Break Habits with the Doorway Effect


Have you ever walked into a room and suddenly wondered, “why did I come in here?” There you were, working away on your laptop, and you clearly needed something so you went to the bedroom for someth…uh…yeah, you got nothin’.  Don’t feel bad. It’s a common phenomenon that happens to everyone, and it’s even got a name; the “doorway effect”. You can read all about it in Scientific American. Gabriel Radvansky, Sabine Krawietz and Andrea Tamplin studied the effect at the University of Notre Dame, and found that it’s related to something called the encoding specificity principle, and you’re about to bail on this article.  Stick with me.

I think we can use this doorway effect to help change habits. Don’t worry. I’ve given you all the boring science I know about. The rest is a technique I’ve used with clients that seems to work pretty well with everything from procrastination to getting to bed on time to curing Netflix addiction. Alright, that last one is impossible, but I still think we’re on to something.

The first step toward changing habits is to notice when you’re doing that thing that you want to stop doing. Let’s say you tend to settle in and watch TV after dinner, and you always watch until bed time. You also know you want to use this time to get some work done or learn to play the ukulele, but there you are every night bingeing until you get tired. The first thing you need to do in order to change this routine is acknowledge it, and call it out when you do it. Try this – when you sit down on the couch, say it out loud. “I’m on the couch watching TV until I fall asleep”. Don’t laugh. It works.

You just identified the habit as it’s happening, and you interrupted it with a conscious thought, so let’s take that one step further. Think of an action you can take right there in the moment that will focus your attention. Snap your fingers, stand up, recite a dirty limerick; anything that even for a second interrupts the habit you want to stop. It’s a small thing, but you are choosing the thoughts and actions you want to take rather than following the habit rut.

You can Google “How to break bad habits” and get the 7, 8, 9, 10 steps to a better you, and those life hacks are pretty good. They invariably tell you to think of a replacement behavior like learning the uke rather than watching TV. They also tell you to visualize what that will look like once you succeed. You see yourself jamming on stage and impressing your friends with your mad licks.

By all means do that. Find a replacement habit and visualize success, and then add a doorway to your plan. The first step toward the threshold is that quick action. Snap your fingers and stand up from the couch. Now literally walk through a doorway into another room, preferably the one with the little guitar in it. This change of scenery “clears your cache” for new thoughts like imagining your North American tour surrounded by fans. It’s really easy to reset our super short term memory, and this takes advantage of that. The idea is that you are physically in a new space where that new habit takes over. The old thoughts of, “Just one more episode of Santa Clarita Diet”, are lost back there on the couch just like all those times you forgot why you went into the bedroom for the…whatever it was.

This technique can be great for self-management in the moment, and I want to put a greater perspective on it. These interrupting actions and doorways can really help break a cycle, especially if we practice every day. Ultimately though, what we’re after is even greater control over how we spend our time. Just because it’s a habit doesn’t make a quiet evening on the couch a bad thing. Our goal is to step outside the habit and decide with clear intentions what we are going to do next.

Got any habits you want to break? How can I help? What’s your interrupting action? Leave a comment, and let’s talk about it.

And have a great week.



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