How to Build a Habit Lab: A Guide to Scientifically Re-engineering Your Behaviour

Trust me, I’m an alcoholic.

Joan Westenberg
17 min readSep 29, 2023
Photo by Lala Azizli on Unsplash

We all have habits we wish we could break or positive behaviours we aspire to make second nature. I’ve tried and failed many times to wake up early or stick to a fitness routine. But the one area where I have found success is in recovery.

Let me put it bluntly.

I am an alcoholic.

A raging, unpredictable, self-destructive and obnoxious alcoholic.

I am a gin for breakfast kind of alcoholic with a penchant for pushing away everyone I care about.

And I have been sober now for 4, going on five years.

When I broke the habit, I broke it for good.

Why am I telling you this?

Because you need to know that when I talk about habits, I come from a place of knowledge; it’s a dark, messy, nasty place with $4 happy hour shots and wine bags.

And you need to know that when I say habits can be made and patterns can be broken — it’s based on fact and experience.

Our brains are wired to conserve effort by encoding frequent behaviours into automatic habits. While this mechanism helps us get through daily routines efficiently, it can also work against our self-improvement.

My goal for this article is simple. I’m not here to give you hacks or shortcuts to increase productivity. Enough books have been written on that topic going back through decades of pop business and pop psychology bullshit.

I want to provide research-backed insights into how habits form and offer practical strategies to rewire your habit loops. We’ll dive deep into the science behind behaviour change, analysing critical studies and models. You’ll learn counterintuitive lessons that challenge conventional wisdom on achieving goals. I’ll share thought-provoking perspectives from psychology, neuroscience and social sciences. Understanding the hidden forces that drive our actions allows us to gain self-mastery and live more purposefully.

We’ll cover concepts that can apply to simple everyday habits like phone usage and addictions to alcohol, drugs or pornography. These powerful compulsions can seem impossible to overcome. However, the same habit formation principles apply, requiring more structure and support. I want to arm you with empathy and techniques to replace unwanted behaviours with conscious, positive habits.

This journey requires radical self-honesty, tenacity and compassion. There will be setbacks amid progress. By internalising research-backed insights, we can get back on track after stumbling. With the proper understanding and tools, you can master your behaviours.

How do you build a habit lab?

Hold up.

We’re not quite there yet.

Part I: The Science of Habits and Addiction

Habits rule a large part of our waking lives. Estimates suggest that over 40% of our daily actions are performed automatically, without conscious thought. I don’t know if I believe that; I’d bet the actual number is even higher.

This equates to around nine hours of habit-driven behaviour daily. Want to talk about evolution? The brain’s ability to encode repetitive tasks into habits developed as a survival mechanism — allowing us to multi-task and reduce effort. And survive marauding creatures of the night.

This mechanism underpins modern society, enabling us to get ready in the mornings, interact with our inlaws while preserving a degree of sanity or drive a car without intense focus. However, we often operate on autopilot even with behaviours that don’t serve our well-being or goals. Without awareness, we fall into ruts powered by unconscious habit loops.

Charles Duhigg introduced the habit loop model in his bestselling book The Power of Habit. This three-part process consists of:

1) Cue — a trigger for the habit, either external or internal

2) Routine — the actual habit or behaviour performed

3) Reward — the satisfaction or relief we get from the habit

Let’s understand this with a real example. My habit loop when I feel stressed is:

1) Cue — Feeling overwhelmed and anxious (internal trigger)

2) Routine — Eating sugary snacks and doomscrolling on my phone. Mostly because I can’t shoot straight vodka in the shower anymore.

3) Reward — Temporary distraction and pleasure from the sugar and apps

Neurologically, habits form through the strengthening of connections between regions of our brain — specifically the prefrontal cortex, where cues arise; the basal ganglia, where routines are encoded; and the brain’s reward centre.

Repeating a habit loop causes neurons in the basal ganglia to fire together, wiring the loop into our neural circuitry. Over time, the routine behaviour becomes automatic, bypassing conscious thought. This enables the habit to occur efficiently with minimal effort or willpower.

Research reveals there are key differences in the brain activity of habitual versus non-habitual behaviors. A 2007 fMRI study found basal ganglia activation decreased as tasks became practiced and habitual. This shows habit routines are shifter to more subconscious parts of the brain.

Understanding this neuroscience helps explain why habits feel compulsory and get activated before we consciously decide to act. Shifting engrained neural pathways requires retraining our brains through self-awareness and new practices.

Addictions operate through similar habit loop mechanisms but with more severe consequences. Substance addictions or behavioural compulsions like gambling involve potent rewards of a dopamine high. The addictive substance or activity triggers a surge of feel-good neurotransmitters, conditioning an automatic and harmful habit loop.

Over time, the dopamine released by the addictive behaviour can rewire the brain’s reward system. A landmark 1996 study revealed that rodents given unrestricted cocaine self-administered it compulsively until death, choosing it over food. This morbidly intriguing outcome illustrates the intense grip addictive routines can assume through hijacking our neurochemistry.

Addictions require structured treatment plans and social support for breaking habit loops. But the core cues and rewards driving all habits operate through shared mechanisms. With understanding and committed practice, we can master even our most stubborn compulsions.

Part II: Modifying Habits — Research-Backed Strategies

Here’s the good news: there are proven techniques to modify habit loops by replacing unhealthy routines with constructive alternatives. I should know. After a decade of hiding my drinking and doing my damndest to destroy myself, they’re the only reason I’m still alive.

The first step is raising self-awareness through mindful observation. Note your daily habits without judgment for one week — the triggers, actions and satisfaction obtained. Simply seeing our unconscious patterns is revelatory.

Next, identify one habit you want to change. Define the specific routine you’ll substitute. Don’t tackle everything at once or set vague goals like “eating healthy.” Small successes build momentum.

The journey toward positive habit formation often benefits from starting small. The concept of Kaizen encourages gradual progress through tiny sustainable changes. Research on the psychology of goals shows that we often fail at drastic changes due to unrealistic expectations. Frustration then causes us to abandon new behaviours when we inevitably stumble.

Adopting micro habits leverages the consistency of our basal ganglia. The Japanese principle of Kaizen focuses on continuous 1% daily improvements. This compounds into remarkable progress over months and years. Embrace incremental gains, knowing significant change emerges from sustained tiny actions.

Another proven approach is habit stacking — anchoring a new behaviour to an existing routine. BJ Fogg’s Tiny Habits method advises tying a desired pattern, like 15 minutes of meditation, to a daily behaviour, like your morning coffee.

Our brains love cues that activate automated pathways. Neurologically, this habit of stacking links a new routine with an engrained one by pairing their cues. The ingrained habit provides a reliable preceding action to pile the new behaviour onto. This builds in the consistency essential to forming addictions.

Environmental and social prompts can encourage habit formation. Strategically placing objects like yoga mats or healthy snacks where you’ll see them daily can act as visual cues. And sharing your intentions with a supportive community — whether it’s a Discord server or the immediate micro-community of your partner and friends — ties your identity to new behaviours.

On the flip side, identify and avoid habit temptation cues like visiting the cafe that triggers an afternoon sugar craving. Limit exposure to disrupt your default programming.

The frequent use of positive reinforcement can also boost habit forming. Studies on operant conditioning show that rewards for completed routines strengthen the cue-behavior connection. Simple forms of support like pride in tracking progress or celebrations of milestones can go a long way.

First, identify your unique cues and routines through self-observation to break engrained negative habits. Know the emotional or situational triggers that activate your unwanted habit loop. Typical examples are stress, boredom, loneliness or fatigue.

Next, the key is substituting your habitual routine with positive or neutral behaviour when the cue arises. This avoids the unwanted reward, which strengthens the counterproductive habit.

Example? Visualise this: going for a walk rather than raiding the fridge when you feel bored at night. I know, groundbreaking, right? But it’s not bullshit. Research shows replacement habits have higher success rates than trying to resist triggers through willpower alone. Substituting retrains the neural pathway to deliver a new reward.

Practices like mindfulness and cognitive defusion — distancing from our thoughts — are also helpful tools. Meditation helps notice habit loop cues objectively as they arise. Cognitive techniques reduce the power of those emotional triggers. A 2005 study revealed that cognitive defusion weakened the implicit associations underlying smoking addiction.

Seeking social support adds accountability and motivation through the habit change journey. Research emphasises that surrounding ourselves with positive communities dramatically increases the odds of overcoming bad habits long-term. Finding role models who have achieved our aspirations demonstrates it’s possible and offers guidance.

Finally, be compassionate with yourself through the ups and downs. Our brains evolved over millions of years — ingrained neural pathways don’t shift overnight. Expect plateaus and backsliding. Self-criticism only activates our habit loop’s emotional cues. I don’t want to sound like a hippy, but – progress flows from self-love.

Part III: The Neuroscience of Willpower — Why Habits Beat Motivation

We’ve covered effective habit change strategies; let’s investigate why sheer motivation and willpower often fail us. Why do our brains sabotage the fuck out of our goals and destroy the would-be habits that we know, logically, are healthy for us?

The compelling neuroscience of willpower reveals why habits automate behaviours our conscious mind can’t sustain.

Let’s debunk the myth that healthier people have more self-discipline. That’s what Instagram influencers and Masculinity coaches want you to believe. But it has nothing to do with the complex reality of being a human in the modern world. Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal argues that this assumption causes stress and shame without improving habits. She cites experiments indicating willpower is a finite mental resource depleted by daily demands. It’s a mind-body response, not a mark of moral virtue.

In one study, subjects tasked with resisting sweets later performed poorly on self-control challenges, a state dubbed ego depletion. Willpower draws on the brain’s limited glucose and cognitive bandwidth. After exerting this strength, further self-restraint becomes difficult.

This explains why attempting multiple resolutions often ends in abandoning them all. For instance, simultaneously vowing to rise early, stop drinking, and get shredded at the gym. Our brains can only handle so much conscious intent and energy. Too much taxes our mental reserves.

Attempting drastic 180-degree habit shifts also commonly fails for this reason. Say you’ve eaten fast food multiple times a week for years. Suddenly, resolving to adopt a super-clean diet overnight is likely unsustainable. Depletion quickly leads to reverting to the familiar, habitual behaviour.

Neuroimaging studies confirm that willpower involves conscious self-regulation by the prefrontal cortex. Maintaining motivation relies on limited cognitive resources. Habits, in contrast, operate automatically in the basal ganglia with minimal oversight required. This difference makes encoded patterns more effortless long-term.

Research also reveals that willpower is undermined by stress. Rat experiments found chronic stress impaired prefrontal cortex function and reduced self-control behaviours. Emotional strain inhibits the biological mechanisms underlying motivation and conscious intent.

This manifold evidence indicates that pure willpower has a limited capacity to override stubborn habits. Sustainable change requires retraining our neuronal circuitry over time to embed new routines that become automatic. Motivation initiates this journey, but the lasting transformation is neurological.

Part IV: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Habits

Now that we understand habits in terms of brain wiring let’s explore the social, emotional and environmental factors that covertly direct our programming. By illuminating these hidden forces, we gain power over them.

First and foremost, emotions fuel habits. EEG imaging studies found increased basal ganglia activation when subjects experienced emotional arousal versus neutral states. Feelings heighten the intensity and automaticity of habit loops.

Negative emotions like stress, anxiety, shame, loneliness and boredom often trigger unhealthy habits. We reflexively seek relief in comfort foods, alcohol, shopping splurges or zoning out on media. Be mindful of using habits as emotional regulation.

On the flip side, positive emotions facilitate beneficial habits. Joy, excitement and pride reinforce life-giving routines. Seek activities, communities and environments that uplift you and inspire action. Surround yourself with encouraging voices, not critical ones.

Our social circles covertly program habits, for better or worse. We know this. When hanging out with my party crowd, it was naturalised and normalised to drink like a fish every morning. When I sobered up, I suddenly had 80% fewer friends. We unconsciously adopt the behaviours and beliefs of those we spend time with. When you build relationships with people committed to growth, their drive rubs off.

Likewise, identifying role models who have achieved aspirations you hold instils the belief that you can also get there. Seeing others’ success is neurologically inspiring. We internalise their habits through mirror neurons that model observed behaviours.

Further, committing to habit goals publicly or sharing them with a coach provides accountability. No one wants to report that they didn’t follow through on declared intentions. Voicing goals activates our identity and social reinforcement.

In terms of environment, cues are continuously shaping your routines. The prominence of fast food signs, cookies on the counter, and Netflix autoplay are covertly direct habits. You can set yourself up for success by thoughtfully crafting your space and exposure.

When your environment teems with temptation cues, your basal ganglia activates those familiar routes. Choose your surroundings mindfully to steer your autopilot where you want it to go. Limit unhealthy triggers and plant productive prompts.

Time of day also programs habits. Fatigue and decision overload make us prone to default to familiar actions as the day progresses. Many find mornings optimal for focus and active practices, while nights suit relaxation routines. Know your energy patterns.

The influence of these ambient factors may seem disheartening, implying we lack autonomy. But illuminating them is empowering because we can intentionally work with, rather than against, our nature once we know them.

Part V: Harnessing Technology for Habit Change

Today’s habit-tracking apps and wearables provide structured ways to monitor and reinforce new behaviours. Tech features leverage science-backed habit formation strategies we’ve covered, like cues, accountability and rewards.

Habit tracking apps prompt you to log the completion of daily goals like 10 minutes of meditation or hitting your activity targets. Some offer streak counts capitalise on our motivation to avoid breaking long-running records.

Logging progress provides positive reinforcement as you see tangible indicators of consistency. Apps also remind you to practice at optimal times, setting up environmental cues to automate routines. Some even allow sharing achievements with others for communal support.

Meanwhile, activity trackers quantify sleep, exercise, and calorie intake habits. Seeing objective data reinforces growth and gives a sense of accomplishment. Features like idle alerts snap you out of passive inertia. Syncing trackers to your phone adds convenience to collecting habit data.

While tech can optimise habit formation, don’t become dependent or obsessed with quantification. Don’t let tracking become a new compulsion that distances you from your bodily intuition and direct experience. Use devices mindfully in balance with other tools. My entire career is built on emerging tech, but that means being fucking realistic about its limits. And one limit is — that it won’t replace our humanity.

The internet enables connecting with online communities striving for similar growth. These digital support networks provide inspiration, resources and camaraderie. Seeing others, despite the ups and downs, reminds you that change, while challenging, is possible.

That said, carefully curate your social media habits — Minimise consumption of feeds or influencers prompting comparison or perfectionism. Limit passive scrolling in favour of active learning and conversations that uplift. Be mindful of how your digital habits affect your emotional state.

Part VI: Developing Your Growth Mindset for Lasting Habit Change

We’ve now covered both scientific insights and tactical steps for habit change. However, knowledge alone cannot transform unless rooted in foundational beliefs empowering lifelong improvement. To conclude, I want to discuss cultivating a growth mindset as crucial soil for your evolution.

Modern neuroscience reveals that we can continually develop new neuronal pathways at any age. Brains are malleable organs designed to adapt to experience. Scientists now recognise that neuroplasticity persists through life rather than declining after youth.

This means ingrained habits and limiting beliefs are flexible sentences. We can continuously rewire ourselves with an applied effort by forming new connections and neural patterns. We are not static personalities but ever-changing works in progress.

Stanford psychologist, Carol Dweck’s research defined the difference between fixed and growth mindsets. Fixed mindsets assume our abilities are static and we either have or lack intrinsic talent. This makes failure demoralising. In contrast, growth mindsets see skills and potential expandable through dedicated practice and guidance. Challenges become opportunities to stretch.

Dweck’s experiments found that praising effort over inherent gifts encouraged a growth outlook. Language shapes our lens. Talk to yourself as you would a dear friend working hard and learning. Refrain from letting missteps shake your core confidence in your capacity to grow.

You can approach habit evolution with curiosity, not judgment. Progress flows from self-love, not self-criticism. Set mini-experiments to discover what works best for your unique nature and needs.

Expect plateaus, backsliding and obstacles as part of the ride. Habits form an interconnected web, not isolated threads. Tugging on one strand dynamically shifts your entire system. I want you to have compassion for the process.

Connect your habit goals to core values like service, creativity, truth or compassion. Higher purpose fuels motivation through storms, disappointments and boredom. When linked to your deeper whys, habits gain magnetic meaning.

Part VII: How to Build a Habit Lab

We’ve covered the science behind how habits form and strategies to change them. Now, let’s get hands-on.

Engineers prototype new designs in experimental labs before implementing them. Similarly, we can create spaces to try out and refine behaviours we aim to automate intentionally. Think of your habit lab as a gym, not for your muscles but for your intentionality and personal growth.

Step 1: Define Your Habit Goals

First, decide on 1–3 specific habits you want to develop, like meditation, learning Spanish, or regular exercise. Too many goals spread focus — identify your top priorities. Define the exact routine like “10-minute morning meditation” or “run 3x per week.”

Step 2: Set Up Your Lab Environment

You can carve out a dedicated habit lab zone in your home, yard or office. This signals that your brain that focuses on working toward your intentions will happen here.

Tailor the space to your habit goals. For example, place your yoga mat prominently for exercise routines or have your Spanish flashcards out to trigger practising. Build in visual cues.

Make it comfortable but not too cozy — you want an atmosphere of active focus. Include tools like journals, whiteboards and timers. Display inspirational quotes, images and charts to track progress and reinforce motivation.

Step 3: Engineer Immersion

Schedule specific habit lab sessions in your calendar, at least 15–30 minutes per day to start. Treat this time as seriously as you would an important work meeting.

During sessions, devote your full attention to actively training target habits. Eliminate distractions by turning off devices and blocking out disruptions. Immerse yourself in the experience.

Mix habit-building activities with meta-cognition to optimise your process over time. Reflect on what’s working, analyse missteps, and brainstorm improvements. Engineer your growth.

Step 4: Iteratively Level Up Your Habits

Approach habit formation as an iterative design project. View setbacks and obstacles clinically as data informing the next version.

Run mini-experiments testing different reward systems, environmental cues and accountability. Measure effects and adjust variables systematically to achieve greater consistency.

Level up habits by gradually increasing difficulty once basic routines feel automatic. Build physical endurance through progressive overload. Master easier challenges first to expand your habit capacity.

Step 5: Automate Through Repetition

Consistency is vital to wiring habits into your basal ganglia. Use lab sessions to rehearse desired actions until they become nearly effortless.

Repetition encodes cues, routines and rewards into neural pathways that activate the habit automatically. Studies have found that forming a pattern takes an average of 66 days. If you’re as bad at math as I am — I’ll break it down for you. That’s not overnight transformation.

Like physical training, schedule habit rehearsal in contained sessions. Once routinised, integrate habits into your daily life. Maintain labs for developing further skills.

Building a dedicated habit lab provides the space and mindset to engineer the behaviours that upgrade your life. Approach the process playfully — invent, experiment and grow through self-discovery. You hold immense potential waiting to be unlocked through purposeful habit design.

Building My Habit Lab

After learning about the science behind habit formation, I created a habit lab — a dedicated space designed to cultivate new routines to replace my drinking habit intentionally.

I cleared my home office and removed tempting bottles or glasses that triggered my drinking rewards. Instead, I placed prominent reminders of my new intentions, like my vision board, yoga mat, and recovery books.

I scheduled two 30-minute sessions in my lab each morning and evening, typically when I would start drinking. I stocked up on journals, meditation cushions, herbal tea, and mocktail ingredients for my sessions.

During my habit lab sessions, I explored new hobbies like yoga, music production, and reading, which lifted my mood naturally. I also practised meditation, which built my self-awareness and reduced my reactivity to emotional triggers.

To overcome the urge to drink during cocktail hour, I would listen to recovery-themed podcasts while sipping herbal tea or making special mocktails. Immersing myself in these rituals steadily repatterned the neural cues in my brain.

I kept a daily tracker of my progress and milestones, which motivated me during moments of doubt. Joining an online community of others striving to overcome problem drinking gave me solidarity and hope whenever I felt like slipping. Their stories and support inspired me to keep strengthening my new habits.

After several months of dedicated habit lab experiments and rehearsal, I had incrementally cultivated daily routines and rituals that left no space or need for drinking. I felt in control of my life again and regained healthier patterns of relaxing and connecting.

I transformed my life trajectory by intentionally engineering my environment and daily practices.

  • Construct spaces that prime your new identity and intentions
  • The schedule contained rehearsal sessions to encode new routines
  • Explore rituals that naturally meet needs without the addiction
  • Track progress, tweak approaches, and level up habits over time
  • Join supportive communities to maintain motivation despite hurdles

With the right environment and practices, extraordinary change in our rituals is within reach. I’m living proof. If I can overhaul my drinking addiction, anyone can unlock transformative growth through purposeful habit formation.

Are habits breakable and sustainable? That depends.

…Pretty much on you alone.

I hope this deep dive illuminated transformational paradigms on how to master habits and purposefully sculpt our lives. We covered a breadth of crucial territory underpinning change — from neurological models to emotional pitfalls to tactical steps.

Actual knowledge is understanding. We still have infinitely more to learn. I hope these insights spark your curiosity about the forces shaping human behaviour and potential. Keep questioning stale assumptions and opening your mind to growth.

While the journey ahead will have twists, turns and unknowns, you now hold an empowering framework to make each day a choice. Your habits do not define you but flow from you. Exercise this power wisely and with compassion; both for yourself when your patterns fail and for the people around you who are on a different path, towards a different destination.

I welcome your feedback and insights from applying these lessons to your habit evolution. You can email me:

By exchanging our experiences together, we can expand our collective wisdom. The learning never ends.

Here’s to another 80 years of staying sober for me.

And here’s to your habits.

Whether you make them or break them.

🍕 Newsletter: