Anxiety Is a Habit – Harvard Business Review

MORRA AARONS-MELE: I’m Morra Aarons-Mele. And this is The Anxious Achiever. We look at stories from business leaders who’ve dealt with anxiety, depression, or other mental health challenges. How they felt down, how they pick themselves up and how they hope work can change in the future. Today, we’re talking about the bread and butter of our show, anxiety. That’s right. You love it. Look, it’s still a bit before the new year and all the resolutions, which we know don’t work. But it’s never a bad time to think about habits, why we do what we do, what is and isn’t healthy for us and what we can do to improve our lives. Later in the show, we’ll talk to journalists and author Charles Duhigg, who talks about habit loops, changing habits and interestingly, how habits relate with ADHD. But first Dr. Judson Brewer, who will call Jud. He is an addiction, psychiatrist, neuroscientist, and associate professor at the Brown University School of Public Health. He’s also written the book, Unwinding Anxiety and The Craving Mind. Here’s my conversation with Jud about how and why your anxiety might be a habit. And you’re worrying too. And why it’s a good jumping off point to reframe our anxieties. You literally write that anxiety hides in our habits, how?

JUDSON BREWER: Well unfortunately these last couple of years, we’ve seen that on steroids. So our survival brains, they are set up to help us avoid danger. And so when something is unpleasant, our brain says, “Ooh, that’s unpleasant. Let’s make that go as quickly as possible.” And so we do all sorts of things and anxiety is not pleasant. So when we’re anxious, our brain says, “Do something.” So we do a number of things. Typically, I see people they’ll distract themselves. So whether they’ll eat or they’ll drink alcohol or in my addiction clinic, I see a lot of folks who’ve turned to drugs when they’ve been anxious. People turn to social media, binge on Netflix. It’s a pretty long list that I’m sure to some degree, we all can relate to some aspect of it. But the irony is that it’s our survival brain saying, “Hey, I’m going to help you survive.” But that survival brain in the modern world, it wasn’t set up for endless scrolling on social media.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: So the habit comes in where, that our brain doesn’t like the discomfort of the anxious feeling, and then jumps in with a solution, where is the habit loop of the anxiety?

JUDSON BREWER: So any habit is formed in a three step process. It really, it takes a trigger or a cue and then a behavior. And then from a brain perspective, a reward. So for example, anxiety’s unpleasant. So that could be the cue. The behavior could be to eat, to go on social media, even to worry. So the behavior can be physical, like eating. It could also be mental like worrying. And one of the biggest habit loops around anxiety is worry. S the physical feeling of anxiety is the cue. The mental behavior is worrying. And what some research has shown is at worrying tends to make people feel like they’re in control, even if they’re not, or at least doing something, even if they don’t have control over a situation, doing something feels more productive than not doing anything. Just sitting there waiting for whatever to happen, to happen. It’s rewarding to our brain to say, “Hey, you’re worrying. At least you’re doing something.” And that reward feeds back and tells our brain, “Hey, next time you’re anxious, you should worry some more.” And that’s how anxiety gets set up as a habit. Now I’m going to mention, I never learned this in medical school or residency. This was something that took me, serendipity basically, because I was studying habit change in my lab where we were looking at helping people quit smoking and change overeating habits. And it was only when somebody in our… We had this mindful eating app and somebody was using it in saying, “Hey, anxiety triggers my stress eating.” And she said, “Can you create a program for anxiety?” And I was thinking, I prescribe medications for anxiety, but it turns out that medications unfortunately are not as good as we’d like them to be. It takes for every five patients that I prescribe a medication to, only one of them shows the significant in reduction in symptoms. So it was born out of a need, like my own anxiety with helping my patients with their anxiety. It turns out if we approach these mental behaviors, whether a medication works or not, everybody can benefit from learning how their mind works and working with their mind.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Why does worrying feel productive to our brains?


MORRA AARONS-MELE: Because it does, I can relate to that.


MORRA AARONS-MELE: At least if I’m worrying, I’m coming up with some ideas. I feel like I’m problem solving. I’m doing something.

JUDSON BREWER: Yes. So the doing something is the key piece here. And then there’s also this fallacy of correlation that our brain assumes is causation. And what I mean by that is we could be worrying. We could come up with a solution, but it doesn’t mean that the worrying caused us to come up with a solution. And there’s plenty of research showing when we worry, we actually narrow our focus, where we can’t actually think creatively. We can’t put ourselves in growth mindset to think, Hmm, what’s the best way to solve this. And so we worry, we get narrowed. It actually turns our planning part of the brain off. So it’s harder to think plan, yet occasionally we do come up with a solution and we assume it’s because we worried just because we were worrying at the time. There’s that correlation. Oh yeah, I worried. And it happened. But there’s no good evidence to show that there’s a causal effect between worry and coming up with solutions. In fact, it’s more the opposite.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: That’s too for interesting. Where do you stand on… One of the concepts we’ve talked about on the show is defensive pessimism, right? Where you sort of get accustomed to worrying and you think that if you don’t worry and if you don’t assume things are going to be bad, then they will be bad. So you better worry that they’re going to be bad as a protective measure. Is that part of the habit that we get ourselves into? I

JUDSON BREWER: I think that can be one of them where if I’m understanding what you’re saying, it’s, we think of, oh, that bad thing could happen and then the bad thing does happen. And then we can say, “there’s some reward to saying, yeah, I told you so to ourselves and to other people.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Right. Or we feel like our job is the worrier. So like if we are for the worst, maybe it won’t happen. And then we learn that we always have to prepare for the worst.

JUDSON BREWER: Yes. So there too, I think we can differentiate preparing and planning from worry. And certainly it’s helpful to prepare, certainly thinking of all the worst case scenarios and what the probabilities are, is a limiting at, at a point where, okay, this has a 0.001% chance of happening, but I’m still going to plan for it, right. So we can look through the possibilities. It’s going to cover most of our bases, plan for those things. But none of that requires worrying. That’s something we can all explore in our own experience to see if our brain is falsely making that causal connection. I need to worry in order to plan it. We can do the opposite experiment. We can plan and not worry and see one, which one is more taxing on us emotionally and physically because it’s like turning our car on and just slamming on the gas in neutral when we’re worrying, right. It doesn’t really get us anywhere, but it certainly uses a lot of fuel. And compare that to what it’s like to simply plan without the worrying.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Oh my God. I love that. I really, I want to try that. I was also thinking about people who are perfectionistic or maybe overpreparers as a way of hopefully, it’s almost an enactment of the worry. Like if I only spend 20 hours on this report, that really I need only spend five on, like my boss cannot not like it and bad things won’t happen, right. And then they get the habit of overwork. They get the habit of perfectionism.

JUDSON BREWER: Absolutely. I think somebody should make a t-shirt that imperfect is the new perfect. And what that highlights is what you’re saying is if we actually overwork ourselves and burnout, there’s going to be a point where we can’t actually be as good at our jobs. And so if we can find that sweet spot where we do a good enough job, which for most of us, is a fine job for our bosses or whatever, our bosses are going to be much happier. If we are not burnt out, if we’ve got the bandwidth to do more projects as compared to do one project that is a 2% better quality than if we spent an extra 10 hours on it, we can look to see, could I take that 10 hours and use it elsewhere, including self care. And having a, I know it sounds crazy, like a work life balance, which [inaudible 00:10:01].


JUDSON BREWER: I know. I just throw it out there as a hypothetical.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: But I think it’s really cool. And I know curiosity is a big tool for your work. But the idea of saying, “I’m just going to try this approach. I’m going try not being worried. I’m going to try not being anxious maybe or not rewarding my anxiety with worry and see what happens.” It sounds like that that’s something that people can start with.

JUDSON BREWER: Absolutely. They can start with it. And I think, like you’re pointing out, I think of curiosity as a superpower. Curiosity can help us in a number of ways and it can even help us start to see when we’re in a rut of perfectionism for example, or worrying. And we can ask ourselves right in that moment, what feels better, worrying or being curious about mapping out this habit loop, for example. And then that curiosity can help us, because, oh for almost everybody they’re like, oh yeah. More curiosity, please. I’d rather be curious than worry. That curiosity can help us also approach just the complacency that comes… I shouldn’t say complacency, but the comfort that comes with just being familiar with something. So whenever we try something new, our brain says, “Hey, this is different. Is there danger out there?” And so new things can feel scary just because they’re unfamiliar. With the curiosity, I love this quote from James Stevens who says, “Curiosity will conquer fear even more than bravery will.” So here we can bring in curiosity and help our brains see, oh, this is just different. I’m going to try something new. It’s okay, assuming it isn’t dangerous, which generally, trying new things isn’t. So we can get in that mindset of bringing the curiosity in to not only help us move from comfort into our growth zone instead of our panic zone. But it can also help us see very, very clearly that these old habits that we’re comfortable with, like worrying are just really not that rewarding as compared to being curious and trying something else.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: So talk us through how we might approach applying curiosity when we’re triggered and anxious.

JUDSON BREWER: Great question. And I think of it as a three step process and the process starts with just first being aware of these worry habit loops. So if we’re not aware of them, we can’t work with them. So just being able to map out what’s the cue, what’s the behavior, what’s the result or what’s the cue or the behavior. So for example…

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Is that the trigger. Let’s use a workplace setting. So the cue or the trigger might be something, an email from my boss that I think is going to get me… That they’re mad at me or something like that. Like a trigger.

JUDSON BREWER: Perfect. Yeah. So we see an email from our boss and already our heart rate can go up without even looking at the subject line just because it’s from our boss. And so there, we can just start to map out, before we even open the email, we can just notice what we’re tending to do. So if that’s a trigger, oh, I see an email from my boss is my tendency to just start worrying, oh no, am I in trouble? Or are they going to ask me to do more work? Are they going to ask… Whatever. And then we can just map out what’s the result of the worrying? In that moment, what’s the trigger, what’s the behavior, what’s the result. That’s the first step. The second step is to simply ask ourselves, what am I getting from this behavior? So what am I getting from worrying? And we can drop in not intellectually, but really drop into our direct experience. What does it feel like to worry? Well, for most people, it doesn’t feel very good. The reason I say drop into our direct experience is because that’s really the only way to change a habit is through seeing very, very clearly how rewarding it actually is or isn’t. And so like we talked about earlier, our brain can think, oh, worrying is going to help me get things done or it’s going to problem solve or whatever. But if we really look at that closely and say, “Is that true?” So we pointed out, it’s not. It doesn’t help us solve problems. And what we do know is true is that that worry burns us out. It makes us feel more anxious. And so it feeds back and drives anxiety. If we can do that, that helps us start to become disenchanted with the worry itself, with the worrying process. And that’s critical because we can’t force ourselves to not worry. Otherwise my job would be easy as a psychiatrist, my patients would come and I would just say, “Stop worrying.” And they would stop.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Well, and also, we’re not trying to change the anxiety trigger at this point. Like we’re not trying to have you not read your email or not feel that way when you see your boss’s name.

JUDSON BREWER: Right. And I’m glad you highlight that because often people get stuck in these loops of trying to control or avoid triggers. For example, if we don’t read our boss’s email, probably other consequences are going to happen that are going to add to our anxiety, right? So real life is that we’ve got to deal with triggers. And the other piece is from a scientific point, I’m going to say this really clearly. Because some people they’re like, what? Triggers are the least important part of the equation. If we look at habit formation. Yeah, I’m going to say that again, triggers are the least important part of the equation. Triggers don’t drive habits. It’s actually how rewarding a behavior is. That’s why it’s called reward based learning. So something’s rewarding. We’re going to repeat it. If it’s not rewarding, we’re going to stop doing it. Notice how that has nothing to do with the trigger.


JUDSON BREWER: So that’s why the second step is so critical. And I’ll give a real world example. As I mentioned, my lab studies habit change around overeating. And so we developed this app called Eat Right Now. And we put this principle to the test where we said, okay instead of having people tell themselves to stop overeating, which everybody’s tried, we say, just pay attention as you overeat and notice how rewarding it is or not rewarding it is. And we can actually do all the mathematical model rolling around this and all that. But it only takes, are you ready for this, 10 to 15 times of somebody really paying attention as they overeat for that reward value to drop below zero and for them to start to shift that behavior. 10 to 15 times. So we’ve seen this in our clinical studies. We’ve also applied this with anxiety, where we have this unwinding anxiety app. And we actually literally were about to publish a study where we got a 67% reduction in anxiety, in people with generalized anxiety disorder. And the heart of that training is this three step process, map out the habit at loop around worrying, for example. Ask yourself, what am I getting from this? And then the third step is to bring in what I call the bigger better offer, the BBO. And that bigger better offer tends to come in two flavors. One is curiosity, so we can get curious. What does anxiety feel like as compared to worrying? And worrying versus curiosity to our brains it’s a no-brainer. Curiosity feels better. So in that moment, the curiosity not only feels better, it’s more rewarding. But it also helps us step out of that old worry habit loop. We can get curious, huh? What does this anxiety feel like in my body right now, as compared to worrying about the future. It keeps us present centered, right. What’s happening right now. And it helps us not feed that anxiety habit loop. So that’s the three step process.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: So I get the email, I feel the flutter in my stomach and the tightening in my chest and the urge. And I focus on asking myself questions about that versus going into the catastrophizing around, I’m going to get fired. Talk us through the literal moment by moment of that.

JUDSON BREWER: Yes, you’re on it. So we notice the email, like you’re saying, we notice what’s happening in our body. We might notice what thoughts are coming up. Am I worrying? Am I feeling contracted or am I feeling closed down? That tends to happen when people are anxious? And can we… I like to have people ask this simple question, where do I feel it most in my body? Is it on the right side? Is it on the left side? Is it in the front? Is it in the back? And what that does is it brings naturally brings up curiosity. Hmm, like where is it more? Is it in the front? Is it in the back? Is it on the right? Is it on the left? It doesn’t matter where it is. But what matters is that it brings up that natural capacity to be curious. And what it also does, it keeps us in that present moment. So that instead of, like you’re pointing out, instead of getting lost and catastrophizing, we’re just noticing, we’re getting curious. And what that can do is help us open to the experience. Maybe take a moment, maybe take a breath, take a deep breath and then calm down a little bit. And then we can open up that email. And when we open the email, we can be in a very different mindset. Instead of, oh no, it can be, oh, I wonder what email my boss is sending me. It’s really different than, oh no, my boss is emailing me, what’s wrong? Oh, I wonder what they’d like to communicate to me.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: I want to talk about rumination in a second, but first I have to ask you, you have this phrase, it’s called an anxiety necklace, that you write about, what is an anxiety necklace?

JUDSON BREWER: Well, I think of moments in our lives, all we have really is this present moment. But it is an informed by our past and our past, the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. So that past behavior is going to inform how we view the world in this moment and how we view the world in this moment is going to increase the likelihood that we see the world in the future, in a certain way. So here, I think of the anxiety necklace, is like these beads on a necklace. If life is these beads on a necklace, that every moment that we have, we could be adding a bead to that necklace. And if in this moment we’re anxious and we’re worrying, we’re adding this bead to our life necklace, that is an anxious bead, right. And that bead is going to influence the next bead that we put on the necklace, which is more likely to be an anxious bead. And so if we go through life worried, we are just building a life, building this anxiety necklace. In contrast, we can notice that step out of these anxiety habit loops and maybe add in notes of curiosity, notes of wonder, notes of connection, notes of kindness, notes of joy. And then suddenly we’ve got a very different necklace.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: So I had a guest on my show a couple weeks ago and we were talking about social anxiety and they’re pretty well known public professional speaker. And they said, “For me, it’s not the anticipating social anxiety of are people going to like me, is my speech going to fall flat? It’s the ruminating I do for hours after the event where I worry over and over again about how I sounded. And if I offended someone.” That really hit me and you write a lot about ruminating. First of all, I want to know why our brains ruminate. What is the purpose of rumination and then what have you learned in your work about how to break the ruminating habit?

JUDSON BREWER: Yeah, that’s a great question. And I’m not sure that I’ve got a great answer for why we ruminate. I think there have been debates forever. So if you think of rumination, the far end of rumination is depression, where somebody’s just stuck in this negative cycle. And people are still wondering like, how is depression evolutionarily, adaptive. And a lot of people say, it’s not. It’s like an appendix where our thinking and planning brain evolved for us to think into the future and remember the past as compared to just focus on whether we’re in danger right now, or focusing on getting food right now. And those pieces, if you think about that as the rumination tends to be, I think of it as R and R review and regret, where we get stuck in the story of me.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Mm-hmm (affirmative). And, and how bad I am.

JUDSON BREWER: Yes, exactly. So I’m not sure I haven’t found any evolutionarily adaptive feature to that. Maybe there are some other folks that study this more, that would have a good explanation for it. But I haven’t found one that’s convincing, yet interestingly, it shares a feature with worry and anxiety. So our brain, think of these stories, it tells stories to itself, the story of me. And that story could be about the past with rumination, or it could be about the future with worry or anticipation or anxiety. So both of those are the story of me. And both of those take us out of the present moment. Notice how they both also take away from the present in terms of, I think of them as likely being pretty maladaptive, whether we’re depressed or anxious, neither of those are ideal. We don’t aspire to more depression or more anxiety, and I’ll just put it that way.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: But is rumination a habit that we get ourselves into?

JUDSON BREWER: Yes, yes. It’s learned in the same way. I mean, I would say it’s learned probably in a very similar way to the same worry habit loop that we’ve talked about. It’s just past oriented subject matter can be slightly different, but the content is actually much less important than the process in terms of how the habits form.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Last question is about, I think that a lot of people, thank goodness, have a better awareness of what mindfulness is. But I think it makes a lot of people feel anxious. What do you say to someone who says, “The thought of mindfulness makes me anxious? The thought of meditation makes me anxious. I couldn’t possibly sit there with my thoughts.”

JUDSON BREWER: Yeah. I would say you are not alone. So mindfulness as a concept is… There are many ways that people think about mindfulness these days, especially the more popular it becomes. So it’s hard to know exactly what somebody has heard or what their understanding of the concept of mindfulness is. So here, I like to break it down to what the concrete components are and it’s really about awareness and curiosity. So if somebody says, oh, I have this… When I think about sitting down and meditating, that scares me. I can explore with them. Well, what is it that is scary, is it just the often people don’t feel like they have time. And so then they feel like… Just like exercise and eating healthy food, they should do that more. And then they shoot all over themselves, oh, I should eat, I should exercise, I should meditate because the research says that it’s good for me. So there can be yet another reason for somebody to beat themselves up. Just mapping that out. They can work with those self judgemental habit loops in the same way that we’ve talked about any other habits. And other thing is, it’s really helping people understand what the purpose of awareness and curiosity are. I think of mindfulness as a way to understand our minds. So if we can see our minds, if we just talk about habits, for example, which are, probably 95% of waking life or acting out some habit, so very relevant to most of life. But if you just take a habit perspective, I think of it as well, would I rather know that I’ve got a habit that’s not helping me flourish or would I rather not know? I don’t know, it can be scary to look in, to lean or turn toward, but at the end of the day, we all know that it’s even as scary as is in the moment. We can only avoid things so much. And so the more we can use the curiosity to gain the courage, to lean in, to turn toward, we can start to map out how our minds work. And so there I take it as… I say, “Oh, it’s about learning how our minds works. Do you want to know how your mind works?” And most people are like, “Yeah, I do want to know how my mind works.” Okay, well, let’s explore it. Map out habit loops. And often when people start mapping out their habit loops, they get so excited because one, they see how many they have and two, they can start to see how many of them are actually helpful. Walking is a helpful habit, knowing how to make coffee is a helpful habit, especially early in the morning. And so we can start to see how our brain has been really helpful for us. And then we can start to see the ones that tend to be noisy and get in the way of flourishing. And we can start to explore those like, oh, now I see that. And once we see… Knowing is half the battle as they say, or more than half, being able to see and map it out, gives people a lot of power to be able to then say, “Oh, well maybe I can work with this.” Especially knowing that they don’t have to try to force themselves to change a habit. That huge willpower thing is so overrated, and probably more myth than muscle. So here we can encourage people, don’t worry about doing anything, simply be curious. Ask yourself, what am I getting from this? And then when I say that, people are, oh yeah, I guess I can do that. And to [inaudible 00:28:10].

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Now continuing the discussion of habits, here is my conversation with Charles Duhigg, journalist and author of the book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. I wanted to get in touch because I was doing a bunch of online, nosing around, about managing productivity and keeping up your workflow when you have ADHD. And also when you have anxiety and depression, frankly, because as anyone who’s out there, who’s had anxiety and depression knows your brain is a little like an ADHD brain and that concentrating, paying attention, being productive is challenging, right?


MORRA AARONS-MELE: And so I wanted to hear what you’ve learned in the time since you’ve written The Power of Habit and what you’ve heard from readers and clinicians and your own life in using the book to manage a sort of brain that feels a little out of control.

CHARLES DUHIGG: Sure. Absolutely. And I should say, I don’t have ADHD. And so I don’t want to be presumptuous about the challenges and the opportunities that that presents. But I can absolutely talk about what I’ve heard from readers and sort of how I use some of these lessons to think about managing my own mind because of course, even folks without ADHD, I think spend a lot of time getting pulled in directions that they wish that they weren’t being pulled in. The truth of the matter is that everyone has habits, right. Whether you’re spending a lot of time trying to deal with clinical issues around that, or whether you’re someone who just thinks about their habits and cares about their own behavior. One of the things that we know is that about 40 to 45% of what we do every day is a habit. Even though we might think of it as a decision, what’s actually happening is that there’s a part of our brain known as the basal ganglia that exists. Every animal on earth has a basal ganglia. And it’s really important to evolution because this is the part of the brain that’s devoted to creating habits. And those habits allow us to basically, evolve and be productive human beings. It means that when we’re walking down the trail or ancestors were, and we saw a rock and an apple, we didn’t have to think really hard about which one to eat. And even today it’s how we get to work and drive the car without having to concentrate really hard on how to drive the car and what exit to take. And we can instead of thinking about the meeting that we have coming up.


CHARLES DUHIGG: So habits are, are essential for everyone, regardless of how they think.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Well, let’s start with the basics. What is a habit?

CHARLES DUHIGG: So a habit is essentially a decision you made at some point, and then you stop making that decision, but continue acting on it, right. So when you back your car out of the driveway and you’re able to do it without having to concentrate too hard, that’s because that behavior has become a habit. Or when you tell your spouse, “I’m going to have a healthy salad for lunch today.” And you walk into the cafeteria at lunchtime, and you go buy that unhealthy sandwich that you get every single day. And it almost feels like you’re doing it without thinking about it. Like you somehow managed to convince yourself to forget what you said to your spouse that morning. That’s a habit. And what we know is that we tend to think of a habit as one thing, but there’s actually three components to a habit. And this is the big insight that’s come from a lot of work in neuroscience over the last couple of decades. Every habit has this three parts. There’s a cue, which is like a trigger for an automatic behavior to start. And then the routine, which is the behavior itself, what we think of as the habit. And then finally, there’s a reward. Every habit in your life delivers a reward to you, whether you’re aware of it or not. And this insight has become pretty important. Because that’s what’s known as a habit loop, that there’s this cue, routine, reward and that as these things become sort of chunked together in our brain, that is what encourages automaticity and automatic behavior, and then makes that behavior feel like you do it unthinkingly.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: I want to talk about changing, but first I have a question about the reward because it seems really unfair that our brains… Like when I was thinking about a lot of our [inaudible 00:32:33] bad habits, right. Our reward is very instant, but it’s not long lasting. Like that drink tastes amazing, but you might wake up with a hangover afterwards. Is there a time limitation to the reward? Does our brain differentiate that at all?

CHARLES DUHIGG: Well, no, except that our brain tends to… Because this process happens almost subconsciously, right. Our brains are designed to try and turn everything that it can into a habit. And so when there is a reward that is delivered quickly, that reward tends to be more powerful than a reward that comes over time. So drinking is a great example, right. I’m at a bar and I’m with friends and my brain knows that if I have that beer, it’s going to help me relax. And I know that if I’m relaxed, I’m an easier conversationalist. I get into the flow more easily. And so I’ve got a reward that’s dangling five minutes away versus a negative reward or punishment, which is the next morning that I’m going to feel groggy and bad. And our brain very rationally decides that a quick arriving reward seems more valuable than a reward that’s far off into the future. And again, this is important, right. Because our brain’s evolved basically to help us make decisions very, very quickly in situations where there might be danger or our lives might be at stake. So deciding really quickly whether to pick up that rock or that apple and which one to put in my mouth, that’s a pretty important decision. Because if you put the rock in your mouth, you’re going to have some difficult times with it. Or if you’re an animal in the forest and there’s a noise nearby, you have seconds to decide whether you should flee or you should freeze or you should fight back. And so our brain very naturally has evolved to prioritize rewards that come quickly over rewards that are longer to arrive. Now for humans, one of the really nice things for us is that we have the ability to intervene. We have the ability to say like, “Look, actually, if I drink that beer right now, I’m going to feel to terrible tomorrow. And I have an important meeting tomorrow. And so I’m going to forego the drink.” But we’re using a different part of our brain when we do that. We’re using the prefrontal cortex and part of understanding your own habits is figuring out ways to pull the mental activity from the basal ganglia, from these old evolutionary parts of our brain into the more recent parts, the prefrontal cortex, where we make decisions so that we can decide to prioritize the long term reward over the short term reward. And obviously humans do this all the time. We’re really, really good at it. It’s one of the reasons why humans have survived and succeeded as a species.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Yes. Except that, and something I talk a lot about on the show, is how, especially anxiety, depression, they can really cloud you and flood you. And so the good decisions that you might make if you are in a different mood are harder to make when there’s an extra impetus driving you for that drink, which is that you just feel bad.

CHARLES DUHIGG: That’s right. So one of the things that we know is that the most tempting reward is a relief from tension, right.


CHARLES DUHIGG: Yeah, absolutely. Our brain of abhors tension and tension is a pretty broad concept. So when you’re feeling bored, that’s a form of tension, right. That’s why people go and all of a sudden go down like an Instagram hole for 30 minutes is because they’re bored at work. When you’re feeling anxious, that’s a form of tension. When you’re feeling depressed, that’s a form of tension, right. You have this negative nagging feeling that… It isn’t necessarily if it’s a mild depression, it’s not enough to ruin everything for you. But you feel this kind of negative presence that is a form of tension. And our brain hates tension. It will do many, many things that are bad for us in order to escape tension. And so one of the things that’s really powerful is to recognize that when you are in a tense state and again, tense, doesn’t just mean that your shoulders are noded up and sort of near your ears. But rather when you are in a state where you feel less than optimal, where you feel less than positive, that it’s going to be easier to justify a short term reward because your brain is going to look for things that will relieve that tension, whether it be having a cigarette or going online or eating something unhealthy. And it’s going to say, “Look, I can relieve the tension right now. If I just do this thing, no matter how bad it is for me over the long term.” And so it’s really, really important that when we’re in that state of tension to recognize that and say, “Actually I might not make, my instincts might not be the best choice for me right now, but that’s okay. I need to set aside and not listen to my instincts.” Or to say, “I’m actually feeling tense right now. I’m feeling bored or I’m feeling upset, or I’m feeling anxious. If I can find something to relieve that tension, then it’ll make me crave less the cigarette or the drink, or the Instagram.”

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Let’s talk about the habits and how you change them or create new ones, right. Because one of your big points is that we can’t end habits for good. Our habits are sort of there. We can only offer a new routine, right?

CHARLES DUHIGG: So in general, once the neural pathways associated with a habit or in our brain, they’re very difficult to extinguish, right. What happens within your brain is that the neural pathways that associate a cue, a routine and a reward, they become thicker with more use. And as they become thicker, it’s easier for an electrical impulse to travel down that pathway and make that habit occur. And so simply saying like, I wish that that pathway disappeared, that does not mean that that pathway is going to disappear. Now with willpower, you can say, “I’m going to ignore that pathway. I’m going to do something that’s a little bit harder, takes a little bit more thought and is healthier for me.” And that’s great. Like people have willpower, but oftentimes our willpower is like a muscle. The more we use it, the more tired it can become. And so at those moments, when we’re feeling tense, at those moments when we’re feeling tired, at those moments when we feel like we just need a break, that’s when our willpower is weakest. And we might fall back on that old habit, right. When your mother-in-law comes to town, when you’ve had a bad day, when you’re really bored and you know that you should be working on something, that old habit will come into play. So what’s known within psychology is the golden rule of habit change, which says, “Instead of thinking about extinguishing a habit, breaking a bad habit, what you should focus on instead is trying to change that habit.” Because if you take advantage of the neural pathway that already exists, if you say, “Look, here’s a cue that triggers this automatic behavior, and I know that I’m going to crave this certain reward. Let me find a new behavior that corresponds to that old cue that delivers something similar to that old reward.”Then if I can just adjust to that habit a little bit, change that habit, not nudge the neural pathway over to the side a little bit, it’s going to be much easier to do that because instead of trying to extinguish a habit, I’m going to be replacing it with a new behavior.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Right. And that is the key.

CHARLES DUHIGG: That makes things a lot easier, research and scientific studies show that that approach is more likely to change your behavior than simply saying, “I’m just going to extinguish this old habit and hope that my willpower is strong enough to get me through the tough moments.”

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Right. So I will to shift a little bit and explore the link between habits and mental health. Your work in The Power of Habit has really, it seems to be taken on a real life online with ADHD coaches, people who have ADHD, clinicians, as well as psychologists and people who are therapists working with folks with in anxiety and depression. And so I wanted to give everyone some advice, because right now it is very hard when you are feeling anxious for whatever reason, burnt out, right. Because burnout is also about inattention and lack of productivity and lack of efficacy that maybe you used to feel. I think a lot more people are sort of having this more, where they’re sitting in front of their computer and being like, “I’m just going to check Instagram because I really can’t work.” Right. Or not being able to complete a task. So I wanted to dive in a little bit and ask you, first of all, I know you’re not a clinician. And so I’m not going to ask you to medically define anything, but why is building habits a good defense against the downsides of either having ADHD and having a hard time paying attention or being anxious, depressed, or burnt out and having a really hard time being productive and getting through the day?

CHARLES DUHIGG: Well, the nice thing about habits is that they happen automatically, right. So if you think about burnout, if you think about depression, as we were just talking about, a lot of burnout comes from trying to use your willpower muscle constantly. And if you have to do that, as I mentioned, it gets tired over time and it just feels re really unpleasant. Imagine when you go and you… Me and my wife run half marathons. So it’s like nothing worse after a half marathon than walking back to my hotel or my home after running this long race. Because you get to the end of the race, you’re like, you feel great. You’ve just ran a little bit over 13 miles. And then you like cross the finish line and you get your medal and they give you like a banana [inaudible 00:42:21] and you put on like space blanket to help you. And your body cools down. And you’re sore. And then you’re like talking to your friends and you’re feeling great. And then you have to walk like half of my mile back to wherever you parked your car. And that half a mile walk is awful because you’re cold and you’re miserable and your legs hurt. And all you really want to do is just like sit down and enjoy, right. And so burnout is kind of like that half mile walk where you you know that you’re not going to get any reward for it, right. It’s just going to kind of hurt. What you really want is you just want it to be over, but you got to walk the half mile. You can’t just lay down on the street and be like, I’m done now. I’m not going to do it anymore. And so when you think about what it’s like in a work day for people experiencing burnout, what they do is it’s not that they’re burnt out all the time. It’s that they just ran a half marathon and now they have to walk another half mile at the end of the day. And if you never get a chance to rest, then every single step feels like that last half mile, right. If I work a full day and I get stuff done and then I go home and then I have more work to do at home and then I fall asleep and I have dreams about work. And then I wake up the next morning and I rush into the office. I never get a chance to let my muscles relax and to enjoy having run the half marathon. And so as soon as I get to my desk, I feel like every step is walking the half mile and instead of a half mile, it’s like, I’ve got eight hours in front me, right. And so what’s really important is that, how do you overcome that? Well, the best way to overcome that is that when I walk that half mile, if I don’t have to think about walking the half mile, if for instance, it’s just like something that happens automatically. And I get to focus on how nice it’s going to be to take a shower when I get home. If it becomes more automatic, which is what happens when you run races, this is eventually that half mile stops hurting because you’ve already thought about it. It’s already baked in. You don’t even think about the half mile as you’re walking home. You’re reflecting on like the nice shower you’re going to take. It makes that half mile, much easier to walk. And so that’s why habits are so powerful is because we don’t have to use our willpower muscle when we’re in the grip of a habit. A habit is something that actually happens. It’s like the cherry on top that happens without us having to use willpower, without us having to exert energy to make ourselves do it. And so that’s why for people who are acing burnout, who are facing challenges at work, around organizing their thoughts, that’s why habits can be so powerful.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: That makes sense to me, but talk us through, okay, so I’m burnt out and I’m probably depressed. I’ve been through a lot during this pandemic. I have three kids screaming. This is the hypothetical me, not the real me. And I haven’t had a good vacation, blah, blah, blah. And I’m sitting at my desk, and I cannot, I just cannot. And then I get an email. My boss wants me to review this document by three o’clock. And I know that I have an hour ahead of me of like real cognitive work. My brain actually has to turn on, what can I do? How can I switch this?

CHARLES DUHIGG: Well, okay. So let me ask you. So it’s the end of the day and you’re feeling this way and you’re burnt out. So here’s my question, what options do you have available to you? Can you take a short break?

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Well, it’s a deadline. I have like an hour and 20 minutes to get this done.


MORRA AARONS-MELE: But yes, I could take a five minute break.

CHARLES DUHIGG: Yeah. So I think that’s the question is that if you can take a five minute break, recognizing that taking that five minute break actually means that you’re going to be more productive over the remaining time that you have left is really valuable, right. But then the next question becomes, how do you make a five minute break just a five minute break?


CHARLES DUHIGG: Right. Because I think the problem isn’t that you’re not going to take a five minute break. The problem is that if you take a five minute break and it ends up being a 25 minute break, then you’re in a bad place.


CHARLES DUHIGG: So the first step is recognizing what the potential problems or pitfalls you can fall into are, and accommodating them. Instead of saying like, “I’m going to sit, I’m going to spend five minutes and I’m going to use my willpower to make myself stop looking on the internet or on Facebook after five minutes.” Come up with some way to make that easier for yourself. So maybe the answer isn’t going on Facebook for five minutes, maybe the answer is getting up and walking around the block, because you know it’s going to take five minutes to walk around the block. And it’s not like you’re going to walk around the block and then be like, “Oh man, I just can’t stop. I’m going to keep walking.” You’re back at your desk. You’re back at your office. You’re going to sit down at your desk. So part of the problem that people have is that they want to deny that they have these tendencies. And so they’ll say, “Okay, I’m just going to power through this. I’m going to make myself work.” When what they should be saying is like, “You know what? I need a break.” And if I’m going to be honest with myself, a break is going to make me more productive. But in order to take that break, I need to protect against what I know is the drawback. And the drawback is that it’s really hard to stop the break. So instead I’m going to create this break in a way that it’s easier to stop. I’m going to acknowledge what my weakness is and plan for that weakness rather than pretending that that weakness doesn’t exist.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: And do I give myself a reward at the end of handing in the document?

CHARLES DUHIGG: Yeah. That would be really important, right. So what we know is that if you choose a reward for yourself, it’s going to be easier to do that task and it’s going to be easier to avoid the burnout around that task, right. Yeah. So let’s take for instance, exercise, because this is where a lot of the research has been done. So one of the ways that we know that it’s really useful for people to start a new exercise habit is that they choose in advance what cue is going to activate the exercise and what rewards are going to give themselves afterwards. Decide ahead of time, I’m going to put my running clothes next to my bed or I’m going to meet my friend at the gym every Wednesday night. Choose your cue. And then when you’re done, have decided ahead of time what reward you’re going to give yourself and let yourself really enjoy that reward. A nice long shower or a smoothie or whatever it is, right. Now think about how most people, however, start an exercise habit. You wake up one day and you say, “Okay, today’s the day, I’m going to go running. And so you force yourself through willpower to put on your running clothes and get out the door. And so you get out the door and then you come home and you’re running a little bit late after going for the run. So you take a shower as fast as you can. And you’re feeling kind of anxious and your kids don’t have enough breakfast. And so you give them breakfast and then you jump in the car and you take your kids to the school, you drop them off. And then you rush to your office. Now you’re at your desk and you’re sweaty and you’re 10 minutes late. And so you jump right into your emails. What you’ve effectively done is you’ve punished yourself for exercise in that morning and your brain will pay attention to that punishment. Your brain will say like, “I don’t want to make exercise easier. I keep on punishing myself for it.” So the key is come up with a reward for whatever task you’re trying to do. And then let yourself actually enjoy that reward. Do not punish yourself for doing a task by just going on to the next task and doing the next hard thing because your brain pays attention to what you reward yourself for and what you punish yourself for. And it’s going to make the things that are rewarding easier to do.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: So this just blew my mind a little bit because I had an allegory moment when you were talking through the exercise which I think is applicable to so many people who are working from home right now, right. Who are knowledge workers, which is that we don’t reward task completion. We just dive right back into email and slack and keep working more, right. Or we stop working because our brain can’t concentrate, but it’s like running to the gym and feeling anxious about it, right. We can’t leave work behind because we haven’t properly acknowledged the work that we did. Does that make sense?

CHARLES DUHIGG: No, absolutely. Absolutely. So one of the things that a lot of… I live in California, so I talk to a lot of people in the tech industry. One of the things that people in the tech industry do, which I think is really healthy, I’ve noticed it’s like this trend, is that they’ll have a to-do list, right. On one side of a note card or a piece of paper, they’ll have the list of things that they want to get done that day. And on the back of that list throughout the day, they will write their done list, right. So instead of just crossing things off, when they finish a task, whether it’s on the to-do list or not, they write on the back of that piece of paper, what they did that day. And I think the reason why is because you get a little sense of accomplishment from writing that down. But it also means at the end of the day, they can say to themselves, “Here’s what I got accomplished today.” Right. It was a tough day and I worked really hard, but actually here’s all the things I got accomplished. Now, normally I can’t remember all the things I got accomplished in a day, right. Like half the things I do, I do and then I just jump onto the next thing. I don’t even acknowledge it. But somehow reminding yourself what you’ve gotten done and giving yourself a chance to say, “You know what, I deserve a beer tonight. Because I got all these things on the back of my list done.”

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Have there been any readers or people who have come back to you and highlighted powers of habit that have helped them manage ADHD during the work day that you could share?

CHARLES DUHIGG: I think that when I hear from readers who have ADHD, what they talk about is they talk about trying to decide which parts of their day deliberately, which parts of their day they want to habitualize making the habits and which parts they want to make things that they think about. And this isn’t true just of people with ADHD, right. This is what successful people do in general. But I do think that in general, people with ADHD that this is very, very powerful is to say, look, instead of spending my entire day, trying to force myself to think about this question and this question and this decision and that decision, I’m going to decide ahead of time, which things I’m just going to put on an autopilot and which things I’m going to make a priority. Because I know that the more decisions I make, the more I try and push myself, the more my willpower muscle’s going to get exhausted. The more exhausted I’m going to get. And so for instance, let’s take lunch again, right. I’m just going to decide, and I do this for instance, when it comes to lunch, I get whatever I want. I’ve just decided making a decision about lunch is not enough of a priority for me that I’m going to prioritize it. I want to save that decision making power for other things. The President Obama, when he became president, one of the things that he did is that he insisted on having the same suit for almost every single day because he knew that the job of being a president is decision making. And he did not want to burden his brain with any necessary decisions. So he wore the exact same suit every single day. He had like 30 versions of the same shirt, same pants, same tie, same jacket. Because that way he did not have to make a decision about what to do in the morning. He saved that decision, making power for things that really matter. And I think when I’ve spoken to folks with ADHD, what they’ve said is I’ve used this insight in this book to try and figure out which part of my day I want to make in a habit. And then once I act on that habit, I’m not going to beat up on myself. I’m not going to give it a second thought. I’m not going to worry about it. I’m going to choose where to spend my time making decisions and where to just let the habit take over.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: That’s it for today’s show. Thank you to my producer, Mary Dooe, thanks to the team at HBR. I’m grateful to our guests for sharing their experiences and truths. For you our listeners, who ask me to cover certain items and keep the feedback coming, please do send me feedback. You can email me, you can leave a message on LinkedIn for me, or tweet me @Morraam. And if you love the show, tell your friends, subscribe and leave a review. From HBR Presents, this is Morra Aarons-Mele.