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Habit management

A habit is a routine of behavior that is repeated regularly and tends to occur subconsciously.

A 2002 daily experience study found that approximately 43% of daily behaviors are performed out of habit. New behaviours can become automatic through the process of habit formation. Old habits are hard to break and new habits are hard to form because the behavioural patterns that humans repeat become imprinted in neural pathways, but it is possible to form new habits through repetition.

When behaviors are repeated in a consistent context, there is an incremental increase in the link between the context and the action. This increases the automaticity of the behavior in that context. Features of an automatic behavior are all or some of: efficiency, lack of awareness, unintentionality, and uncontrollability.

Mastering habit formation can be a powerful tool to change yourself. Usually with small changes you get massive outcomes in the long run. The downside is that it's not for the impatient people as it often appears to make no difference until you cross a critical threshold that unlocks a new level of performance.

How to manage habits

Track your habit management

You can have a file where you prioritize, analyze, track them.

I'm using the next headings:

  • Habits being implemented: It's subdivided in two:
  • Habits that need attention
  • Habits that don't need attention
  • Unclassified habits: Useful when refiling habits from your inbox. This list will be analyzed when you do habit analysis.
  • Backlog of habits: Unrefined and unordered list of habits
  • Implemented habits:
  • Rejected habits:

Each habit is a TODO item with the usual states: TODO, DOING, DONE, REJECTED. In it's body I keep a log of the evolution and the analysis of the habit.

Habit management workflow

Each month I'm trying to go through the list of habits to:

  • Update the state of the habits: Some will be done, rejected or to register ideas about them.
  • Decide which ones need attention.
  • Do habit analysis on the ones that need attention.

For each of the habits that need analysis, apply the learnings of the next sections:

Why are habits interesting

Whenever you face a problem repeatedly, your brain begins to automate the process of solving it. Habits are a series of automatic resolutions that solve the problems and stresses you face regularly.

As habits are created, the level of activity in the brain decreases. You learn to lock in on the cues that predict success and tune out everything else. When a similar situation arises in the future, you know exactly what you look for. There is no longer a need to analyze every angle of a situation. Your brain skips the process of trial and error and creates a mental rule: if this, then that.

Habit formation is incredibly useful because the conscious mind is the bottleneck of the brain. It can only pay attention to one problem at a time. Habits reduce the cognitive load and free up mental capacity, so they can be carried on with your nonconscious mind and you can allocate your attention to other tasks.

Where to focus when changing our habits

Identity focused changes

Changing our habits is challenging because we try to change the wrong thing in the wrong way.

There are three levels at which change can occur:

  • Outcomes: Changing your results. Goals fall under this category: publishing a book, run daily
  • Process: Changing your habits and systems: decluttering your desk for a better workflow, developing a meditation practice.
  • Identity: Changing your beliefs, assumptions and biases: your world view, your self-image, your judgments.

Many people begin the process of changing their habits by focusing on what they want to achieve. This leads to outcome-based habits. The alternative is to build identity-based habits. With this approach, we start by focusing on who we wish to become.

The first path of change is doomed because maintaining behaviours that are incongruent with the self is expensive and will not last. Even if they make rational sense. Thus it's hard to change your habits if you never change the underlying beliefs that led to your past behaviour. On the other hand it's easy to find motivation once a habit has changed your identity as you may be proud of it and will be willing to maintain all the habits and systems associated with it. For example: The goal is not to read a book, but to become a reader.

Focusing on outcomes may also bring the next problems:

  • Focusing on the results may lead you to temporal solutions. If you focus on the source of the issue at hand you may solve it with less effort and get you to a more stable one.
  • Goals create an "either-or" conflict: either you achieve your goal and are successful or you fail and you are disappointed. Thus you only get a positive reward if you fulfill a goal. If you instead focus on the process rather than the result, you will be satisfied anytime your system is running.
  • When your hard work is focused on a goal you may feel depleted once you meet it and that could make you loose the condition that made you meet the goal in the first place.

Research has shown that once a person believes in a particular aspect of their identity, they are more likely to act in alignment with that belief. This of course is a double-edged sword. Identity change can be a powerful force for self-improvement. When working against you, identity change can be a curse.

Changing your identity

Whatever your identity is right now, you only believe it because you have proof of it. The more evidence you have for a belief, the more strongly you will believe it.

Your habits and systems are how you embody your identity. When you make your bed each day, you embody the identity of an organized person. The more you repeat a behaviour, the more you reinforce the identity associated with that behaviour. To the point that your self-image begins to change. The effect of one-off experiences tends to fade away while the effect of habits gets reinforced with time, which means your habits contribute most of the evidence that shapes your identity.

Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become. This is one reason why meaningful change does not require radical change. Small habits can make a meaningful difference by providing evidence of a new identity.

Once you start the ball rolling things become easier as building habits is a feedback loop. Your habits shape your identity, and your identity shapes your habits.

The most practical way to change the identity is to:

Another advantage of focusing in what type of person you want to be is that maybe the outcome you wanted to focus on is not the wisest smallest step to achieve your identity change. Thinking on the identity you want to embrace can make you think outside the box.

Decide the type of person you want to be

One way to decide the person you want to be is to answer big questions like: what do you want to stand for? What are your principles and values? Who do you wish to become?

As we're more result oriented, another way is to work backwards from them to the person you want to be. Ask yourself: Who is the type of person that could get the outcome I want?

How to change a habit

The process of building a habit from a behaviour can be divided into four stages:

  • Reward is the end goal.
  • Cue is the trigger in your brain that initiate a behaviour. It's contains the information that predicts a reward.
  • Cravings are the motivational force fueled by the desire of the reward. Without motivation we have no reason to act.
  • Response is the thought or action you perform to obtain the reward. The response depends on the amount of motivation you have, how much friction is associated with the behaviour and your ability to actually do it.

If a behaviour is insufficient in any of the four stages, it will not become a habit. Eliminate the cue and your habit will never start. Reduce the craving and you won't have enough motivation to act. Make the behaviour difficult and you won't be able to do it. And if the reward fails to satisfy your desire, then you'll have no reason to do it again in the future.

We chase rewards because they:

  • Deliver contentment.
  • Satisfy your craving.
  • Teach us which actions are worth remembering in the future.

If a reward is met then it becomes associated with the cue, thus closing the habit feedback loop.

If we keep these stages in mind then:

  • To build good habits we need to:

    • Cue: Make it obvious
    • Craving: Make it attractive
    • Response: Make it easy
    • Reward: Make it satisfying
  • To break bad habits we need to:

    • Cue: Make it invisible
    • Craving: Make it unattractive
    • Response: Make it difficult
    • Reward: Make it unsatisfying

Select which habits you want to work with

Our responses to the cues are so deeply encoded that it may feel like the urge to act comes from nowhere. For this reason, we must begin the process of behavior change with awareness. Before we can effectively build new habits, we need to get a handle on our current ones. The author suggests to do a list of your daily habits and rate them positively, negatively or neutral under the judgement of whether it brings you closer to the desired person you want to be.

I find this approach expensive time-wise if you already have a huge list of habits to work with. As it's my case I'll skip this part. You can read it in more detail in the chapter "4: The Man Who Didn't Look Right".

Working with the habit cues

The first place to start the habit design is to understand and tweak the triggers that produce them. We'll do it by:

Clearly formulate the habit you want to change

The cues that can trigger an habit can come in a wide range of forms but the two most common are time and location. Being specific about what you want and how you will achieve it helps you say no to things that derail progress, distract your attention and pull you off course. And with enough repetition, you will get the urge to do the right thing at the right time, even if you can't say why. That's why it's interesting to formulate your habits as "I will [behaviour] at [time] in [location]".

You want the cue to be highly specific and immediately actionable. If there is room for doubt the implementation will suffer. Continuously refine the habit definitions as you catch the exceptions that drift you off.

If you aren't sure of when to start your habit, try the first day of the week, month or year. People are more likely to take action at those times because hope is usually higher as you get the feeling of a fresh start.

Habit stacking

Many behaviours are linked together where the action of the first is the cue that triggers the next one. You can use this connection to build new habits based on your established ones. This may be called habit stacking. The formulation in this case is "After [current habit], I will [new habit]".

The key is to tie your desired behaviour into something you already do each day. Once you have mastered this basic structure, you can begin to create larger stacks by chaining small habits together. The catch is that the new habit should have the same frequency as the established one.

One way to find the right trigger for your habit stack is by brainstorming over:

  • The list of your current habits.
  • A new list of things that always happen to you with that frequency.

With these two lists, you can begin searching for the best triggers for the stack.

Use the environment to tweak your cues

The cues that trigger a habit can start out very specific, but over time your habits become associated not with a single trigger but with the entire context surrounding the behaviour. This stacks over itself and your habits change depending on the room you are in and the cues in front of you. The context or the environment is then the invisible hand that shapes behaviours. They are not defined by the objects in the environment but by our relationship to them.

A new environment is a good foundation to make new habits, as you are free from the subtle triggers that nudge you toward your current habits. When you can't manage to get an entirely new environment, you can redefine or rearrange your current one.

When building good habits you can rearrange the environment to create obvious visual cues that draw your attention towards the desired habit. By sprinkling triggers throughout your surroundings, you increase the odds that you'll think about your habit throughout the day.

Once a habit has been encoded, the urge to act follows whenever the environmental cues reappear. This is why bad habits reinforce themselves. As you carry through the behaviour you spiral into a situation where the craving keeps growing and points you to keep on going with the same response. For example watching TV makes you feel sluggish, so you watch more television because you don't have the energy to do anything else.

Even if you manage to break a habit, you are unlikely to forget it's cues even if you don't do it for a while. That means that simply resisting temptation is an ineffective strategy. In the short run it may work. In the long run, as self-control is an exhausting task that consumes willpower, we become a product of the environment we live in. Trying to change a habit with self-control is doomed to fail as you may be able to resist temptation once or twice, but it's unlikely you can muster the willpower to override your desires every time. It's also very hard and frustrating to try to achieve change when you're under the mood influences of a bad habit.

A more reliable approach is to cut bad habits off at the source. Tweak the environment to make the cue virtually impossible to happen. That way you won't even have the chance to fall for the craving.

Working with the habit cravings

Temptation bundling

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that can be used as the scientific measurement of craving. For years we assumed that it was all about pleasure, but now we know it plays a central role in many neurological processes, including motivation, learning and memory, punishment and aversion and voluntary movement.

Habits are a dopamine-driven feed back loop. It is released not only when you receive a reward but also when you anticipate it. This anticipation, and not the fulfillment of it, is what gets us to take action.

If we make a habit more attractive it will release more dopamine which will gives us more motivation to carry it through.

Temptation bundling works by pairing an action you want to do with an action you need to do. You're more likely to find a behaviour attractive if you get to do one of your favourite things at the same time. In the end you may even look forward to do the habit you need as it's related to the habit you want.

Align your personal identity change with an existent shared identity

We pick up habits from the people around us. As a general rule, the closer we are to someone, the more likely we are to imitate some of their habits. One of the most effective things you can do to build better habits is to join a culture where your desired behaviour is the normal one. This transforms your personal identity transformation into the building of a shared one. Shared identities have great benefits over single ones:

  • They foster belonging. A powerful feeling that creates motivation.
  • They are more resilient: When one falters others will take their place so all together you'll guarantee the maintenance of the identity.
  • They create friendship and community
  • They expose you to an environment where more habits tied to that identity thrive.

Likewise, if you're trying to run from a bad habit cut your ties to communities that embrace that habit.

Working with the habit responses

Working with the habit rewards