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Maneesh Sethi on Hacking Life, Habit Change, and Discovering Who You Are

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“It only takes a few days to break a bad habit – WHY are we making it such a big deal?!”
— Maneesh Sethi

I’ve always believed that the true key to becoming superhuman really boils down to self discipline. If you can motivate yourself and remain committed to making daily changes and improvements, over time, you can see dramatic changes in who you are and what you’re capable of. In essence, it all boils down to a mastery of creating habits.

For this reason, I’m extremely excited to welcome today’s guest, Mr. Maneesh Sethi. For those who haven’t heard of him, Maneesh is a truly unconventional serial entrepreneur and self-proclaimed digital nomad. He has published 4 books (including an international bestseller authored at the age of 14), built a very successful blog on hacking the system, launched an NGO in India, traveled the world, and has recently launched a wearable technology company called Pavlok, which aims to help everyday people achieve superhuman levels of discipline and motivation in reaching their goals.

This interview is a bit like drinking from a fire-hose. It’s jam-packed full of useful knowledge, inspiring stories, and life-changing tidbits of wisdom. There are dozens of takeaways on how to create and eliminate habits, which habits most drastically improve your life, and much, much more. You’ll quickly see that Maneesh is not only an inspiring and passionate entrepreneur, but he's also one of the more interesting and unique people I’ve ever met.

In this episode, we discuss:

  • Maneesh's impressive background, which includes a bestseller at age 14 and living in 16 countries
  • How Maneesh became interested in productivity
  • Pavlok, Maneesh's new startup
  • Why Maneesh gave up his adventurous, nomadic lifestyle to work on a startup
  • The benefits of being able to build your own work team
  • Why habits are so important to Maneesh, and at the core of his success
  • Maneesh's struggles with ADHD, and how he overcame them
  • How Maneesh got to work with Tim Ferriss (and live on his coach for months)
  • The difference between forming habits and breaking habits
  • Why people fail at changing habits
  • The functions of the neocortex or frontal lobe, the limbic system and the “reptile brain”
  • The fallbacks of “positive psychology” and how it's cost us as a society
  • How electric shock has delivered incredible results in eliminating any sort of bad habit
  • Why aversion therapy has been shunned by the American public
  • How Pavlok actually works, and why breaking habits isn't actually hard
  • How long it really takes to form a habit
  • Some very fascinating experiments performed by Maneesh and his team
  • What impactful things are people doing with Pavlok?
  • The importance of personality types, and why we need to understand them
  • What does Maneesh feel has lead to his success?
  • What are the 5 core habits that Maneesh suggests for everyone?
  • What books have influenced Maneesh the most?

Resources Mentioned in This Episode:


Introduction: Welcome to the Becoming SuperHuman Podcast. Where we interview extraordinary people to bring you the skills and strategies to overcome the impossible. And now here's your host, Jonathan Levi.

Jonathan Levi: Greetings, SuperFriends and welcome to the show. You know, I've always kind of felt like, Becoming SuperHuman ultimately boils down to discipline. It's a matter of every day doing the things that make you better and basically it boils down to creating habits that allow you to improve and grow as an individual.

This is one of the reasons why I'm so excited to invite today's guest. He's one of the foremost authorities on habit creation. And he's used habits to do some really, really amazing things from publishing his first book at the age of 14, to traveling all over the world and running passive income businesses to launching a venture-backed startup more recently. He's currently working on something really cool called Pavlok and it's basically a device that helps you ingrain habits.

The interview was a super, super interesting, and deep dive into how we create habits, how we break habits, and just general ideas about how we can become better people. It's a little bit like drinking from the fire hose. So pay very close attention and I know you're going to take away a ton of applicable stuff that you can use in your everyday life to become SuperHuman. So without any further ado, let me introduce you to Mr. Maneesh Sethi.

Maneesh, welcome to the show. We're really happy to have you today.

Maneesh Sethi: Thank you very much, Jonathan. It's a pleasure.

Jonathan Levi: So I'm super interested in what you've been working on, mainly because I think habits are such an important part of increasing human potential, so I'm really excited about that.

Maneesh Sethi: Yeah, I am too.

Jonathan Levi: So I tried to summarize your very impressive bio in the intro, but I'm sure I didn't do it justice. So perhaps tell us a little bit about your journey and what you're all about.

Maneesh Sethi: Yeah. So my name is Maneesh Sethi, I currently live in Boston, Massachusetts. Yeah, there's lots of talk about it. I mean, when I was younger I was a gained programmer.

I wrote a book called Game Programming for teens, that was a best seller when I was 14 years old. Traveled the world. I went to school at Stanford. Got kind of bored there, so I started traveling. I lived in like what, 16 countries or so over a span of five years. Wow. Learned five languages, four languages included in five, including English.

And then at the same time, I wrote this blog called Hack The System, which was yeah, it was pretty good. It was about how to kind of call cheat codes for life was the tag and the idea was how to kind of take advantage of how everybody lives in a very standard way. Try to be a little bit non-conformist and how you can get free plane tickets anywhere in the world, how you can improve your productivity or lose weight very fast or become a famous DJ in Berlin was one of my best experiments. How you can use your social dynamics in order to achieve goals that people thought were impossible. And along this entire path, I started to realize how unproductive I was because even though the stuff seemed cool. My productivity, my ability to focus when I sat down at a computer was nil. So I started to do experiments like any inventor, instead of just doing the work, I try to figure out ways that I could force myself to do the work. So I hired this girl to sit down next to me and slap me in the face every time I went on Facebook. Our blog post about it, that went pretty viral. So I started to think, why am I paying somebody?

I should just build a dog shock collar to shock me every time I use Facebook. And that is where the idea for my current company Pavlok, started. Pavlok's my current company, we got out 11 full-time employees now, we make a wearable device that uses vibration beep and electric shock in order to break bad habits and improve your memory.

Jonathan Levi: Wow. That's incredible. And an incredible bio as well. So what do you tell people when they ask what you do? I mean, as someone who also kind of likes to run a lot of projects at once, I always have difficulty answering that question, so I'd love to hear how you kind of explain what you do.

Maneesh Sethi: At this point, I'm the CEO of Pavlok. That's all I do. So I'm the CEO of Pavlok when someone says, what do you do? I say I run a company called Pavlok, it's a wearable device that uses vibration beep and electric shock to help you break bad habits and improve your memory.

Jonathan Levi: Awesome. Is that a kind of very deliberate choice to put the blog aside, put the books aside and focus on Pavlok?

Maneesh Sethi: I don't know if you'd say it's deliberate, I guess it's deliberate. Yeah, for sure. The blog is gone. I mean it exists, but it's not at all what I do anymore. 

Jonathan Levi: Mhm, so what about habits? Is it that you find so intriguing or powerful? I mean, why put aside this adventurous lifestyle and focus on building a startup and working the hours to help people change their habits?

Maneesh Sethi: Yeah. Well, one thing I realized while traveling, I used to call myself the number one in digital nomad, and I wrote my thesis on how people don't need to work from one location anymore. We can travel the world, etcetera. Over time, I started to realize that that's not as true as I wanted it to be.

And that, like human society was nomadic for so long, but we didn't grow until we set roots in one location. And in the same way and even today, it's extremely difficult to build anything if you are consistently and perpetually in motion. So the blog, it did fund to give you a reason to travel the world and I would never take it back for anything. It was impossible to grow beyond myself while traveling. Whereas when I built this product Pavlock, so the first thing that happened was I had this idea, I got a prototype made, I submitted it to some incubators and incubator took a chance on me and invested money in my company and helped me find a co-founder, but it was required that I moved to Boston for at least six months.

And it was the hardest call to ever make it. To accept the money and to drop this trip I had been planning to Thailand. But once I got here, I started to realize that you are the average of the five people closest to you, and being thrown in this room with five people who are way smarter than I was, helped me grow much, much faster than I ever could have alone.

And especially now, as I started to build a team, I started hiring my own employees. I've started to realize that, it's almost like you get to pick those five people. Like, I only hire people that I like. I only hire people that I want to hang out with on a Sunday. And so now it's like a created my own community of people who are working on the same thing that I'm working on. So, that was a very good choice in retrospect.

Jonathan Levi: Rock on. So why habits?

Maneesh Sethi: I haven't sort of its core of who we are is a core of my internal struggle. It's funny to talk to people, especially when I was younger, they would think that I must be like a hard worker, I must be really like dedicated and I'm not. I'm extremely unproductive, I'm extremely highly classified as ADHD. The level of conscientiousness scale, which is the act of finishing what you start. Which is highly correlated with everything positive in your life, like not doing drugs, living longer, not smoking tobacco, doing well in school, getting a good job salaries, etc. I am in the second percentile, which means that 98% of people are more dedicated and conscientious than I am.

And it was very interesting when I saw it because based on the data, I should be a failure. I should be living under a bridge. But I'm not. So when I realized that the difference came from habits. It came from you are what you repeatedly do. You know, that's what Aristotle said. Therefore, excellence is not an act that I had.

 When I was traveling, it was impossible to keep a routine. Habits just couldn't exist. They couldn't co-exist with my life, but habits make me who I am. So when, instead of trying to be better, if I could just build a habit that made me better, it would seem like I wasn't doing any actions or making any effort for the end result would automatically be a success. You know what I mean?

Jonathan Levi: That's incredible. Yeah. It reminds me a bit of, you know, Tim Ferriss had this post where he talked about the same thing that people perceive him as being so disciplined, when in fact he's just really, really good at structuring incentive systems for himself.

Maneesh Sethi: Yeah. Something like that, for sure. I don't know if you know this, I worked very closely with Tim on his last book before our chef and I lived on his couch for a couple of months and served as his right-hand man. So I know him quite well too.

Jonathan Levi: Amazing. What was that experience like?

Maneesh Sethi: It's interesting because that's all I can say about that.

Jonathan Levi: I'm sure Tim is a role model. Definitely, both in the podcasting sphere and I'm publishing a book as well and the next week. So really, really a huge fan of his work and especially for our chef. So I'm dying to know how it works. How does someone in the 98th percentile create these habits that make you as successful as you are?

Maneesh Sethi: Yeah. You know what? I'm still not, ironically, I truly believe this with no arrogance intended but I truly believe that our company, the Pavlock knows more about behavior and about habit change than any other person or group in the world. Uh, especially with the fact that we have the ability to actually change and not just research. But actually, we have a large group of people following what we say based on our tests, our metrics, we see the results that have it out upon people. And what I've learned is a lot of habits. Like for me, in particular, a lot of my best habits come from not building habits. Now that sounds weird, but there's a personal level of habits and there's an external and greater sense of habits.

And what I learned is that I could try my hardest to get myself to write my blog posts. I could try my hardest to get myself to answer my email, or I could just not. I could just have somebody else do it because one of the things that broke me down was I'll tell this quick story. It was a big foray, a big right of passage in my life.

If you will, about a year and three months ago, I was on a train from New York to Boston and it was delayed. It was a six-hour train. And I had just gotten an email from a friend of mine who wanted to invest in my company. He wants to invest $10,000 in Pavlock. And all he needed was like a quick 750-word document, just a deck, just basic stuff.

Basically, it's 750 words to write just saying why he should invest. It was that simple. It was to write 750 words and he would invest. So obviously I said, all right, well, I have a six-hour train ride. I'll finish it. So I get on the train and six hours later, I hadn't even opened up Microsoft word. And I was like, so frustrated at this point, I said to myself, this is ridiculous.

Like, it's not like college where I can blame this on me, not caring. It's my company. It's free money. What am I doing? So I said, I won't sleep until I get this article done. So now it's now 14 hours later, It's like 6:00 AM in the morning. I'm frustrated beyond belief. I have gotten 136 words done. And last-ditch effort.

I make a video with my iPhone saying what I want to say. And I email it out to my assistant at Tufts, a University intern in a University here in Boston. And less than an hour later, he replies back with the final version of that article. And it clicked at that moment that some people are designed to write essays and other people are designed to know what essays need to be written.

And those two people are almost never the same. That was a big turning point for me, understanding that I should, instead of trying to fight back against my weaknesses. I should instead focus on my strengths and find other people who desire to be told what to do, who desire to be given concrete goals, and have them do the hard work while I do the idea.


Jonathan Levi: Absolutely. You know, I found a similar lesson and I have to give a little bit of a confession that I'm terrible at research, and I don't particularly enjoy researching or reaching out to people. So I did the same thing with my assistant. I said, tell me who the top authorities are on habit change.

And then email them for me and that's how we came to speak today. So I owe it to my assistant.  So walk me through a little bit of that neuroscience. I mean, we've all heard of kind of Pavlok's dogs for reinforcing habits and stuff like that, but how does it work to be shocked? What does it feel like to be shocked?

How long do I have to get shocked before I'm going to start flossing every day or meditating every afternoon?

Maneesh Sethi: Yeah. So this is really interesting. The first year of my company. We were focused on helping people form habits. And we were actually quite good at it. We were really good at getting people to go to the gym.

We did this one experiment where we got 80% of 200 people to go to the gym every single day for a month. And that retained a month over month. So even till today, there's still a few dozen people that go a year later. Having not missed a day and over a year, but what we discovered about Pavlock the wristband device that shocks you, right?

Is that what it is, is not a forming new habits device. It's a breaking bad habits device. And those are very, very, very, very different things in the brain. Extremely different people. Think of habit changed. People think of habits as the same. They're not happy to talk to you about the neuroscience in whatever way you want.

I can tell you that the formula for breaking a bad habit if that interests you. I can tell you about how you would form a new habit if that interests you. I can tell you about how your actual brain is categorized and how it's structured and why habits are so counter-intuitive and why we have to fight back against them all the time.

But that's up to you, Jonathan, what do want to talk about.

Jonathan Levi: You know, I'd like to hear a little bit of everything, maybe give me kind of the glossary overview of all three. Because you know, we recently had a neuroscientist on the show and our audience really loves to hear about this stuff, so how about it?

Maneesh Sethi: Sure. Well, okay.

The core of the problem is this people's understanding of the brain is very strange. So like people think that we should be able to do what we say we want to do. People think that we should be able to do this with no problem. People think that if we are unable to finish something that we start doing, then we are a failure.

It's almost morally wrong in American society. Not just wrong but morally wrong to commit to doing something and not finishing it. But it seems strange. Why would that happen? Right. If there was a computer programmer who was writing software. And that software, I spent 30 minutes doing the work and then it took a quick smoke break and then it checked Facebook, and then it came back to do a little bit more.

That would be the worst piece of software of all time. Right? But to humans, we think that that is what we should be able to do. Why don't we? Well, it's because there's a big attack. There's a fight, a consistent battle occurring within our brain, between our two systems, or our three brains. If you look at the triune brain theory, we have three different brains that influence we are, we have the neocortex, which is our human brain.

It's what makes us who we think we are. It's whatever language exists. It's where willpower exists. It's where thoughts and cognition and understanding. That's where we are. You listening to me, you're listening to me through your neocortex. It's on the frontal lobe. Then there's a limbic system, which is your emotions. And then your last part of your brain is the reptile brain. And that's towards the back, the base of your brain and your reptile brain lives in the present. It has no understanding of the future and has no understanding the past. It's influenced by two things and two things alone. That's pain and pleasure and nothing else.

The reptile brain, yeah. Is far, far more powerful than your prefrontal cortex will ever be. It's extremely powerful. What strangers people think that they should be able to will themselves to get where you're done that should work, but they're not focusing on the right part. They're attacking the prefrontal cortex, but they're not attacking the reptile brain.

So when you understand that your reptile brain is affected deeply by pain and pleasure and by nothing else. That's when you can start to play with the dials. Over the last 21 years, since 1994, the entire country of America has been focused on positive psychology and on positive reinforcement.

Everything is about good, but everything is about pleasure, everything. I mean, food all tastes good. If we're cold, we whine and complain and get a jacket and turn on the heat. If we're hungry, we eat. And if we're bored, we eat. And if we're tired, we check Facebook and we see with notifications that allow us to increase our dopamine levels.

Every time we do anything that makes us feel good in the present, we're increasing our dopamine levels and we're also fueling our reptile brain with pleasure. We're afraid of pain, so afraid of pain that it's leading to our demise. Here's what I mean between 1960 and 1994, one of the most common ways to cure bad habits was through electric shock.

And here's what would happen. And it's funny that most people don't even remember this. I didn't either. Here's what had happened. People would go to a clinic if they were smokers. Two-pack a day smokers, right. They would go to a clinic saying I really want to quit smoking. The scientists will say, great. I need you to come in for the next five days for an hour, a day. They would say, okay, for those five days, They would come in, they would learn, discuss and talk about their habits.

And then for about 20 to 30 minutes, the doctor would say, okay, now I want you to open a box of pack of cigarettes and they would open the pack, and then they would shock themselves. And then they would say, pull out a cigarette and they would shock themselves. And I would say light that cigarette and they would shock themselves.

They would shock themselves for every puff of the cigarette. And they would continue to do that for 20 to 30 minutes for five days. A year later, when surveyed out of I think 800 people, those two pack a day smoker of the group that returned to a non-smoking household, 61.4% of them had never smoked a single cigarette again, at all.

 Everybody in the experiment, it was over 50% had not smoked a single cigarette again. Compare that to Nicorette patches, which have a 7.5% effectiveness rate. And we're talking about an eight X better success rate in only five days of therapy. But shock wasn't limited to just curing smoking addiction.

It was used for nailbiting, for hair picking, for gambling, for compulsive hand-washing. It was used for all obsessive-compulsive disorders. So basically any sort of bad habit or trick that people wanted to remove. Including a few controversial ones. So in one particular experiment, people were brought in who wanted to change the way that they thought.

And so some people wanted to cure themselves. They had intrusive thoughts about bisexuality fetishism, transsexuality, wanting to become a woman, etc. And also a few people who wanted to cure themselves of being homosexuals. And what happened to this experiment? Well, obviously all of the people who wanted to cure themselves being gay did not work.

It didn't work at all. The homosexuality is a genetic condition but every single one of the other ones had extremely high success. Bisexuality, transsexuality, and others. The internal thought process was more of a consistent recurring thought, not a genetic problem. And when adding a slight shock, it trained their reptile brain to stop having that thought.

Okay. What happened of course, is that the media got hold of the experiments. Being done to help people cure themselves of being gay. And in 1994, the APA made a statement saying that aversion therapy was not effective in helping people cure themselves homosexuality. The media made a big deal about it.

All University funding was cut. All government funding was cut. All clinics were closed. And because of one bad experiment, the entire science of aversion therapy was relegated to one paragraph in your high school textbooks. What's happened since then, is that the world has moved towards a positive psychology lifestyle where everything is about cognitive behavioral therapy.

And again, I'm not saying there's anything wrong with positive psychology or cognitive behavioral therapy. I think they're very effective mechanisms. But only having pleasure and only having prefrontal cortex systems to help you change your behavior is not going to work when it's just focusing on one section of the brain.

So what's happening now is that obesity rates have skyrocketed. And the deceleration of smoking addiction has drastically dropped. Alcoholism has maintained because people are afraid to use the actual effective mechanisms from the past. In fact, it's just been forgotten from a societal standpoint. So that's the first core of what I wanted to get to, which is the fact that there is a prefrontal cortex.

There is a reptile brain. And when you start to understand that, you'll start to see how your behavior is really interacting with itself. Does that make sense?

Jonathan Levi: Totally. It totally makes sense.

Maneesh Sethi: Okay. So the next thing we want to talk about was how to break bad habits, right?

Jonathan Levi: Yeah, absolutely. And just how it works in the brain when I receive a shock and that kind of thing.

Maneesh Sethi: Sure. The way I compare it to you is, you imagine your neocortex as you and an adult talking. And I imagine your reptile brain as a two-year-old child. So imagine you have a two-year-old child who keeps eating a sugary snack, right. And you tell that two-year-old child don't eat that sugar because you're going to get diabetes when you're 40, the two-year-old doesn't understand the two-year-old doesn't realize what that means. They just understand that they like the flavor of sugar and that they're going to keep eating it. Right? Now, if you take that same two-year-old kid and you get him the sugar, and every time he tries to take a bite, you slap his hand away. Right? And every time he tries to grab it, you slap his hand away.

He starts to understand there's a negative repercussion for that act. And he starts to not try to eat that sugar anymore. In the same way when you're using shock. If you start to shock yourself each time that you catch yourself, biting your nails, or that you start smoking a cigarette. The first thing that people say public users say is that they notice that they're aware of the action occurring.

They're aware of when they're biting their nails. They're aware of when they're desiring to eat something sugary or when they want to smoke a cigarette. That makes a lot of sense. When you think of the reptile brain as where its habits are stored. And that's a known fact that happens restoring the basal ganglia, which is located in the reptile brain section.

When they start to notice that there's a disincentive or a downside for continuing that habit, they want a signal adult brain. Hey, I'm not sure about this anymore. Can you double-check and make sure that this habit is good? And so what's happening is when you add a shock. It's rapidly removing the automaticity of the habit and signaling the prefrontal cortex that it's time to double-check and make sure this is a good decision.

So what we found our current best plan here is we have this powder span. You put it on right now. We have two versions. One that is you shock yourself. One where it shocks you. We've tested more on you, shocking yourself, which is extremely effective. And it's based on the data from studies from the 1960s, seventies, and eighties, long story short.

What you do is you listen to these audio sessions that tell you to create an aversion to whatever act you're doing. So you can just listen to the audio sessions and do what it says, but it's like close your eyes and imagine what your nails look like feel the like sensation of disgust as you bring it towards your face, and shock yourself.

Yeah. Now imagine you're going to a business meeting and feel how gross it must be when the interviewer looks at your nails and he sees these like ripped apart cubicles and shocks yourself. Right. And you create this aversion within you. And we found that when people do it in particular, when they do the entire five to seven-day programs straight, even though they don't desire to do it anymore. Usually, by day three, they're like, all right, I don't want to bite my nails. I think I'm cured. If they continue to push through it. It becomes this similar to when you catch a child smoking a cigarette and you make them smoke the entire pack.

So they'll never ever want to smoke again. If you over forced them to do the action, the reptile brain creates like a horrible aversion to it. It never bites nails again. I call it the white girl tequila syndrome. Actually. You get it. Yeah. But anyway, so that's the most effective way to remove specific motor habits.

The surprising thing is this man is that it takes so few days to break a bad habit. It's mind-boggling. It's like, everyone always says forming a habit is great but then I go travel, and then it's like, it takes 30 days to form a habit but just one to break it. Right. And everyone would go like, ah, yeah.

And I'm like, yes, that's actually true. It only takes a few days to break a bad habit. Why are we making it such a big deal? Why does it need to be six months of AA when you want to quit drinking? When it could be five to 10 days of aversion therapy, it just has to do with societal shift and nothing to do with science.

Jonathan Levi: Wow absolutely. So is it just a matter of training the reptile brain to admit these kinds of stress hormones like cortisol whenever you lift the cigarette to your face? Is it that simple?

Maneesh Sethi: It has as much to do with the stress hormone as it does to do with some sort of negative, disincentive. So I don't know if have you ever done any of that stuff, Jonathan? Like where did you say if I don't go to the gym on time, I'll lose money.  Okay. So it's literally just disincentive. Like if you knew for a fact that every time you sat down to watch Netflix, every three minutes you're going to get an electric shock.

Wouldn't you like reconsider sitting down and watching Netflix all day?

Jonathan Levi: Yeah, I suppose I would.

Maneesh Sethi:  Like, this is the part that it was my mind. It's like, isn't it obvious that if you wanted to quit biting your nails, you should make it painful to bite your nails. Isn't it obvious that if you wanted to stop eating chocolate cake, you might make the chocolate cake not taste as good?

Like isn't that just obvious? It's so obvious. It boggles my mind of how we lost this obvious science because we've already been able to do that for over 80 years. And it's been proven it. Well, I have a booklet called evidence sitting in front of me that we couple with all of our Pavlock shipments that has 20 studies just showing how they've been used in the past. But somehow we've just forgotten about it.

We just, we thought ourselves to be better than an animal. So why would we ever use those different devices anyway?

Jonathan Levi:  Well, so it makes me wonder that you know, in a sense that even creating a habit is erasing an old habit. Like I have a habit every day of, instead of meditating, I say, I'll have a cup of coffee and I'll get back to work.

So, I mean, it's kind of the inverse of creating the habit, but in that sense. Isn't it exact same process effective? You know, anytime I hit the delay button on a task that I want to do or a habit that I want to create, I leave the bathroom in the morning without flossing my teeth. Like I've just enacted a bad habit that I could then eliminate.

Maneesh Sethi: Yes, that's true.

Jonathan Levi: So what I mean in a sense the same tactics could ostensibly work for habit creation?

Maneesh Sethi:  Yeah. So habit creation is a whole different ball game. But obviously extremely related. Habit cessation is extremely simple. It's add shock when you do an undesired action, very simple. To form a new habit it's backward and that's add disincentive, add punishment if I don't do something. Plus add positive reinforcement when I do something. Okay. And so it's a little bit harder to do with, it's actually quite a bit harder to do, but there's ways to solve it. So first things first, the brain is far more motivated by the fear of loss than the potential for reward.

That's how it is. If I say I will pay you $5 if you don't smoke that cigarette. Most people will say, you know, I'm just going to smoke a cigarette. But if I say you have to pay me $5 if you smoke that cigarette. People will reconsider. And that comes down to a fear of loss is more effective than a potential for reward it's particularly effective to begin the habit process.

So I looked at a few studies. I gave a keynote talk at the Royal Society of Medicine last year on how to form good exercise habits in the brain. And it was about that experiment. I told you where we had 80% success rate on people coming and going to the gym day after day. And here's how we did it. We said, okay. I first looked at a study from the University College of London, where they looked at how long does it take to form a habit? And they define a habit as when is it harder to not do something than to do something? When does the brain reach the maximum level of automaticity? Where you just automatically do an action.

And so what they did is they let people choose a habit they wanted to form. And they would attach it to a trigger. So after I eat breakfast, I will drink a glass of water, something like that. Right. And they found that for easy habits, like drink a glass of water, people would take an average of 20 days to form a habit.

So if you drink a glass of water after breakfast for 20 days, you'll just naturally find yourself gravitating to go drink a glass of water. The average of all habits was 66 to form a habit with the hardest one was doing 50 sit-ups after breakfast and that took 84 days. So I found it that number 84 days for doing 50 sit-ups after breakfast was fascinating because number one.

Okay, yes 84 days is a long time to do anything. But if you convinced anybody in the world, a fat guy in the Midwest to do a four days of 50 sit-ups after breakfast, he becomes the kind of person who does 50 sit-ups after breakfast. You can completely shift an entire existence of lifespan just by getting someone to do something for 84 days.

But what's fascinating even deeper is, it's very hard to get somebody to do 50 sit-ups after breakfast. But is it that hard to get somebody to do one sit up after breakfast? How long would that take? That's closer to 20 days. Right? So I looked at that study and I was interested in that and I looked at something called the Fogg behavioral grid.

BJ Fogg was an old professor of mine at Stanford. He worked on habits psychology. And he created a Fogg Behavioral Model which models, triggers ability, and motivation. The way to make a habit more likely to occur is based on when the motivation is high. And when the ability to do it is high as well. If you are really motivated to go to the gym because it's New Year's day but you don't have gym shoes and you don't have a gym membership because the ability is low, then you probably won't maintain that habit.

But on the other hand, if you make it very easy like I only have to do one sit-up after breakfast. It's easy to maintain that high-ability but the hard part there is just maintaining the motivation. So I started to play around with those variables. How can you maintain high motivation and also increase the ability to achieve your habit goals?

And then what we created is what we call the Pavlok Micro Habit Model. And what that is is we say, take your habit, break it down to the easiest possible form and then add negative reinforcement bets. To make you motivated to that action plus positive reinforcement rewards. I'll give you an example what this means.

So if you want to go to the gym, if you want to form the habit of going to the gym. The hardest part is getting yourself to go to the gym. Right? So we took our group of people and we said, all right, for the first week, we need you to after breakfast, put on your gym clothes and walk outside on the front door and lock the front door.

And that's it. If you don't do that, you're going to have to pay a penalty. You have to pay a $10 penalty for not going outside in your gym clothes and locking the front door. However, if you succeed, if you do it five days in a row, you get a massage on Friday or you get to buy yourself a pair of shoes, whatever they publicly committed to.

And we discovered that we were trying to do is make it so easy to do. You can't fail and so stupid to fail. Why would you that we could get people to just automatically just walk outside and their gym clothes and lock the front door? Right. Week two, they did exactly the same thing. They walk after breakfast, they walked outside in their gym clothes, lock the front door, and swipe their card at the gym.

That's it. They didn't have to work out week three. They would go walk outside in gym clothes, swipe their card to the gym, and do one repetition of whatever exercise they wanted to do. Week four, they would spend 15 minutes at the gym, and week five, they were asked to spend 30 minutes at the gym. And that was the end of the experiment.

And what we discovered was exactly what we expected because easy habits take about 20 days to form. By the time they got to the end of the month, it was just pure automaticity. They just walked outside in their gym clothes and locked the front door. That was it. They made, there was no decision making there.

It just happened. And by the time they got there, well, the natural next step is to go to the gym and swipe your card because that's a habit by the end of the month. And once they already swipe their card, well, we're already here in our gym clothes. You might as well go downstairs. And that's how we maintain the habit over time.

Jonathan Levi: Yeah. So making it as easy as possible and breaking it into these very small baby steps. So, what are some of the most impactful habits either you've changed? I mean, you did credit kind of all of your success to these habits. And also, furthermore, what are some of the most impactful habits that people are changing, creating, or removing using Pavlock?

Maneesh Sethi: I think that our biggest success has been smoking addiction. We just did a study last month with the new England Baptist Hospital. Where we took eight people who wanted to quit smoking. And we gave them paddle on for about 10 days. And I'm shocked themselves at every puff. And at the end of the 10 days, they threw their cigarettes away and shocked themselves at every urge to smoke a cigarette.

And we've had uh six out of eight people at 75% of people completely quit smoking in a matter of days, which is 10 X, a Nicorette patch. So that was pretty exciting to me in particular, because smoking is such a destructive habit. We did the behalf. You take that to people in America who want to quit smoking and you say, not even give them a 50% success rate, which I think we can hit, but just give them a 20% success rate on quitting smoking.

The lifespan of humanity increases by a fraction of a year. And when we start adding in the other stuff, like sugar addiction and alcoholism, it becomes a full point. We're talking about 6 billion years of lifespan saved just from a simple shock device. So for me, smoking was the first core problem to solve.

And I don't think we've solved it, but we do have the product. Now it's a method of just getting people to use it. Right. Other court habits, we're looking at alcohol and sugar and not sitting are the biggest ones. So we're working from a medical standpoint, there's three killers. It's smoking, sitting and sugar, smoking, sitting, and bad food.

Right? And so those are three things that we were approaching with passion to fix those problems. But they're not my problems. They're not the problems that I thought I was going to solve when I was creating this product. They're the ones that the world needs. Those ones are fascinating to me because we're so good at it.

For example, we have the tech coming out a couple of weeks for helping people get up from their desks. And the way it works is very simple. It's if you haven't walked in 15 minutes, you're risk dancers to vibrate. If you haven't walked in 30 minutes to wristband starts to shock you. Then and done, right.

And if you're consistently getting shocked, you start to change your behavior. So we actually did an experiment. We emailed and surveyed out like 415 people last week and we just cataloged the numbers. Actually, I can pull it up right now. We found that the majority of people who bought our device and what they're using it for. Or are using it first of all for exercise and fitness. Secondly, for productivity and focus. Thirdly, for sleeping, hitting the snooze button.

And fourthly, for eating. Snooze button is a good one. Shock wakes you up. It just does. It's the first alarm clock that just works. So those are the ones that our buyers desire. That's the fix.  I found that a lot of these things are really competitive and I don't know how to explain it.

By biggest breakthrough in the last year to do was understanding personality types and understanding how to identify others and my own personality types. And realizing that people think that they're a failure because society says they're a failure. But like for example, ADHD is a disorder, right?

Attention deficit hyperactive disorder but it's not a disorder. It's what makes us human. And if that framing that makes people instead of using their strengths, they try to fight back against their weaknesses with drugs or whatever it might be. And that's one of the biggest problems for what I want to do with the company is to really like the stuff I'm telling you right now.

Jonathan, tell me if I'm wrong, but. Is it pretty interesting and also you've never heard it before.

Jonathan Levi: Yeah, definitely. I believe if I'm not mistaken, ADHD drugs are some of not only the most widely prescribed in America but also some of the most widely abused. I mean, even kids who aren't really diagnosed with quote on quote, ADHD are using and abusing these drugs.

Maneesh Sethi: Yeah. I can talk for hours about ADHD. I actually have some really interesting insights on that too, but yeah. One of the things that I think is important is that people understand who they are. And the core of what Pavlok does. Pavlock is a device that shocks you, right? It's a tool. It's not a magic pill, but what I'm trying to do through Pavlock is to be able to teach users of Pavlok who they are.

Teach them why they do what they do. And that's done through our app. We have audio courses that are like five to 10-minute audio sessions that kind of train you in the foundations of behavioral change before we even let you unlock the device. So you have to listen to four audio sessions for four days before you're able to use the full extent of the device.

So the way it works is we had to use a, you buy the device. You pair it. Basically, we train you with these 40 audio sessions, then it unlocks. The ability to add different audio sessions and courses to your Pavlock timeline. And they include like how to improve your memory, how to wake up earlier, how to optimize your sleep, how to eat better, how to quit smoking etc.

And each of those are audio courses as well that have partner apps. So wake up on time, audio course trains you on how to optimize your light. Optimize your settings. Make sure your electronics are off, but it comes with a partner app. That's like a wake up on time alarm clock that shocks you to wake you up.

And the breaking bad habits stuff teaches you about how to quit smoking, but then it also includes a smoking shock app that does the aversion therapy sessions with you, etc, etc. So my biggest goal is just to build a platform that allows humans with no chance of failure to adjust their habits, be a break, bad ones or form good ones.

Jonathan Levi: That sounds incredible. And I really need to get on in order one of these things. I went to order one, but you guys were like back-ordered. And so this time around, I'll subscribe to the backorder. Maneesh, what are two or three of the habits that you most attribute to your success?

Maneesh Sethi:  I think my success has been in the lack of habits.

If that makes any sense to you. My biggest understanding with regards to. I was talking about the person typing a while ago and it's really deep to me because I understand that I am exactly the opposite of what I mean, ENTP in Myers Briggs. And that last letter, the P versus J is the same as conscientiousness, which is the act of finishing things that you start.

And what I discovered is that. The act of conscientiousness that I talked about earlier is extremely highly correlated with everything good. Except for one thing, it's inversely correlated with creativity. And I realized that if I'm anything, I'm extremely creative, I consistently have thoughts in my mind.

So that habit of letting myself believe and follow random paths of thoughts, ideas, and conversations rather than actually getting work done, I think has been by far the biggest contributor to my success. Yeah. And that was an accident that was me trying to stop that for years. It has been and what made me realize I was like, good thing. I can tell you like the five core habits that like, we recommend that everybody does. Like, I'm not by any means an expert in any of these, but I am getting much better. Exercise. It's just important. It is eating right. It's important. Meditation is important, but I actually have a lot on that.

I don't believe meditation is good for everybody. I think that there's types of people who should never meditate. And yeah, drinking a lot of water. I think that water is surprisingly misunderstood elements of our being. It's very ridiculous. How like, for example, most people when they're thirsty, they often misconstrue it with hunger.

So they'll eat food when they're actually thirsty for water or the drink soda even worse, which makes them hungrier. But 45 to 65% of Americans are chronically dehydrated. So if there were just a truth about the right amount of water, we might be able to curb the obesity crisis in a fight.  So those are four of the core habits I would say are really important.

 Right? The fifth one is writing down what you will do each day and each week, and actually doing it and actually not, not doing it like really doing it. Like that's a hard one to do without external accountability, but it's, it's important.

Jonathan Levi: Definitely. And one of my habits that I actually picked up, I think from Tim Ferriss is I very publicly announced what I'm working on and that can come off a little bit egotistical or self-centered. But you know, if I want my book to be out next week, I announced it on the podcast, I announced it on my vlog. I tell all my friends and family and I'll be down. Like the book will be ready in a week because it's a matter of saving face. And it's also kind of aware of having a version therapy when. In the past people have asked me, you know, isn't your new course supposed to be out, or weren't you working on X, Y, and Z.

So speaking of books, I know you and I are both huge fans of Tim's, but what are some other books that have changed your life or inspired you and helped you gotten to where you are today?

Maneesh Sethi:  The book Switch by the Heath Brothers was really good. The book Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg is okay. It's a good introductory summary.

I disagree with a lot of his points, but it's a good introductory summary. The habits. Switch was really good. Really, really good. Um, what else? Yeah, 4-Hour Workweek was great. Depends on what if it's about habit stuff? I've heard Gretchen Rubin's new book. I just ordered it today is good. I haven't read it yet.

Oh, a Willpower by Baumeister fascinating. Fascinating.

Jonathan Levi:  Awesome. I've been meaning to check that one out, actually.

Maneesh Sethi: Yeah, it's really, really good. I interviewed Roy Baumeister. He's a fascinating man.

Jonathan Levi: Awesome. So Maneesh, I don't want to take too much of your time. I really appreciate you sparing your time. I know how busy you are.

If people want to get in touch with you, would you like us to just send them to Pavlock I guess not to the blog you said?

Maneesh Sethi: Yeah, you should go to at the bottom. It says, click here. And you can add your email address if you want to be updated. And I can send you a discount code for your buyers to you.

I just tell you if you go to buy it a the discount code for 25% off is pav25. So you can get a nice 67 bucks off.

Jonathan Levi:  Awesome. We will definitely link that up and put that in the show notes.

Maneesh Sethi: Cool.

Jonathan Levi: Maneesh, it's been such a pleasure talking to you. And I really look forward to sharing this with our audience.

Maneesh Sethi: Thank you. It's been a pleasure.

Jonathan Levi:  Take care.

So that's it for this week's episode guys, if you enjoyed it, as much as I enjoyed recording it. Please head over to iTunes and or Stitcher and leave us a great written review. It really, really brightens our day to see those reviews. The other thing is I just wanted to let you guys know that as promised, my new book Become A SuperLearner is now available on Amazon.

It's actually climbing up the charts really, really quickly. And so we would love to give you guys a free copy of the first 10 chapters and help you accelerate your learning and improve your memory a little bit. So head over to And if you subscribe to our email list using the form on the bottom or the window that opens up when you visit the site, we will automatically send you those first free 10 chapters to enjoy.

So head over to Drop your email in one of the forms and we hope you enjoy the book. We'll see you guys next week.

Closing: Thanks for tuning in to the becoming superhuman podcast for more great skills and strategies, or for links to any of the resources mentioned in this episode, visit

We'll see you next time.




  1. Luiz
    at — Reply

    Thanks, I learned a lot of interesting things in past episodes.

  2. Shivaditya Purohit
    at — Reply

    loved th heart and the depth of the conversation. The way that Dr. Metivier shared from his enormous experience and insights was just amazing. Thank you Jonathan for doing this podcast!! 🙂

  3. Rob
    at — Reply

    Great interview with Dr. Greg Wells! He mentioned a doctor from Colorado around the 42:30 point of the podcast, discussing turmeric and black pepper. I couldn’t make out the doctor’s name. Can you provide me with his full name and maybe his website or contact info. Interested in his products.



  4. Muhammed Sani Ibrahim
    at — Reply

    I am new here, and learning really fast.
    Thank you.

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