#45 — Build Strong Habits with Samuel Salzer

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Our Guest Today — Samuel Salzer

Samuel Salzer

Samuel Salzer is a habit expert and experienced Behavioral Designer, specializing in creating scalable behavior change solutions. Co-author of the book Nudging in Practice – How to Make It Easy to Do The Right Thing and one of the world’s first Chief Behavioral Officer’s in tech. He’s co-founded the Habit Coach Professionals, providing the first certification dedicated to helping coaches level up their coaching business using tools and insights from behavioral science.

Changing behavior is hard. Generating engagement, increasing adherence, improving retention, maintaining growth — online or offline, it doesn’t matter. It’s hard. The good news? Behavioral Design makes it easier.

Sam is a expert in applying insights from Behavioral Science and Behavioral Economics to fuel habit formation and digital behavior change. Sam wants to make the world a better place, one good habit at a time. To that end, Sam provides help to coaches and value-driven organizations make their products and services better using the latest Behavioral Design tools and insights.

Show notes:  not a transcript but a rough but thorough description of what was discussed and the points made

People struggle to make changes in their lives.  Sometimes for a long time.  People want to improve themselves in some way.  They have a good intension but when they seek help, the world gives them a terrible solution that either doesn’t work at all or only provides short term benefit, and sometimes provides harm.

Samuel’s fuel is to take the science behind behavior change to turn it into actionable advice and tools for regular people to use in making their lives better.

Samuel has worked on solutions that have helped millions of smokers seeking to break the habit, and for weight management interventions, and he has provided 1-on-1 coaching as well.

I now know that behavior change and habit formation is a skill that any of us can learn.  So we are not helpless if we care to get control over ourselves to install good habits that will allow us to do the things we want to do consistently.

I originally started the Wise Athletes podcast with Dr Glen Winkel in order to talk to experts to discover what would make a difference for the older athlete looking to both improve performance AND to extend the time in life I could be a strong athlete.  My initial idea was that if I only knew what to do, that would be enough, but I was so wrong.

There are 3 obstacles:

(1)  what IS true, what should older athletes like me know in order to make good decisions about improving performance, staying healthy, and extending the window for being a strong athlete

But quickly I came to understand that:

(2)   there are too many things that are true and relevant to my goals.  I had to find a way to prioritize, to apply an 80/20 rule, a way to be sure to do the behaviors that will have the biggest impacts for the smallest efforts…

Because, surely…. if I knew what would have the biggest payoff I would do it, right? 

but no. ….the third and the hardest obstacle to overcome is:

(3)  It is so hard to stick to a fitness plan that it approaches impossibility for nearly everyone to be completely consistent. 

Of course this is true.  Who hasn’t walked past a plate of brownies and been unable to resist.  This is why the words Willpower or Freewill even exist.  But, Samuel, what is really happening here.  What is underlying this human nature thing that everyone knows.  What is this difference between what I think I want to do to have the life I want to live VERSUS what I apparently really want to do on a moment to moment basis?  

Why do I have these two selves that contend for control of my behavior?  

Samuel, can you explain this to me?

Samuel’s answer:

Our brains evolved to survive in conditions very unlike what we have today.  Our brains have not had time in the last 10,000 years to adapt to a consistent availability of food….to adapt to a life where we never experience famine any longer.  Plus, our bodies are always seeking efficiency, for example  if we start consuming a chemical that our body makes, we’ll stop making it.  Our bodies always prefer to conserve calories even though exercise is good for the body.

Dr Barrett, says the primary job of the brain is to budget our resources and cognitive capacity.  Not to think.

So, when I walk past a table with a plate of brownies and a plate of carrots, my brain wants the brownies because of the calorie density.  Of course, brownies are not in my calorie budget, and I am not worried about starving to death, so I have to do battle with my automatic self to NOT eat the brownie.  And, this battle goes on all the time.

So, what can we do?  How can we human beings get better control over ourselves or bring our conscious and unconscious selves into better alignment?

First of all, the fight is not a fair fight.  It’s more like an elephant (automatic self) being ridden (directed and somewhat controlled) by a small man.  If the man is foolish and unaware of the nature of the elephant, the elephant will do whatever it wants.  But if the man is smart and knows the elephant well, and can control the environment around the elephant, the man can exert a strong control over the elephants behavior.

It’s not a fair fight, but there is a way to win, to be in control.  It’s a skill that we have to learn.

I’ve been taking your course about habit change…I’m only half-way through but I’ve been trying to come up with a way of thinking about it.  In my mind I imagine a scale…like the scales of justice.  One one side is my deliberate mind and on the other is my automatic or reflexive mind, and on a moment to moment basis, whichever side is stronger (heavier) wins and controls the decision on what behavior I will exhibit.  So there are two categories of actions I could take to shift the balance toward my deliberate mind:  I could weaken my unconscious side and I could strengthen my conscious side.  And a third category would be the idea of making my reflexive decisions into my habits, so that I don’t have a fight to win in order to behave in the way that is good for my health and performance.

So 3 categories of things we can do to improve our results:

  1. weaken the reflexive side:  for example, don’t have a plate of brownies sitting on the table,  put your gym bag in your car so you can stop at the gym on the way home from work
  2. strengthen the deliberate side:  for example, publicly announce your intention to do something
  3. But the ULTIMATE solution is:  make the reflexive behavior the same as the deliberate behavior:  turn a desired behavior into a good habit

Samuel, how do you think about this?

That construct can work.  There definitely are things we can do to get better control.  I think the simple solutions offered so often are not effective.  This is hard, and there is nuance to apply to making these changes to get control.  But we definitely CAN get control.

The external environment and social environment matters a lot.

And changing the way we think is another factor.

But making the things we want to do become automatic is going to be hard.  Yes, it is possible, but it isn’t as easy as people have been told.  It’s a journey.

What is a habit?

Let’s go back to the beginning and start by you telling us what is a habit…what are the characteristics of behaviors that are habits, and then we can go through tactics of getting more control over our behavior.

Habits are based on a context, which is more than just a place.  For example, we have different habits when we go into the kitchen in the morning than we do when we go into the kitchen around lunch or in the evening.  The entire context in important.

We can think about the context and what activates or triggers a habit in two ways:  

Externally:  everything we see, hear, smell, time, etc. can activate a behavior.  Unfortunately, studies show that people do not think their environment has much of an effect on them.  But they are mistaken. Overconfidence in our “willpower” over our environment (candy sitting on the desk) is a common problem.

Internal:  perceptions, feelings, thoughts, cravings, hunger, pain (perhaps the most powerful which is why it is so hard to change habits…even after we get rid of the snacks, we still can crave them). People often don’t recognize this issue either because it can happen so quickly that we move from urge to action that our conscious minds do not get involved except to rationalize the behavior after the fact. 

In working with smokers trying to quit, they don’t often feel the craving for a cigarette.  They just notice that they have a cigarette in their hand.  It’s only when they reach for a cigarette but don’t have one that they feel the craving.  We are all that way in some way.

One requirement for breaking bad habits is that we must become aware of the cravings before we act on them.  We have to notice that we are about to do the thing that we want to stop before we can have any hope of stopping it.  But that is not all we must do.

Another thing we can do to help us is boost our confidence.  Often people think that not complying with a craving is impossible.  But with some training, then can learn to have a great deal of power over cravings.  The main concept is “urge surfing”.

Urge Surfing:  Notice the craving.  Accept that the craving is there.  Don’t give into the craving but don’t fight it either.  Just be mindful, just experience the feeling of the craving for as long as it happens, which isn’t usually very long.  It is like a wave that has a peak, and then subsides.  This is one of the most impactful tricks for a person to use to learn that they have control over their habits, their cravings.  They actually can be in control.

I tried “Urge Surfing” myself as a part of the program.  It was a profound, first of its kind experience.  

I was trying to extend my weekly fast a bit longer but was having trouble dealing with the agitation in my body, so I would eat before I wanted to.  But when I did the urge surfing I found that I could just feel the bad feeling without a need to act on it.  I wasn’t fighting the urge with willpower, I was being in the present moment feeling how my body felt.  It was like noticing that the sun was hot on my body.  I felt uncomfortable but I knew I would not die or be damaged by the experience, so I just experienced it.  I in this case, the urge to eat went away after a short time so I could extend my fasting to 24 hours without suffering and without distracting myself.  It was amazing.

The biggest problem most people have with habits is co-existing with their negative states, whether it is hunger or boredom or whatever.  They just can’t stop themselves from resolving that bad feeling as soon as possible.  They want to avoid that feeling, and can’t think to just let the feeling happen and go away.

A common example is social media…people want to cut back on social media.  And there are many things a person can do to make it impossible to get onto social media too much.  But that misses the point.  The reason they want to be on social media is to escape some negative feeling:  boredom, stress, loneliness, etc.  If we don’t recognize and address these internal states, then those issues will come out in some other way.  Binge eat, or watch too much TV or some other thing that we don’t want.

One key thing to remember is that habits are just a way our brain and body creates efficient behavior repetition loops.  The ability to manage these habits is a skill which can be learned.  Just as juggling is a fantastical skill that looks impossible but is highly learnable.  Habit change is a skill we can learn.  It is much more complicated than juggling, and so we may never be perfect habit managers, but we can get better and better by first understanding what a habit is and how it is formed, and then practicing the techniques for getting control over these processes.

So hang in there.

Habits have three parts:  a trigger, the habitual behavior, and a consequence of the behavior.

So we started with triggers of habits.  

Habit Triggers

We want to think about adding triggers to the environment for good reminders to do the things we want to do, and we want to think about removing triggers from the environment to avoid being reminded to do things we don’t want to do.  Removing the candy from the table, and putting apples on the table.

Also, we should cultivate a curiosity for the feelings we have in our bodies, our internal states, and to learn to just experience those feelings without acting on them.

Ability to Do the Behavior

For the actual behavior, think about our ability to do the behavior.  It is like swimming upstream, against the current, harder than it could be…..or downstream, with the current…easier than it could be.  For example, going to a gym that is close by is an easier behavior than to have to travel a long way to go to the gym.  On the other side, having a fast food place near where you live makes it more likely you will go there.

To make good behaviors easier to do, reduce the friction.   And, increase the friction for behaviors we want to stop or reduce.

Another dimension of improving our ability to do a behavior is to make the behavior itself easier.  Rather than setting a super hard goal to accomplish in a short amount of time, just get the habit started with something easy enough to do that it gets done every day.  Then make it harder.  

My mom wanted to make meditation a regular part of her life but she wasn’t having success, only doing it 1-2 times a month.  She felt meditation meant a 45 minute session every morning.  To improve this, we looked into what is the minimum viable dose of meditation….where she’d still get something out of it but it would be as easy as possible so she could get better consistency. She picked 5 minutes to start.  That change allowed her to get a 100-day meditation habit going

We should always start with a goal of building a habit, and then tweak the habit to help us achieve our real goal.

Consequences of Behaviors:  REWARDS!

Rewards are crucial for sustaining behavior change.  If we set goals that are too hard, such that we cannot consistently succeed, then the habit will not form. The goals should be hard enough to make progress (so we are motivated to do it) but easy enough to be certain to do the behavior, so that we get the rewarding feeling of accomplishment and repeat the behavior again and again.  This is how habit form.  Once we have established a habit, we can improve the behavior further.

It is very hard, and almost no one is good at dealing with failure.  It is the most common reason for giving up.  Failure is a motivation killer.

People who are good at building sustainable habits start small.  They often choose to exceed the behavior when they can but the bar is set low enough that they consistently hit the minimum threshold.  Momentum is very motivating.  

So far, we’ve talked about the importance of triggers.  The ones inside of us and in our external environment.

And, we’ve talked about the ability to do the behavior by modifying the environment to make the friction easier (swimming downstream) or harder (swimming upstream) depending on whether we want to do the behavior or DO NOT want to do the behavior.

And, we’ve talked about how important the reward is in establishing a habit.  We repeat behaviors that are rewarding to us.  Ideally, the behavior itself is a pleasurable, enjoyable thing.  But not everything is like that.  But just feeling a sense of accomplishment can be enough if we consciously connect that feeling to the behavior.  If we feel good about having done something that we wanted to do for our health, for our quality of life, for our sense of who we are or want to be…that can be a rewarding feeling as well.  Be mindful of what you are trying to build.

Trigger —> Ability —> Rewarding Experience

In the brain, every time we complete the same action in the same context (time & place), and we have a rewarding experience, that there is a strengthening of the neural circuits.  What they say in neuroscience is “fire together, wire together”.  So the key is to repeat the behavior…without this there is no habit building.  

Support the Repetition

The fourth thing then is to support the requirement that the behavior is repeated again and again.  What can we do to support the repetition of the behavior once we have established the pattern of habit formation?

(1) If-Then Plan:  Start by thinking about why I might fail to do the things I set out to do.

So if my targeted behavior is to eat a healthy lunch, then why might I fail to do that?

Maybe if I have a bad breakfast, then I’ll have more cravings during lunch time, or…

If I eat lunch with colleagues at work, I tend to eat what they are eating.

Once I had identified this likely reasons for possible failure, then I create a backup plan to respond to this conditions.  Perhaps I will do something before those things happen to take me off course, or I might add something to my behavior if I fail to do my targeted behavior.

Or, we might make a pact with a co-worker regarding lunch.  If we go to lunch together, the co-worker agrees to order for me or remind me of my targeted behavior.

This allows you to not feel so badly about a miss because you managed to do the behavior in some other way, and then the fact that you didn’t do it as planned just becomes another data point in the process of learning how to create this habitual behavior.

A recent weight loss study showed how anticipating failure make people much more resilient to failure.  The positive mental attitude people who only said positive things about how certain they were to succeed in the weight loss program did far worse than the people how thought about how they might fail and plan ahead for how they would react to the situations that would cause them to fail.

(2) Another tool to use is commitment devices.  We do something now that makes it harder to NOT do the desired behavior at some point in the future.

Here’s one:  brush your teeth after dinner.  That will make any food you eat afterward taste funny, plus you’d have to brush your teeth again if you ate something.  A more extreme version of a commitment device is getting a dog.  When you commit to a living animal that loves you, you are more likely to take walks during the day for the health of your pet and you home.  Or getting an accountability coach is another device.  Sam will provide a link to his list of 50 ideas for commitment devices.

Sam uses a meal preparation service to provide a few dinners each week to keep him from getting junk food when work causes him to miss the family meal.  Same thing.

Here are some links to commitment device ideas:


We are chimpanzees stuck in a modern world.  People are naturally inclined to build habitual or without thinking behavior, which takes less energy than thinking, and which allows us to do more things at a time.  We can multi-task very well on habitual behaviors but not on conscious thoughts or behaviors that require thinking to perform well.  Think about sports performance…how important it is to have the skills just happen without thought.

These reflexive or subconscious or unconscious behaviors can present as a physical act we do without thinking or as a thought (craving) or emotion (anxious) that drives us to do something.   

These habits are made up of 3 parts:  Trigger —> Ability —> Rewarding Experience


Habits are contextual, meaning that the internal and external things that TRIGGER the habit are connected to the environment where and when the trigger occurs.  When you see or smell food, you might feel hungry.  Or when you are bored with work, you might crave checking social media.

Habits can be impeded (for habits we want to stop) or encouraged (for habits we want to build) by understand the triggers, and weakening or removing them, or by strengthening or adding them.

An important thing to do to combat the power that unconscious thoughts and emotions have over us is to learn to explore and get comfortable with our internal states.  When we are hungry, just feel the sensation of hunger rather than try to decide whether to eat.  Just feel it like you might feel a cold or hot temperature on your skin.  It is just a sensation.  Then you can bring your conscious mind to bear to decide whether to act on the craving.  Learn to surf these waves of craving or emotion or thoughts that come up without effort.


We can also modify our ability to do the behavior to either reduce the likelihood or increase it.  Moving things further away or closer, or making the behavior harder or easier to do in any way will have an impact on the behavior.  Change the environment so that we can only do what we want to do.  

Also, when trying to build a good habit, focus on repetition of behavior to start.  Pick a goal that is achievable every time but still moves the needle.  Once the habit is established, make the behavior more difficult to get more benefit from having the habitual behavior.


Habits form around repeated behaviors, and we repeat what is rewarding.  Rewards are typically connected to physical action.  We are motivated to DO something if we will get a reward for it.  The best, most sustainable rewards are the intrinsic rewards where we feel good for doing the behavior.  The best is when the behavior actually is pleasurable, but when that is not possible, we can feel good about doing the behavior that we wanted to do for our health or our fitness.  Our identity, how we see ourselves, is a key here.  If we behave in a way that makes us feel good about ourselves, we will feel pleasure.  And over time, the behavior will begin to feel pleasurable.  The reward will begin to migrate over to the activity that resulted in us feeling good about ourselves.

Support Repetition

Repeated behaviors form habits.  We repeat what gives us pleasure (which can be removal of pain as well).  So to create a new behavior, we must repeat it while getting a reward.  To support this necessity, we build in safety nets to keep us on track if the behavior implementation plan is not working well enough…if we might not be consistent enough because of stuff that happens in our lives at home or at work.  We build in if-then plans and commitment devices.

Habit Coach Pro:  Link to course:

Last message:

Everything you learn about, behavior change included, requires that you find a way to integrate it into your life.  It will be hard.  Don’t be too hard on yourself.  

The best thing to do is see this as an experiment.  Something your are going to try just so you can learn more about yourself.  And, during that journey, be kind to yourself.  Be okay with things not going exactly to plan.  It will be interesting and fascinating, but hard.  You will start to see yourself more clearly, have more self-awareness.  This effort will require introspection.  And it will allow you to better relate to other people, and the challenges they face.

Commitment Devices


Sam’s experience includes

  • Chief Behavioral Officer (CBO) for Nordic Wellth, leading the way in personalized digital health.
  • Behavior change and persuasive technology expert in EU Horizon 2020 project Live-Incite. Developed the digital app and platform MyLi powered by machine learning to support patients required to stop smoking and consume alcohol.
  • Helped the digital health app Lifesum to apply behavioral design insights to support its 35 million app users build better eating and health-related habits.
  • Had the plesure of supporting the team at Deedster, a digital app that aims to make it both fun and easy to live more sustainably. Helped to increase long-term retention by making the app more habit-forming.Worked as Behavioral Strategist and helped grow Beteendelabbet (Behavior Lab), Sweden’s leading behavioral consultancy, committed to creating a positive impact in society and nudging the world in the right direction.

Contact info:

The ever curious athlete who demands answers.
About the Author
Curious athlete who demands answers. Husband to Susan ( Father of 3 daughters. Athletic pursuits over time, in reverse order: cycling, skiing, mountaineering, rock climbing, triathlon, golf, tennis, football.

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