Learn New Habits With Spaced Repetitions

Description of how to apply spaced repetition to acquire new habits.
2013-02-13 – ⁠2022-09-11 draft
⁠certainty: likely ⁠importance: 7

Habits drive our behavior during most of our waking hours and they represent a big part of who we are. If you have bad habits that you want to get rid off or if you have new habits that you want to adopt the following method may be of help.


A well known way of integrating new habits into our lives is to do 30 day challenges: you decide what habit you want to acquire, for example running every day, and then you commit yourself to do it for 30 days. If at the end of that time running has become automatic you’re done and you can move on to the next habit. If by the end of the 30 days you are still in the sofa when you should be running you start again the challenge for another 30 days.

Some habits require a lot of willpower, like quitting smoking. For those you are better off focusing on one habit at a time because they are so ingrained that replacing them will drain most of your daily allocation of willpower. However if what you want is to make several smaller adjustments then one habit every 30 days is too limiting and will leave you with willpower at the end of the day. Besides that some people seem to embrace change more than others and are more likely to succeed when trying to change several habits at once.

Learning through spaced repetitions consists on reviewing material that you want to commit to long term memory right before you forget it and at increasing time intervals. For example, if you are learning Spanish and you are using flash cards to memorize vocabulary you might have foreign words as questions in your cards and translations as answers. What you do then is to revise those cards periodically. Cards that are easy to remember will be reviewed less often and cards that are more difficult will be reviewed more often. This method works really well because it mimics how the brain strengthens neural connections when transferring information from short term memory to long term memory.

What I have been doing lately is create flash cards with habits I want to acquire and rely on spaced repetitions to make them permanent. I use Mnemosyne for this but any other program will work. All my habit cards go into a category called “Habits’ and each card is phrased as follows:

Question: “When this happens…”

Answer: “…I do this”.

When I review habit cards instead of marking them as remembered or forgotten when I can’t remember the answer, which rarely happens, I mark them as forgotten when I haven’t acquired the habit yet. For example, one of my cards is:

Q: “When choosing how much food I am going to eat..”

A: “..I stop for a second, I breathe, I determine how hungry I am, I remember that I want to live long and I pick as little food as I think is reasonable.”

Now when I see the question I first visualize myself acting like the answer describes. Then if I have been choosing food in a conscious way for the past several days I mark the card as “Remembered” but if I have been eating like it’s the end of the world I mark the card as “Forgotten” so that Menosyme will ask me about that habit tomorrow. I didn’t expect this to work but now when I’m going to the cafe at the office for food the picture I visualized automatically pops up. And the same thing happens with the other card habits.

Another issue I have with 30 day challenges is that the method is not sufficient to maintain existing habits. Good old habits might suddenly disappear because changes in my life have removed what triggers those good habits. With the spaced repetitions approach you are leaving all the bookkeeping to your flash card program which will make sure that old learned habits don’t suddenly disappear by asking you about them from time to time.

More habit card examples from my deck:

Q: “When the morning alarm rings..”

A: “..I turn it off, stretch and get out of bed feeling excited about the day.”

Q: “When my mind is starting to drift away at my desk..”

A: “..I get up, go refill my water bottle and do some exercise.”

Q: “Whenever I feel stressed or anxious..”

A: “..I slowly inhale as much air as I can by pushing my diafragm down and I slowly relax. Then I remind myself that I’m good enough and that people, starting with myself, will have to accept me for who I am.”

Q: “Whenever I feel the urge to check my email..”

A: “..I imagine myself opening my inbox later and feeling in control and rewarded for my patience.”

If you want to learn more about habits I recommend reading “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg.