You are a Habit Detective

July 3rd, 2016 11 min read

You’ve arrived on the scene. The location hasn’t changed, but your awareness has. What are you looking for? What are you trying to solve? Well, in this mystery there’s a dilemma, not only are you the detective; you’re also the suspect.

You’re a Habit Detective trying to find clues towards changing your behavior. A habit is a pattern of behavior repeated regularly and happens often without you having to think about it. The goal is usually to build good habits and remove bad ones. Not only is change hard, but often we don’t even know what we have to change. When we try to change, our bad habits can snap back like a rubber band, and it’s incredibly frustrating even if we know what we’re doing is not good for us.

A simple mental model or way of thinking about the patterns that make up the core of our habits is The Habit Loop, from The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg.

The Habit Loop

Cue is a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use.

Routine is a physical or emotional action.

Reward helps our brain figure out if a particular activity is worth remembering in the future.

The patterns and traits of a great detective can help us uncover some of the cues that led to habits we may want to change or cultivate.

One of fictional writing’s greatest detectives, Sherlock Holmes, in the book The Sign of The Four, reflected on the four traits that make a great detective, “He has the power of observation and that of deduction. He is only wanting in knowledge, and that may come in time.” Sherlock later goes on to demonstrate a clever mind and imagination that warps the world and reconstructs the scene, a skill that represents the fourth trait, the power of a constructive imagination.((What Makes a Great Detective?

Four Traits of A Great Detective

  1. Power of Observation
  2. Power of Deduction
  3. Power of Knowledge
  4. The Power of a Constructive Imagination

It’s important for us to discover the cue or triggers for the habits we want to change to give us awareness and time for a pause to respond instead of reacting to that trigger. Learning to Observe can help us there.

Observe your behaviors as they are

As conscious and self-aware beings we have the ability to observe and reflect on our actions and decisions. As a habit detective, it’s important when observing to focus on observing and not judging. Be a realist in this phase and see your activities just as they are and take a mental note.

If we are quick to judge, we will create resistance and trigger insecurities that will prevent us from taking action to change. You may also find yourself rationalizing your actions as not a big issue, and not worth changing.

There are five contexts in which we can observe our behavioral triggers.

  • Location
  • Time
  • Emotional State
  • People
  • Prior Action

We have certain habits that we do at specific locations like between work and home. The habits that we do in the morning or at night. Habits that we do when we are sad or angry. When we are around certain family or friends that can also trigger habits. There are also habits that happen when a certain action occurs, like turning on your personal computer and going straight to Facebook or other frequently visited site.

These are two habits I worked on changing:

  • Reduce Coffee Consumption
  • Reduce Youtube Watching


Coffee consumption is one of those habits that is triggered by many of the earlier cue contexts I had mentioned earlier.

Working in finance the coffee ritual is widespread. Coffee breaks have replaced the smoking breaks of the 60s. I’ve seen addiction and dependency form, from working long hours on little rest.

I wanted to reduce my coffee consumption because it was leading to bad sleeping habits and periods of low energy when I wasn’t drinking coffee. I needed to retrain my body on how to more naturally produce energy and drive.

As a habit detective, I’ve started observing, investigating and finding clues that can lead to change.


  1. Location: Most of coffee drinking took place at work. I didn’t drink much coffee at home.
  2. Time: Coffee would be something I started my day with. I didn’t drink coffee at night as I would be too wired to go to sleep.
  3. Emotional State: Feeling tired or sad would spark cravings.
  4. People: Co-workers would ask if I wanted coffee or congregate near the water cooler and coffee machine. When meeting up with people, they often prompt with, “Do you want to meet over coffee”.
  5. Prior Action: Preparing to work would prompt cravings. It was a ritual like waking up and brushing your teeth. Prepare for work = Drink Coffee.


I removed TV watching from my habits. Soon I had to work on managing my Netflix consumption. The last time sink is Youtube. Youtube recently released a report on their mobile viewing numbers, “Once users are on YouTube, they are spending more time per session watching videos. On mobile, the average viewing session is now more than 40 minutes, up more than 50% y/y.” ((Press Youtube Statistics

More than TV, Netflix, Hulu and other related services, Youtube is more likely to lead to down and endless binge watching frenzy due to the huge amount of content on the site.


  1. Location: I watch youtube more on my desktop than my phone.
  2. Time: After work, I am likely to watch youtube videos.
  3. Emotional State: When I feel overworked and want to give my brain a rest.
  4. People: Sometimes the comments section of youtube is more entertaining than the actual video.
  5. Prior Action: Browsing the web and not finding good content, so I go to youtube.

The Power of Deduction

Based on your observations you can use deduction ((Deduction: To use logic or reason to form (a conclusion or opinion about something) : to decide (something) after thinking about the known facts - merriam-webster)) to spot trends and begin to form an opinion or conclusion towards potential actions you can take to start changing your behavior.

There is a problem with the pure deduction that we should address first; it relies on rational and logical thinking, and we are mostly irrational beings.

In the book Switch, by Chip and Dan Heath, they talk about the internal struggle that goes on between The Rider, which represents our rational mind, the thinker and The Elephant, which represents the emotional mind, the feeler.((Switch How to Change Things When Change is Hard by Chip & Dan Heath))

If you make your observations and deduce a potential solution, your emotions can still overwhelm your rational thought; it’s what makes change hard.

Switch provides a three-part framework that can help you guide your deductions to bring about change:

  • Direct the Rider. What looks like resistance is often a lack of clarity. So provide crystal-clear direction.
  • Motivate the Elephant. What looks like laziness is often exhaustion.[..] it’s critical that you engage people’s emotional side — get their Elephants on the path and cooperative.
  • Shape the Path. What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem.[..] When you shape the path, you make change more likely, no matter what’s happening with the Rider and Elephant. You can shape the path by tweaking your environment and building positive habits.

The Power of Knowledge

Knowledge is power. Personal knowledge is freedom. The power of knowledge forms from observation, learning, feeling and taking action.

Building self-awareness makes your personal growth clearer.

“When I discover who I am, I’ll be free.” ― Ralph Ellison

Revisiting Coffee

Based on my observations, I need to focus on tweaking my morning routine at work. Removing coffee altogether would be difficult. Start small to make the change easier. Suppose I was having three cups a day, I would work on reducing my daily average to 2 cups, then 1 and eventually to zero.

Even when you change an old habit, it doesn’t completely disappear and can come back to fill the void. It would probably be wise to find an alternative beverage. Once I reach zero cups of coffee, I choose to replace it with cup(s) of decaffeinated tea.

When co-workers ask to go walk for a cup of coffee, you can still say yes, and end up ordering tea. The goal of meeting up isn’t actually to get coffee, but to socialize, so what you’re drinking is in your control.

With subtle cravings still coming up, I may need to look deeper to find the issue. I still feel tired. Habits don’t work in isolation; they can build on top of each other or replace the triggers for other behaviors.

Two Habits I work on cultivating to help reduce my coffee intact were fitness and sleep. If I could work on my physical and mental energy, I would be able to reduce some of the coffee cravings triggered from feeling tired.

Revisiting Youtube

After further observations, I realized that there was a wide range of potential triggers to lead me to youtube. I would need the help of software to minimize how long I spent on the site.

I found a chrome extension called WasteNoTime which allows me to set specific time restrictions on certain sites. This would allow me to set guardrails around the behavior as I moved towards understanding it deeper.

When I hit the time quota I had set, the website would be blocked. In these periods I would heighten my awareness towards the preceding behaviors that lead me to go to the site.

I found that the most common were from clicking on video links on Facebook, listening to a song on Spotify and checking to see if it had a music video, watching a great show and checking to see reviews and commentary and periods where I long day at work and needed something to take my mind off it.

I worked on reducing my time on facebook, and I saw a decrease in time spent on youtube as the video curation from Facebook was reduced. For shows and music I now proactively plan entertainment time during relaxation periods to contain my time on the site. After work, I’ve opted to prioritize more offline time, like reading in the park, going to the gym or having dinner with friends and being entertained by their stories.

The Power of a Constructive Imagination

We often have to imagine our purpose and potential for change before we reach it.

“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” ― Kurt Vonnegut

Use your imagination to visualize the steps you can take to make a change.

Understand that changes you are making, isn’t because something is wrong with you, you must change because everything else around you is changing, so you should grow and adapt to it.

Imagination can create a clearer path for your emotional side. If you can’t see it physically, your mental visuals can be just as powerful. Imagine how you can change your situation and change it.

The life of a detective isn’t easy. Change isn’t easy. Yet, we must continue to learn about ourselves and the world around us. Explore and investigate it. Build better habits and you’ll build a better you.

#coffee #detective

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