Replace the Robot: Three Keys to Changing Habits

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“Ninety-nine hundredths or, possibly, nine hundred and ninety-nine thousandths of our activity is purely automatic and habitual, from our rising in the morning to our lying down each night.” — William James

 In my last blog, I described my intention to be a better person in 2019 and outlined four ways that I plan to do this. That was the easy part. As we all know, the hard part is actually changing the behavior. And behavior change is hard no matter how much we want to change. The reason for this is that much of our daily activities, as William James, the father of psychology indicates above, is based on our habits.

Habits are slow to establish and change – and require a lot of self-control to stop or start these automatic behaviors. Without getting too deep into the neuroscience of why this happens, a simple way to think of it is that habits or patterns of behavior are stored in our procedural memory, which is relatively separate from our intentions and goals, which causes us to use self-control to make changes (Carden & Wood, 2018). Utilizing self-control to change our habits is exhausting – which is why we often give up.

Based on the latest research in neuroscience and cognitive behavior, here’s what you need to know if you want to improve your chances of making behavior change that lasts.

1. Disrupt & Replace

Habits or automatic behaviors rely on cues in the environment to be activated. Given that habit formation requires repeated behavior, altering the context or the environment may provide the necessary “disruption” to slow down the automatic behavior. Some researchers call this creating a “rip current,” which refers to making a conscious decision to alter the environment, giving you the necessary time to consider what behavior you desire (Frey, 2014). For example, when we go into the kitchen, we may be cued to look for something to eat. One way to disrupt the environment would be to place a bowl of fruit in an obvious place to remind us to eat something healthy.

2. Play Offense, Not Defense

People who are successful in making changes have learned to anticipate those situations or cues that prompt them to use self-control to maintain their commitment. Some techniques you might consider, making your environment an ally in behavior change, are:

  • Use reminders, messages, or pictures to remind you of your intention.

  • Reward yourself for making these behavior changes. Rewards don’t have to be something tangible. They can be symbolic such as stars or stickers.

  • Remove temptation. Why make it harder than you need to? If you find that something triggers an unwanted behavior, remove it from your immediate environment. A great example is putting your phone in the backseat of your car to prevent you from taking a peek while you are driving.

3. Practice Self-Compassion

Behavior change is hard for everyone. Everyone is imperfect, fails, makes mistakes, and deals with challenges. When you feel isolated and think it’s just you, remember we all find behavior change difficult. If you find that you are “beating yourself up” over your inability to make the changes you want, pause, listen to those negative thoughts in your head, and then consider, “is this something you would say to someone you love?”.

Make 2019 the year that you live up to your intentions or resolutions. Remember that using only self-control to make behavior changes is likely the reason we often give up about this time of year. Why not try something different and let your environment “cue” you to behave differently? You’ll turn these new behaviors into automatic, less-exhausting new habits in no time.


Carden, L., & Wood, W. (2018). Habit formation and change. Current opinion in behavioral sciences20, 117-122.

Frey E, Rogers T (2014). Persistence: how treatment effects persist after interventions stop. Policy Insights Behav Brain Sci, (1)72-179.