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How to build better habits?

In the previous chapter, we covered how important habits are:

  • Habits make up a lot of our daily lives, and necessarily so.

  • Habits free our mind up from constant decision making and analysis, allowing us to bandwidth to think about more important things in life

  • The very nature of habits is that they become automatic and easy to follow and replicate, day after day. So we tend to keep our habits both good and bad. 

So, how do we make better habits? 

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Appreciating the habit loop 

When we think about habits, we often focus completely on the act itself. 

For example, we might want to stay sober and cut out drinking. We focus hard on reducing drinking and telling ourselves it's not good for us.

But it's really challenging. Even if we are determined, on Friday or Saturday nights, when we are out with friends, we just can't help ourselves.
Or when we feel stressed or sad, we turn to the bottle. This applies to all other habits: we procrastinate once something feels difficult, we spend an hour on social media every time we lie on our beds, we buy several books but never finish one.

The critical consideration here is that habits are not just the action (or routine) itself. Habits occur in loops.

The habit doesn't start when we start the action. It starts when we come into contact with a cue that makes us want to take action, for a reward that we want to obtain.
 

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Instead of just thinking about how we can change the routine or action, habits are often changed by being aware of the cues and rewards in the habit loop.

How does this work? Let us take a look at some examples, starting with cues:

 

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Adapted from Charles Duhigg, "The Power of Habit"

First, let's start with the example we have been discussing - drinking

For many, drinking doesn't start because people just want to drink alcohol. 

 

Instead, people start drinking on the trigger of many different cues: social convention - when meeting friends for dinner, the desire to drink at a certain point of time each day, or more commonly, instead of the desire for alcohol, it is the desire for the relief that alcohol provides:

  • Recognising the cue makes it realise why we want to do something, and when this craving happens

  • From here, we can then consider possible alternatives

  • What if we were able to replace the craving for relief through alcohol, with relief from genuine human interaction?

  • In effect, this is exactly how Alcoholic Anonymous (AA) have been so successful. Each session of AA creates a safe environment for people to share about issues which had to be masked by alcohol. Not only does the name - Anonymous - promotes this safety, they have introduced a series of steps in the design of each AA session, that promotes the opportunity for people to share and get the cathartic relief - the reward that was sought in the first place. 

Let's take a look at another example that is familiar to many of us.

When we're bored doing something (whether it's work or a repetitive chore or a partner nagging), we desire to find something interesting to distract ourselves. The distraction provides a respite from the boredom, a good-feeling quick fix.
 

So what do most of us do? We check our phones, whether it is email or social media. 

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And soon, we become addicted to checking our social media regularly (Read more about how our dopaminergic system craves uncertain rewards that social media provides). And soon we spend many hours on social media. 

But what if made a change to the routine? When we feel bored, what if we chose to do something really nice instead, like sending an encouraging text to friends or sending some love to say your spouse or family members?

 

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Instead of just stalking random folks or looking at edited pictures feeling a bit envious,  we instead used that time to build better relationships, which gives the same good feeling.

It's worth repeating once more: habit-forming comes naturally to us, and once a habit is formulated it becomes difficult to change. So it's critical to be aware of some of the cues that we are experiencing, and what we repeatedly do once we receive this cue. 

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Another example, in the picture above.

 

We might sometimes find ourselves with a mini-existential crisis. Life is short, am I really living it well? Or we might find that we have lost meaning in our personal lives, maybe a spoilt relationship. That becomes the cue for us to find fulfilment in other ways. 

One routine that some folks might then indulge in is to squeeze more meaning out of something they are familiar with - to bury themselves further into work. It's not that work isn't busy or important, but sometimes we choose to make it busier than it needs to be. Since no one can argue that work is important, we self-justify to ourselves that we are doing the right thing, we are living a meaningful life, we are fulfilled. 

If we are mindful of our cues, we can instead choose to pursue better routines - perhaps instead of making ourselves busier than we need to, we could be brave and address our existential crisis, and ask ourselves what is it that we will bring us fulfilment in life. 
(The 'Design your Life' and 'Fear-Setting' pages might provide some help)

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Aside from cues, we can also shape habits based on being mindful about our rewards.

An interesting example comes from the behavioural scientist Dan Ariely. Ariely had to take medication for Hepatitis C some years ago. The medication had very severe side effects, but it will save his life. Surely, an easy choice, right? Yet, it turned out that the short-term pain of the side-effects was so bad that no other person on the same medication managed the prescribed course, except Ariely. Everyone else simply stopped taking the meds. 

 

So how did Ariely manage to finish something that no one else managed to do?
 

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Above, we have the habit loop of all the other patients. When the time came to take their medication (the cue), the patients were reminded of the intense and short-term pain from the side effects. In contrast, the reward is long-term and not as explicit. It's hard to qualify good health as opposed to repeated puking.

Since the reward was not as attractive as avoiding the short-term pain, people stopped performing the routine. 

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Ariely faced the same problem as everyone else.  But he made one crucial difference - he created a habit by inserting a secondary reward. 

 

Ariely enjoys watching movies, and on the days where he had to inject himself with medication, he would rent his favourite movies. Then, an hour before taking his medication, he would play the movie.

The long-term reward was not sufficiently attractive considering the short term pain. So Ariely introduced a short-term reward on top of it - watching the movie.

In this first section, we've covered a major strategy to how we can change habits. Instead of just focusing on the action of the habit itself, we need to recognise that all habits occur in loops.

A habit cue leads to action. If we can identify/be aware of the cue, we can actively seek to come up with a new behaviour to replace the existing one that matches this cue.

A habit is performed because the reward is attractive. We can also change an existing habit by creating a new reward that drives a different behaviour. 


You would think that patients would take their medicine on time, no matter how bad the side effects, because it would save their lives. But this is not the case. It is estimated that only about 65% of patients take their medication on time (in fact, doctors often have to find ways to entice their patients to take medication, including coming up with a lottery!)

Repetitions 

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A second area that helps with building habits is what bodybuilders like Arnold constantly term s "reps and sets" - repetitions. 

Along with the understanding of the habit loop, we revisit the biology of habit formulation:

  • The first few times we do something, many parts of our brain are involved in figuring it out

  • As we get more used to doing the same thing, fewer and fewer brain regions are required

  • The action becomes more and more automatic until it is modulated by just one part of our brain - the basal ganglia

  • At this point, the habit becomes almost effortless. We just do it.

For a habit to form, we need to repeat it many times

A natural question is, how long must this be repeated for? How many times? The commonly quoted answer is 66 days (most commonly by James Clear, author of atomic habits). But this is not a good gauge, because the variance is very large. Some habits can be formed very quickly in just a few weeks, while others seem to take closer to a year. So it's not useful to think about how many days must I do something before it becomes a habit.

But what's comforting is this. As we have just gone through the simple biology of habit formulation, something always feels difficult the few times. But it becomes more and more automated with repetition. Regardless of how many reps it takes, it always gets easier. Doing it the 50th time will always be much easier than doing it the 5th time. 

If we can just press on pass the difficult first few repetitions, it will keep getting easier. 

Specificity and intention

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A third area that helps us build habits is specificity, being very deliberate about what exactly we need to do.
 

Milne, Orbell and Sheeran worked with 248 participants to build better exercise habits over the course of two weeks. Participants were divided into 3 groups:
 

  1. Group 1 was a control group. They were asked to track how many times they exercised that week.
     

  2. The second group was the "motivation" group. Participants were given some information about the benefits of exercise, and the researchers further provided some motivation about how exercise would reduce the risk of heart disease. 
     

  3. Group 3 was the "commitment" group. These subjects were given the same presentations as the second group, so they had the same amount of "motivation". However, they were asked to complete the following statement of their commitment: 
     

“During the next week,
I will partake in at least 20 minutes of vigorous exercise
on [DAY] at [TIME] in [PLACE].”

And the results?

  • In group 1, the control group, 35% of people exercised at least once per week

  • In group 2, the motivation only group, 38% of people exercised at least once per week. 

  • In group 3, the motivation + intention group, 91% of people exercised at least once per week.
     

You can read the full study here:​


 

 

 

A few interesting observations.

First, motivation is vastly overhyped, and not a good strategy. Think about how many of us are motivated making our New Year's Resolution. At that point, we probably all thought we would complete all our resolutions. We were so motivated. And we failed. Motivation is only a good strategy for Facebook/YouTube videos - read more at our page on motivation here.

But by writing down a plan on exactly when and where they were going to exercise that week, almost every participant was able to follow through.

This highlights how important specificity and intention are to habit formulation. While we usually focus a lot on "what" we want, what we really need to focus on is the "how". It's not useful to set a goal - I want to learn Japanese this year. It's just too broad, and it doesn't register. We are much more likely to take action if there is a plan for us to act on. We are far more likely to actually start learning Japanese if we formulated a plan of - every Tuesday at 8pm we will take that online lesson for 1 hour; and every Sunday I will go through the Japanese study material from 2-2.30pm, immediately after lunch. 

One we have formulated a specific plan, we can then commit to it. We can write it down into our calendars. And we can tell someone that we have taken up this Japanese class. When the plan has been formulated, we know if we have not taken action if we missed the Tuesday class.

We often think that we lack motivation, when in fact what we lack is specificity. 

Choice architecture

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A final piece on achieving good habits comes with examining choice architecture. There are 2 major characteristics of this. 1) we tend to choose from the choices that are presented to us and 2) we tend to pick the easier choice. 

 

Just by changing the choices we choose from, we can make a big change to the habits we develop. 

Let's start with Stephen Duneier - who halfway through life, picked up one skill after another from flying helicopters to sewing world records to learning different languages to reading avidly. 

He did so by developing a habit of learning, but this habit is premised on removing the choices that get in the way. When Duneier wanted to pick up German language, he was very specific (remember our last point?) about this should be done. It took him 45-minutes to walk to work each day - to and fro, this was 1.5 hours a day, 5 days a week. This was a fair bit of time each week, so Duneier dedicated this commute time to learning. Normally, like many of us, Duneier would listen to music while walking, but having decided that he would use the time to learn German, he bought a 33-volume set of the learner set. 

So Duneier loaded all 33 volumes on his iPod (if you're too young, it's a device that played only music - no visuals), and crucially, deleted everything else. Even if he was tempted or distracted, there was no other choice. It was either listen to the German language set or walk in silence. He made sure he did what he set out to do, by removing all other choices. He made it easier for him to pick the right choice.

We can do the same. Instead of relying on yourself to constantly make the right choice, which is really, really difficult, you can make all subsequent choices easier by designing what and how choices come to you.

These can come in several ways:

  • Removing the choice completely. This is just as Duneier had done. Say you constantly sleep late because you're always on your phone in bed. Could you decide to leave your phone outside your room? You can always set an alarm through an actual clock. And you can the volume of the phone really loud so that you would hear if there are any calls. To make it even easier, you can have a dedicate time playing with your phone before you get into bed, just that you don't ever bring your phone into bed. 

  • Making the wrong choice more difficult. Say you have a problem of always being distracted when you're with your family or friends. You can come up with a system where your family or friends "fine" you a certain sum of money which will be donated to an organisation or entity which you really despise every time you are guilty of being distracted. Or you can prepare a social media post, which your friends or family will put up every time you commit the offense. 

  • Making the right choice much easier. Say you want to save more money. Instead of relying on yourself to control spending throughout the month, set aside the desired saving amount first, and then spend the rest.

  • Breaking down the right choice into smaller bits. This is your classic how to get yourself to exercise example. For folks who do not regularly exercise, it's very difficult for them to will themselves to workout each time. But this task gets easier by breaking it down to the smaller parts. To workout, folks need to be in the right attire - they can sleep in their workout attire, or pack their workout attire every day before bed. To workout, you need to be in the right location - what if people arranged for an Uber to pick them up at a certain time each day for a trip to the gym. Or maybe people need other incentives to workout, they can simply pick their favourite celebrity workout video to follow along as a start.  

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