Build or Break Habits Using Science-Based Tools

Welcome to the Huberman Lab Podcast Neural Network—a once-a-month newsletter with science and science-related tools for everyday life. 

This month, I want to provide you with actionable information in a condensed form about habits: how to form habits and how to break them.

I learned so much researching the science of habit for Episode 53, “The Science of Making & Breaking Habits.” Much of that was counterintuitive, but it works. I know this based on my own experience and from the feedback I’ve been receiving from listeners. 

During the episode, I describe two program frameworks for habits that are aligned with our biology and neurochemistry, which makes forming great habits and breaking bad habits much easier. They work best when combined.

Part A: Huberman Lab Habits Program

Adjusting habits requires overcoming what I call “limbic friction” (energy to overcome anxiety, procrastination and/or fatigue). You’ll want to leverage the natural rhythms of your brain and body to make it more likely that you will engage or maintain habits. This is made easy by dividing each 24-hour day-night cycle into three phases.

Phase 1

The first 0-8 hours after waking. Your brain and body are more action and focus oriented in Phase 1 due to elevated dopamine, adrenaline and cortisol levels). It’s easier to overcome limbic friction. Note: We are also more prone to distraction and reflexive multitasking at this time. Don’t succumb to that.

Set 1-4 habits for completion in Phase 1. These should be the habits that require energy and focus. Setting a window for completion (e.g., 45 min of focused reading, work, etc. in Phase 1) rather than a precise start and stop time lends flexibility to your schedule. For example, you might elect to exercise or write or study “after waking but before noon,” meaning it can be done at 8 a.m., 10 a.m. or 11 a.m. but definitely in Phase 1. Of course, if you can do it at the same time each day, great, but setting a broader window of opportunity can help given busy lives. 

Phase 2

In the 9-15 hours after waking. Leverage your naturally higher serotonin levels and lower adrenaline, and engage in habits that don’t require you to overcome much limbic friction. 

This is an excellent time for behaviors and thinking that can be completed with less focus. The sort that involves creative exploration is perfect: writing fiction, rough drafts, writing music, play of any kind, experimentation. Or lower-focus requirement physical pursuits like Zone 2 cardio. Whereas Phase 1 is terrific for habit where precise execution is needed, Phase 2 is best for looser things—trying a new recipe, brainstorming, exploring a new approach to some aspect of work, a physical pursuit, relationships or learning. 

Again, as stated in Episode 53: “A lot of habit formation has to do with being in the right state of mind and being able to control your body and mind.” 

Phase 3

It is the 16-24 hours after waking. This is when we reset our ability to overcome limbic friction by, you guessed it, resting and sleeping. See our “Toolkit for Sleep” (Neural Network Newsletter #3)and Episode 2, “Master Your Sleep & Be More Alert When Awake,” for details on how to master Phase 3 but in short: 

  • Avoid bright lights
  • Sleep in a cool, dark room
  • Explore supplementation (not melatonin) if needed

Part B: Program and Test Habit Change in Alternating Blocks

Based on my read of the literature, I suggest people pick six new habits to incorporate per day for 21 days, write them down and then aim to complete four to six of those per day. Mark them off each day on your calendar. 

Do not fret about only doing four out of six of the new habits per day, and never compensate by doing more than six per day. A no-compensation system is best. 

Merge this approach with the Phase 1, 2, 3 structure above to be in the best position to succeed. How will you know if you are succeeding? Take the next 21 days and track your behavior but not incorporating new habits

So that’s 21 days of habit formation and 21 days of testing to see which habits actually became habits, then back to 21 days of habit formation, using your progress in the previous 21 days to determine if you can add more to your four to six per day list. 

How do you know if you made a new habit?

The strength of a habit is dictated by how much limbic friction you need to overcome to perform the behavior and how much context-dependence there is—meaning, do you perform the habit no matter what or only when calm, rested or in the presence of others, caffeinated, etc. 

Part C: Breaking Habits

This is simple (alas, not always easy):

To break a habit, you need to bring conscious awareness to the fact that you participated in the habit you are trying to break. Then, when you realize you did, you need to engage in positive behavior immediately afterward. The specific behavior is less important than the fact that it comes immediately after the habit you’re trying to break and that it not be a negative behavior. Ten jumping jacks or pushups are good do-anywhere (yes anywhere), positive behaviors. Positive because they are good for us, not because we necessarily enjoy them.

Final Notes

The science behind these approaches, including “task bracketing” and various review articles in quality peer-reviewed journals is in the caption to this episode. 

New episodes of The Huberman Lab Podcast are out each Monday on YouTubeApple PodcastsSpotify and other major podcast platforms. Please subscribe to those channels. We also launched a clips channel, where we’ll post short segments from the episodes. I post additional science and science-based tools on Instagram and Twitter

Thank you for your interest in science,

Disclaimer: The Huberman Lab Podcast is for general informational purposes only and does not constitute the practice of medicine, nursing or other professional health care services, including the giving of medical advice, and no doctor/patient relationship is formed. The use of information on this podcast or materials linked from this podcast is at the user’s own risk. The content of this podcast is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Users should not disregard or delay in obtaining medical advice for any medical condition they may have and should seek the assistance of their health care professionals for any such conditions.