How To Build Good Habits
Most of us realize intuitively that habit-building is necessary to create value. We do it instinctively. If you get up and write every morning, eventually you’ll have a book. If you work out every day, you’ll end up jacked. These are not mystical guru statements, just every-day common sense.
However, as with many of the things we intuitively understand and do, there are ways to improve how effective our habit-building is.
If value leads to success, and habits lead to value, it stands to reason that we should put a lot of effort into learning how to build habits more effectively. So take five minutes out of your day and skim this article. If at least one thing I’ve written doesn’t blow your mind, my Twitter is @elliotbnvl – feel free to shame me publicly. 😅
Willpower is expendable
Let’s talk about tooling first: willpower is the primary thing we use to build habits, so it’s important to make sure we’re all on the same page about what it is and where it comes from.
Willpower is an expendable resource. You wake up in the morning, and it’s pretty easy to knock out what needs doing. But by the end of the day, you probably don’t feel like being productive at all, and that goes for whether or not you had a super busy day or did nothing except lie around.
Why is that?
Turns out that making decisions costs energy. You’ve heard this before. Every decision you make causes making future decisions more difficult. Your brain has to evaluate tons of micro-variables at a subconscious and conscious level for every decision, and that takes up valuable resources.
So to preserve our willpower and help ourselves to be more productive throughout the day, we need to come up with a way to make as few decisions as possible.
Steve Jobs knew this. So does Mark Zuckerberg. Hence the trademarked “outfits” both entrepreneurs are known for. One less decision to make every day, and energy reserved for more important things.
This is where habits come in. A habit is something you can perform without thinking about it. You don’t have to decide to continue a habit, because you already did – a while ago, probably. And what’s more, your brain has spent every day since you made that decision about that habit optimizing it, making it easier and more efficient.
How to engineer a habit
Most of us are already pretty decent at building habits. We do it all the time; brushing our teeth, making coffee, our sit-down-at-the-computer-and-start-work routine.
There are three parts to every habit: a trigger, an action, and a reward.
The trigger is what causes your brain to realize it needs to do something. The action is the thing that needs doing. The reward is what you get for doing it.
So to build a habit, you establish a trigger for yourself. Getting the trigger right is essential, because the more consistent your trigger is, the easier your habit will be to create and maintain. Think of the trigger as “anchoring” your habit to your day. A specific time, or the completion of another activity that is anchored to your day in some way, etc. For example, if your habit is working out in the morning, the trigger might be getting out of bed.
The action would be putting on your gym clothes, driving to the gym, working out, coming home, and showering. This part is pretty flexible and hard to screw up. There’s not a wrong way to choose your action, but there is one caveat: the easier your action is, the easier it’ll be to complete. Might sound obvious, but this is very important.
Sometimes all it takes to make a habit that you’ve struggled to establish is making that action just a tiny bit easier. Changes here have a disproportionate effect on the willpower required to build the habit.
Finally, the reward. It’s what you give yourself when you finish completing the action. If you went to the gym, it could be making yourself a delicious breakfast. Or having a power bar and a latte. Or whatever you come up with as a post-workout routine. (Seriously, I hope you don’t just have a power bar and a latte… that was kind of a joke.)
Whatever it is, it should be something immediate, sensory, and proportionate to your action. The harder it is for your lizard brain to connect action to reward, the more willpower you have to invest to fill the gap between the two. And the more willpower you have to spend, the harder it will be to build and maintain that habit.
Engineering a good habit requires picking a consistent trigger, an efficient action, and a proportionate reward. Most importantly, you should engineer your habits with an eye to maintaining, building, and rebuilding them. And that’s because…
You will lose habits
I recently heard somebody say on a YouTube video that “if you only build one habit a month, you’ll be successful.”
That just isn’t true.
The reality is, we can’t and shouldn’t expect to maintain the habits we build. The unpredictability of life means that sometimes, despite our best intentions, we break a good habit, or pick up a bad one. And that’s fine. But if we’re losing habits faster than we’re building them, we’ll never get anywhere.
To combat this, you must make a habit out of building habits.
This is the most difficult habit of all to establish, though, according to the principles I laid out in the previous section. The trigger… it’s inconsistent. Only when you need to start doing something new or when you lose a good habit do you need to employ the action here. The action (building a habit) is probably pretty inefficient right now (it certainly is for most people who haven’t made a study of habit building). And the reward? Very, very intangible, at least to your lizard brain.
However, this is the most important habit you’ll ever build, and if you want to succeed, it’s important to start now (if you haven’t already). Reading this article is a good first step!
Your brain is really, really good at optimizing habits
Unlike random positive things you try to do but only end up getting to on a sporadic basis, your brain is phenomenal at optimizing habits.
Every time you complete an action for a habit, your brain gets a bunch of information on how that went for you. When it receives that feedback, it can compare it to how the last action went, if you did it within recent memory. Your brain can then use that diff to come up with improvements on the habit.
The key thing here is “within recent memory” – you need to be consistent about your habit, which is partly why the trigger you choose is so important. If your habit isn’t consistent enough, your brain won’t be able to draw from previous experiences as readily, so it’ll be harder or impossible to optimize based on them.
It’s not just about consciously remembering the last thing you did, though. It gets a lot more complex than that, thanks to the biochemistry our meatsacks have developed to keep us ticking.
I’m sure you’ve heard that your body releases certain chemicals to help you sleep and to help you wake up. When you work out, when you finish working out. If you’re going to start making some cold calls or when it’s time for lunch. These physiological reactions all developed to help you survive in a world of monsters and lunches with four legs, but have remained potent tools for optimizing our lives into the present day.
If you keep your habits very consistent, your body will start to naturally recognize them and prepare your mental and physical state to complete them.
If you get up at a particular time every day, your brain will catch on and start releasing chemicals to wake you up seconds or even a minute or two before the alarm clock goes off. If you go to bed at the same time every day, your system will be flooded with melatonin by the time it’s lights out, helping you to fall asleep moments after your head hits the pillow.
Take advantage of this by choosing consistent triggers for your habits. Go to bed, get up, and eat at the same time every day, if possible. I mean, don’t freak out about timing, but do keep in mind that it’s another useful tool to help make actions easier (which contributes to how likely you are to build them into habits).
Habits generate willpower
As we’ve established, every habit you build frees up more of your willpower, allowing you to devote it to the parts of your life that you cannot habitualize, such as creative work, time with the people you care about, and recreation.
But there’s more to it than that. You remember how I said earlier that willpower is expendable? Well, yes – you start the day with a fixed amount of decision-making energy. Exactly how much you get is based on your current circumstances, like how much you slept and whether or not you got smashed last night.
Turns out, though, that you can expand your “willpower capacity” by, you guessed it, building habits. Here’s how and why that works:
Every time you do something required for your success, you get some energy back out of it. That energy comes from the rush of knowing that you’ve moved closer to success. And if you don’t need to expend any energy to decide to do that positive thing – if it’s a habit – you’ve just gotten some free energy for your day that you can use to fuel the next thing that is required for your success.
So, the more habits you build, the more habits you can fuel with the energy you get out of the ones you’ve completed. And the more productive you are. This is how you build momentum and, ultimately, enter a state where you’re carried along from action to action effortlessly.
This is why you make your bed in the morning, or shave, or even bother changing out of your pajamas, so it’s probably not all that mindblowing to you. But just take a moment and consider how these habits contribute to your success every day.
If you don’t do them, you’ll feel lazy, like a slob, and probably won’t get much done. But if you do make your bed, shave, and get your up-clothes on, you’ll be a superhero, ready to take on the day.
Habits allow us to focus on what matters
There you have it. If you follow these rules, the logistics around running your day will become effortless, and you’ll be able to focus on what really matters.
With every habit you build, your productivity will grow, you will become more successful, and you will get more out of life.