How to Break Bad Habits by Becoming a “Habit Designer”

Shane Melaugh
March 9, 2022

Habits, good and bad, determine much of our life quality and the outcomes we get.

Whether you are healthy or unhealthy, strong or weak, productive or unproductive, it's a result of your everyday habits. Even happiness and your subjective experience of life is largely a matter of habit (habits of mind, specifically).

We'd all like more good habits and fewer bad habits, but ugh... this is already sounding like a chore!

A Better Approach

I want to propose a better approach to habit change. One that doesn't make it yet another thing you "should" do. One that takes as much struggle out of the process as possible (which, as you'll see, is actually a key component of the whole thing).

To illustrate this process, I decided to take on a bad habit that had crept into my life: a coffee shop addiction.

coffee and pastry: hard to resist

I know, not exactly the worst habit you can think of, but it's good to start small.

Here's how my bad habit played out: every day, I would go to one of my favorite local coffee shops. There, I would order an overpriced latte and usually I'd also have a croissant or pastry or something. Because listen, when I see delicious pastries laid out in front of me, I'm not the type to say no.

There are 2 things about this habit I don't like. The "bad" part of this bad habit:

  1. It's unhealthy because of the croissant/pastry thing.
  2. It's a waste of money, costing me an average of about $7 per day.

Of course, one instance of this is nothing dramatic. But let's zoom out. If I keep this up that's 365 croissants and over $2,500 in a year.

I'm happy to say that the expense doesn't affect my bottom line too dramatically, but I don't want to find out what the croissant intake will do to my waist line.

Designing a Solution

Here are the steps I took to break this unwanted habit and replace it with a better one.

Step 1: The Most Obvious Choice

What to do instead of wasting money at coffee shops? Well, have coffee at home, of course. Homemade coffee can bring the cost down to virtually nothing per cup and you basically get the same result. You still get your caffeine and all that.

Plus, instead of spending all that money, I can now save it or invest it. In my case, I chose to invest into Bitcoin, because I'm a bit of a degen (although a very responsible one).

The Problem

If the experiment ended here, it would have failed very quickly. For one simple reason: this new habit of coffee at home + investing is not very satisfying.

I like the coffee shop experience more than I like coffee itself. Plus, it's much harder to put a small amount of money into an investment every day than it is to pay for a coffee every day. You have to transfer money to an exchange, wait for it to clear, then make a trade to get the Bitcoin... it's finnicky and time consuming.

Step 2: Better than Coffee?

The overall goal here is to optimize the new habit for maximum satisfaction. To start with, let's see if we can find a better alternative to homemade coffee.

I started making ginger and green tea, instead of coffee. Here's why:

  • The ritual of making this tea is more satisfying to me than the process of making coffee.
  • I discovered in a previous experiment that green tea is great and I get satisfaction out of doing something that's healthy for me.
  • I prefer the taste of this tea and it still gives me a bit of caffeine.

You can find my recipe for this tea here in the community.

Step 3: Easy Daily Investing

I tried out different exchanges to see where daily investing would be most seamless and most satisfying. Among the options I tried, both Bitstamp and FTX were reasonably suitable for this.

At the beginning of the experiment, I pre-funded an account and made a point of manually buying $7 worth of Bitcoin every day, as I was having the first sip of my tea.


Because this is a clearer and more satisfying replacement for spending the $7 every day. Of course it is more efficient to just make a $210 investment once a month, but that doesn't feel as good.

With my approach, I got the satisfaction of investing a little bit, every single day.

I kept this up for about 5 weeks until I got fed up with it. At that point, I set up an automated daily transfer using the DCA feature on Binance.

Step 4: Optimize the Non-Obvious

At this point, I'm still not done. Upon closer inspection, this daily coffee shop habit I had was not just about coffee. On most days, I would take a detour through the local park before heading to the coffee shop.

For me, this habit was an opportunity to get outdoors, get some sunlight and do some walking. It also gives me a chance to step away from my desk and switch off of work mode for a moment.

In this regard, my new tea-at-home habit is actually a step back.

So, to fix this, I started making my tea and then going to the park to drink it. This carries over the positive aspects of my previous habit into the new one.

Step 5: Attention to Detail

At this point in my habit optimization experiment, I was almost satisfied. Almost.

I noticed that I was not enjoying the experience of drinking tea out of the thermos flask I'd been using. One reason for this is practical: the tea was often too hot and because it was in a thermos, it would take ages to cool down. That's a bit annoying.

The other reason is purely subjective. I just don't enjoy drinking out of a bottle as much as I enjoy drinking out of a cup. Why? I have no idea. But it doesn't matter, I'm simply paying attention to my experience and optimizing for satisfaction.

I spent some time looking for an alternative, portable cup and finally settled on this one:

bamboo and aluminium travel mug

Apart from the weird brand name engraved on it, this ticks all the boxes for me. It's portable, it looks nice and feels nice in the hand and it gives me a cup-like drinking experience.

The New Habit

By the end of my experiment, here's what my new habit looked like:

  • I make a ginger green tea at home.
  • I fill it into my nice new travel mug.
  • I go for a walk to the local park.
  • There, I sit and drink my tea and do what I'd usually do in a coffee shop such as reading, listening to a podcast or to some music.
  • The money I usually spent on overpriced coffee goes into a Bitcoin investment instead (initially manually, later automatically).

Design Better Habits

The key idea here is that you can design a habit until it fits seamlessly. You can keep tweaking details until you truly, genuinely prefer your new good habit to your old bad habit. And at that point, breaking a bad habit is no longer a struggle.

This is a far superior approach to habit building (and breaking).

Whatever you do, don't try to rely on willpower to change your habits. That is almost guaranteed to fail. And it's the reason most people feel hoplessly stuck in their bad habits and unable to build good ones.

Perhaps you now also see why I chose a small and relatively harmless habit for this example: even for something like this, the way to make it stick goes via paying attention to and optimizing small details.

The truth is, no habit is "just" a habit. When you deconstruct the things you do habitually, you'll find that many micro habits and supporting behaviors go into them. You can't just pluck out the most obvious component of a habit, try to replace it with something else and then grit your teeth and resist the pull of your previous (much more satisfying) habits.

For a deeper dive into this topic, check out this community post: Hack Your Brain, Change Your Life - Habit Design as a UX Problem.

Shane Melaugh

About the author

Shane is a serial entrepreneur with a long-standing obsession for personal development and life optimization. He has a habit of buying more books than he can ever read. During his childhood his worldview was significantly influenced by Jackie Chan movies, the Vorkosigan Saga and the writings of Miyamoto Musashi.

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