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I don’t know if it’s my obsessive-compulsive nature or my tendency to smash about four regular-size Twix bars in a single sitting, but somewhere along the line, I decided that eating clean is an all-or-nothing proposition for me. And I mean ultra clean.
So over and over again for several years, I would set myself some strict rules, spend four to six weeks following them to a T, and then slowly but surely fall off the wagon and end up back at square one.
Or so I thought it was square one.
About the fourth time around, it started to feel like the healthy eating habit was getting a little stronger during every new implementation, no matter how much time had passed since I last attempted it.
I didn’t have to psych myself up as much to jump back on the wagon. Each new streak would last a little longer than the one before it. And it became less and less likely that a small slip-up would derail the whole thing.
It was still difficult to avoid the inevitable crash at the end, but there was a glimmer of hope.
Enter: spaced repetition for habits
I started to wonder if maybe there was more to these “failures” than I originally thought.
No doubt my habit was strengthened by virtue of implementing it more often. But what if all the setbacks and reimplementations were also supporting my habit creation in their own mysterious ways?
And if so, how could I could systematize this process in order to get over the hump once and for all?
My mind landed on spaced repetition.
What is spaced repetition?
Spaced repetition is a study method that exploits two concepts in psychology: the forgetting curve and the spacing effect, both discovered by German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus in 1885.
The forgetting curve suggests that when we learn something new, our memory of it degrades over time.
The spacing effect suggests that we learn better when we spread our learning out over time.
The simplistic takeaway is that the spacing effect is the lever that lets us influence the forgetting curve: if we space out our studies, we will remember the information better.
That’s better than nothing, but newer research has made a lever out of the forgetting curve, too. One study suggests that the spacing effect works mainly because the passage of time makes it more difficult to remember previously absorbed information. And the deeper you have to dig for information, the stronger the memory will be if you can retrieve it on your own.
You could theoretically introduce some other difficulty besides time, such as a real-life test where you’d face negative consequences for forgetting the material. It’s just that time happens to be an easy and natural way to go about spaced repetition, à la the forgetting curve.
So basically, spaced repetition is the act of spacing out your studies so that you can review each slice of information when it reaches the optimal point on the forgetting curve — the optimal point being far enough out that it’s difficult to remember, but not so far out that you forget it altogether.
What does this have to do with habits?
The biggest appeal to spaced repetition lies in its ability to help you learn and memorize information. But the big question still remains: can spaced repetition work for habit-creation?
Avoiding sugar day in and day out is not quite the same as memorizing vocabulary.
My personal experience suggests that it can work. What follows is the process I used to successfully build three habits all at once: healthy eating, exercise and meditation.
Building a spaced repetition deck for your habits
When I first started to ponder whether or not spaced repetition could affect habit-creation, my mind immediately turned to the spaced-repetition flashcard apps I had heard about.
So I downloaded a few of them and had a tinker. I settled on the following system:
- Find a spaced-repetition app. Apps like Anki and Mnemosyne have spaced repetition down to a science and use fancy algorithms to determine the proper spacing between right and wrong answers (or in this case, strong and weak habits). I prefer Anki because it lets you upload images into your cards for a visual element (you’ll see why this is important later). It’s easier to create your cards using the Anki desktop app. You can export them to the mobile version later, if you prefer to study them that way.
- Create your deck. This is your collection of flashcards, each representing a different habit. Name it whatever you want.
4. Click “add” to create a new card within your deck.
5. Fill out the front and back of the card. Use the front of your card to define your habit. Mine is “no sugar or sweets”. The back of the card is for your answer. I like to think of it as my perfect answer to the biggest challenge I face when trying to build that habit. For example, I am most likely to stop eating healthy when I’m hungry for a snack and there are no healthy snacks around. I would answer that by saying “I need to have healthy snacks on hand at all times.” So I typed out that phrase and added an image that represents it to the back of the card.
6. Do this for at least two more habits. Spaced repetition requires more than one “item” you’re trying to memorize, learn or implement. That way your stronger habits can go to the back of the queue while you spend time on your weaker ones that need a little more love.
7. Install the Anki add-on called More Answer Buttons (with colors!). This gives you more control over how far apart the repetitions are spaced, and I find this to work better than Anki’s default settings for this particular exercise.
Implementing your spaced-repetition habit routine
Now that your deck is prepared, you can jump right in! Just open Anki, click on your deck, and your first card will appear. Since it’s your first time reviewing the deck, Anki will show you all of your cards regardless of how well you’ve been performing on each habit.
Now think about the “answer” you put on the back of the card in the form of an image. This image represents how you would respond to your most likely and challenging setback. Visualize the setback occurring and then visualize yourself responding to that challenge successfully. Also think about how well you’ve been implementing the habit in the recent past.
Now click “show answer”. This displays your answer, along with six colored buttons that let you choose how soon you want to see the card again.
If this is a habit you’ve been faltering on or one that you think you might struggle with over the next few days, choose one of the smaller time frames: either “less than a minute” or “less than 10 minutes”. This will let you review the card again almost immediately.
If you’ve been kicking butt on a habit and don’t foresee any setbacks, then choose a date that’s a little further out.
Next time you review your deck between now and tomorrow, you will only see cards for habits you’ve been struggling with. This gives you the opportunity to visualize yourself performing those habits effectively and with confidence every single day until you get better at it.
Cards for the medium-strength habits will turn up every few days — enough to help you keep your eye on the prize.
You won’t see cards for your very strong habits nearly as often, but you won’t totally forget about them either. They’ll eventually pop back up, probably when you least expect it.
So did it work?
This technique has worked amazingly well for me since I implemented it about two months ago.
Each habit had its inevitable highs and lows, but by using spaced repetition, I was able to hang onto every single one of these habits, even if it was just by a thread.
Now, I can honestly say all three habits are stronger than they were at the start of the experiment. Better yet, at no point during the experiment was I afraid I’d lose all my progress. I missed as many as two days in a row on each of these habits, but I would always come back on day three as if nothing had happened.
I feel like I can keep working this way until all three habits are second-nature. The prospect of missing a day doesn’t even bother me because subconsciously, I know I have a fail-safe in place.
Why does it work?
A 2009 study from the University College London demonstrated that if you perform a habit one day, miss the following day and then perform it again on the third day, your habit will be stronger on day three than it was on day one, but weaker than it would be if you hadn’t missed a day at all. (They measure the strength of your habit in terms of its automaticity, or how automatic the habit is becoming.)
So the key is bridging that gap between days one and three. That’s where visualizing your results comes in. Other studies have shown that imagining yourself performing an action can have a similar effect on your brain as actually performing it.
If that’s the case, then it follows that if you visualize your habit on day two (your missed day), you should be able to retain a bit more automaticity than if you hadn’t done anything at all.
That means you’re more likely to make it to day three, and according to the University College London study, that’s enough to ensure success in and of itself. Plus you get a few extra automaticity points as a bonus!
In addition to that, you get the memory boosting benefits of spaced repetition as discussed earlier. You might not be “memorizing” your habit, but you are memorizing your response to a challenging situation that could derail your habit.
Finally, it works because it’s an elegant way to keep track of a rolling collection of habits without getting overwhelmed by one long, sprawling list. You don’t get bombarded with every single habit every time you open the deck. You only see the ones you need to see that day, and you can rest easy knowing that you will see the rest of them when the time is right.