Toolkit to Make Right Habits
Habits emerge because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort.
We all have habits. The hallmark feature of habit is that it’s reflexive. You have a mosquito bite in your leg and you scratch it. You don’t think about it. Caltech University did a beautiful study. They set up cameras in the parking lot. They studied the behavior of faculty and the students who came to park their car. And what they found is that people follow same trajectories every day. They will usually try to park at the same place every day, walk the same path to their office. They turn and pivot their body the same way every day. They open the door of the office gate with the same hand. They carry their office bag the same way. It’s such a stereotype activity they do that you can trace the lines on each other. Every day is the same. We all do this. If we had a camera following us, you will be surprised to notice that how much of a robotic life we live. Every day, every minute. And this is so advantageous for us that it clears the brain of daily chores and drive us to do other things and learn other behaviors. Decision making needs effort. Habits and reflexes don’t need an effort. Like once you know how to walk, you don’t think about how to walk. You just get up and walk. These habits put us in a comfort zone. And we don’t want to change things.
I’ll tell you a story that’s a small bit of evidence that there are better ways to do things or better routines that people don’t always explore. There was a study about the London subway, the Tube. It’s a huge sprawling system, and lots of people commute on the Tube in the morning. The Tube workers went on strike because they didn’t think they were treated well, but the strike was only for 48 hours and only took place on part of the Tube system. As a result of which some (but not all) Tube stations were closed – forcing many commuters to experiment by exploring new routes on those days.
From a scientific point of view, this is a natural experiment: you can look at what happened to the people who commuted during the strike areas where there were no trains running and people had to find a different train route to get to work, and you can compare them to people who, on the same days, could keep their regular commute. The result of this forced experiment was that 5 percent of the workers found a slightly better commute.
The whole point of a habit is that you’re on autopilot, you don’t try out new things. But trying out new things can be beneficial.
We have to select behaviours to perform and what to supress. The place to intervene has to be habit. Make good things reflexive. How do you a break a habit which you know is not good? Find out what is leading up to the habit. No behaviour happens without a prompt
“We should be dreamy about aspirations but not about the behaviors that will get us there. Behaviors are grounded. Concrete.”
If you don’t have a prompt, your levels of motivation and ability don’t matter. Either you are prompted to act or you’re not. No prompt, no behaviour. Simple yet powerful.
Motivation and ability are continuous variables. You always have some level of motivation and ability for any given behaviour. When the phone rings, your motivation and ability to answer it are always there in the background. But a prompt is like lightning. It comes and goes. If you don’t hear the phone ring, you don’t answer it.
You can disrupt a behaviour you don’t want, by removing the prompt. When I check in at a hotel I ask the housekeeping to remove all those cookies, chips and goodies and alcohol from the mini bar. I know this mini bar will be a problem when I am back to my room after a busy day. I am going to end up eating some of those. All I do is remove the prompt. You can do the same in your home. If you don’t buy those chips and cookies, you will not eat them.
Same is with forming habits you want to do. Let’s say you don’t exercise in the mornings as you’d hoped. Instead of blaming yourself for a lack of willpower or motivation, walk yourself through the steps: Did you have something to prompt you? What is making this hard to do? Keeping your workout clothes and shoes in visible range the previous night may prompt or putting exercise in your Most Important activity of the day, while planning your calendar for the next day may work. All you need to do is create a prompt.
In many cases, you’ll find your lack of doing a behaviour is not a motivation issue at all. You can solve for the behaviour by finding a good prompt or by making the behaviour easier to do. Maybe working out alone is not helping you. A partner may help as a prompt. Having a trainer may help. Note down the habits that you don’t want and you want. Dissect them. Bring the prompts or remove them. You will change yourself.
Small habits are the foundation for creating positive habits and these contain all the key principles you’ll need to design for other behaviours down the road. You’ll use the same process to achieve a specific outcome over time, do a big one-time behaviour, or disrupt unwanted behaviours. And the first step to creating a series of positive habits is to decide which ones to cultivate. Small is Big.
At least when it comes to change.
June 19, 2022