How To Leverage Neuroscience To Develop Habits

Cory Mazure | 9 Feb, 2022

Special Thanks to Academic Journals and NeuroScientists 

One of the benefits of the modern era is access to information through the internet. When it comes to learning more about neuroscience, journals like Annual Review and Sage Journals  have free, easy to interpret articles highlighting the most recent research that you can apply to your life. In a recent episode of The Huberman Lab podcast, Andrew Huberman broke down some key takeaways from these journals and suggested a few strategies to incorporate in your life to make forming habits easier. In this article, I will summarize Huberman’s podcast and deliver additional comments on my experience with some of these strategies.

What is Preventing You From Achieving Good Habits

Everyone who has tried to build a new habit has experienced the same sensation where you lose motivation and feel like you have to overcome a lot of resistance. This is common and can be explained by the phrase, “limbic friction.” Huberman describes limbic friction as how much conscious override you have to take in order to execute a habit or difficult task. You require additional energy to overcome this friction and many times we fail to overcome it. I know I experience this friction when I get home from work and intend to exercise, but feel tired from the long day and desire to rest. Everyone suffers to different extends from limbic friction, and some tasks may have higher friction than others depending on who you are. It is best to identify what tasks require the most energy to overcome this friction, as we will discuss strategies to make it easier to overcome throughout this article.

What Are The Characteristics of Strong Habits

Based on the current research, it has been identified that there are 2 key variables that dictate the strength of a habit. The first is limbic friction as discussed in the previous paragraph. If you have low limbic friction, the strength of the habit is higher as you require less energy to overcome the friction and execute the task. The next variable is context-dependent vs context-independence. For these definitions, the word “context” means time and place. If a habit is context-dependent, you only execute that habit in the given context. If a habit is context-independent, you can execute that habit regardless of the context. Habits that are context-dependent are less strong than ones that are context-independent as for dependent habits, they depend on the time and place in order for you to execute them. The strongest habits are ones with low limbic friction and are context-independent, as they require low activation energy and can be done no matter the time or place. The goal is to make your good habits automatic by reducing the amount of limbic friction and improving the habits context-independence. So, how can you do this?

Vibrant Visualization 

In this article, I discussed how visualization can help make you more creative, but it was not until recently that I discovered that visualization can also help build strong habits. The way this works is by visualizing in as much detail as possible all the steps required prior, during, and after the desired habit. For example, if you were to want to do a morning workout, you would visualize and/or write down in a journal the steps, which would look something like: Getting out of bed, getting your gym clothes on, drinking a glass of water, putting your shoes on, doing the workout, and taking a shower afterward. This example was simplified, but it is best to think of all these steps in as much detail as possible, using all of your senses as described in the article linked above. So, what is the science behind this? The exercise described above helps train your procedural memory, which is your memory of a sequence of events. It has been shown that strong procedural memory of a habit helps reduce the limbic friction to execute said habit. A few strategies to execute this would be to think through the steps, write them down in a journal, or record yourself describing the process. The reason I recommend recording yourself is that you can play it back to yourself with your eyes closed as a guided meditation and become more immersed in visualizing the steps required. If you become talented at the skill of visualization, you should see your limbic friction reduce significantly.

The Power of Task Bracketing

Although visualization is a strong strategy, it is not the only tool in our toolbox for reducing limbic friction. Huberman described a strategy for breaking your day into 3 sub-sections and assigning specific activities to each section.  

Stage 1: 0-8 Hours After Waking 

In this phase, it is advisable to take on new habits that have high limbic friction. This is because we are most alert during the first 8 hours of the day. The science behind this is that norepinephrine, epinephrine, and dopamine are elevated during this time of the day, which have been shown to help support alertness. Because you are more alert and focused, it is easier to take on difficult tasks with high limbic friction. Some activities to consider incorporating that will further increase your alertness are cold showers, physical exercise, and exposure to sunlight. 

There is research to support that exposure to sunlight helps reduce cortisol, the stress hormone. If you are unable to get natural sunlight, consider purchasing a device like the Happy Light, which is a 10,000 LUX LED light that simulates sunlight. I recommend sitting in front of this light for at least 10 minutes in the morning to help wake up and receive the benefits of increasing alertness. Physical exercise is recommended as well, and a HIIT workout is perfect for the morning. If you live in an area that gets sufficient sunlight, a morning walk will suffice as the morning exercise. If you are able to get the blood flowing in the sunlight, you might as well go for the trifecta and finish it out with a cold shower. Cold exposure has been shown to have immense benefits, specifically with increasing norepinephrine and dopamine. You will be able to tackle the day with ease if you follow these strategies and be able to have increased alertness to overcome your limbic friction. 

Depending on your work schedule, it may be difficult to incorporate these activities early in the day. If that is the case, do not worry, the first 8 hours of the day will have your highest level of alertness regardless of whether you partake in these activities or not. They are simply known activities to boost alertness, they are not necessities. The big takeaway here is that you should try to schedule your most difficult, high limbic friction activities in the first 8 hours of the day.

Stage 2: 9-15 Hours After Waking 

In stage 2 of the day, dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine decreases which causes alertness to start to fall. Prior to this time in the day, your most important work should be already completed. Serotonin begins increasing and can be further enhanced with activities like light exercise, a warm bath, or yoga. Supplements like ashwagandha have also been shown to increase serotonin production if consumed around this time in the day. During this time in the day, you should ideally be completing habits that you have already installed and do not possess high limbic friction. Activities like journaling and meditation are great to complete because they promote a relaxed mind and can help you reflect on the day. It is also advisable to reflect on your day and identify if you overcame the limbic friction on the habits you are trying to install. 

The unfortunate thing about these suggestions from Huberman is that most people are locked into their jobs during the ideal window of high alertness, and try to improve their lives when they get home, which is when it is more difficult to overcome limbic friction. The thing I took away from Huberman’s suggestions is to unwind in the afternoon and prioritize activities that help get me in a relaxed state. As mentioned in a previous paragraph about visualization, this time of the day is good to continue making that a practice.

Stage 3: 16-24 Hours After Waking

The final stage of the day should be occupied by sleep. This stage is crucial for habit-forming. If you get more quality deep sleep, the neural circuits associated with building habits will build more effectively. In order to promote better sleep, try to keep your sleep environment dark and the temperature low as your body needs to lower its temperature in order to get good rest. A theme that Huberman discussed throughout his podcast was lowering light exposure throughout the day. In stage 2, it should be tapered and in stage 3 there is be no exposure to light. If you have trouble sleeping, one thing that has helped me is meditating before bed and doing a “digital sunset” where I turn my computer and phone off 1-2 hours before bed. If you must use your devices, look into activating settings that reduce the blue light. 

With these 3 stages of the day defined, hopefully, it is easier to identify what should be done in each stage to build better habits. This section on task bracketing helped me better define a morning routine, incorporate new habits in stage 1, prioritize activities like journaling, yoga, and meditation in stage 2, and solidify what I previously knew about the importance of sleep.

Proven Habit Implementation System 

Towards the end of the podcast, Huberman described a 21-day system to build stronger habits that he learned from a colleague. In this system, you pick 6 new habits to build into your days with the goal of achieving 4-5 of them. Do not punish yourself if you fail to achieve all 6 as it is expected that perfection can not be achieved. Within these 21 days, reassess how you are doing every 2 days by journaling and coming up with a plan to be more effective at executing your habits each day. Continue doing this for 21 days, then stop making the effort to achieve 4-5 of them. For the next 21 days, continue to operate as you use to, without trying to add any new habits, and see which of the original 6 are sticking. You will find that some of the 6 habits no longer possess limbic friction and can be done automatically. With these 42 days over, you can restart with 6 new habits, or carry over some from the first cycle that you think are valuable but still have high limbic friction. 

This was an intriguing system to me and one that I have adopted. At the time of writing this, I am in the first cycle and am keeping track of my desired habits in an activity tracker. Each day, I put a checkmark if I succeeded at the task. Every 2 days, I journal on how the last 2 days went and what prevented me from achieving my habits. Journaling and reflection is a crucial step in the system and has helped me reformulate my strategies to achieve my habits more consistently. I am also utilizing the reflection time to visualize myself carrying out the habits as described in the section about visualization. These strategies seem to be working well so far and time will tell how many of these habits will stick.


As we have learned, there is amazing research being done on the science of habits. If you are particularly interested in learning more about this subject, check out the journals referenced here for SAGE Journal and Annual Reviews. If you would like to hear Huberman's full podcast to receive more insights, check out his website here. I have taken a lot away from these journals and the podcast by Andrew Huberman and hope that you do as well. The 21-day system and knowledge about bracketing the day are extremely valuable and have put me on track to solidify stronger habits. If you are interested in more habit-related content, I suggest reading this summary of the book, “Atomic Habits”, by James Clear, which is the best book I have read related to habits. 

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