The most important ideas in your typical 300-page book can usually be distilled into several pages. These several pages are the thinner book. The smaller the difference in size between the actual book and the thinner book, the better the book. For example, almost every paragraph in Lessons of history by Will and Ariel Durant contains some profound piece of information. This is no surprise, as the book itself is an aggregation of frequently occurring patterns and ideas the authors identified while writing an eleven-volume series on the history of civilization. It goes without saying, lessons of history is a great book. This post is the first of many where I’ll attempt to liberate the thinner books that live within some of my own favorite books.
A habit is a routine or behavior that is performed so regularly it becomes automatic. From a biological perspective, the purpose of habits is to preserve energy by offloading the cognitive effort spent on repetitive tasks from the conscious to the subconscious. As you repeat a certain behavior, the connection between the neurons (the fundamental units of the brain) associated with that behavior become stronger. After enough repetitions, the connection becomes so strong that the behavior is automatic. When Stephen Curry picked up and shot a basketball for the first time, he had to focus on every aspect of the motion: hand position, balance, posture, and release. But after millions of practice shots, Curry can shoot the ball from anywhere on the court without thinking.
When used effectively, habits empower you to become whoever you want in life. A habit of daily reading will eventually make you knowledgeable, a habit of daily exercise will eventually make you strong. The difficult part is sticking with the habit long enough to reap the benefits. You won’t develop a wealth of knowledge from reading one book, and you won’t get jacked after going to the gym for a week. Only after years of reading will you be able to compare and build upon ideas from different disciplines. Only after months of workouts will you be able to fully activate all the muscles associated with a lift. A 1% improvement every day for a year results in a 37x improvement from where you started. The initial 1 percent improvements are difficult to notice, but after a while they become astronomical. All big things come from small beginnings.
Social media is filled with posts celebrating the achievements of individuals while glossing over the thousands of hours it took them to get there. What we don’t see in pictures of Giannis Antetokounmpo hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy are the years of grueling practice that preceded his championship run. We’ve been tricked into expecting instant results without putting in the reps. To effectively develop new habits, we need to break this mindset and acknowledge that the most powerful outcomes are delayed. We must shift our focus from achievement to trajectory. The strongest man in the world becomes weak if he stops using his muscles. The brightest man becomes dumb if he stops using his brain. It matters not where you were yesterday, but rather, where you’re headed today.
Trajectory > Achievements
The Three Layers of Behavior Change
To effectively build new habits, you need to be aware of the three layers of behavior change:
Identity is what you believe, process is what you do, and outcome is what you get. The reason most people fall short of their aspirations in life is that they are solely focused on outcomes, without considering the systems that lead to those outcomes. Telling yourself “I want to get rich” or “I want to lose weight” will not contribute to either. Only through modifying our identity and processes can we change our behavior and bring about our desired outcomes.
Your behaviors are an expression of your identity. If you exercise every day, you are an active person. If you watch Netflix all day, you are a lazy person. To change your outcomes, you must first change your identity and processes.
To change your identity, start by asking how someone with your desired identity behaves. If you want to become an entrepreneur, ask “Who is the type of person that becomes an entrepreneur?” An entrepreneur is the type of person who creates things. An entrepreneur is the type of person who is willing to fail. An entrepreneur is the type of person who takes risks for what they believe in. Start acting like your desired identity, and eventually, you will become them. Write every day and you will become a writer. Program every day and you will become a programmer. Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become.
As you’ve likely noticed, just telling yourself you’re going to start doing something is not an effective way to change your behavior. Our brains are energy conservation machines, constantly analyzing the environment for ways to maximize immediate rewards while spending as little energy as possible. Effective processes manipulate your environment so that the energy required for the desirable behavior is less than the energy required for the undesirable behavior. It’s tough to eat healthier if your fridge is stocked full of chocolate bars. But by manipulating your environment such that your fridge is filled with fruit and vegetables and eating a Cadbury requires a trip to the supermarket, you’ve suddenly tipped the scale in your favor. Every goal is doomed to fail if it goes against the grain of human nature.
The Four Steps of Habit Formation
There are four steps involved in the formation of every habit:
The cue is the initial signal that triggers the behavior (ex. the sight of a chocolate bar). The craving is the desired change in state that results from the cue (ex. a desire for the taste of chocolate). The response is the behavior that is performed to satisfy the craving (ex. eating the chocolate bar). The reward is the outcome delivered by the response (ex. the sugar rush from eating the chocolate bar). If a behavior is insufficient in any of the above steps, it will not become a habit. Remove the cue and the habit will never start. Reduce the craving and you won’t be motivated enough to act. If you don’t respond, there will be no reward. And if there is no reward, or it doesn’t live up to your expectations, you won’t repeat the behavior in the future.
The four laws of behavior change are a set of actionable principles for building habits. The laws are:
- Make it obvious
- Make it attractive
- Make it easy
- Make it satisfying
Each law maps to one of the four steps of habit formation:
- Make it obvious → Cue
- Make it attractive → Craving
- Make it easy → Response
- Make it satisfying → Reward
To effectively build a new habit, make the cue for that habit blatantly obvious. If you want to start running every morning, place your runners next to your bed the night before. When you wake up, the first thing you’ll see is your sneakers, signaling to your brain that it’s time to get active. If you want to build a habit of reading before bed, place a book on your pillow every morning. When it’s time for bed, the book will be waiting for you. Design your environment around the habits you wish to develop. The more clear and consistent the cues in your environment, the more likely you will be to develop the habit associated with the cue.
Implementation intentions are used to increase your likelihood of performing a habit. The idea behind implementation intentions is to eliminate ambiguity around when and where you will perform a habit. Instead of just telling yourself “I’m going to start running”, grab a piece of paper and write down “I will run at 7am in my neighborhood”. The format of implementation intentions is:
I will [BEHAVIOUR] at [TIME] in/at [LOCATION]
- I will write at 9 am in my home office
- I will play basketball at 6 pm at the University
- I will read at 9 pm on my balcony
Write down a list of implementation intentions for all the habits you wish to develop and place the list somewhere you’ll see every day (ex. on your bedroom door or the lock screen of your phone).
Habit stacking is a technique in which you consistently perform some behavior immediately after another behavior. The technique leverages the Diderot effect: the human phenomenon where one purchase leads to another (ex. buying a new desk prompts you to get a new keyboard, mouse, and monitor), and attempts to apply it to habits. Habit stacking works by explicitly tieing behaviors together. Say you currently have the habit of making coffee every morning but also wish to develop a habit of writing. You would use habit stacking by affirming “After I make coffee, I will sit down at my desk and write.” The key behind habit stacking is to tie the desired behavior to something you already do. The format of habit stacking is:
After [CURRENT HABIT], I will [NEW HABIT]
Think of habit stacking as the connections between implementation intentions.
You need to be aware of your habits before you can change them. The habit scorecard is a system for identifying and categorizing your existing habits as bad, neutral, or good. To create your scorecard, keep a pen and paper on you for an entire day and write down everything you do (ex. wake up, check phone, make coffee, shower, etc). At the end of the day, mark each behavior as either bad, neutral, or good.
- Wake up – Neutral
- Check phone – Bad
- Make Coffee – Neutral
- Shower – Good
To determine whether or not a habit is good, ask yourself it’s helping you become the type of person you wish to be.
Make it Invisible
To break a bad habit, remove the cues associated with that habit from your environment. This is an inversion of the first law of behavior change.
“Make it obvious” → “Make it invisible”
To watch less YouTube, uninstall the app from your phone. To eat less sugar, remove all the sweets from your fridge. The purpose of “Making it invisible” is to eliminate the times when a behavior is initialized without intent – unlocking your phone and mindlessly clicking the YouTube Icon or opening your fridge and catching your eye on the KitKat wrapper.
The Behavior Function
Behavior is a function of a person in their environment:
Put more precisely, our behavior results from the combination of our personal traits and the environment we inhabit. We react differently than others to the same environment depending on our relationships with that environment. The living room couch could be where one person relaxes or where another does their most intellectually demanding work. When you try to develop a new habit in a familiar environment, you have to contend with the habits that you’ve already developed in that environment. It’s more difficult to develop a habit of reading in the area where you play video games than it is in a new environment that you’ve yet to connotate with any habits. You can’t easily modify the P in f(P,E), but you can change the E. Build new habits in new environments, and whenever possible, avoid mixing the environment of one habit with another.
The Influence of Vision
The average human has 11 million sensory receptors in their body, 10 million of which are dedicated to sight. Because of this, visual cues in our environment are the most effective at influencing our behavior. When designing your environment, make the cues for good habits highly visible and the cues for bad habits invisible. Supermarkets already leverage the influence of vision by placing brand name products with the highest margins at eye level, while hiding away their lower margin alternatives in hard to reach places. A small shift in what you see can lead to a big shift in what you do.
Environment > Discipline
During the Vietnam War it was discovered that 35% of US soldiers stationed in Vietnam had tried heroin and that 20% were addicted. However, upon returning to the US, only 5% became re-addicted within a year and only 12% relapsed within three years. This contradicted the commonly held belief at the time that heroin addiction was permanent and irreversible. State-side, 90% of heroin users become re-addicted when they return home from rehab. In the presence of a radically new environment devoid of the cues associated with their addiction, US soldiers quit heroin almost overnight.
“Disciplined” people do not possess heroic willpower and self-control. Instead, they structure their lives in a way that reduces their exposure to negative temptations. It’s easier to practice self-restraint when you don’t have to use it very often. Anyone can become “Disciplined” if they architect their environment in such a way that the cues associated with bad habits are invisible and the cues associated with good habits are clear and abundant. We all have a finite amount of willpower. The more you have to practice self-restraint, the less you will be able to resist the next temptation. Each act of self-restraint drains your tank of willpower. Instead of spending energy on self-restraint, invest in eliminating temptations from your environment. Self-control is a short-term strategy, environment design is a long-term one.
The second law of behavior change is “Make it attractive”. The more attractive an opportunity is, the more likely it will become habit-forming.
The Outdated Utility of Dopamine
Dopamine is the chemical in our brain that causes the feeling of pleasure. The pleasure from eating calorically dense foods and having sex motivated our ancestors to take actions that were essential for the survival of the human race. But we no longer live in a resource-scarce environment. We have the brains of our ancestors, but temptations that they could have never imagined. It’s no surprise that over 40% of adults in the US are obese; food is abundant, yet our brains continue to crave it like it’s scarce.
All animals, humans included, have certain behaviors wired into their brains through evolution. Baby herring gulls, for example, peck at the red spot on their parent’s beak when they’re hungry, signaling the parent to throw up food for the infant gull. Researchers found that exposing baby herring gulls to artificial beaks with extremely large red dots caused the infant gulls to peck like crazy. This is known as a supernormal stimuli, an exaggerated cue that elicits a strong reaction from the target creature. Modern industry is filled with supernormal stimuli that overwhelm our primitive instincts and motivate us to consume. Junk food has far more sugar than the naturally occurring foods that our brain‘s reward system evolved on. Video games have more visual and auditory stimulus than one would ever encounter in the wild. The modern environment is filled with exaggerated versions of reality that overwhelm our senses.
Anticipation Drives Action
Habits are dopamine-driven feedback loops. During the four steps involved with habit formation (cue, craving, response, reward), we experience two dopamine spikes, one during the craving phase and one during the reward phase. It’s the dopamine spike that occurs during the craving phase that motivates us to act. The anticipation of the reward drives us to action, not the reward itself. Additionally, our brains have more neural circuitry allocated for wanting rewards than actually liking rewards. This is why the thought of Christmas morning as a child is more enjoyable than the morning itself, and why the research you perform on a product you want to buy brings you more enjoyment than the product itself.
Temptation bundling is a strategy that leverages the motivating powers of anticipation in order to maximize the likelihood of performing good habits. Some habits, like eating healthy or reading, have lackluster immediate rewards. With temptation bundling, you follow-up a good habit with a habit that you enjoy, causing your brain to associate the good habit with the reward of the enjoyable habit. When performed enough times, you’ll experience a dopamine spike in the craving phase of your good habit in anticipation of the reward from the enjoyable habit that follows. For example, only listening to podcasts at the gym will associate the good habit of exercise with the enjoyable habit of listening to your favorite podcast. Temptation bundling generally has the form of:
After [HABIT I NEED], I will [HABIT I WANT].
- After I get on the spin bike, I will start listening to my favorite podcast.
- After I finish all my homework, I will play my favorite video game.
- After I open the book I’m reading, I will drink a cup of coffee.
Leverage the desire to belong
Humans are social creatures with an innate desire for belonging. This innate desire is an artifact of our evolution as a species; early humans that belonged to a group had a far greater chance of survival than the lone wolf. We communicate this desire for belonging through imitation. In particular, we imitate three groups of people
- The close (friends and family)
- The many (people in our society)
- The powerful (people with status and prestige)
The first group we imitate are those closest to us. As an infant, you copy the sounds your parents make, as a child, you copy how your peers play with one another, and as an adult, you copy how your colleagues work. The closer you are to someone, the more likely you will be to imitate their behaviors. As Jim Rohn says “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.”
One study that tracked 12 thousand people for 32 years found that the chances of someone becoming obese increased by 57% if they had a friend who become obese. On the other end of the spectrum, groups of exceptional people often achieve disproportionately exceptional results. A few such examples include the friendship of Warren Buffet and Charlie Munger, brothers Patrick and John Collison, and the Paypal Mafia. One of the most effective things you can do to build better habits is to join a culture where your desired behavior is the normal behavior. Surround yourself with people who already have the habits that you’re trying to develop.
The second group we imitate is society as a whole. This large-scale imitation can be observed through the fashion trends or popular music of a certain era. Humans have a strong urge to conform to the behaviors and preferences of the masses. A famous experiment that illustrates the pressures of social conformity was performed by psychologist Solomon Asch. In the experiment, a test subject would unknowingly be placed in a room full of actors, where they would be given 2 cards with lines of various lengths. The subjects were then asked to identify which line on the right card had the same length as the line on the left card.
The actors would purposely select the wrong answer (B). When the test subject was in the room with one other actor, they would select the correct answer, even after seeing the actor’s incorrect selection. But as the number of actors increased, all of whom selected the same wrong answer, the subject would begin to also select the wrong answer in order to conform. The lesson learned from this experiment is that the normal behavior of the tribe often overpowers the desired behavior of the individual. We will do or say something we know to be wrong in order to fit in. We do this because the reward to fit in is often greater than the reward of being right.
The last group of people we imitate is the powerful. We do so in hopes that our imitation will bring about the prestige and power that this group possesses. The desire for prestige and power is again rooted in our evolution as a species; individuals with more power and status have historically had greater access to resources, and thus had a greater chance of survival and finding a mate. If a behavior can get us approval, respect, and praise, we find it attractive.
Every behavior has a surface-level craving and a deeper underlying motive. For example, a surface-level craving could be “I want a piece of pizza”. The underlying motive for this craving is the desire to obtain food and water. Other underlying motives of human behavior include:
- Conserve energy
- Find love and reproduce
- Connect and bond with others
- Win social acceptance and approval
- Reduce uncertainty
- Achieve status and prestige
Our cravings are just arbitrary manifestations of a deeper underlying motive. Our brains didn’t evolve with a desire to smoke cigarettes or to check Instagram or to play video games. These are simply manifestations of our underlying motives to reduce uncertainty, win social acceptance and approval, or achieve status and prestige. Modern-day products don’t create new motivations, they latch onto the underlying motives of human behavior.
- Find love and reproduce = Using Tinder
- Connect and bond with others = Browsing Facebook
- Win social acceptance and approval = Posting on Instagram
- Reduce uncertainty = Searching on google
- Achieve status and prestige = Playing video games
Our habits are modern solutions to ancient desires.
Predictive, Not Reactive
Our behavior is heavily dependent on how we interpret the events that happen to us, not necessarily the objective reality of the events themselves. Two people may experience the exact same event but react in entirely different ways. This is because right before reacting to the event, the two individuals make different predictions on the outcome of their actions. These predictions are based on their past experiences and world-views. In response to being offered a cigarette, one person may predict that smoking it will relieve their anxiety, while the other may predict that it will create a foul odor and increase their odds of getting lung cancer. The difference in these two predictions is what causes one individual to smoke and the other not to.
Make it Unattractive
The inversion of the second law of behavior change is to “make it unattractive”. To break a bad habit, you need to eliminate the craving for that bad habit. This can be done in one of two ways:
- Exposing how the bad habit inadequately addresses the underlying motive that caused its formation.
- Replacing the bad habit with a good habit that more effectively addresses the underlying motive.
As mentioned previously, habits are just attempts to address the underlying motives of human behavior. To break a bad habit, analyze how the behavior associated with a bad habit inadequately addresses the underlying motive. For example, someone who smokes to calm their nerves may analyze their habit and realize that smoking does not relieve their nerves, it destroys them. Clearly describe the negative consequences of your bad habits to make them as unattractive as possible. In addition, find a good habit that addresses the same underlying motive as the bad habit. In the case of smoking to calm one’s nerves, a healthy alternative could be running, which increases one’s physical fitness and cardiovascular health.
How To Enjoy Hard Habits
Simple shifts in mindset can have profound effects on how we interpret the world. Instead of telling yourself that you “have to” do a hard habit, tell yourself that you “get to” do a hard habit. This simple shift in words changes your interpretation of the habit, highlighting how the difficult behavior is an opportunity instead of a burden. Telling yourself “I have to go to the gym” subtly implies that going to the gym is an inconvenient and painful experience. But telling yourself “I get to go to the gym” implies that going to the gym is a positive opportunity to improve one’s own health and physique.
“I have to” → “I get to”
The third law of behavior change is “Make it easy.” Easy behaviors require less motivation to act and are more likely to be performed consistently.
Quantity Over Quality
A professor at the University of Florida divided his photography class into two groups: the quality group and the quantity group. The quantity group was told that they would be graded solely on the amount of work they produced. The more photos they took, the higher the grade they would receive. The quality group was told that they would be graded solely on the excellence of their work. This group only needed to produce a single image for the entire semester. At the end of the semester, the professor was surprised to find that all of the highest quality photos had been submitted by the quantity group. Throughout the semester, the quantity group was constantly experimenting with different techniques, incrementally improving the quality of the photos they captured. Meanwhile, the quality group sat around speculating about what the perfect photo might look like. The iterative technique of the quantity group produced far greater results than the speculation and theorizing of the quality group. If you want to master a habit, the key is to start with repetition, not perfection.
“The best is the enemy of the good.” – Voltaire
Motion vs Action
Motion is when you’re planning, strategizing, or learning. Action is when you’re performing a behavior that actually delivers results. Reading a book on programming is motion. Actually programming is action. Researching effective core workouts is motion. Working out is action. We’re attracted to motion because it gives us the illusion of progress without the risk of failure. Action is more difficult than motion, but it’s also more rewarding.
Neurons that fire together wire together – Hebb’s Law
The more you repeat an activity, the more the structure of your brain changes to become efficient at that activity. This is because of a phenomenon known as neuroplasticity: the brain‘s ability to modify and adapt both structure and function in response to experiences. As you repeat some behavior, the connections between the neurons associated with that behavior strengthen. This repetition leads to clear physical changes in the brain. For example, the cerebellum (a component of the brain that’s critical for precise muscle movements) is much larger in musicians than in non-musicians.
How long does it take to build a new habit?
Habits are formed through repetitions, not time. The amount of time you’ve been performing a habit is less important than how many times you’ve performed the habit. There will come a point where you’ve performed so many repetitions of a particular behavior that you no longer have to think about each step involved. This is known as the point of automaticity. Reaching the point of automaticity, and thus forming a habit, is dependent on how many repetitions you’ve performed, not how long you’ve been performing them.
The Law of Least Effort
Our brains are energy conservation machines, constantly searching for ways to minimize the amount of effort they expend. When deciding between two similar options, people will naturally gravitate towards the easier one. Our brains have evolved to preserve energy and avoid expenditure whenever possible. This is why telling yourself to just “try harder” is rarely effective for developing new habits; It goes against the grain of human nature.
Every habit is an obstacle to getting what you really want. Exercising is an obstacle to getting fit. Writing is an obstacle to thinking clearly. You don’t want the habit itself, you want what the habit delivers. The greater the obstacle, the more friction there is between you and your desired state. The key to building new habits is reducing this friction as much as possible. Trying to perform hard habits by increasing your motivation is like trying to force more water through a bent hose. Instead, design your environment to reduce the friction associated with performing your habits, unbending the hose. You’re more likely to start working out if you join a gym that’s on the way to work. You’re more likely to eat healthier if your fridge is filled with meat and vegetables, whilst being void of sugar. Removing the friction associated with your habits allows you to do more with less time and effort. Think addition by subtraction.
Prime for next use
Prepare your environment for performing a particular habit ahead of time. If you want to start going to the gym every morning, pack your bag the night before. If you want to eat healthier, wash and pre-cut your fruits and vegetables. If you want to read before bed, place a book on your pillowcase every morning. Preparing your environment for the performance of a habit serves as both a reminder and a mechanism for making the habit as convenient as possible.
Every day we encounter decisive moments that deliver an outsized impact. Choosing to order takeout or to cook dinner. Choosing to go to the gym or to stay home and watch tv. Choosing to study or to play video games. These split-second decisions result in outcomes that consume hours of our time and drastically change the course of our days. The difference between a good day and a bad day is the result of the choices we make during decisive moments.
The 2 Minute Rule
When you start a new habit, it should take 2 minutes or less. We often overcommit to new habits from the get-go. We promise ourselves that we’re going to run 5k a day, or read for an hour. But when the time rolls around to perform our new habit, we feel overwhelmed by the lofty goals we’ve set for ourselves, and end up doing nothing at all. The 2 minute rule solves this problem by leveraging the fact that it’s easier to continue what you’re doing than to start something new. The hardest part of performing a new behavior is starting it. By making your new habit as small as possible, you increase the likelihood of performing the habit in the first place. Instead of committing to an hour of reading each day, commit to a page. You’ll be more likely to start reading, and will inevitably read more. Remember that something is better than nothing. Doing 10 pushups is better than doing none at all. Reading 1 page is better than reading 0. Action, no matter how small, is infinitely superior to inaction.
Ritualize The Process
The more you ritualize the beginning of a process, the more likely you are to slip into a state of focus for performing the process. Examples of this include basketball players who perform the same dribbling ritual before every free throw.
Make it Difficult
“Sometimes success is less about making good habits easy and more about making bad habits hard.” – James Clear
The inversion of the third law of behavior change is to “Make it Difficult”. Make your bad habits difficult by using commitment devices: actions you take in the present that control how you behave in the future. A good example of a commitment device is to pay in advance, incentivizing you to follow through with whatever service you paid for since not doing so has an associated cost.
Onetime actions with longtime rewards
There exists some onetime actions you can take that produce consistent long-term rewards. Here are a few examples:
- Buying smaller plates to reduce caloric intake
- Purchasing a comfortable mattress to increase sleep quality
- Installing blackout curtains to increase sleep quality
- Turning off notifications to reduce distractions
- Getting a dog to increase companionship in your life
- Asking service providers to lower your bills to save money
- Buying a high-quality chair or standing desk to improve your posture
Taking as many of these actions as possible is an easy way to positively impact your future self.
The fourth law of behavior change is to “Make it Satisfying”. You’re more likely to repeat a behavior if the experience is pleasurable. The previous three laws, “Make it obvious”, “Make it attractive” and “Make it easy” increase the likelihood of a behavior being performed. The fourth law increases the likelihood of a behavior being repeated.
Immediate-return environment to delayed-return environment
Humans have been around for approximately 200 thousand years. And for the first 195 thousand of those years (97.5% of our existence), we inhabited an immediate-return environment. Our thoughts and actions were focused exclusively on the present. Our primary concerns revolved around what to eat, where to sleep, and how to avoid predators. Our wild environment necessitated an intense focus on the immediate results of our actions. But in the last 5 thousand years, civilizations were born and we transitioned to a delayed-return environment. An environment where the rewards of our actions may not be delivered for days, weeks, months, or even years. We work today but don’t get paid for 2 weeks. We study now but don’t graduate for 4 years. Innovation in science and technology has minimized our risk of immediate peril and made acting on behalf of our future selves a necessity. The problem is that this environmental change from an immediate-return environment to a delayed-return environment has happened faster than our brains can adapt. We have evolved to prefer rewards that are guaranteed in the present over possible rewards in the future. This is why relying on willpower alone to make the right decision doesn’t work. It’s human nature to gravitate towards the choice that delivers immediate satisfaction.
The Paradox of Instant Gratification
Bad habits almost always feel good in the moment but bad in the future. Conversely, good habits often feel difficult in the moment but good in the future. It feels good to get drunk on Friday night, but the morning that follows is absolutely dreadful. A hard workout may be difficult in the moment, but it leaves you feeling calm and revitalized afterwards. Always be suspicious of immediately pleasurable behaviors, for they are likely to be detrimental in the long term. From the wise words of Frédéric Bastiat “It almost always happens that when the immediate consequence is favorable, the later consequences are disastrous, and vice versa..”
The Road Less Traveled
The abundance of resources in modern society coupled with the advent of the smartphone has turned most of us into hopeless dopamine fiends. We constantly seek instant gratification in the form of sugary snacks or likes on social media and our environment is capable of providing both indefinitely. But the road less traveled, and far more rewarding, is the road of delayed gratification. Individuals who can tolerate delayed gratification are better at responding to stress, have lower levels of substance abuse, and are less likely to become obese. The road less traveled is the one that requires persevering through the struggles of the present, knowing that they’ll make you better off in the future.
Some of the most powerful habits, like reading and exercise, can take months to deliver noticeable results. To combat demotivation and prolong your patience, end your difficult habits with a behavior you find satisfying. An example could be rewarding yourself with a delicious smoothie after a hard workout. The only thing to keep in mind is that the reward should reinforce the identity that is associated with the habit. A healthy smoothie reinforces the identity created by working out: a healthy person. But if you were to end your hard workouts with a Big Mac, you’d be conflicting your desired identities. This self-rewarding will only be necessary until you start to reap the long-term rewards of your good habits. The improved aesthetic and increased wellbeing that comes after months of exercising will be satisfying enough to maintain the habit, without the reward of a smoothie.
Track Your Progress
Progress is the most effective form of motivation. Use a habit tracking app to track your progress and maintain motivation for your habits. The visual indicators in habit tracking applications make progress more enjoyable. Whether it be the flaming streak in Duolingo or the checkmarks in your habit tracker, these subtle visual cues make the act of performing and maintaining a habit more satisfying. Habit tracking applications also act as motivation for days where you don’t feel like performing the habit since doing so would end your streak or pause your progress. Lastly, habit tracking shifts your focus from the end goal to the process that will get you there.
Never Miss Twice
A simple mental trick for maintaining habits is to tell yourself that you’ll never miss twice. Life is full of surprises and we will inevitably miss performing our habits one day. The trick is to not let this slip up get you down. Habit building is not an all-or-nothing endeavor. When you miss a habit, focus on rebounding as soon as possible. It’s okay to miss a workout every once and a while, just don’t miss two in a row.
Bad > None
A bad workout is infinitely better than no workout at all. In fact, the days where you perform a habit when you don’t feel like it are the most valuable. By doing so you are identifying as the type of person who performs habit X through thick and thin. Anyone can work out when they’re well-rested and feeling energized. But it takes a special commitment to hit the gym on 2 hours of sleep. Cherish the days where you don’t feel like performing a habit, for they provide an opportunity to strengthen your desired identity like no other.
“When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure” – Charles Goodhart. When it comes to tracking habits, keep the bigger picture in mind. If you become too obsessed with the metric you’ve chosen to track your progress, you might lose sight of why you’re doing the habit in the first place. Choosing weight as a measurement of health could have inadvertent effects, particularly if you engage in unhealthy behaviors like taking fat-loss pills or starving yourself to lose weight. Remember why you’re doing performing a habit in the first place and don’t get too obsessed with the metrics.
Make it Unsatisfying
The inversion of the fourth law of behavior change is to make it unsatisfying. The more painful a behavior the more likely we are to avoid it. The trick to stopping our bad habits is to make their consequences occur as soon as possible, be clearly visible, and be more painful than their worth. Imagine if you were instantly issued a speeding ticket every time you sped. This would surely squash your habit of joyriding, as the cost of the ticket would far outweigh the momentary thrill of speeding.
Create clear and immediate consequences for your bad habits through the use of a habit contract. A habit contract is a written or verbal agreement in which you state your commitment to a particular habit and the punishment that will occur if you don’t follow through with it. Get a friend or family member to sign off on the contract with you and hold you accountable. If the habit contract seems overly formal, try to at least find an accountability partner who will challenge you to stick to your habits. Knowing that you’re being monitored and judged can be a powerful motivator.
Listen to Yourself
We all have different natural abilities and inclinations. The most important piece of advice when building new habits is to pick habits that you want to develop, not one’s that you’re told you should develop. Almost every goal has different variations of habits that lead to it. You will be most likely to develop and stick to a habit if you shape it to match your inclinations. For example, say you want to get fit and you enjoy rock climbing but hate lifting weights. You’ll be much more likely to achieve and maintain the habit you enjoy, rock climbing, than the one you dislike, weightlifting. Pick the right habit and progress is easy, pick the wrong habit and life is a struggle.
How to find your habits
Habits that are aligned with your natural inclinations will be easier to develop and more enjoyable to practice. To find these habits, try answering the following questions:
- What feels like fun to me but like work to others?
- Enjoying a habit is the biggest indicator that it aligns with your natural inclinations. If you enjoy a habit that feels like work to others, you’ll likely excel in the domain associated with that habit. It’s extremely difficult to compete with someone who’s having fun.
- What makes me lose track of time?
- Losing track of time when engaged in a behavior is an indication that you’ve entered a state of flow. It’s nearly impossible to enter this state if you don’t find the task at least moderately satisfying.
- Where do I experience greater returns than the average person?
- We constantly compare and contrast our outcomes with those around us. If your progress in a domain is greater than that of your peers, you’re going to feel motivated and be more likely to stick with and excel in that domain.
- What comes natural to me?
- What’s the first thought that came to your mind after reading the above question?
Escape competition by combining your interests
If you’re unable to find a domain that caters to your natural inclinations, create one. Scott Adams, the creator of the comic series Dilbert, combined his above-average drawing skills with his above-average comedian skills to develop an exceptional skill of creating funny comics. Adams attributes the profound success of Dilbert to the unique intersection of comedy and art.
The modern environment is incredibly competitive. Almost every mainstream domain is populated with millions of competitors fighting for supremacy. Instead of trying to win at one of these ultra-competitive domains, escape competition by combining your skills to create a new domain. You are far more likely to succeed at the intersection of your two favorite hobbies than either one alone. And the rarer the combination, the greater the odds your work will stand out.
The Goldilocks Zone
We experience maximum motivation when the task we are performing is just on the outskirts of what we’re capable of doing. If the task is too easy, well quickly become bored and demotivated. If the task is too difficult, we’ll feel overwhelmed and quit. The key to sustaining motivation is to take on tasks that lie in the middle, in the “Goldilocks Zone”. As you practice and improve you’ll need to constantly adjust the goldilocks zone to sustain the challenge and prevent things from becoming too easy, whilst also not over-adjusting to make them too hard.
The greatest threat to success is boredom, not failure. To fail you have to be acting and thus, making progress. But what follows boredom is inaction, and with inaction progress is impossible. No matter how much you enjoy a particular habit there will come days where you don’t feel like doing it. One day-off quickly turns into a week, which then cascades into a month. The difference between professionals and amateurs is that professionals show up every day, even when they don’t feel like it, even when they’re bored. To become truly great at something you have to embrace boredom.
It’s easy to become complacent once you’ve reached the point of automaticity with a habit. But if you wish to attain and maintain mastery in any domain, you’ll need to continually improve. Studies have shown that once an individual masters a skill, their performance declines over time. This is because they can now perform the skill on autopilot and are no longer cognoscente of whether or not they are actually performing the skill optimally. For example, you may have mastered the skill of dribbling a basketball and can do so without thinking about it, but over time you may begin to use your palm instead of the pads of your fingers, limiting your overall control of the ball. To master a domain and avoid complacency, you need to reflect on and review your performance, and to reflect and review, you need to measure your outcomes. It takes effort to record your performance and periodically reflect on it, but it is often the distinguishing factor between those who continually develop and those who plateau.
Keep Your Identity Small
The more you let your beliefs define you, the less adaptive you’ll be to change. Life is full of surprises and you never know when unforeseen circumstances alter what you can and can’t do. If your identity is brittle, changes beyond your control may break you. If your main identity is being a programmer and new developments in artificial intelligence render human programmers obsolete, you’ll have an identity crisis. Instead of identifying with your particular role, identify with the fundamental aspects of your role. “I’m a programmer” becomes “I’m a problem solver”. The more fundamental and wide-reaching your identity is, the less susceptible it is to change.
“Men are born soft and supple;
dead, they are stiff and hard.
Plants are born tender and pliant;
dead, they are brittle and dry.
Thus whoever is stiff and inflexible
is a disciple of death.
Whoever is soft and yielding
is a disciple of life.
The hard and stiff will be broken.
The soft and supple will prevail.”
Atomic Habits by James Clear is Jam-packed with valuable anecdotes and insights for developing and maintaining habits. I attribute much of my success in developing a habit of daily reading, writing, and programming to the techniques taught in this incredible book. I cannot recommend Atomic Habits enough. If you’re interested in reading the book and enjoyed my summary, consider purchasing it from amazon using my referral link.
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