Huberman Lab | Episode – 53

The Science of Making and Breaking Habits

Rating: 7/10

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Learning is neuroplasticity. Habits are determined by neuroplasticity. Context Dependence and Limbic Friction for habits should be low. That means they are behaviors you can do easily, anywhere, anytime. That's the goal. Setting the context of the brain is more important than anything else.

Detailed Notes

Habits can serve or not serve us we'll. That's why it makes sense to learn how to make and break them.

This episode is about the scientific literature, about how the biology works.

Habits are not as automatic as reflexes. Reflexes are hardwired, habits are learned.

Habits are a big part of who we are.

What is learning? Learning is neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity changes the brain. What changes exactly? The pathways between neurons, the connections between them.

Distinctions between Habits

Immediate Goal based vs. Identity based habits

Zone 2 Cardio - very good for you. Not enough exercise to not be able to have a conversation.

Trying to become a different person, vs. doing something n times per week.

Dopamine release predicts whether we will form and stick with habits. 21, 18, 60, 30, 254, depending on the person. Highly variable.

Walks after dinner are good, glucose clearing is accelerated.

Habits + Person combination determine how long it takes for the habit to form.

The reason for this is limbic friction. Limbic friction is about moving from anxious states or too calm states into ones that are just right. How much effort is necessary to engage in a behavior. You can be both too distracted or too tired.

To form habits, the amount of limbic friction is important. Lesser is better. How to measure the limbic friction?

Linchpin Habits - things that enable other good habits. Have to be things that you enjoy doing. They make it easier to execute others.


  • What habits are easy for me to form?
  • Which do I want to break?
  • Which are easy to make or break and which are hard?
  • What are my current daily habits?

Habit Strength is measured by two things.

  1. How context dependent is the habit?
  2. How much limbic friction is there with the habit?

When context independent, the habit is a lot stronger.

Limbic Friction

how much conscious control is necessary to get going? Over time, limbic friction should go down, habits should become habitual, they should become automatic.

Paper: Psychology of Habit by Wendy Wood and Dennis Runger.

Visualization Practice

Procedural Memory vs. Episodic Memory: Remembering the recipe vs. remembering an event and how it unfolded.

Think about the specific steps required for a habit and visualize them. Higher Likelyhood of sticking with the habit. The better the procedural memory, the better the stickiness of the happy. Visualize the procedure to help the habits settle in, by reducing limbic friction.

Hebbian Learning

when neurons fire together, they wire together better. NMDA receptors play a role in long term potentiation. Strong signal triggers NMDA, which recruits more receptors into the neurons surface, increasing the strength with which it responds to signals.

Visualization triggers same pathways as the habit itself, the overlap means when visualizing, the neural connections for the habit go up in strength. Hence reducing limbic friction, i.e. there is less signal needed for activation.

Task Bracketing - Setting Internal Context

Neural Circuits of Basal Ganglia play a role in doing or not doing things. Go vs. No-go pathways. Task Bracketing uses neural circuits within the basal ganglia, called the dorsolateral striatum. The dorsolateral striatum is associated with behaviours associated with a habit. This region becomes active before and after a habit happened. It's a marker for the habit execution. Task Bracketing determines the context dependency of the habit.

There is a way to setup Task Bracketing so that the behaviour bracketed becomes automatic no matter the circumstances. Shifting the mind into being primed to act, by engaging the dorsolateral striatum in the right way.

Specificity in time for habits is not important in the long term. Habit execution is more based on internal state, rather than time. Schedules are important but it's not the main ingredient. State of brain and body.

Tool/Program for Habit Formation:

Different Phases of Day -> different states, anchoring habits better. 3 phases:

  1. Phase: 0-8 hours after waking
  2. Phase: 9-15 hours after waking
  3. Phase: 16-24 hours after waking Based on a diurnal schedules. Sleep at night, awake during day. To bed at 22:00, wake up at 07:00.

Phase 1

In the Morning during 1st phase, norepinephrine, epinephrine and dopamine are elevated. Cortisol is also higher. Body temperature is increased. Sunlight early in first 30 minutes after waking, best combined with exercise. Cold exposure. ~2 hours after waking Caffeine, and fasting. Supplements: Alpha GPC and L-Tyrosine. All of this is about high alertness state, engaging in activities with high limbic friction is easier. Body is action and focus oriented during that time. Hardest habits first, because they are easier to do.

Task Bracketing latches onto this internal state of high alertness. Hence habits get anchored to this morning state. Instead of the time dependence, just do them in the first 8 hours after waking.

Sunlight, Cold Exposure, Caffeine, Fasting, Exercise etc. are habits to incorporate in the morning. State setting first. Next attach more habits, that are actually useful to your goals.

Phase 2

Do different habits. Activation goes down. Cortisol, Norepinephrine, Epinephrine and Dopamine go down. Serotonin goes up. Relaxed state. Midday crash? 9-15 hours after waking, taper down light exposure. Especially bright light from screens. Sunlights at lower angles helps to bring down activity levels. Prepare sleep. Do NSDR protocols. Yoga Nidra, self hypnosis and other sleep related tools. Reverie self hypnosis scripts apps. - Ashwa Ganda is a supplement that lowers cortisol. Not longer than 2 weeks at a time.

Second half of day is about things that have little limbic friction. Practicing music, painting etc. things that you already enjoy. Old behaviours that are already quite engrained.

Generally the whole idea is to lean against and fight limbic friction every early time of the day.

NSDR and deep sleep help forming memories. If doing exercise in the evening do NSDR or other type of behavior to get mind and body to a relaxed state, prepared for sleep and in line with circadian rhythm.

Phase 3

sleep in very very dark rooms with low temperatures. 1-3 degrees drop in body temperature necessary to sustain deep sleep. Supplements: Magnesium-3-anate, Magnesium Bisglycinate, Theanine, Apigenin.

Neural Network toolkit for sleep.

When getting up, minimum of light, fall back asleep by a NSDR, Yoga Nidra of self hypnosis, i.e. Revery or NSDR-made-off apps. Without solid sleep in phase 3 no habit formation is going to happen.

Phases of Day approach helps to anchor behavior to physical state.

How to transition habits from one phase of the day to another time of the day? — Literature says it doesn't matter. You can move habits around, and gain context independence that way. If habits are deeply enough engrained it doesn't matter. Hippocampus is not where memories are stored, it's where they are formed. Once it is formed, it is migrated into the neocortex. This migration happens during deep sleep, through deep sleep spindles. Sequences of neural firing are transferred. Once a habit is in the neocortex, it should be pretty context independent and reflexive. Shift it around to play with it. This should further strengthen the habit. If you can do it anywhere, without any context dependence and it requires very low overcoming of limbic friction, than you have truly habituated a behavior.

Reward Prediction Error

Dopamine is related to the concept of reward and reward prediction. And both are related to learning. Should we reward ourselves for effort or only for results? How much? When exactly? Reward Prediction Error is useful in all kinds of learning.

If you expect reward and reward happens, behavior is likely to be done again. However, amount of reward in terms of dopamine, as a learning signal, is even greater if the reward amount is unexpected. Something unexpected, but positive happens, after behaviour, that's awesome for learning. If the reward doesn't come, dopamine drops below baseline. Breaking time during habit formation, by procrastination or distraction makes dopamine drop hard. Dopamine comes before the reward, it's positive anticipation. Some more is released when you actually get the reward. Most of it though, is in the anticipation. If the reward is missing, dopamine drops below baseline.

Dopamine and Anticipation

Dopamine changes neural circuitry states. We pay attention to different things, depending on dopamine levels.

Positively anticipating, both start and end of the activity helps modulate dopamine levels and therefore helps learning and habitualizing the behavior. Start rewarding task bracketing. It's positive self-talk, but not empty self-talk. Be honest about the facts, to apply reward prediction error to the whole activity. Why is it good? Why do you like it? Even though unpleasant? Focus on the feeling of why this behavior is good and why it's nice to do it? Visualization and Anticipation should stretch out around the habit, leaning and visualizing what happens before and after the habit, as well as the habit itself.

Goals and Habits are about achieving things.


  • Pick a habit.
  • Write down steps, before, during, after and why you like to do the habit and how you feel about it.
  • All the steps together, make up the habit.

Dopamine is not about feeling good, it's about feeling motivated. Is not about reward, it's about drive. Writing things out, helps in increasing dopamine, and therefore in motivation and energy to do the tasks.

21 day system for forming new habits:

  • 6 new habits every day -> for the 21 days.
  • expectation is to complete 4-5 per day.
  • the habit of performing habits is more important than the habits itself.
  • if you miss a day -> no punishment, don't compensate the next day
  • keeping consistency is more important, than total number achieved.
  • Two day chunking. Particular sequence of habits can be powerful. Every two days is a reset. Have all 6 every two days.
  • after 21 days, stop engaging, go into autopilot, see what sticks for next months or two. Add another set.

What to do once a habit is formed?

Don't cram. Keep up what you can keep, then add slowly. If you can keep up habits on autopilot, then add more. See if you can still keep up, then repeat.

Breaking Habits

To break habits you need to use long term depression of neurons. Breaking connections. It's not about depression as in the psychological disorder.

Neuron A is active but Neuron B isn't within a time window, will lead to a weakening between connection of A and B. This is "depression" in this context. NMDA receptors play a role.

How do you make neurons fire asynchronously if they are linked by a habit?

Behavioral Parts is important.

Behavior of picking up phone and engaging with it is reflexive. We don't think about doing it in detail. We just kinda do it, mindlessly. Observation Induced Reflex. When seeing others use their phones, we do to. Without really being conscious of it.

Paper Review: Intervention to Modify Habits - Heather Fritz

Long term effectiveness of Sticky Notes and other reminders doesn't work.

Pain is an effective way to break behaviors. But people cheat if other people don't hold accountable.

Notice when bad habit happens or happened, immediately after, engage in a replacement behavior. Notice, stop, change. Engage in positive habits, link bad to good behaviors. Double Habit, the new link weakens and helps break the old. Change neural circuits from closed loop to open loop. Tacking on additional neuron sequences, helps to notice the activation of neurons and then dismantle it. Remapping the neural circuits. Identify the thing you don't want to do, add on something you want to do that's easy to do.

Bad habits in addictive contexts need more work. Related to dopamine, another episode, with Dr. Ana Lembke.