Making Habits Stick

If you read most self-help books, you’ll usually see a few proposed solutions:

  1. A list of tasks to perform to succeed at something, often with anecdotes and success stories to make it more palatable.
  2. A contrarian list of things that the first list of tasks overlooks, usually framed with counter-cultural rhetoric.
  3. Specific attitudes and perspectives necessary for success, typically with many assertions and anecdotes that validate the approach.

These are all often effective, but only to a point.

Typically, people broadly understand what to do: eat right, exercise daily, pay bills on time, make friends, etc. If knowing what to do was the problem, all of humanity’s problems would be over if everyone simply read the rest of this website.

Instead, there’s a different mechanical aspect to being human, beyond understanding information or thinking a certain way, designed around habits.

A habit is a simple concept:

  1. A trigger is provoked.
  2. A method is carried out.
  3. At the end of the method, a reward hits the brain’s pleasure center.

Very frequently, triggers will foster cravings that push us toward the reward. Those cravings are as powerful as the actual attainment of the reward.

The brain can create rewards for anything. For example, a conviction or hope for the future can motivate us to carry on through pain. Even something that doesn’t appear to have a reward, like resting or procrastinating, has its reward in not dealing with the issue at that moment.

All thoughts and actions start becoming habits once a person performs them a second time. From the moment you wake up to the moment you lie down every day, your body is in a perpetual state of flow from one habit to the next.

But, there’s more to it. When you analyze them, every habit consists of indefinitely divisible sub-habits.

For example, imagine you wish to write your friend a handwritten letter:

  • (while sitting at a desk)
  • TRIGGER[1] I decide to write a handwritten letter to my friend.
  • METHOD[1]/TRIGGER[2] I decide to grab a piece of paper and pen next to me.
    • METHOD[2]/TRIGGER[3] I extend my arm toward the paper.
      • METHOD[3] I grab the paper and pull it back.
    • REWARD[3]/TRIGGER[4] I have paper and now need a pen.
      • METHOD[4]/TRIGGER[5] I extend my other arm toward the pen.
        • METHOD[5] I grab the pen and pull it back.
      • REWARDS[2][4][5] I have a pen and paper.
  • TRIGGER[6] I wish to write the word “Dear”.
    • METHOD[6]/TRIGGER[7] I must write the letter “D”.
      • METHOD[7] I use a downward stroke, then a curved stroke upward.
    • REWARD[7]/TRIGGER[8] I must write the letter “e”.
      • [Continue on for as long as you wish to write]
  • REWARD[1] I’ve written a letter!

Behaviors are, in one sense, a string of hundreds, maybe thousands, of split-second maneuvers committed to memory. One of the entertaining aspects of babies is watching them learn basic habits for things like “grab” and “extend finger”, and practicing an instrument or learning to speak a foreign language are more elaborate versions of the same thing.

The beauty of habits is that these mundane details don’t cloud our consciousness and allow us to focus our decisions on better things like where to eat, what color dress to wear, or what religion to observe.

We are creatures of habit. Except for whatever we call the soul that makes us human, all animals are merely mental and physical habit machines. Even abstract, non-habit things like feelings and beliefs are partly made of habits.

These trigger-method-reward habits expand outward from our present awareness as well:

  • We hold a record of past habits as a set of stories that we call “memory”.
  • We can apply these patterns into the future to create thought-based habits called “expectations”.
  • When we’re around others, we create back-and-forth habits called “culture”.
  • When we build new things, we can make habits for those things, which we call “skills”.

All of this is volatile. If done correctly, everyone could theoretically live in a perfect society. On the other hand, badly managed habits slowly devolve into evil.

Habit Problems

There is a problem with these habits as well. Every person alive uses old methods based on old triggers from past trauma and our upbringing to attain rewards that will never happen.

Often, we’ll use complicated mental tricks to keep an established bad habit going while offsetting it with other, better actions elsewhere. This is usually because we still crave the old reward, even when reality prevents that reward from ever happening again.

Habits are the easiest way to go through life, even when they’re not wise or sane. It’s an automatic response, so it’s a very unaware existence. They define our ability to define tasks, persevere in those tasks, and self-regulate our existence. They also contribute to our conflict management skills and how we make friends.

Changing Habits

Habits stoutly oppose change. They provide a familiar connection in our minds to things we absolutely knew were true before (assuming we’re not veering into an existential crisis).

Changing habits is difficult because it’s a plunge into The Great Unknown. Most people only decide to change habits when they feel an external goal in their environment: give it up for Lent, make a New Year’s Eve resolution, or realize a substance is destroying their life.

Some habit changes will trigger a survival impulse. Survival triggers are powerful enough to make us respond as if an imaginary thing is reality (e.g., heart rate increase from scary movies, pain from hearing a story).

However, as hard as they are to change, habits don’t need much changing to start seeing dramatic results. Over time, any change to a habit will compound to absurd levels. If it were measurable, a 1% daily shift would become about 3,778% over a year.

Removing Rewards

Removing rewards isn’t very reliable. It activates the above-stated trigger deep within the brain stem.

Our higher-order thoughts can’t fight those deep sensations indefinitely, no matter how much willpower we have, so we can only persist in removing rewards if there’s another reward we have in place to meet our needs.

Removing Triggers

We have very limited control over triggers because, beyond other thoughts, triggers come from our environment.

We certainly can remove some triggers:

  • Boredom
  • Depression and despair
  • Excitement and elation (especially when you’re in love)
  • Advertisements and references to things in popular media

However, this only removes the worst offenders. If we wish to exist in society, we’re constantly assaulted by triggers beyond our control. In fact, the only time you can fully control your triggers is inside a cult.

Adding Triggers

What’s far easier, though, is to add triggers, which give us context to do better things. We can augment these triggers through better workflow, better friends, and placing things we wish to use in readily accessible places.

Another easy way to add triggers is to pay close attention to our environment. Creating a trigger in a specific location or with a specific set of circumstances is relatively easy to do. If you want to go further, visit a new environment entirely to avoid any interference from memories.

Modifying Rewards

Modifying rewards isn’t very straightforward.

If we try to add pain to the reward (e.g., snap a rubber band on the wrist), that small act can make the action more challenging. Against intuition, that extra challenge can give us more reward when we perform the forbidden action.

So, the only way to stop the desire for a reward is through a strong counter-reward: have something better in mind.

But, it’s easy to veer into the other extreme of excess. Gluttony can become anorexia, excessive spending can become cheap, and sleep deprivation can become laziness.

Counter-rewards can kill a bad habit, but they don’t build any steps toward wellness.

Changing Methods

Changing methods has more staying power:

  • Correctly changing methods is much easier than removing triggers.
  • Changing methods avoids the rollercoaster of a survival impulse.

Changing methods has the added advantage of nuanced control over what you want:

  • Instead of smoking 4 cigarettes a day, smoke 3.
  • Instead of staying up 4 hours past your bedtime, stay up 3 and a half.
  • Stop at a second helping instead of a third.
  • Throw your dirty laundry in the room with the laundry hamper instead of next to the entryway.
  • Place one thing where it’s supposed to go each day.

Other people won’t likely notice this sort of change. But, if you’re setting your goals correctly, changing any method can also create a mental reward that you actually did something.

Over time, your self-discipline will naturally become stronger, which can empower larger goals:

  • Drink a cup of coffee instead of smoking that last cigarette.
  • Plan for what you’ll do in the morning when you go to bed a little earlier.
  • Go for a run instead of getting a second portion.
  • Move your laundry hamper somewhere more convenient.
  • Organize each drawer as you encounter clutter.

Changing methods is a comparatively lower effort, but you won’t feel the results as quickly: 1,000 miles a single step at a time. You’ll just look up from your routine and notice you’ve accomplished something spectacular.

Plus, there’s a much lower risk of a relapse later than with most other approaches. Easing slowly into something won’t create a shock, but it’s pretty jarring to see yourself doing what Old You did once you’ve tempered yourself a bit.

Finding Cravings

All habits fulfill needs and wants, so we never actually remove a habit unless we change what we crave.

If you have trouble discerning your cravings from all the extra information mixed into it, swap out the rewards:

  1. Keep something with you to write down your ideas and a 15-minute timer.
  2. When a trigger happens, swap out the original reward for a reasonable alternative and perform the activity.
  3. Write down the first three things that come to mind, even if they don’t have any direct connection to what you did.
  4. Set your alarm for 15 minutes, then ask if you still have that urge.
  5. Trigger recollection of the original event by reviewing those three things, which should give a good analysis of whether that reward connects to that craving.
  6. Repeat as many times as necessary (after 3–4 times with various rewards, you’ll likely know precisely what you were craving).

Reinforcing Routines

Finally, in whatever form you approach your habits, never stop the ones you want. Repetition solidifies neural paths in the brain, but it takes 1–12 months (though small ones may take as little as 21 days). The more familiar the context and the more frequently you do them, the faster and more fixed the habits become.

Obsess over when you slip up on maintaining a habit, even if nobody else notices. At that point, a competing desire is offsetting what you’re trying to accomplish, and you must know what causes your conflicting cravings to prevent doing it a second time. Once you do it a second time, it’s the beginning of a new habit.

We usually stop a good habit when a conflicting trigger interferes with it. Self-restraint is about ignoring or avoiding triggers, not using raw willpower against them as they arrive.

One of the easiest ways to rebuild habits is to use slogans, mantras, and sayings. They refresh us with reminders of what we already know.

Expanding

Radically successful people use every reward as the trigger for something else they want to accomplish, which creates a chain of actions that whip toward any purpose they want. They’re not really doing anything different from what we already do, but they’ve taken control of that natural momentum.

All long-term learning and change come through healthy habits because they compound over time. Repetition creates conviction, makes success second-nature, and makes “good” become “normal”.

Not Easy

None of the changes through habits are instant, and it takes weeks, months, and years to see visible results. Plus, the habit never materializes consistently until we start craving the reward when the trigger starts.

For that reason, we do need to find motivation to persevere until we start reaping what we’ve sown. Religious devotion or a clear set of goals are a near-necessity for inner transformation because they fuel cravings that don’t link to satisfaction in the present moment.

Changing habits is also not pleasant. Self-discovering bad habits requires introspection from the routine backward into the cravings to discover and the feelings and motivations that drive those cravings, along with humble acceptance without shame or blame.

It also requires trust that we can change and that it will yield positive consequences.

It’s also a risk. Our story-based brains will define our beliefs based on the end of the experience, so we must stick through the difficult aspects to avoid creating worse habits.

As far as finding motivation, we must learn to be “okay” with habits that have slightly improved from the day before. Nobody’s perfect, and all-or-nothing approaches to habits rarely work.

The last few paragraphs here mean this won’t sell many books. Instead, most of the books focus heavily on what to change.