LIFE AND LEARNING:

Your Best Bet To Ending Bad Habits Isn’t Willpower.

The answer might be “shocking.”

Image by Vivek Doshi from Unsplash

In the early 1930’s, psychologist B.F Skinner had just designed his latest contraption, which he creatively named the Skinner box. It was a tiny room blocked off by walls on all four sides, and the only escape was a lever.

When an unlucky mouse was locked inside, it would eventually get hungry. And with no food in sight, it would start exploring its surroundings and pull the lever by accident.

When it did, a chute would open up and dispense a few food pellets into the room. Then the test ended and the mouse went back to its cage.

A while later, the same mouse went in again. This time, Skinner noticed how it pulled the lever again — slightly faster than before.

But this time, while the mouse happily ate its fill, something deep inside its mind began to shift. It was the start of a realization:

Skinner’s box visualized. Image from Pixetic.

The third time around, the mouse tried reaching out for the lever as soon as it was hungry. As expected, food came right after it. The fourth, the fifth and the sixth tests didn’t even matter at this point. They only solidified the mouse’s already rock-solid connection.

Just a few more iterations down the line, and the mouse began pulling the lever as much as it could — even when it wasn’t hungry.

And as far-fetched as the situation sounds, it’s our reality.

Almost everyone’s addicted to something. But whether that’s social media, Doritos, or that new Netflix show we were “just going to watch a few episodes of”, every addiction starts in our heads.

But every addiction can end there too.

Habits Make You, You

Think of your life as an equation, where the result describes where you’ll end up by the time you die. That equation would be the sum of every single habit you’ve made.

The smallest decisions in our lives be just as important as the most pivotal events. The tiniest decisions turn into habits, and those habits can change the trajectory of your life. And going back to Skinner’s little experiment, those life-changing habits usually start with accidental discoveries:

Let’s prove that point by setting up a hypothetical (but surprisingly real) scene. Our main character’s a teenager named Jake:

In a world of high-school cliques, groups, and an endless amount of confusion, Jake was remarkably average. While everyone seemed to have their lives together, Jake felt like his was a ticking time bomb.

But three years, zero friends, and no popularity later, he had enough. And after trying his hardest to open up and make new friends, he met a group of older kids.

They seemed to have everything he didn’t, so naturally, Jake wanted to become just like them.

Slowly but surely, he started to change. He began skipping school and changing his personality — but it didn’t do the trick. So about a month later, Jake asked one of the 12th graders if he could take a puff from their vape pen.

And when he did, he felt something. All of a sudden, everyone saw him as part of the group. He felt what it was like to be noticed and valued. He was finally popular and found the friends he always wanted.

It felt like life was a puzzle he was trying to solve with a missing piece — and there it was. It felt…good.

One puff turned into a hundred, and one day rushed into a year. Vaping turned into drinking, and drinking turned into harder drugs.

By then, there was no turning back. An action he didn’t give a second thought about turned into a habit. In Jake’s case, it turned into an addiction that ruined his life:

Creating a habit takes four ingredients: a craving, a cue, an action, and a reward.

Jake was lonely so he craved a sense of belonging. Some people might crave money, while others might crave attention or power. The bottom line is that we crave things that fill in the places we’re empty and make us happy.

Then, the right action sets off mental fireworks:

A summary of THE book on habits, identity, and life — Atomic Habits. Source

It’s that feeling you get when you do something that satisfies a craving. When you jump onto your couch and turn on the TV after a long day at work. When you get to eat your favourite meal after hours of looking forward to lunch. It’s what Jake felt when he discovered how vaping could get him friends.

That’s the reward.

When something does a great job at satisfying a craving, our minds start linking that action to satisfaction. They start seeing that action as the solution for whenever we feel that craving again. Then, they urge us to keep using it as an outlet to feel better.

The more you repeat that cycle of cues and rewards, the stronger that link gets and the less you’ll want to stop. And before you know it, you’ll find yourself reaching for the remote or that bag of chips on autopilot.

There’s the catch. Your brain doesn’t care if the habits you’re trying to build are positive or not. Even though good habits win when it comes to long-term gains, they lose to bad ones when it comes to quick, intense rewards.

Ever wonder why you don’t feel like working out as soon as you get home from work? One of the reasons is because it’s hard to see the benefits of it right off the bat.

You don’t just go in to the gym for an hour and come back looking like a Greek God — it’s the result of constant work. It’s no wonder why we’d normally go watch a show on Netflix instead. Not only is the lever right in front of you, but the feedback it gives your brain is so much more instant and powerful:

The unwanted effects of putting things off, and how you can fix them. Source

Of course we know exercise is good for us, but the logical part of our brain isn’t in charge of creating habits — it’s the subconscious part. And the subconscious part of our brain isn’t programmed to do the logical thing — it only does what’s easy or fun.

Sound familiar? That’s procrastination, addiction, and laziness in a nutshell. Choosing what’s really good for us over what we’re tempted to do is always an uphill battle:

Going for the habits your brain chooses for you is like playing a video game with its default character forever. Sure, you’re not dead or anything — but how do you expect to level up?

That’s the problem with conventional, brain-generated habits. Plugging negative habits into your “life-equation” leaves you with negative results. If you want to do something more, you’ll have to design the habits that’ll help you get there.

Jake wasn’t all too different from Skinner’s mice. He was stuck in the whirlwind of high-school, and the most straightforward escape was to surrender his life to the wrong people.

In a way, we’re mice too. We’re stuck in a box with levers everywhere in sight. By reading this article, you’re pulling one right now. Whether you rule the lever or let it rule you— it’s the difference between living your whole life wanting something and actually getting it.

But again, it’s easier said than done. There’s a reason why everybody isn’t living their dream life. Everyone gets to make the decision to live their lives for pleasure or for fulfillment. You have that decision too, and it all comes down to building the right habits.

Building good ones is hard enough, but breaking bad ones is like trying to climb out of a pit with nothing to grab onto. It’s impossible. That is, if you approach it the wrong way.

What’s The Right Way?

All habits start with a craving.

Now, cravings aren’t bad on their own, but it’s how we satisfy them that matters. If you’re craving a better social life, you could start vaping like Jake or you could try finding real friends. If you’re craving attention, you could buy every high-end item in a store or you could learn to find inner peace.

Except, our minds are primed for efficiency and survival. If there’s an easy way to do something, that’s probably what you’ll find yourself doing. But if bad habits are the easy way out, how do you get your mind to stop drifting towards them all the time?

Simple. All you have to do is make good habits even easier and more rewarding.

Putting Yourself In The Right Box

When you put a mouse in a Skinner box, you’re putting it in a situation where it’s mind generates bad habits by default. When you put a human in a situation where a bad habit is the easiest (or only) option, even the most dedicated people crumble.

But the principle works both ways. Imagine a “Skinner racetrack”, where the only thing for a mouse do was to run a lap to get some food. The same mouse that could’ve gotten addicted to pulling a lever for food is now a health freak. Replacing our boxes has the same effect on us too:

Why motivation isn’t the secret to keep going. Source

We’re not the problem — it’s the situations we put ourselves in. The secret to productivity isn’t willpower at all. If you take willpower out of the picture and make good habits the only option, you’ll start picking them up just as easily as you could browse YouTube for hours:

The only escape for Skinner’s mice was to pull the lever. No matter what, you’ll always be pulling a lever — so you might as well pull the best ones.

Why fight against your mind when you could use it to your advantage? For starters, that means putting yourself in the right box. You get the idea:

If you know you’ll always choose the path of least resistance, all you have to do is make good habits frictionless and make bad ones seem like a waste of time.

If you want to watch less TV, throw out the cable that connects it to your outlet. If you want to stare at a screen, you’ll have to spend $10 to order another one and wait for it to arrive at your doorstep in three days.

When you do that, not only are you killing the original habit, but you’re leaving room for better ones to take its place. Now that watching TV’s out of the question when you’re bored, going for a walk or starting a journal doesn’t feel like a horrible way to spend your time.

What you’re up against irrelevant. If you find a way to make a good habit easier than a bad habit, you’ll pick the right choice every time.

Feedback Loops

Around the same time he conducted the first, Skinner wanted to see if he could turn the tables with another experiment.

This time, he outfitted his usual box with an electric floor and got rid of the food entirely. The power was on to begin with, and the floor would give the mouse an unpleasant shock as soon as it entered the t̶o̶r̶t̶u̶r̶e̶ ̶c̶h̶a̶m̶b̶e̶r̶ room.

When the mouse accidentally flipped the lever as it ran around in pain, the floor switched off. Four or five times in, the mice became reluctant to go in the room. And when they did, they scurried straight over to the lever to avoid being shocked for too long.

Now, we use a special term to describe how Skinner’s experiment worked — operant conditioning. It’s a fancy word that describes a simple process — using positive or negative feedback to reroute how your brain forms habits.

An alternative to using friction to break habits is to use force. Take me for example:

I’m laziness personified. If anyone’s brain takes the easy way out, mine’s in that mode 24/7. I’m the type of guy who’d sleep their entire life away if they could.

At one point, I even resorted to building a device that would grab me a glass of water from the kitchen while I was “all the way over at the couch.” Honestly, it would’ve been easier to get up and grab it. Disgusting, I know:

A productivity guru on changing your environment. Source

If I didn’t change my box remove every bad lever from my sight, I’d probably be holed up in a library playing computer games right now. As it turns out, being lazy and getting work done are two things that can’t coexist.

That’s when I discovered feedback loops:

Think of feedback loops as cycles of positive and negative reinforcement you can adjust to make habits stick better.

When I struggled to follow through with a habit even after I changed my box, feedback loops never let me down.

And even though I couldn’t install an electric floor in my house, the process looked about the same. If I couldn’t get myself to focus on an article, I forced myself to do 30 pushups or take an ice-cold shower. They keys are:

  1. To face your penalty as soon as you slip up so your mind can associate failure with pain better.
  2. To make your penalties as uncomfortable as you can.
  3. Making sure those penalties are good habits (so you aren’t accidentally changing your box and making things harder).

We call anything with those traits negative reinforcements, because they punish you when you do something you weren’t meant to do. Positive reinforcements work the other way around — by using rewards to encourage the right behaviour.

Negative reinforcement works best for me, but dozens of studies show how positive reinforcement might be better for others. It all comes down to what gets you in the mood to keep at it— or at least too scared not to.

Change Your Habits, Change Your Life

Locked inside everyone, there’s infinite potential. Habits are the key to unlocking them. But your journey to becoming the best version of yourself can’t start unless you get rid of toxic habits first.

Every single bad habit stems from our tendency to do things that take the least effort and give us the most pleasure. Motivation alone can’t overcome it. Truly effective habits come from changing your environment and adjusting how you see success and failure.

If you do it well enough, you’ll reprogram your brain to get addicted to what’s really valuable instead. It’ll get you one step closer to unlocking that potential — until one day, you’ll find yourself where you always wanted to be.

And it all starts with the smallest step. Forget about a conclusion — you already know what you’ve got to do.

Go for it.

Thanks for reading.

I write about things every week(ish).

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store