Two simple strategies for breaking bad habits are creating friction and changing cues

Thursday, January 9th, 2020

Two simple strategies for breaking bad habits are creating friction and changing cues:

Physical distance is a simple source of friction. A 2014 study involved a bowl of buttered popcorn and a bowl of apple slices. One group of participants sat closer to popcorn than the apple slices, and the other sat closer to the apple slices. The first group ate three times more calories. The second group of participants could see and smell the popcorn, but the distance created friction, and they were less likely to eat it.


For example, researchers looked at the GPS data of people with gym memberships. Those who traveled about 3.7 miles to a gym went five or more times a month. However, those who had to travel around 5.2 miles went only about once a month.


Cues change naturally when you start new relationships, change jobs, or move. These offer a window of opportunity to act on your goals and desires without being dragged down by the cues that trigger your old habits.

For example, researchers found in a 2017 study that professional athletes whose performance had declined often improved after being traded to or signing with a new team. Another study found new residents of a small British town with strong environmental values mostly took the bus or cycled to work. But people who were not recent movers mostly drove even though they held similar values.

When cues change, it becomes easier to switch up your habits and routines.


  1. Lucklucky says:

    We all optimize and get corrupted in the process.

  2. Wang Wei Lin says:

    A good Honeycrisp apple over popcorn any day even if I have to rudely reach across the table. With that in mind, did the study adjust for personal preferences?

  3. On those cue changes — I used to work for a husband-wife team of computer science professors who owned their own legal services business. They had an amusing way to fend off the usual sales pitch by Buttigieg-type management consultants. They’d cite a study that had shown worker productivity increased when you turned up the lights for a brighter working environment — but also increased by the same amount when you turned the lights down to make things darker. None of the consultants were able to promise more productivity gains per dollar than the cost of a dimmer switch.

  4. Longarch says:

    If you enjoyed this post, you’ll probably enjoy reading Atomic_Habits by James Clear.

  5. Isegoria says:

    I haven’t read Atomic Habits yet, but I’ve read about Atomic Habits

  6. Kirk says:

    David Whitewolf,

    That’s actually a named and researched phenomenon, dubbed the “Hawthorne Effect”. It’s derived from studies done at the Hawthorne Works owned by Western Electric. The whole thing is fairly controversial among the interested academics, many of whom can’t quite bring themselves to believe that their observational efforts are skewing the studies.

    It’s an interesting deal… I’ve screwed around with it on a small scale, in leadership roles, and I’m convinced that there’s some element of reality to the whole thing, although I’d hesitate to try to define it. Key thing is, you need to be very, very careful when you’re setting these situations up, in order that the participants don’t have a damn clue what you’re doing, and so that your study efforts don’t tilt the whole thing in an undesired direction.

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