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A Straightforward Guide to Building Habits

A story by Nir Eyal, taken from edition two of our print magazine.

Adrian Drew
Dec 1, 2020 · 4 min read
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Photography by Joseph Marchant

It’s here! Edition two of our print magazine, entitled ‘Habits’, went live today. To learn more about how to build healthier habits from some of the world’s greatest authors, pick up your copy here. Oh, and because we love you so much, use the code SUBSCRIBER10 at checkout for 10% off.

Some self-help books claim habits form by simply providing a reward after a cued behavior. In the behaviorist tradition, they base their claims on research showing how a lab animal, like a mouse, can be taught to memorize a path through a maze in search of food. However, while this form of learning, called operant conditioning, works well for a mouse in a maze, the model is often misapplied for humans in the real world.

Operant conditioning can be effective when a scientist in a lab coat sets up the task for test subjects to complete. However, in life, we are thankfully not trapped in cages and mazes, we must moderate our own behavior. Unfortunately, we must be scientists attempting to design our own actions. Offering ourselves extrinsic rewards makes conditioning our own behavior very difficult. It can be exceedingly hard to resist cheating. Setting up arbitrary prizes risks overemphasizing completing a goal for the sake of the reward, instead of learning to enjoy the process.

That said, let’s run over some key practices and principles that you can utilize when seeking to form a new habit.

Start with a Routine

First, we have to accept that only certain kinds of behaviors can become habits and that certain behaviors will never become habits. Only then can we take the first step towards changing our repeated behaviors. For those actions that can turn into habits, we can begin by making them into routines. As long as we know the difference between a habit (a behavior done with little or no thought) and a routine (a series of actions regularly followed), we can plan accordingly and not be disappointed.

Hold the Time

Since we can’t count on routines to happen automatically the way habits do, we need to make sure to allocate time for them. Many people go through their days with aspirations to accomplish a list of tasks. But without dedicating time on their calendars to do them, they never get everything done.

Setting an “implementation intention,” which is just a fancy way of saying that you will plan what you are going to do and when you are going to do it, has been shown to boost the likelihood of following through. Without a dedicated time reserved for your new routine, chances are it’ll never get done.

Welcome Discomfort

It’s important to expect that learning and repeatedly doing a new behavior requires effort. Expect discomfort and know that you’ll have to push through it. Along with setting expectations that new routines won’t be effortless, you can learn coping techniques to deal with discomfort more healthily.

For instance, you can learn to re-imagine the difficulty positively by telling yourself a different story. Instead of focusing on how hard writing or exercising every day can be, think of the difficulty as part of the journey. Know that everyone who has ever made a routine out of this behavior has struggled at some point.

If you desire to go to the gym regularly but dislike exercise, find ways to see it differently. Envision every drop of sweat as a sign your body is getting stronger. Learn to see the burn as tiny muscle fibers getting better at doing their job while your body rises to the challenge.

Perception is a matter of perspective; no matter the routine, you can choose to re-imagine your discomfort as a good thing. This may seem like a stretch for someone who hates exercise, as I once did. But it’s useful to remember that many people have learned to love the very same difficulty you despise. If they can see it differently, why can’t you?

Pre-Commit

Before a behavior can become a habit, it needs to become a regularly performed routine. But given how effortful routines can be, it’s far too easy to skip a difficult task. Thankfully, making a pre-commitment is a fantastic way to ensure you do what you say you will do.

For instance, if writing or exercising daily is a routine you want to adopt, finding someone to hold you accountable will increase your odds of success. Sites like FocusMate make finding someone to work alongside easy (note: I liked FocusMate so much I decided to invest in the company). You can also pre-commit to a routine by using software like Forest on your phone and Freedom on your computer to prevent distraction and keep you on task.

By not expecting every aspiration to become an effortless habit, you increase your odds of success. If it’s the right kind of behavior, one that can be done with little or no conscious thought, the routine can become a habit.

It’s important to remember not to try and turn hard-to-do behaviors into habits. Doing so risks frustration and failure. Instead, accept that it’s perfectly fine that some behaviors will remain routines and expect them to never become effortless. By focusing on forming solid routines through the steps outlined above, you’ll have a better chance of sticking to what’s important to you, while increasing the odds that some routines may blossom into habits.

To read Nir’s article in full, pick up your copy of Mind Cafe Magazine here. Don’t forget to use the discount code ‘SUBSCRIBER10’ for 10% off!

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