Better Than Before
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A great book of strategies for cultivating good habits and overcoming bad ones.
Also recommended: Power of Habit, a classic with foundational knowledge on the topic.
Why is that people can’t get into habit of doing things they enjoy?
Habits are defined not by frequency or familiarity, but mindlessness. You decide once and then not at all.
Half of our days is defined by habits. Good habits = good life. Bad habits = bad life.
Every time you break a rule, you pay. Every time you obey, you pay. You must decide which costs you’re more willing to bear.
Differences between people
There are some common traits that change how different people respond to different habit formation strategies.
No good or bad traits here. The happiest and most successful are those who learn how to use them to their best advantage.
- Obligers — need external accountability
- Questioners — motivated by sound reason for any expectations (inner or outer) (That’s me!)
- Upholders — very serious about keeping their inner, not just outer commitments (a rare trait)
- Rebels — will do what they damn well please
Scheduling of work:
- Marathoners — thrive best doing low-intensity work over long periods of time (That’s me!)
- Sprinters — start the work late and do their best work in a sprint
- Procrastinators — start their work late, do a bad rush job to finish it and feel bad about it
- Promotion — are motivated by making things better (That’s me!)
- Prevention — are motivated by preventing things from getting worse
- Familiarity or novelty lovers (Me: both)
- Incremental vs radical changes (Me: both) — some people are bored and lose motivation by doing slow, incremental progress. For others, radical changes are too much at once.
- Simplicity vs Abundance lovers (Me: simplicity)
- Morning Larks vs Evening Owls — it’s an actual thing, not just a matter of getting used to it
First things first. Keystone habits: Exercise, Eating, Sleep, Uncluttering. Having those covered makes everything else easier.
Unclutter. Clutter shouldn’t matter, but for many people it does. Order on the outside helps create order inside. (Broken windows theory)
Monitoring. Gives you sense of control, knowledge to base decisions on. You can’t fool yourself if you have the data. Make monitoring easy (or it won’t stick).
Clean slate. A sense of a new beginning is a great opportunity for habit formation. (There’s novelty, excitement). Big life changes are good triggers: new house, new job. But often a trivial thing can be a good trigger: New Year, birthday, different furniture layout. (Be careful of the first few times you do something new, or the first few times you do something after a major change in your life, as that will quickly solidify into a habit.)
Lighning bolt. Sometimes, a habit can be changed instantly for seemingly no reason. A new powerful insight comes in, and boom, we’re changed. (For me, that’s usually when reading a book, so read more books!)
⭐️ Pairing. Pair a habit-to-be with something you already do/must do/like to do. (e.g. Walk and listen to a book. Watch a TV series only on a treadmill). Pairing can also make a bad habit strong (e.g. smoking while with friends). And it can limit a bad habit (e.g. eating a croissaint before exam — you don’t take that many exams after all).
Convenience / Inconvenience. Reduce the barrier of entry to things you want to do more often (e.g. put running gear out). Make things you don’t want to do harder (add steps, hide from plain sight. e.g. cut up credit cards, use SelfControl to block social media. Logging out of shopping sites). It’s easier to change your environment than yourself.
Reduce cues. Identify temptations and triggers for bad habits and change the environment to avoid them.
Brush teeth after last meal to stop snacking at night
Abstaining. For some people and some habits, it’s easier to abstain altogether then to be moderate. There’s no decisions to make (is it okay this time?), only one (not once, not ever).
To develop a new habit we often must deprive ourselves of something that gives us pleasure. The problem is that if we FEEL deprived then we feel entitled to compensation and fall back to our bad habits. Bad habits are the punishment for bad habits.
⭐️ Wait 15 minutes / Distraction. Self-denial hurts. Instead, consciously decide to wait 15 minutes before I do something I’d rather not, and direct my attention to something else that’s interesting.
⭐️ If-then planning. Pre-decide what will you do if you stumble or you run across a trigger. (e.g. if I feel like watching TV after work, then I will go for a walk). Have compassion for yourself. Self-guilt and shame never help. View stumbles as part of the process.
Other people. Choose wisely the people you surround yourself with. They have a powerful (often subconscious) influence on you and vice versa. Much easier to stick to a habit if people around you do as well.
Identity. We believe stories we tell about ourselves. Consider habits in terms of your identity (“do you drink” vs “are you a drinker”). This can be powerful, also to a fault (eg “I want to drink less but I like to be the fun one around others”). Consciously evolving one’s identity can be exciting, though.
Clarity. “Be more mindful” isn’t a habit. Make actionable steps. For example, “Meditate for 5 minutes every morning”. Red herring habits — those you say you must do, but you really have no intention of doing (“I must finally lose weight”). Find your real motivations and be honest with yourself.
Exceptions. Always pre-decide exceptions to habits. Example: if you go on vacation while you study Spanish every morning for an hour, and then you make spur-of-the-moment decision not to study, you’ve just broken a habit, and will feel out of control. However, if you decide in advance that it’s okay to skip study when on vacation, you’ll stay in control. Make exceptions matter. Rule of thumb: will the exception be so memorable, it’s worth breaking the rule for? (Great vacation, a TV series so good it was worth binge-watching)
⭐️ Loophole spotting
Spur-of-the-moment “decisions”, little excuses we instantly come up with to justify our bad habit:
- Moral licensing. I was frugal last month so I can spend a lot this month. I’ll start my diet tomorrow so I can eat whatever today. (Tomorrow logic is insidious because tomorrow is always a day away)
- False choice. I can’t exercise because too much work. I won’t have time for myself if I go to sleep early.
- Lack of control. We deny control over things we can control. If my phone buzzes, I have to check it.
- Setting yourself up to fail. Be a gambler and “just go for a test drive” of a new car to Vegas. Go play a game “just for 10 minutes”, when you know it’s not true.
- “This doesn’t count”. I’m eating a lot, but it’s the weekend / vacations / I’m sick / I had a hard day / those are just my son’s leftovers… so it doesn’t count. We tell ourselves that those are casual (not habitual) failures.
- Questionable assumptions. It’s 9am and I have a meeting at 11, so I can’t start anything serious now. I can’t start until my office is clean. I’ve already showered so I’m not going to work out. I’m so far behind it doesn’t make sense to catch up
- I’m good at this. False belief that a habit became so ingrained, you can ease off an make an exception. Don’t, good habits are fragile.
- I’m doing this for others. I’m only drinking because I’m with others. It will hurt my girlfriend’s feelings if I leave her to go for a run.
- Fake self-actualization. You only live once. Life’s short. It’s about being myself. (But is this occasion really so special? Will you really feel happier in the long term for indulging in instant gratification?)
- One coin at a time. This one time I eat cake / skip gym / drink doesn’t matter. (No, but you make the excuse every week, and the total of those exceptions counts.)
Be aware of your loophole spotting, and resist it. Every time you resist the loophole, you strengthen the habit of the habit.
Symbolic habits. Even if you really can’t keep the habit literally, keep it symbolically. The kids are sick so I can’t go for a run / write for an hour, but I can go for a quick walk around the block or write for 10 minutes. This reinforces the intention.
No finish line. Rewards are toxic. The rewards for a habit is the habit itself. (Reward for losing 10 pounds is that you lost 10 pounds.) Extrinsic motivation reinforces the idea that you do something only because of the reward. If the reward wasn’t there, you wouldn’t do it. Having a finish line (“lose 10 pounds”) makes you more likely to hit the goal but less likely to keep a habit. Because a finish line marks an end point and habits are forever.
Better to draw on intrinsic motivations: Challange, Curiosity, Control, Fantasy, Cooperation, Competition
Instead of looking for rewards, look for a natural extensions of the habit (ones that don’t undermine it). Example: I want to quit drinking for my health. If I quit, I’ll save a lot of money. Therefore, I’ll be able to afford fancy cooking tools / gym membership / etc.
⭐️ Treats. It’s healthy to give yourself a treat from time to time. Not because you were good, or you’ve earned it (not a reward!), but simply because. It must not be something that’s already a bad habit, but something that simply gives us joy and rejuvenates us. Examples: A cup of coffee, a walk, time spent with friends.
Dangerous treats: food, technology/screens.
Helps to have a built-in end line for some treats, and do it socially. Consider the difference between mindlessly flipping between channels for hours vs watching a delightful TV series with a friend, then stopping immediately.
Treats work when they’re occasional. Doing something once a week is a treat, but every day becomes background noise of life.
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