to unfold. This corner of the project's site had some of the best views. You can see out now to the west and then the downtown skyline directly to the south. By putting a stair here, we're able to really capitalize on views all the way from the east around to the west.

VEDANTAM: So far, Brian says, this irresistible staircase seems to be living up to its name.

COURT: We've actually got data that's showing us that just about two-thirds of the people that go to the sixth floor on a daily basis are taking the stair over the elevator.


VEDANTAM: Most buildings place the elevators front and center as you walk inside. Most of us don't even think to look for the stairs when we enter an office building. By making the stairs prominent and keeping the elevators out of sight, the Bullitt Center is trying to get people to develop new behaviors. Sometimes, unexpected things happen as you climb these stairs. You bump into people you didn't think you'd meet.

RASHAD MORRIS: When I was passing, I heard you talk about me walking up the stairs. I was like, that sounded like - is that? (Laughter) So I just wanted to come down and say hello.

VEDANTAM: That's Rashad Morris (ph). He walked down a flight of stairs to come say hello. He told me he takes the stairs nearly every day, and he often has chance interactions on them that turn out to be very enjoyable.

Do you actually think about it each day - that you're saying, I want to take the stairs? Or is it just sort of an unconscious decision at this point?

MORRIS: There are some times when I'm coming from downtown and I've walked all the way up Capitol Hill, and I get to the door of the building, and I think, oh, man, another six flights? But then I think, you know, I don't get a whole lot of exercise in my day-to-day work life anyway. And so this is worth it. And I enjoy the view, always.

VEDANTAM: There's a word for such behaviors - they're habits. This week on HIDDEN BRAIN, we consider how habits shape who we are and how we can use them to become the people we'd like to be.


VEDANTAM: You probably know someone like this in your life, the person who gets a ton of things done, eats healthy food and stays in shape - People like Chris Traeger from the TV series "Parks and Recreation."


ROB LOWE: (As Chris Traeger) Sorry, Leslie. Damn. I have to go run 10 miles. I have run 10 miles a day, every day, for 18 years. That's 65,000 miles, a third of the way to the moon. My goal is to run to the moon.

VEDANTAM: Picture a guy who strips off his work clothes to reveal a running outfit underneath. Now, Chris Traeger is a fictional character exaggerated for comedic effect, but we all know someone like this - a friend or colleague or spouse who consistently performs the tasks that seem so hard to the rest of us. How did they do it? What do they have that the rest of us lack?

According to Wendy Wood, a professor of psychology and business at the University of Southern California, characters like Chris Traeger are not magical unicorns. They just have a secret. They are expert at building good habits. In her book "Good Habits, Bad Habits: The Science Of Making Positive Changes That Stick," Wendy argues that we can all become experts at building good habits and dismantling bad ones if we only stop to understand the psychology behind our routines.

Wendy, welcome to HIDDEN BRAIN.

WENDY WOOD: Oh, I'm thrilled to be here.

VEDANTAM: I want to start with something that you once saw on Facebook. Your cousin went on Facebook and announced that she was going to change her life, by which she meant she wanted to lose some weight. Why did she announce this on Facebook? And what was the reaction she garnered from her friends?

WOOD: So I think by making a public statement, she was trying to commit herself to the initial idea, her initial desire to lose weight. In a way, she sort of upped the stakes because she made it public, and then she was accountable to all of her Facebook friends. And they were highly supportive. They spurred her on and told her how strong she was. So she got a lot of positive reinforcement for that.

VEDANTAM: And the feedback from her friends, this idea that - the idea of encouraging her or telling her just do it, you know, that reminds me of a video made by the actor Shia LaBeouf. He stands in front of a green screen and he says - actually, let me just play for you what he says. Take a listen.


SHIA LABEOUF: Yesterday, you said tomorrow. So just do it. Make your dreams come true. Just do it.

VEDANTAM: This message, Wendy, is so pervasive when it comes to making changes in our life. The idea that if you want to make a change, all you have to do is just say just do it.

WOOD: Yeah. Wouldn't that be wonderful? I don't think that's most of our experience. But what we do believe is if we wanted to enough, we'd exert enough willpower and we'd make it happen. And the result, though, is that it doesn't often because willpower is not actually, we have found, the best way to achieve our goals and to change our behavior.

VEDANTAM: Talk about this idea, Wendy, that significant numbers of Americans believe that the way to change their behavior is through self-control, that willpower is the key to either making changes that stick or to making changes that fail to stick.

WOOD: Yeah. It's something that pervades our culture. When surveys are done of Americans and their beliefs about how to change behavior, particularly something like obesity, three-quarters of Americans think that it's a problem with self-control and willpower, that we just don't have enough. And if we had more, we'd all be thinner.

VEDANTAM: Now, researchers have actually looked at this question and asked how much willpower is central. You cite the work of the late great psychologist Daniel Wegner who once ran a study where he told people not to think about a white bear. Why did he do that and what did he find?

WOOD: He did it to show that if you're trying not to think about something - even something as trivial as a white bear that you wouldn't normally think about - then later, when you're given an opportunity to think about it again, you just can't stop. It's white bear, white bear, white bear. So it - this tells us something about what it's like to try to repress or control our desires. Yes, we can do it in the short run, but ultimately it backfires. Those ideas get a life of their own and they start to obsess us.

VEDANTAM: And when you think about the behaviors we often want to change in our lives - quitting smoking or eating healthier or exercising more regularly - the challenge, of course, is not to make a one-time change, not to exercise, well, just today; the challenge, of course, is to make a long-term change. And the research would then suggest that willpower might not be the most effective way to go about achieving that.

WOOD: Yes. That's actually how I got into this whole research area. I was interested in understanding what it is that helps people persist. So how do people persist at, say, eating healthfully or saving more money or at getting more sleep? We can all do this one time or two times, but it's a very different thing to do it on a consistent basis.

When I first started this research, the idea was that we did these things when we were sufficiently committed, when we had enough self-control to follow through. Then we'd form these strong intentions and we'd act on them over time. But I'd notice that it didn't really play out that way in my life. I've often made decisions that I didn't follow through with even though I was initially very committed to those decisions. And I have a pretty good amount of willpower.

So what we did is we did a large review of the research to test whether people's decision-making was important all the way through behavior change process, not just from the beginning where my cousin started on Facebook declaring she's going to change but also two, three months later. And what we found was really surprising - decision-making, our intentions, our thoughts, our commitment, they're very important when we start to change. That's what determines whether we do behaviors once in a while. Continuing over time took something very different, and we didn't know what it was to start off with.


WOOD: It was like once you start performing a behavior, it just sort of continues on its own. It's like action begets action. And what we decided was this is kind of like driving your car, right? So every once in a while, you do pay attention and make decisions, but most of the time when you're driving, it's sort of in the background. You're thinking about something other than what you're doing, your actual responses don't take much thought and decision. They're certainly not taking your willpower.

VEDANTAM: It's a counterintuitive idea. Conscious willpower is not the driving force behind sustained behavior change. That idea is powerfully illustrated by an experiment conducted in Germany that asked two simple questions - are people who stick to their resolutions the people who see lots of temptations but have the willpower to resist them, or are they the kind of people who set up their lives so they don't even notice the temptations?

WOOD: They found that - contrary to all of our expectations, that people who are high achievers, who we think of as having good willpower, good self-control, they didn't actually experience many temptations. They weren't conflicted by having lots of desires that were inappropriate and things they didn't want to do. That was the people who were low in self-control, the people who weren't that successful at achieving their goals in life.

VEDANTAM: In other words, this is not a case of people who have, you know, cake in the refrigerator and are very good at resisting opening the refrigerator to eat the cake. These are just people who don't have cake in the refrigerator.

WOOD: Exactly. Or if they do, they don't see it. (Laughter) They have coded that as, OK, that's my kids' cake. I don't eat that. I eat the fruit, and I like the fruit.


VEDANTAM: How do they do it? It turns out that when you build a habit, it's like putting on a set of unconscious mental blinders. Once in place, the blinders protect you from temptations and distractions. The more you ignore those temptations, the stronger the blinders become. To put this another way, habits are self-reinforcing. They can be difficult to start but once in place, they have a life of their own because they stop being conscious and become automatic and unconscious. In fact, once you have developed a habit, you will stick to it even if the alternative is objectively easier. Wendy has a nice example of this from her own life. She sometimes goes biking with a friend who's a professional cyclist.

WOOD: Yeah. So she and I were good friends and we'd love to talk about our families and just exchange information about our lives, and that would happen as we started the bike ride. Now she's a professional cyclist, so you might wonder what she's doing riding with me. Well, I rode with her on her days off when she was supposed to be just not breaking a sweat. And that was fine, you know, 'cause that's the speed I ride at, and so we'd have a good time talking and chatting. And then after we'd been cycling for maybe an hour and a half, she would start speeding up and she did this consistently. I tried not to take it personally 'cause, you know, you can't talk to somebody who's cycling that fast. And I asked her at the end of one of our rides so what happens at the end 'cause, you know, I kind of lose you. And she said, well, I'm just so tired of going at the slow pace. I can't control my actions anymore and I just naturally speed up. So what this indicates - I think it's a fascinating example because it indicates that the habit is not necessarily the easiest thing or the low effort thing to do. Instead it's what you usually do that you fall back on.

VEDANTAM: There have been anecdotal accounts of how long it takes to develop a habit, and you and others have had the insight that this number is probably not the same for different kinds of habits. That some habits, in some ways, are easier to form than others. Perhaps they have larger rewards than others. What does the science tell us about how long it takes to develop different habits like exercising or writing or going to the gym?

WOOD: Habits are cognitive associations. They're mental associations that we form when we repeat an action over and over again in a given context and then get a reward.


WOOD: When you do that, you are learning very slowly and incrementally to associate that context with that behavior. So the next time you're in that context, the behavior automatically comes to mind. You might be very consistent in how you repeat an action and I might be more variable. And if I'm more variable, it's going to take longer to form that habit, that mental association in mind. But also, for complex behaviors, for things that are - have many different parts, it takes longer to form a habit. And the best evidence we have at this point is from a study that had people add a simple health behavior to their day, adding something like a glass of water took two months to become automated so that you don't have to make decisions about it. Something like going to the gym could take three, four months before going every day, before it becomes really habitual in the sense that you don't have to think, you just do.

VEDANTAM: So one implication of this is that just as you can have good habits that cause you to do things unthinkingly, you can also develop bad habits that cause you to do things unthinkingly. You mentioned another neighbor friend of yours who sometimes has to decide whether to drive to her kid's school or walk to her kid's school, and that reveals something really interesting about the power of habit.

WOOD: Yeah. So we lived in a small neighborhood, and the school was actually right next to her house. And one night at a parent-teacher conference, I watched her get into her car and drive to the school parking lot...

VEDANTAM: (Laughter)

WOOD: ...Which was actually further from the front door of the school than her house. Her habit was to get in the car - and this was in Texas, so it was hot. So if she'd been thinking, she would have been very cognizant of the weather and that she was actually going to be uncomfortable for longer if she took her car than if she walked.

VEDANTAM: There's an underlying subtext to many of these stories, and that subtext is that in much of our lives, our actions are actually not being driven by conscious and deliberate intention. And that's a subtext that runs through much of your book, this idea that much of our lives actually is being run on autopilot.

WOOD: Yes. One of the first studies we did, we tried to figure out what percentage of daily actions are habitual in the way that you describe. And what we found is that about 43% of everyday actions are done repeatedly, almost every day in the same context. Again, it's very much like driving. We have this general sense that we're doing things, but it's not driven by an active decision-making process.


VEDANTAM: So the interesting thing is that because we don't acknowledge or often recognize how powerful these unthinking forces are, in many of our campaigns - our public health campaigns, for example - we focus primarily on changing people's conscious beliefs and attitudes. And you have some really interesting ideas on how this plays out when it comes to getting people to eat right. You've looked at, for example, campaigns to get people to eat more fruits and vegetables. What do you find?

WOOD: Yeah. Probably one of the most famous campaigns actually started here in California - 5 a Day. Eating five a day, fruits and vegetables.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Five a day, eat five a day. We all know that's the healthy way. Fruits and vegetables, they're OK. A healthy way is five a day.

WOOD: When it began in the 1990s, only 8% of the U.S. population realized that they needed to eat five servings of fruits and vegetables a day. Five years later, it - over a third of Americans understood they need to eat five servings of fruits and vegetables a day. But when you look at what people were doing, the campaign looks really different. So before the campaign started, 11% of us were actually eating five servings of fruits and vegetables a day. Ten years later, still 11%. And even more recent assessments have shown that Americans are declining from that point. Fewer and fewer of us are eating that amount. And part of the reason for this is much of our eating is habitual. We do it automatically. We shop automatically. We only go down certain aisles in the grocery store. People might not even go down the produce aisle.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

WOOD: So they're not going to be influenced by this abstract thought - yes, fruits and vegetables are good for me. Instead, they're eating based on the environment that they're in and the patterns they've developed.

VEDANTAM: I mean, I feel like I see this in so many different campaigns, where the idea is if we can change people's beliefs, their behavior will follow. And, of course, intuitively that's a very appealing idea, but really the evidence doesn't seem to support it.

WOOD: No. I mean, it does support it for one-off behaviors, limited behaviors, single-time behavior change. So if you're trying to get people to sign up for a program, for example, then convincing people to do it and giving them the opportunity right when you convince them is probably a pretty effective way to do it. But so many of health behaviors, of financial behaviors, relationships, productivity, these things involve long-term change in behavior and that you don't get by convincing people to do things.


VEDANTAM: So if conscious beliefs and intentions don't get people to change their behavior, how can we use science to start habits or break them? That's when we come back. Stay with us.


VEDANTAM: Wendy Wood is a professor of psychology and business at the University of Southern California. She says corporations are increasingly drawing on insights about habits to influence their workforce. One example - Uber.

WOOD: Being a driver on Uber is difficult in many ways, right? You're taking your own personal car, and you are using it for business. You have a bunch of strangers sitting in the back. So Uber would put a lot of money into training and evaluating drivers and their cars, and then drivers would quit after - well - before they got to 10 rides. And so Uber would lose money.

So what they decided to do was they decided to automate - and you've probably heard this. When you're in an Uber, at the end of your ride, the phone app pings and then assigns the driver to the next ride. So they don't have time to think and maybe decide, OK, this is getting difficult. I'm going home. They're off on their next ride. And so it moves them forward through the process to the point where they start feeling more comfortable with what they're doing and they can develop some habitual patterns of dealing with customers.

VEDANTAM: So there's an important insight here, and this is an insight that's useful not just for, you know, a multi-billion dollar business trying to manipulate the behavior of its workforce. But it's an insight that affects all of us. You know, when I'm sitting on my couch and I'm watching Netflix, at the end of each episode of Netflix, I don't actually have to press any buttons. Netflix tells me, in nine seconds, the next episode is going to start. And that's really the same idea as what Uber is doing to its drivers. It's basically saying you can change people's behavior by essentially making it frictionless for them to keep doing the behavior.

WOOD: Yes. Yeah. And that is essentially what most commercial industries have figured out how to do at this point in one way or another. Will you have fries with that is probably the classic example of encouraging certain behaviors, making behaviors easy - consumption, spending money. You can think of so many examples of this in our modern culture.


VEDANTAM: I wonder if we can take this insight, Wendy, and apply it to how you can actually start to build habits. So in exactly the same way that corporations, in some ways, manipulate us into doing what they want us to do, I want to explore how we might be able to manipulate ourselves into doing things that we think are good for us.

WOOD: Yeah. So we all know that people are most likely to repeat actions that are easy for them and actions that are fun. So if you really don't like going to the gym, then you're not going to do it very often. And you need to figure out something to do to make it more fun. Making it easy is also critical.

So there was a study that is quite amazing, I think - but it has been replicated a couple of times - on how far people travel to the gym. If people travel about 3 1/2 miles, then they are likely to go to the gym five times a month on average. If people travel 5 miles, then they're likely to go only once a month on average.


WOOD: The 5 miles presents friction. The 3.5 miles is much less friction and makes the behavior more likely. We just don't have to struggle so much to get there. And anything that reduces the struggle and the stress is going to make habits more likely to form.

VEDANTAM: I don't know if you noticed this, but Wendy and I have mentioned a specific word a couple of times in the last few minutes - friction. When things are difficult to do, they have high friction. When doing something is effortless, there's low friction. It turns out this word is incredibly important to understand how habits work. One unusual study reveals the power of friction using stale popcorn.

WOOD: We did it in a local movie theater. We had the movie patrons watch a bunch of trailers and rate them for us.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: This summer, experience the life...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: When the world's...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: In a world astounded...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: ...Greatest athlete...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: ...By violence...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Every day, millions of people go through the same routine while life passes them by.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Coming soon to a cinema near you.

WOOD: And, supposedly, as compensation, we gave them boxes of popcorn to eat. Now, unbeknownst to them, some got stale popcorn which we had popped earlier and kept in our lab for a week in a plastic bag. So it was pretty bad. And others got boxes of fresh popcorn.

And what we found was this - that people who don't eat popcorn regularly in the movie theater did just what you'd expect. They ate a lot of the fresh popcorn. The stale popcorn, they just avoided.

What was most interesting though are the people - the movie patrons, who often ate popcorn in the movie theater. They ate 70% of these boxes, whether they were fresh or stale. Now, what's so surprising is we asked them afterwards how much they liked the popcorn. And they could all tell us they hated the stale popcorn.

But to people who have habits, the cues are so strong in that particular context that they just respond to them without thinking. And they get the stale popcorn in their mouth, and they think, oh, OK, that wasn't great. But then, before they know it, they're back to eating again that same stuff that they don't like.

VEDANTAM: Wendy added an interesting twist to the study. And this is the part where friction comes in. She ran the same experiment, except this time, she got right-handed volunteers to eat the popcorn with their left hand and left-handed volunteers to eat with their right hand.

WOOD: And that's not something that most of us do on a regular basis. So it made the eating more thoughtful. If you add that thought to the behavior, you make people attend to it, then they quit - then our strong habit participants quit eating the stale popcorn. It's as if, if they had to think about it, they realized, oh, this stuff really tastes bad. And so I'm not going to eat it anymore.

VEDANTAM: So in some ways, if I could put this another way, is one of the insights of your work that if you want to build something into a habit, you actually want to try and make it as unconscious and as automatic as possible. And if you want to interrupt a bad habit, you might want to find ways to try and make it just a little bit more conscious, try to be a little bit more mindful of the habit as you are actually performing it. Is that an insight that would come away from your work?

WOOD: Yes. Yes, I think that's true. And we see people all around us who do those things or don't, right? So people who are very successful as writers, as athletes - they are people who have made the repetition automatic, and they do it every day. You know, you hear about famous writers turning out certain numbers of pages a day, writing for certain - a certain amount of time. Athletes work out for certain periods every day. These people have automated the hard work - doesn't make it - doesn't mean that they're not working hard. But they've made it easier for themselves to do that.

If you want to make it more difficult to do something, you want to stop yourself, then you figure out ways to add friction to the behaviors that you don't want to engage in. That makes you stop and think and, perhaps, gives you a bit of a chance to realize, oh, this is not really what I intended. Maybe I can do something better.

VEDANTAM: You were at a conference in Europe one time, and you used the power of friction to get people to eat more fruit. What did you do Wendy?

WOOD: Oh. Well, this was actually a conference that I run on habits on Catalina Island here in California. But we had, that year, a bunch of European participants. And I've noticed that Europeans eat lots of fruit. So I ordered extra food for them. But the cafeteria folks had put the fruit in a box that was just to the side of the cafeteria line, and no one was eating it.

And I noticed it, so I put it right in the middle of the line, and it went immediately. But by then, the bananas were a little brownish, but they still - it was obvious. And people - if I had made it easy and obvious how to get the fruit, people ate it.

VEDANTAM: In many ways, this is the same insight of the irresistible staircase in Seattle. The architects hid the elevators out of sight by placing the stairs front and center. By making their use frictionless, the building made it more likely people would unconsciously choose the path of least resistance and climb the stairs.

When we come back, how to build our own versions of the irresistible staircase. We look at more ways that we can use friction and other tools to change our habits. Stay with us.


VEDANTAM: There is a reason many of us form bad habits. Things like smoking or gambling have long-term negative consequences, but they're extremely rewarding in the short term. Wendy says habits are powerfully shaped by short-term rewards.

WOOD: This has to do with the reward component of habits. So what we know about rewards is that our brain responds with dopamine when we get rewarded. And that dopamine is what helps to build the mental associations of habit in our brain. And this means that only certain types of rewards are really going to be useful in forming habits, and they're the rewards you experience immediately.

VEDANTAM: Things like exercising or eating healthy food often have tremendous long-term benefits, but they're often not very fun to do. No surprise - they don't produce the quick dopamine bursts. So how do you form habits around healthy behaviors? You have to consciously figure out ways to link these healthy behaviors with short-term rewards. Don't just force yourself to eat more veggies, figure out ways to make the veggies delicious and enjoyable.

WOOD: So if - when you eat vegetables, if you really like the taste of beautifully cooked vegetables and you feel pride in eating healthfully and taking care of yourself, those are immediate rewards. And they will help you build a habit. If your reward is some bonus at the end of the week or something that you give yourself for achieving, say, some health goal several months down the road, that's not going to be the kind of reward that builds a habit because it's not there when you are acting.

VEDANTAM: So there's an interesting implication of this, and in some ways it's a sad implication, which is when you think about it, this is - explains why, you know, it's easy to form a habit of eating dessert or smoking or drinking because the rewards when you do those things are relatively quick. An exercise routine or a healthy diet, these are not things where you see the benefit for very long periods of time unless, as you say, you develop these intrinsic systems to feel pride as you're doing something, not just waiting for the reward three months or three years down the line.

WOOD: That's exactly right. But you have a little bit more control than that because you can add things to behaviors that might not be intrinsically rewarding to you initially. As I said, you can listen to good music when you work out. I hate to admit this - I work out on elliptical some days, and that's probably the most boring thing you can do in the world. So I only - and I watch competitive cooking shows...

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

WOOD: ...When I do it. And I only let myself watch those shows when I'm on the elliptical, so that's my reward for working out. And it's made it into quite a pleasurable habit, actually.

VEDANTAM: Tell me about your own efforts to become a regular habitual jogger. How did that work? What were the obstacles you faced, and how did you try and devise methods to overcome them?

WOOD: Oh, this is when my sons were young. I have two sons, two years apart in age. And I had a full-time job and a husband who had a full-time job. So that was a bit of a challenge to find any time to exercise or do anything else. And that was a real challenge for me early on. For about five years, I struggled trying to figure that out.

If you have little kids, you know. You say, I'm going to work out today at 4 o'clock. And then one of them gets sick or another has a friend who comes over and you can't leave or leave them. Something always comes up. And then with your job on top of it, it was just - it was impossible. Every night I'd go back and - I'd go to bed and I'd be like, OK, another failure. Until I decided that I was going to have to find a time when I could do it regularly, consistently, and that was early in the morning.

So I started running. I was a committed runner for many years. I started running at 6 in the morning. And that was very hard to start off with because, for me, that didn't come naturally. And I really dreaded that, but it got easier each time. And I actually did listen to the radio, and I found that to be a great sort of way to wake up ultimately, was to just - and one of the things I did to help was - I'm telling you all of my secrets here - I actually slept in my running clothes because it made it easier to then get up and just get out the door early in the morning.


WOOD: And then if I got back by 7 o'clock, then I could make my boys breakfast and see them off to school and go live the rest of my day without having this worry about how I was going to get exercise in given the rest of my schedule. So it worked.

VEDANTAM: So what I find so interesting about that is that our conscious minds in some ways can help. But they help primarily not so much in terms of exercising willpower but in scheming our ways to make the habit as frictionless as possible. And so in some ways, your conscious mind came up with this idea to say let me sleep in my jogging clothes so when the alarm goes off at 6 o'clock, I don't have the thought in my head, oh, no, I have to spend time changing before I go out. You've just made it a little more frictionless, a little more easy.

WOOD: Exactly. It's sort of like what professional chefs do. So I went up to the Culinary Institute of America and took a few of their preliminary classes, how they train chefs in something called mise en place, which is how to set up your environment to make it easy to create great dishes, consistently great dishes each time. And they described to me the dilemma of beginning chefs is they wanted to just jump in and do it, you know? Let's just do it.

And they would get some flour, some sugar, some of the components together and they'd try to start creating stuff. But then they'd figure out, oh, no, I really need more flour and I wasn't supposed to put all the sugar in here, and I was supposed to do something else there. And so they have to learn - this is when they learn mise en place - putting everything in place before they actually begin. And they put it in place in order, so it's - they're not thinking a lot. They're not making decisions while they're actually cooking.

Instead, they are cued by all of the implements and the food and the prepared items in front of them on what goes next. And it makes it much easier for them to be consistent and actually produce the same thing. And I was impressed with that as a metaphor for behavior change because if you structure the environment ahead of time - yes, it's work, yes, it does take executive control our conscious thinking selves, but then we make it so much easier for us to sort of automate all of the other decisions. So that in their case, they can think about ways to make it - their current cakes even more wonderful and pastries even tastier as they put them together. They can put the flourish into them because they have automated the basic components.

VEDANTAM: Wendy says you can also use friction in the opposite direction - to disrupt a habit. Think about campaigns to limit smoking.

WOOD: By the time the surgeon general's report came out on the dangers of smoking, people had a pretty good idea. It convinced people that they needed to stop smoking. But, in fact, sales of cigarettes in the U.S. continued to increase into the '70s. So people were convinced. They knew it was not good for them, but they kept doing it. It was only once we started modifying the environment - so warning labels on cigarette packs, we removed vending machines.

I don't know if you remember cigarette vending machines, but you can't find them anymore because there are now rules about how you can purchase cigarettes. Cigarettes are typically put behind the counter, and you have to ask for them in order to purchase them. We set bans on smoking in public places so that you can't easily anymore just light up in your office, in a restaurant, on a plane. And then we started taxing. We started taxing cigarettes. All of that took huge political decision making and commitment to make it happen.

VEDANTAM: But isn't it fascinating, Wendy, that telling people that smoking is going to give them, you know, emphysema and lung cancer, that these things in some ways are less effective than telling them they have to walk 100 yards, get up from their desk, walk outside the building and light up outside? You would think that the first would actually have much more effect than the second, but that does not turn out to be the case.

WOOD: You're right. (Laughter) We're pitiful. We would like to think that we are rational and respond to the data on cancer and emphysema. But the reality is we tend to act on autopilot on what we are doing already because it's so much easier. It's very hard to exert that kind of control. So in a way, what the government was doing is it was making it easier for us to do the thing that we already wanted to do, which is to smoke less.

VEDANTAM: We've talked about how you can decrease friction to build good habits and increase friction to dismantle bad habits. We've looked at how you can make healthy behaviors automatic and mindless and make unhealthy behaviors conscious and effortful. Here are three additional ideas that build on these insights. The first is something that Wendy calls piggybacking or stacking.

WOOD: It is taking a behavior that you're already doing and inserting a new behavior that you want to add. So you want to remember to take your meds. Maybe you have meds prescribed by your doctor that you're supposed to take every night. If you want to remember to take them, a good way to do it is to put it on your nightstand and then whatever you do last before you get into bed - is it turn off your phone, set your alarm, whatever it is...


WOOD: ...Just insert taking that pill in that stream of behavior, and over time it will become automated, much like the automated pattern that you're already performing.

VEDANTAM: In other words, you can essentially string habits together like a chain.

WOOD: Yes. Yeah. It's a sort of a shortcut to forming a new habit. Use one that you already have.

VEDANTAM: Another powerful insight has to do with the role of what Wendy calls cues, things that prompt you to do something. Wendy mentioned cues in the context of the popcorn study. If you've ever been a smoker, you might have noticed there are certain triggers to your smoking. Maybe you come home at the end of the day, and you light up on your front porch. The porch is what Wendy calls a cue.

Cues are very powerful in creating new habits while preserving old ones. Wendy uses cues in her own life to build new habits. One cue for her is to wake up and have breakfast with her husband. That's her signal, her cue, that the next thing she needs to do is sit down at her computer and write for two hours.

WOOD: If I give myself a couple of hours in the morning to write, if I structure it into my schedule, then I take away all of the decision-making and the stress about when and where I'm going to do it. I don't mean to say that it makes writing easy. Writing is always a challenge for everyone. But it does make the process easier so I'm not, all the time, struggling about whether I should be doing this or something else. That's been decided. That - this is part of my job, and I just need to do it.

VEDANTAM: There's one last source of new habits, and it comes from an unexpected place - chaos. When our lives go haywire, the cues that normally surround us disappear. Wendy says this can be a profound opportunity for reinvention.

WOOD: There's actually been a lot of research on something called habit discontinuity. It's a jargon-y (ph) term, but it is studies of people when they're undergoing change. And what we've learned is that that's an opportunity for people to try out new things that they didn't have the chance to do at, say, an old job or an old place where they lived. There's many such life disruptions, right? Relationships end. You get a family. Life gets disrupted.

And the typical way we think about that is that that's stressful and that that's not a good time for making new decisions. But, in fact, it actually turns out to be an opportunity for them to act more authentically on their values. So because they're making those decisions, they have to think, do I want to do this? How do I do this? What are my new choices here? It's an opportunity to rethink some of the practical decisions you've made in your life and maybe to act more in ways that are consistent with how you want to be.

VEDANTAM: Wendy Wood is a professor of psychology and business at the University of Southern California. She's the author of "Good Habits, Bad Habits: The Science Of Making Positive Changes That Stick." Wendy, thank you for joining me today on HIDDEN BRAIN.

WOOD: Oh, it was lovely to talk to you. Thank you.


VEDANTAM: This episode was produced by Thomas Lu and Angus Chen. It was edited by Tara Boyle and Rhaina Cohen. Our team includes Parth Shah, Laura Kwerel and Jenny Schmidt.

For me, one of the key takeaways from the episode is how we can become better at building and maintaining habits. Many of you already have built a habit of listening to our show every week. Here's a new one you should start or an old one you could strengthen. Donate to your local public radio station. Go to Again, that's

Our unsung heroes this week are Noah Carnahan and Rob Harris (ph). Noah and Rob are part of our digital media team. They make sure our audio sounds good on all the different platforms it's heard on, from podcasting apps to the NPR website. A while back, we had some problems translating the audio we were hearing in our headphones into the right format for all these different platforms. Noah and Rob worked with us into the wee hours, always maintaining their calm and composure as we played detective, trying to get to the heart of the problem.

Also, thank you for listening to HIDDEN BRAIN over the course of the past year. If you like this episode, please share it with someone who doesn't know much about podcasting. If they need help, please show them how to subscribe to our show. I'm Shankar Vedantam. Happy New Year.


Copyright © 2019 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.