Probably my favourite book on habits. There are a few key ideas that stick out to me from this book – the aggregation of small gains, and the "never miss twice" rule, and the power of habits to shape your identity.
Small habits are the compound interest of self-improvement
The “aggregation of marginal gains” was a strategy of continuous improvement used by the British cycling team to become world leaders. By focusing on lots of small improvements they were able to become a championship team. What they did was change not only their athletes' training, but also things like optimizing the type of massage gels for muscle recovery, painting truck the white to minimize dust getting into the bikes, and learning to wash hands to avoid colds. Many small changes added up up to a huge change in the end result.
Even though small changes are hard to notice at first, you eventually hit a tipping point where the changes become super obvious. A good analogy is an ice cube in a cold room that you gradually warm up by 1 degree. You don’t see any change until you hit 32 degrees (0C 🇨🇦) and then BOOM the ice starts to melt. You can also think of it like a worker hammering a rock a hundred times and then finally it takes one hit to make it crack… but it would be foolish to say it was the last hit that all the work.
Goals are overrated
People overestimate the impact of goals, and underestimate the importance of systems.
Goals have several limitations, namely:
- Winners and losers have the same goals, so clearly goals alone are not enough
- “Achieving a goal” is a temporary state, it’s ephemeral
- Goals set you up for all-or-nothing thinking, a success/failure mentality
Instead we should focus on systems. The purpose of goals Is to win, but the purpose of the right system is to keep playing.
We use habits to shape our identity
There are three layers of behavior change:
When trying to change their lives, people often focus on outcomes first – losing the weight, getting the promotion, etc.
But even though we might start a habit because we’re motivated by the outcome, we maintain it because the new behavior becomes part of your identity. You become the type of person who lives a healthy lifestyle, the type of employee who gets shit done.
Identity is powerful, but it’s a double edged sword. We can also fall into traps where we adopt a self-limiting identity. You can say things like “I’m just bad with names”, “I’m just bad at public speaking”, I’m bad with directions”.
But the good news is we can use identity as the North Star of habit change by:
- Deciding who you want to be
- Providing it to yourself with small wins
So in effect, the process of building habits is the process of becoming yourself. It’s about self-actualization. We should use each behavior to cast a vote for the person we want to be.
Habits are a solution to a problem in the environment
As we build habits, our level of brain activity /decreases/ as the behavior becomes automatic. It’s nature’s way of helping us solve problems with as little energy as possible.
The mechanism is a 4-step process:Cue → Craving → Response → Reward
The first two, cue and craving, are about realizing there’s a problem we need to solve. The cue is an environmental trigger that tells us what problem to solve (e.g. you hear a notification on your phone). The craving is how we interpret the cue.
The second, response and reward, are about solving the problem by first taking action on the problem, and getting rewarded in order to 1) satisfy the craving and 2) remember how to act in the future.
You might think that trying to build a life based on habits is limiting by turning us into mindless automatons, but in reaity habits give us more freedom, not less. Some clear examples are healthy financial habits leading to more personal freedom, and healthy lifestyle habits leading to more energy to pursue meaningful work and hobbies.
💡: This reminds me of Jerzy Gregorik’s mantra: “Easy choices, hard life. Hard choices, easy life.”
The 4 Laws of good habits:
To encourage the development of good habits, we should:
- Make it obvious
- Make it attractive
- Make it easy
- Make it satisfying
To deal with bad habits, just reverse the list – make it invisible, unattractive, difficult, and unsatisfying.
Become aware of current habits with a habit scorecard
Our brains are prediction machines. Art experts are known to detect fake Picasso’s without being aware of the specific details that give it away. Medical professionals can spot people having a stroke without knowing exactly what tipped them off. And with habits, we can be driven to act on the basis of a trigger we weren’t even aware of. So to be able to design habit change, we need to start with awareness.
That’s where the habit scorecard comes into play. Every day, write down the behaviours you do in morning and at night before bed. Then rate them with a (+, -, or = for positive, negative, and neutral). Is this behavior casting a vote for your desired identity?
Habit stacking is an effective way to attach new habits to old ones
Use BJ Fogg’s Habit Stacking formula to stack new habits together with current ones:
E.g. “After I pour my coffee each morning, I will meditate for 20min”, “After I get home from walking the dog, I will write down what I need to do for day”.
Motivation is overrated
Often just changing an environment can have a dramatic on behavior. There are plenty of examples, from the Vietnam vets who kicked their heroin habit after returning home, to the hospital cafeteria that reduced soda sales by just making bottled water the more convenient option.
The bottom line is one of the most powerful ways to change our habits is to design the environment to encourage us to make the right choices. This is about making it obvious.
One trick is to design your home according to the “one space, one use” principle. Have each area dedicated to a single purpose. We can do this digitally by making each device focused on a certain type of task.
Motivation, will power, self control… these are temporary at best. The best way to get rid of bad habit is block exposure to the cue – make it invisible. Get rid of the sugary junk food. Stack the environment in your favor.
Make habits irresistible
Fast food, porn, social media – these are all ways to exaggerate what we would get in a “normal” environment. As a result they cause all kinds of compulsive behavior. It’s not only the reward itself that causes a big hit of dopamine – even just the anticipation will do it.
Clear suggests we use temptation bundling to combine a rewarding behavior with something we need to start doing. Like the engineering student who rigged up his Netflix account to his exercise bike so it only played while he was peddling.
Use the power of social norms to shape your habits in a positive way
Fulfilling society’s expectations big driver of behavior, but also parents, friends etc… We know from the classic conformity experiments that people will go to impressive lengths to fit into group norms. So why not use this to your advantage and join a culture that has the traits you want in yourself? The saying goes, we’re the average of the 5 people we spend the most time with.
To fix bad habits, highlight the benefit of not doing it
To change bad behaviour, either focus on making it unattractive, or make the absence of the behavior more obvious.
E.g. Instead of seeing saving money as sacrificial, see it as liberating. Instead of seeing exercise as a grind or a chore, think of it like chance to feel energized and get a hit of endorphins. When you get distracted while meditating, see it as an opportunity to get another rep in.
Focus on gradual progress, but keep moving forward
“The best is the enemy of the good” - Voltaire
By focusing on just getting a lot of reps in, we can often see big improvements. For example, in a photography class, students who were told to just take lots of photos did better than those told to focus on submitting the one perfect photograph.
Break habits down into small, easy actions. Don’t worry about “how long it will take”, reps trump overall time spent.
Create an environment that makes taking the right actions easy. Making things easy for your future self is like the “lazy” approach to behavior change - and it works.
The best way to stop procrastinating is to scale habits down to the two-minute version. E.g., to set up a running ritual, make the ritual just tying your shoes, rather than the run itself. Even Hemmingway made it a point to make writing effortless by always stopping “early” when there was still lots of gas in the tank.
We can also automate the right habits by locking them in in advance. This is just about setting us up for the right behavior, like buying a water filter, getting a dog, buying a good mattress, deleting Facebook, etc.
Make long term habits satisfying in the short term
What is immediately rewarded is repeated, immediately punished avoided. If we make the reward maximally satisfying we increase the chance of actions being repeated.
So if we’re trying to make a long term habit stick, try to turn it into short term rewards. If we’re trying to save money, E.g., avoid spending money on coffee or X, and pay yourself the $5 every time.
Use habit tracking to motivate yourself
Tracking helps make habits obvious. “Don’t break the chain”… or the paperclip method (each time you do the right action, you move a paperclip from one container to another).
These external trackers help us get motivated by the progress we see, and help create a tangible sense of accomplishment.
We’ll inevitably miss days, but the important thing is to not let misses compound… “never miss twice” is a good mantra. Missing twice is like the start of a new habit.
But don’t overdo the tracking… too much emphasis on the metrics can be detrimental to progress.
Our genes and personality determine which habits are the best fit
We should choose habits that will work well for us individually… try to find something that feels fun, but others find to be a drag. To find the right habits, pay attention to getting into a flow state, to when we lose track of time. Think about where we get greater returns than the average person? Those are good candidates for behaviours we should focus on.
The best way to improve is to find a task that is just at the right difficulty level - this optimizes motivation.
But sometimes we get to a point where doing something can feel boring or tedious – the difference between the experts and amateurs being able to handle the monotony of practice. Anyone can train on a good day – being able to keep practicing even on days where we lack motivation is key.
Habits + Deliberate Practice = Mastery
Focus on the big picture and continuous improvement
Pat Riley helped the Lakers win championships by helping each player performance just 1% above their career best. Their philosophy was just to learn to do things “right”, and then keep doing them the same every time.
Look back each quarter, or every year, and track your progress. Count things like articles written, workouts completed, or whatever your measuring that matters. And just focus on the big picture and getting gradually better.
The holy grail of habit change is not a single massive improvement, but thousands of 1% improvements. Success is not a goal or outcome, it’s the system.