The Power of Habit

by bsrubin on January 14, 2013

Applied Expertise

We are kicking into learning overdrive at Revv.

Outcome statement: Become applied experts in making change easy.

This will require an understanding of psychology, neuroscience, behavior change, coaching, and more.  The keys for changing your life and building tools to help others change.

Note the focus on applied expertise – not scientific expertise.  We’ll consult with those folks – our job is to put this stuff to use.

With that in mind – I just crashed through The Power of Habit.  What follows is a summary of what I took away in my own life and for Revv products.  Hope you find it useful in your life as well!

The Habit Loop

The core principle of The Power of Habit is in the ‘habit loop.’  The loop is at the core of understanding and modifying our habits – ie. all the things we do that we don’t actively think about.

Consider the running habit.  The Cue is seeing the running shoes in the morning.  Routine – go for a run.  Reward – rush of endorphin.  And most importantly – what makes the habit loop turn is a *craving* for the reward (ie. a craving for the rush of endorphin.)

How to change habits

The easiest way to change a habit is to keep the exact same structure but change the Routine.  So the same Craving, Cue, and Reward – but run a different Routine.  My habit challenge below.

Habit: Angry outbust at something in my way.

  • Cue: Feeling of frustration
    • That dehumidifier is loud and I can’t hear conversations!
  • Routine: Feeling of anger and articulation
    • Why is that thing so god-damn loud?!
  • Reward: Not my fault!  Feeling of superiority.

New Habit:  Constructive comment at something in my way.

  • Cue: Feeling of frustration
    • That dehumidifier is loud and I can’t hear conversations!
  • Routine: Contemplation of improvement and articulation
    • Wouldn’t it be cool if dehumidifiers were completely silent!
  • Reward: Not my fault!  Feeling of superiority.

Product notion: Some researchers implanted an electrical stimulation device into the basal ganglia region of the brain to help reduce cravings for alcohol.  Is there a less effective but far less invasive way to interrupt cravings?  Trans-cranial direct current stimulation, binaural beats or other audio stimulation, and accupressure all come to mind as possibilities.


If you believe you can change you are much more likely to.

There are a few ways of building belief:

  • Put your faith in a higher power.  Turns out Alcoholics Anonymous actually coined the term higher power.
  • Join a group where change being possible is part of the thinking.
  • Build your belief by accumulating a number of small victories.

I can point precisely to the moment that my personal development started take off.  I had tried various things over the years and generally developed slowly – I didn’t have a strong believe that I could change.  Then I took a 30 day Paleo Challenge and ate only meat, veggies, nuts, seeds, fruit, good fats.  After only 2 weeks I had higher and more consistent energy, lost fat, put on muscle.  Success in this one area of my life gave me the belief that I could make subsequent changes.


The Power of Habit contains a brief but powerful interlude on willpower.  Turns out that by building willpower deliberately and husbanding it’s use we can make habit change easier across the board. I got a heavy dose of this in The Willpower Instinct as well.

Ways to build and manage willpower:

  • Do some really hard shit – like Crossfit or a cold shower.  It’s painful – but builds your willpower.
  • Don’t beat yourself up for a lapse in willpower – softly acknowledge the slip and confirm that you will get better over time.  This was my main take-away from The Willpower Instinct.
  • Anticipate and plan for times your willpower may be challenged.  ie. Slap a banana on your desk in the morning in anticipation of a sugar craving later in the day instead of getting caught with your willpower down by the break-room and cookies.
Product notion: Smartphone app that deliberately exercises the willpower muscle and teaches you skills around willpower management.
Product notion: Use a device like a Basis to measure Heart Rate Variability (excellent psyiological correlate to willpower) and suggest interventions to increase willpower or at least warn you that you are low.


This one was fascinating to me.  Our brain craves familiarity over liking.  So if an unfamiliar song shows up on the radio – even if you like it you are more likely to switch the channel than if a familiar and un-liked song comes up.  This is why you sometimes find yourself singing along to the dumb Brittany Spears song that you hate.  It’s never happened to me… but you get the idea :)

The solution for new ideas, habits, products – dress them up as something familiar.

My morning routine is a great place to sandwich in new habits.  If I decided I needed to paint my toenails every day (unfamiliar!) I’d just shove it between brushing my teeth and shaving and it would be habit in no time.

Product notion:  Derek and I have both noted that our weekly/daily review systems are hugely important in our lives.  It’s going to be hard to convince other folks to adopt this somewhat unfamiliar habit of planning.  So why not integrate a very simple planning system directly into email – where you will almost certainly be first thing in the morning and all day long (unfortunately…)  Gmail plugin that asks you for your One Most Important Task for the day and then makes it visible all day long until you check it off.

The Breaker

The book ends with a pretty spectacular section on how to break habits.  Huge simplification:

  • What is the Routine you want to break?
  • Experiment and find out what the Reward is.
  • Experiment and find the Cue.
  • Use the same Cue and Reward – change the Routine.
Product notion:  Smartphone app – Rev Breaker.  Break your bad habits.  Helps you run experiments to determine Reward and Cue.  Teaches you about habit breaking.  Helps you plan your new Routine and anticipate challenges.

What Else?

Let me know if you’ve got suggestions for reading on habit, psychology, willpower, coaching, and personal development!  Outcome statement:  Become applied experts in making change easy.


  • Ldepetrillo

     pick your ruts carefully – you will be in them a long time.

  • Ldepetrillo

    In economics as in everything, it turns out, we are attached to each other. To underscore this crucial point, Latour borrows a distinction from his sociological ancestor Gabriel Tarde: the verb to have is much more important than the verb to be. For what defines us is what we are attached to, what we don’t want to give up (goods, concepts, passions), more than any essence or identity. Latour would like to revise Descartes’s dictum “I think, therefore I am” to “I am what I am attached to.” This attachment is to both material things and values at the same time. Thus, pragmatics and morality are always intertwined.

  • Alex

    This was one of the most enjoyable posts of yours to me so far, great 7:30am reading.

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