The Surprising Power of Habits
I have recently taken the Habits Academy course by James Clear, which has helped me understand the nature of habits and how to use them to achieve greater levels of success and personal development. Clear illustrates the concepts in a clear (no pun intended), laser-focused way, through short and straight to the point videos, with pertinent and lively examples from everyday life and from the scientific literature.
Here is a detailed summary of the course. If you find it as interesting as I have, you might want to check it out for yourself (I have no affiliation with James Clear).
Components of a habit
There are three important aspects to a habit: the trigger, the routine and the reward.
- The trigger is what sets off the habit. For example, a phone ringing, begging to be picked up.
- The routine is the habit itself. Following the example of the phone ringing, it is picking up the phone and answering it.
- The reward is the benefit that we get from following the trigger and adhering to the routine. Again, with the phone example, satisfying our curiosity about the caller and the new information that he/she will bring into our world.
The importance of automaticity
It is very important to arrive at the threshold of automaticity, when the behavior becomes extremely easy to start and maintain, using very few mental resources and willpower. In order to achieve this, it is necessary to go through habit training.
The Fogg model stipulates that three elements are necessary:
- Motivation (the habit must be “appealing”), the desire to implement and maintain this habit; what is it that drives us, why do we want this habit to be part of our fabric?
- Ability( the habit must be “achievable”). This is the realm of reality. Regardless of the amount of motivation, one must still face reality. And it is absolutely essential that the habit we want to achieve is effectively achievable. Willpower alone won’t be sufficient. If I want to implement a slamdunk habit, no matter how motivated I am to be like Air Jordan, it simply won’t happen. By stubbornly pursuing unachievable goals we are actually undermining our habit-forming ability.
- Trigger ( the habit must be “activated”). This is the perhaps the most unique characteristic of habits: there needs to be something that sets off the chain reaction. Without a proper trigger, there is no possible habit formation.
James Clear calls them the “three As”: the habit must be appealing, achievable and activated.
Building Habits that last a Lifetime
How long does it take to form a habit?
There is a cultural myth that it takes 21 days to form a habit. It is based on some research done a few decades ago that was very specific to certain medical cases. In reality, the amount of time it takes is usually much longer. For a simple habit like drinking a glass of water in the morning, it might take as little as 15-20 days, but for more complex and demanding habits, it is more likely to take months. And since these are the most valuable habits, our assumption must be that habit formation is a long game, rather than a quick fix affair.
Types of triggers
In discussing one of the three key elements of successful habit-forming, the trigger, it is important to distinguish between hot triggers and cold triggers.
Cold triggers prompt us to activate a behavior, but in a situation where that behavior can simply not be activated. An example of this would be a billboard that prompts us to visit a website. Since we are driving, there is no way that we can follow through with the stipulated behavior.
Hot triggers, on the contrary, prompt us to activate a behavior in the place and time where such a behavior is actually possible. An example of that is an email with a convenient link that we simply need to click in order to visit a specific website (and purchase a particular product).
The key is to create hot triggers for the positive habits that we want to implement and to deactivate the triggers for bad behaviors; or, for those bad behaviors, to transform the hot trigger that prompts them in a cold trigger.
An effective strategy for building habits is stacking the new behavior on top of something that already happens. For example, if I want to build a meditation habit, I can stack that habit on to my wake-up routine; If I want to build a gratitude ritual, I can stack that onto my dinner routine.
By using as a trigger situations that already happen during the course of our day we maximize the likelihood of triggering the habit and following through.
Motivation is not enough
In order to engrain a habit, it is essential to
- Track it
- Get motivated (understand the reasons why implementing that habit would be beneficial)
- Set out a precise schedule where and when the habit will be implemented.
This last point is perhaps the most important. A huge error many people do is to wait until they feel motivated to do something. This is completely wrong. Oftentimes this motivation does not come or it doesn’t come consistently. So the best way is simply to set a precise schedule and stick to it. Paradoxically, it is not important at all whether you actually do something with the time allocated. Initially, the only important thing is simply SHOWING UP!
The secret to starting a habit is to get started. If you think about the actual habit you want to implement, which often entails a few hours of hard work, odds are it’ll never get done. The trick is to focus simply on the initialization phase. It is important to map out exactly how the habit will start and then the rest should flow easily from it. THE KEY IS STARTING!
When starting a habit, it is key not to exaggerate. A best practice is to set an upper limit for what we will do. Being too ambitious too early on puts us at the risk of abandoning the project altogether. However, if we put an upper limit we set ourselves up for success. An example of this would be going to the gym and not staying for more than 20 minutes. This very simple, very low bar makes starting the habit easy and achievable, thus fueling the motivation to follow through in the days/weeks ahead.
The ideal challenge level
In order to be properly motivated, it is important to operate on the cusp of our ability. Two extremes don’t work:
- Doing something that is clearly impossible (for example picking up a car with our bare hands or playing tennis against Roger Federer)
- doing something that is too easy (playing tennis against a four-year-old)
So the key to stay motivated is to do something that engages us almost to the full of our abilities, but that is still achievable. There are three ways of thinking about this:
– when playing a sport, our opponent wins 50% of the time;
– improving about 20 to 25% compared to our current ability
– operating at 80% capacity.
Whatever the paradigm, the concept remains the same: to work hard enough so that we are engaged and that the challenge is just right. But also, to achieve meaningful, tangible results, without these results coming in too easily or with excessive difficulty.
Keeping it going
What is so frustrating about working consistently towards a goal is that oftentimes the results are not proportional to the time and effort we put in. This is called the “plateau of latent potential”. It tests us more than anything, because we feel absolutely frustrated that despite our best efforts nothing seems to budge.
It is absolutely important to keep at it, though. Success comes from hammering away, with the knowledge that the rock may break at the hundredth blow, not at the 99th. The journey to success is moving from one plateau to another, and realizing that most of the time is spent on a plateau with the frustration that we are not climbing, despite our efforts.
The importance of the environment
The environment is a key factor in promoting the success of habits. We should promote an “environment of inevitability”, i.e. an environment that is conducive to success. Oftentimes we underestimate the importance of the environment and we simply focus on willpower, on time and on energy, neglecting the environment we implement our habits in.
An interesting example of that is the spread of agriculture throughout the continents. Agriculture spread 2 to 3 times faster in Europe and Asia, continents that are horizontally shaped, then in Africa and South America, continents that are vertically shaped. This is because the environment in Europe and Asia is much more conducive to homogenous agriculture than the ones in Africa and Asia, which require constant re-adaptation of the crops based on the climate change.
The same is true for the environment within which we operate while we are trying to achieve our goals. A good environment has a multiplicator effect on our effectiveness.
Changing our environment, changing our habits
To radically change our behavior we need to radically change our environment.
A very interesting example of this is the re-addiction rates of soldiers coming from Vietnam. Only 5% of them continued to be addicted to heroin when they came back to the United States, whereas the re-addiction rate of typical heroin users in the US that went through rehab was over 90%. This suggests that the environment is an absolute key factor in generating and consolidating habits, whether good or bad.
Making the environment conducive to success
We are weak beings. Our choices are often not based on what is good for us but on what is readily available to us. This is especially true when we are tired and out of willpower.
A good example of this is watching TV when we are tired from the day’s work. We sit down on the couch, our remote control is right next to us, we turn the TV on and mindlessly watch whatever show is on at that particular moment.
What we should do is prune the environment for those moments when we lack willpower, so that the default decision is a healthy and productive one.
Improving the overall average
When people think of ways to improve, usually they focus on finding the magic bullet or on raising the bar on the peak performance. In the gym, we might try to do more reps, with more intensity; in dieting, we might look for the hottest, newest type of diet to jump into; for writing the obsession might be with increasing word counts etc.
Another, perhaps a smarter way to go about, is to improve the overall average by focusing on the errors and low performance moments. By reducing or cutting these, we boost the overall average and obtain a better result.
So, for example, for the writing habit a smart thing to do would be to focus on missing less days instead of setting incredible goals in terms of blog posts production. Not missing a day is actually better than overextending writing sessions.
How to make good habits automatic
The key is to place a hot trigger in the context of the normal flow of the day.
For example, Pet Smart was able to raise $40 million in one year with a very simple scheme: they asked customers if they wanted to donate any amount of money to a charity for abandoned animals while they were punching their credit card pin number.
By the same logic, it would be wise to choose a gym that is on the way to work and to set out the gym bag the night before so as to stumble upon it the next morning in the normal flow of waking up.
Genetics – the desire of habit
The key role of genetics
Genetics plays an important role in our success at any given activity. It might be sad, it might be not politically correct to recognize it, but it is the truth. To be a champion swimmer, you need to have a large torso and relatively small legs; to be a runner, you need just the opposite, long legs and a relatively small torso. So the way we are designed has a strong influence on the odds of succeeding at any given activity. And sadly, this applies not only to the physical world but also to the mental and spiritual world. Some people just have a higher IQ or are more gifted at writing, thinking, and analyzing. Again, we should fully understand this and accept it.
Making the most of our genes, developing an “in-person mindset”
Having said that, we are also capable of adapting to the environment and making the most of our genetic “deck of cards”. We have to work with what we have, and use our strengths to our advantage.
One important thing is to choose battles that we are likely to win (James Clear cites The Art of War by Sun Tzu). We should try to partake in activities that match well with the strengths that we possess, and avoid those for which we don’t seem well matched up with. This, however, should not prevent us from doing something we really like just because we don’t seem cut for it, as long as we realize that the odds of success are not in our favor.
So a short person that dreams of becoming an NBA star is probably doomed for failure; however, he might enjoy his basketball if he simply compares himself to himself, and takes pride in his progress vis-à-vis his own previous self. The key is to shift from “between-person mindset” to “in-person mindset”. There are many paths to fulfillment, and we should not be discouraged by our genetic makeup if we really, truly desire to do something, especially if we put up a challenge with ourselves.
Mindset is the key to success
One of the key components of success is mindset. A change in mindset can result in a sea change as far as the results achieved. The way in which we view a situation determines how successfully we can deal with it (“attitude is everything”).
For example, a study done at Stanford showed significant improvement in GPA for class of students that were mentored by senior students and then were invited to journal about it. Why? It seems like a relatively trivial exercise, how is it possible that it has had such a strong impact? The explanation lies in the fact that through the mentorship program, the freshmen were able to reframe the difficult experiences they were living. Such experiences, that might have discouraged them, were seen in a new light: as part of the normal process of adapting to the new college life. When we see difficulties as “normal” they almost cease to be such. When we see them as unusual, we start to worry and loose faith in our capacity to overcome them.
If we are able to consistently reframe our negative experiences we will achieve breakthrough results, just like when the light is switched on after spending days constructing an electricity grid.
It is much easier to stick to habits if they are linked to a new identity we attribute to ourselves. For example, if I want to implement a writing habit, it would be very useful to see myself as a writer to start with. If I can shift my mindset and frame myself as the type of person that I want to become, then, strangely enough, the habits and behaviors required to uphold that image will be much easier to come about. Punchlines like “fake it till you make it” or “dress for success” have some validity.
The idea that you can revolutionize your behavior and achieve breakthrough success by shifting your identity can seem a bit over-the-top. But we are not dealing with magic here, we want to achieve concrete, tangible results. So mindset, however important, needs to go hand-in-hand with the facts.
Consolidating a new identity
This is where the positive feedback loop comes into play. A shift in mindset and a new identity generate certain behaviors; these behaviors produce small wins; and these small wins reinforce the mindset and the identity. So a virtuous circle is generated. Mentality and reality come together to achieve extraordinary results.
If the mindset happens without results then it is delusion. If the results happen without mindset, the results may be temporary, not long-lasting. In this context, small wins play a huge part, because they build that confidence that is absolutely key to perform in the long run, to “stick to it”. They can create a “ripple effect”.
Some habits are more important than others. Why? Because they tend to generate improvement in many other areas, even unrelated to the original one. They are called “KEYSTONE HABITS”.
The classic example of a keystone habit is working out. It has direct benefits in the main sector it relates to, fitness, but it also has many other benefits in areas that are somewhat unrelated. Working out improves focus, concentration, sleep, energy levels etc. Another example of a keystone habit would be walking, which often gets the “creative juices” flowing. Other examples would be budgeting (once you get your finances in order it unlocks many aspects of life), and meditating.
So it makes sense, among all the habits that we could want to develop, to focus first and foremost on the Keystone habits, because of their potential ripple effects and multiple benefits across the board.
Immediate vs delayed concern environment
We have an “immediate concern brain” but we live in a “delayed concern environment”. Our brains were formed around 200,000 years ago and have not significantly evolved since, but our environment today is completely different from that of 200,000 years ago. This is environment can be defined as a ”delayed concerned environment” because many issues we face will be solved in the long run, not immediately. Most projects we are working towards will not give us payoff in the short-term, but only a while later, if not years later.
This has a few important consequences. Firstly, we don’t get to see the immediate benefits of what we are doing, so we may become discouraged. Secondly, it can be difficult to gauge whether we are on the right course, since the feedback is delayed. And thirdly, while gratification is delayed, stress is not! In an immediate concern environment, stress is acute, it happens in correspondence to the event that caused it; in a delayed concern environment, stress becomes chronic because the project is ongoing and there is an underlying sense of incompletion and anxiety for the outcome.
It is thus important to develop feedback mechanisms that allow us to reproduce, at least in part, that immediate concerns environment that is in many ways healthy to our well-being and to our success, giving us a sense of completion and a yardstick to measure weather we are making progress.
When trying to build a habit, feedback is essential in making sure that the desired behavior is implemented in the correct way (balancing feedback) or in encouraging more of the correct behavior (reinforcing feedback loop).
So a feedback loop is simply a trigger for an action consistent with the habit one is trying to build. Without feedback, the risk is that a habit is implemented in the wrong way or that, because of lack of encouragement, the motivation/energy is lost.
A good example of a balancing feedback loop is placing tape on the shoulders in order to maintain a proper posture. When one slouches, the tape tugs as a reminder to assume the correct posture. An example of a reinforcing feedback loop is compound interest, that encourages to follow through with the chosen investment strategy.
Two key feedback tools: checklists and tracking devices
As we said, feedback loops are very important in that they help us correct behavior that is not consistent with the habits we are trying to implement and because it gives us motivation to carry on.
In this context, there is a deceptively simple type of feedback that simply allows us to verify whether we are on course: the checklist. For example, in hospitals, simple bullet point checklists have allowed to maintain proper hygiene (reminding nurses to wash their hands, etc.). It might seem quite ridiculous to put such simple items on a checklist, but the facts are telling us that they actually save lives and money.
Another example of a feedback loop that helps maintain us on course is an instrument/procedure that measures repetition. James Clear gives the example of a stockbroker that became extremely successful, outperforming all of his peers, by using the ”Paperclip strategy”. All he did was move 125 paperclips from one bin to another, with each movement of a paperclip corresponding to a sales call. The broker did not use any other sophisticated means to advance his goal, such as studying the news, seeking out advice from his peers, or any other clever means. All he did was, purely and simply, make his sales calls.
The ultimate tracking system: the “Seinfeld strategy”
Checklists are very useful for feedback loops in the short term, because they make sure that our behavior is aligned with what is conducive to our success. In the long run, however, we need another mechanism to make sure we are on course.
One of the most effective such mechanisms is the ”Seinfeld strategy”. It consists of a very simple tracking habit: a calendar to mark the days on which the habit is implemented. Every day that we do what we are supposed to do we place an X on the corresponding day in the calendar. The goal is to “not break the chain”.
It is a very powerful habit because success comes from constant, repetitive actions towards meaningful goals. The big error that most of us commit is to get really enthusiastic about something and do it for a few days in a row very intensely, and then reduce the intensity or abandon it altogether. By making sure we take action every single day in a consistent fashion we are setting ourselves up for success.
How to break a bad habit
Present and future self
Why are bad habits so easy to form and good habits so difficult to stick? One explanation is the dichotomy between the present and future self. Long-term goals require a lot of planning, hard work and delayed gratification. Short-term gratification, on the contrary, gives immediate rewards. So when it comes to executing, the short-term pleasure will usually be much more appealing than the reps towards that milestone goal.
The key is to make the long-term goals more appealing and short-term goals less appealing: to bring the long-term rewards into the present and to make the short term gratifications more painful.
Identifying the root causes of bad habits
Bad Habits don’t occur in a vacuum. They happen at very specific moments and are triggered by specific cues. Our job is to identify these so as to short-circuit the bad behavior.
For example, if a smoking habit occurs early in the morning (to wake up), during a work break (for social connection with a coworker) and after work during the late night drive (for relaxation), then the person should find a way to cope with these specific daily situations that is different from smoking. We need to identify the need that is triggering the bad behavior and addresses that instead of focusing on the bad behavior per se.
Progressively losing bad habits
An effective way to eliminate bad habits is to do so progressively by establishing phases in which they will be removed. For example, if the goal is to become vegan, a first phase could be the elimination of red meat, followed by poultry and then fish. If the goal is to eliminate sugar, the first step could be not eating candy before 10 AM.
Again, it is important to do so in the context of an identity shift. Deciding for example to become a vegan is a powerful statement that makes it much easier to follow through with the implementation of the difficult consequences.
Using bad habits to trigger good ones
Everyone slips up from time to time and doesn’t follow through with a habit. This is not usually a problem, even the best of the best do so. What is important though is to not make the same mistake twice. The chain can be broken, but only rarely, not regularly and for long periods of time.
A best practice to avoid this is creating an anchor for a good behavior when a bad behavior happens. For example, if I don’t write one morning, as I have committed to doing, I will write more the next day, in the evening before going to bed. Or if I eat a high cholesterol meal, I commit to eating extremely healthy meals for the next couple of days.
The idea is that bad behaviors happen, but they should be compensated by a string of good behaviors.
Reducing the scope, sticking to the schedule
A common error we make in trying to develop a habit is to be extreme about it: we tend to think that the habit must be implemented fully and immediately. This lack of gradualism and flexibility can lead to discouragement and ultimately to abandoning the habit. For example, we set a goal to run 3 miles a day and one day we wake up a little later so we forgo running entirely that day.
This is a wrong way to view habit-formation. The key is “sticking to the schedule”, even if it means reducing the scope of the planned activity. To continue with the previous example, if you sleep in and don’t have the time to run 3 miles, it is still worthwhile to put your running shoes and do 10 sprints. Habit formation requires consistency, showing up every day, almost regardless of the amount of work one puts in. The important thing is to ingrain the habit of daily practice.
Conclusion: goals versus systems
The best way to achieve our goal is to have a strong system of implementation. The will, the determination to achieve a particular goal are unfortunately not sufficient. What is required is daily investment, effort and grind. It is by working tirelessly, sometimes mechanically and tediously that achievement is possible.
In order to build that system, it is useful to use the “toolbox” that James Clear has illustrated throughout the course: these strategies have been proven to be effective in engraining habits and sustaining their practice through time. It is not easy to keep going for days, weeks and months, but a good system containing an array of proven techniques can definitely help.
So the bottom line, the main take away is that willpower alone is not sufficient. We are creatures of habit, we have a 200,000-year-old brain, and to make it work we must know the ground rules and follow them. It is very easy to shift back into a bad habit or to not follow through in the implementation of a good habit habit.
Miscellaneous tips and tricks
Social context matters when it comes to habits. If we are part of a culture where the normal behavior is the habit we are trying to implement, then it will be much easier to follow through. For example, if my friends are all into working out, then it will be much more likely that I too will latch on to that practice. However, if I am surrounded by couch potatoes, it will be much harder. That is of course not to say it is not possible, but swimming in the direction of the current is always easier than counter-current.
Moral of the story: let’s try to surround ourselves with like-minded people!
When we unconsciously don’t want to do something we tend to make excuses. If we analyze these excuses, we will realize that, more times than not, they have no validity. We are simply looking for justification because, perhaps, the thing we are supposed to do is hard, tiresome etc.
An interesting experiment by a Harvard psychologist illustrates this. Three groups of people were instructed to make photocopies in a situation with a large queue. The first group asked to skip ahead of the queue, and only 60% succeeded; the second group gave a reason (“I’m in a rush”), and 94% succeeded; the third group as a reason said “because I have to make copies”: strangely enough, 93% was able to go ahead. Even though they didn’t give a reason for skipping the queue they were still able to get away with it because they used the word “because”. This word seems to trigger something in our minds…
So, what we can learn from this is that as humans we tend to accept excuses without necessarily analyzing whether these excuses have any merit. The simple fact of providing an “explanation” might be sufficient for justifying whatever action – or omission – we are trying to pull off.
Conversely, when we tell ourselves we simply can’t do something, we tend to convince ourselves it is true, even though it may not be. We don’t tend to see the barriers we irrationally erect against our success: excuses are thus very dangerous and self-fulfilling!
Whatever habits we set out to adopt, it is important to have a system to measure them. We need to know whether we are making progress, how much time and energy we are devoted so that we may course correct and stay on the right path.
One habit at a time
Habits implementation works best if we focus on one habit at a time. Trying to develop multiple habits at once creates “goal competition”, and this could lead to dilemmas when there is a conflict between them. For example, if I want to implement two habits, one to wake up at 6 AM and the other to have eight hours of sleep, I will face a dilemma if I am still awake at 11. Also, it is easier to build a second habit once the first one has been completely absorbed.
If we do go ahead and decide to implement multiple habits at once, then it is necessary to have a ranking of habits based on importance and priority. For example, “the main priority is to wake up at 6 AM, regardless of the amount of hours of sleep I want to get (but eight hours would be best).” That would be an effective prioritization of habits that allows for parallel implementation while preserving the preeminence of the first one.
Oftentimes what is preventing us from following through is the lack of the ”activation energy” required to start. If I wake up in the morning and don’t feel at all like working out, it is likely that the whole process of getting dressed, driving to the gym, parking, finding a machine, learning how to use it, putting in the effort etc. requires so much (mental) energy that it forms an insurmountable barrier.
The way around this is to lower the threshold, reduce the amount of activation energy required for starting. Habits need to be dumbed down, to be SIMPLIFIED.
The overlap principle
To increase the odds of sticking to a habit, it is recommended to have backup plans when a particular instance of a habit cannot happen.
For example, if the habit of learning a new language requires one hour of conversation per day with an instructor, and that instructor cannot make it a particular night, you need to have alternative ways of honoring that language learning habit (for example, watch a movie in a foreign language, chat online with learners of that language, etc.). The point is that if we don’t have a backup plan, when something goes wrong we simply skip that session, and this inflexibility risks undermining that habit.