One afternoon my wife and I were hanging out at home, doing some reading, when she reached over and handed me a copy of The New Yorker. “You should read this article,” she said.
It was Jerome Groopman’s story about habits and willpower, which started with his smartphone struggles. Right up my alley. In fact, I’ve written a lot about the limits of willpower in changing how we use our phones.
But this story was different—it went deep into the science of habits, specifically the work of Wendy Wood, a professor at USC who’s been researching this stuff for nearly 40 years.
I started reading, and I was captivated. I’m familiar with the basics of how habits work—I love Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit and I’m a longtime reader of James Clear—but there was something about Wendy’s explanations that really clicked for me.
I loved Wendy’s description of how our environments shape our habits. She explained that if we want to break a bad habit, we need to modify our environment to add friction. When something becomes more difficult to do, we tend to do it less often.
In a flash of inspiration, I sat down, found Wendy online, and sent her an email. I asked if she would be open to an interview. She said yes!
A couple weeks later, Wendy and I talked on the phone for an hour. We talked about habit-forming technology, the role of mindsets, the best times to create new habits, and lots more.
But what really stuck with me was the distinction between conscious thought, which guides one-time decisions, and the mechanics of habit, which control repetitive actions. Any time we do something repeatedly, our habits take over. We may not form these habits on purpose, or even be aware of them, but that’s how it works.
Wendy helped me realize that most of the Make Time tactics live in the domain of habits—either breaking bad habits, or creating new good habits. And I saw that if I wanted to help people adopt these tactics durably over time, I would need to help them break, change, and form habits.
My new understanding of habits became a core element of The Highlight Course, our 4-week program that helps people learn to make time for what matters. In her book, Wendy explains that knowledge and awareness are not enough when we’re trying to change our behaviors. For example: Knowing how to stay focused isn’t the same as actually doing it. So in our course, we help people try the tactics in their own lives and build habits around continuing to do them.
Below is a partial transcript of my conversation with Wendy. Anywhere you see bold text, that’s me calling your attention to something that I think is interesting.
A complete, unabridged audio recording of our chat is available as part of the Make Time Bonus Pack.
JZ: Hi Wendy! Thank you for chatting with me. I just finished reading your book. It’s great. I really enjoyed it. And it’s so cool to learn about your research, which is really the foundational research for so much of the advice we read and hear about how to form habits and how to change our behaviors.
Wendy: You can’t really learn much about your habits just by observing them. We all have theories about habits and how they work because we all have habits and we’ve all thought about them and commented on them. But habits are not accessible to conscious awareness. And there’s a good reason for that, as I try to explain in the book.
But what that means then is that we really don’t have the same understanding of our habits as we do of other behaviors, more thoughtful decisions we make. It’s not possible to. And so there are some things like that where you just have to turn to research.
JZ: Right. That was one of the most interesting things about your book: the realization that our habits are somewhat hidden from us and that because we are paying attention to our conscious thought processes, we tend to overvalue those or assume that they’re more important.
And it made me wonder… a lot of people that I talk to about distraction and feeling like they don’t have time for the things that are important to them, they often describe this feeling of time slipping away or just sort of disappearing.
Does time slip away because when we’re doing those actions, we’re fully in habit mode and so the ways that our brains are controlling our behaviors are thus hidden from us. Is that what’s going on there?
Wendy: Sometimes. This is actually one of the benefits of habit. It’s just like being in the shower. You’ve done it so often that you don’t have to think about it anymore. So, it frees up your mind to focus on other things we ruminate about, problems we had in the past, or to plan things that are going to happen in the future.
And all of that is very helpful because making sense out of past experiences and plans are super useful for all of us. And we can do things like showering or driving while we are planning and ruminating if we’re acting on habit. But we don’t have any experience of what we are doing and that’s where I think people start to feel a bit lost and confused.
But your question was about getting sucked in to media and how we get just engrossed in what we’re doing.
And that I think is very much a function of the way electronics are formulated, produced, presented to us in ways that really capture our attention and leave us feeling like we don’t have much volitional control. And that’s a different thing. That has to do with the way the electronics themselves are configured.
I’ve been looking at your website and reading portions of your book, and I think it’s very interesting what you’re doing, which is you’re sort of reverse engineering an awful lot of what has happened in the computing world. You’re reverse engineering it to give people back a sense of control, which is really interesting to read.
It’s a cool approach.
JZ: The reason I reached out initially was that I had read a story about you and your work in The New Yorker. And in this story, the writer used the word “friction,” which I later realized you use a ton in your book.
And that was an amazing moment for me because that’s exactly how we talk about it too. We explain that designers and engineers and product managers have spent years trying to make apps and devices that are as friction-free as possible. And the secret to regaining control is to add some of that friction back in.
Wendy: Exactly. And that’s also the secret to changing unwanted habits.
Part of the reason I think we all need to be educated about friction is what you said at the beginning of this interview: that we tend to overestimate the impact of our own personal experience.
Our thoughts, our feelings, that’s what we know. And we tend to view those as very important, which they are for our happiness. But the environments that we’re in, the context that we’re in, the way electronics have been engineered and configured also is extremely important and has an impact that we don’t normally think about because we’re so focused on our own internal experience.
JZ: Can you talk more about what’s going on in our brains when we’re in one of those time-sucking phone sessions or other media sessions?
Wendy: The reason we find those electronics so very habit forming is that they were designed specifically to tap into a few features of our minds that keep us using them. And one thing that you guys have pointed out is that they provide rewards only on an intermittent basis.
Rewards are really important for forming habits, but some kinds of rewards work better than others, and our brains are really responsive to intermittent or occasional rewards. The kind we get from email or from notifications on our phones. Those activate a dopamine response in our brain that then ties together what we are doing in what context that got that reward.
And it’s the same kind of response we get when we are sitting in front of a slot machine in a casino. We see these bright lights flashing. Every once in awhile we get close to winning something and we stick with it because sometimes we actually win something. That keeps us putting money into the slot machine over and over again because of the way our brains are wired to respond to intermittent rewards with this dopamine response.
That’s really important for habit formation, because habits represent a sort of shortcut, a mental shortcut. They tie together what we’re doing: in this context I got this reward, so when we’re in the context again, in the future, that response automatically comes to mind. That makes sense because it’s our brain’s best guess as to what to do to get that reward again.
So habits become this sort of mental shortcut. Hear a ping on your phone, respond to it, get the reward, and you do it whether you really want to take the time or not.
We almost feel like we are no longer in control. Technically we are, but because of the automatic response, we act on it before we have a chance to think, “do I really want to do this right now? I’m having a dinner with my family. I should be talking with my kids, not looking at my phone.”
JZ: In your book, you wrote about frugality. About choosing to save money by not spending it.
And you said that part of the reward of making a frugal decision was that you are rewarded with a feeling of pride and a feeling of success at having made that decision. And I wonder, is there something similar in the world of technology use?
I mean, is it possible for us to cultivate a mindset by which we actually feel rewarded because we didn’t look at our phone, or because we didn’t check Instagram this morning, or because we didn’t look at our email after work. What do you think of that?
Wendy: I think it is hard to feel proud of not doing something. Keeping a focus on the benefits: saving money or using your time wisely or valuing the people you’re with over the technology. Those are ways of framing the decisions that make it a positive choice; something you can feel proud about.
From the research on habits, we know that it’s very hard for people to have a habit of not doing something. Instead, we’re doing something else. So you might not eat healthfully, but it’s not an absence of a healthful eating habit. Instead, what you’re doing is you’re probably snacking a lot on junk food. That’s a more useful way to conceptualize the habit because it describes what you are doing. It’s easier to form a habit to do something good than just to not respond.
JZ: So it’s about creating a new habit that replaces the habit of checking your phone. Like reading a book. Or perhaps spending time with your family or somebody else you care about.
Wendy: Right, because if you focus on what you’re not doing, then you’re back into the dilemma that I started the book with, which is: We know that self-denial and inhibition can work in the short run, but ultimately it’s counter productive.
If you are deciding, “I’m not going to respond to my phone,” what you’re doing is you’re inhibiting that response and it becomes something that’s hard to not think about.
So then you start wondering, “Hmm, I wonder who that was. I wonder if that was something that was actually something I would want to hear. Maybe it was my kids, maybe it was somebody else, maybe it’s my boss.” You start thinking too much about the thing that you are denying yourself, and that becomes counterproductive and trips us up, ultimately.
That simple act of inhibition turns us into someone who’s obsessed with whatever it is we’re trying not to think about.
JZ: That is super interesting and very helpful. And it reinforces some of the advice that we give people, which is not to be simply defensive about their time and focus on avoiding distraction, but to also be proactive and think about what you want to be making time for; what you actually do want to be focused on.
Wendy: Exactly. That’s just the advice I would give people. And that works not just with electronics, that works with so many other behaviors. If you go on a diet thinking about all the things that you’re not going to eat anymore, it’s going to become very hard to maintain that. Or if you put yourself on a budget and end up thinking about all the things you’re not buying that all your friends were able to buy, then you’re going to be quite unhappy and feel deprived.
JZ: How does mindset fit into your work on this stuff? I didn’t see much mention of it in your book, and I’m curious if that was intentional.
Wendy: It was, because mindset is part of our conscious thinking self. It’s very helpful in thinking about that conscious part of the mind, the self we know. But our unconscious, habit self is really just a function of context, repetition, and reward.
Your mindset can influence what you find rewarding, but the reward itself is what creates the habit, not the mindset.
That’s something that I tried to stress in the book—that we learn habits by doing. So you actually have to get on your phone and get a few messages before you figure out how to use it and start developing a habit to use it. The habit is what your brain learns over time. And it only learns slowly with repeated experience as you get rewards in your daily environment, in your daily contexts.
JZ: I also wanted to ask you about this idea of discontinuity. About how certain changes to our life, you know, like moving or starting a new job can be opportunities to create new habits or change old habits.
And I wondered if it was possible to engineer this kind of discontinuity. If we don’t have any big life changes happening, can we somehow create them for ourselves so that we have this wonderful opportunity to change our habits?
Wendy: Yes. That’s actually one of the central pieces of advice in the book. Our habit memories don’t fade very quickly. And this really presents challenges for changing habits because if you stay in the same context, you’re going to have the same unwanted behavior come to mind and have to inhibit it actively each time and make a decision not to do that thing that you did so often in the past. Whether it’s spending money or sitting on the couch instead of going to the gym or whatever the thing is that’s unwanted in your life, whatever your bad habits are.
You can’t use decision-making, you can’t use willpower to change these behaviors. Because that memory of habit is always going to be there. And it will last longer than any decision we make.
Research has shown that we can control what happens by changing the cues in our environment. And as you said, these cues change naturally when we move, when we start new relationships, start new jobs. We’re all of a sudden exposed to new environments, new structures, new people that give us new opportunities. We can also use that logic in organizing the cues around us to activate the habits that we want.
So if you are trying to change your eating habits, it’s very hard to do that without changing the environment in which you eat. If you’re going to continue to snack at night on the sofa while watching TV and continue to have Fritos and donuts and other things on your kitchen counter, then your old habits will be cued regardless of your best intentions.
What research has shown is if we put things, put food, other temptations away, we can change our habits. We can also organize our lives so we’re not sitting on the couch. Maybe you take a walk in the evening, maybe you meet your neighbors so that you have some accountability in taking that walk.
And proximity is a big piece of that because creates or remove friction. The cues for behaviors you want should be close at hand, and cues for the things you don’t want to do should be further away.
JZ: If somebody feels overwhelmed by their current habits, but they don’t have a natural discontinuity like moving, what do you suggest? Is it just about finding small ways to begin to change their context?
Wendy: Yeah. The the most fun I had in writing this book was to go up to the Culinary Institute of America and hang out with their chefs for awhile when they just started training.
And what chefs do is they learn to control and construct a context in their kitchen where it’s easy to make a particular recipe. Chefs call this “mise en place”, which is putting everything in place. They do all the chopping, they get all the ingredients together, they measure everything out, and they put it in the order they’re going to use in the recipe.
Now, chefs don’t automatically do this, right? Like the rest of us trying to change our behavior, they jump in and they try to start doing things initially. But they have to learn that organizing their context, although it might seem like it slows them down, in fact, is the most efficient way to make the same recipe at the same high quality level each time.
And that’s a good metaphor for people wanting to change their behavior. It takes some initial planning to change our contexts and to figure out, “Okay, what would make it easier for me to save money? What would make it easier for me to eat healthfully or go to the gym?” and organize our environments to do those things.