The System You Need For Behavior Change

Stoicism, Self-Help and Forming Habits

Caleb Ontiveros
Nov 5, 2019 · 4 min read

Recently on Sunday Stoic Podcast, Steve Karafit and I spoke about habit formation. I touched on some of this on the post on the Siren of Stoic Self-help. When you’re consuming Stoic literature, you need to convert that to action. Consumption is much easier than production. But it’s action and character that are truly valuable.

So, how do you ensure that you create a habit after reading Stoic literature?

Consider a few different ways that you could resolve to change your behavior.

  • I will follow through with a habit because I have strong willpower
  • I will follow through with a habit because the right system is in place
  • I will follow through with a habit because that is who I am.

The first strategy is tempting. For example, after reading some inspiring work, we might decide to wake up at 5am in order to journal and meditate. How? With willpower.

But this strategy typically fails. It feels so easy to decide to change our behavior after reading powerful work. But that decision actually doesn’t require any action of us in the moment. We can outsource our action to the future. At 5am, the effect of the inspiring words are gone and we’re tempted to sleep in.

The second strategy is better. With a system in place, will be more likely to follow through. A system takes advantage of our nature and sets us up for success.

What does a habit system look like? You need to do three things:

  1. account for the habit loop
  2. record
  3. iterate

The habit loop is made up of cue => routine => reward. This habit loop takes advantage of our human nature. We need to discipline ourselves in order to create a habit and this is easiest if we take advantage of our inbuilt tendencies for habit creation.

Let’s walk through an example. Suppose, I want to journal nightly. What will the cue be? The cue is the thing used to trigger the action. Flesh it out with a trigger action plan (TAP). In the abstract, you want a plan of the form: “when x happens then I will Y.”

The trigger can be made up of location, times, and events. For example, “when I enter my room after work, I will journal for 15 minutes.” or “at 8pm, I will move to my desk and journal for 15 minutes.” Or “If I receive a reminder from Stoa, then I will open up Stoa and journal for 15 minutes.” Make sure you’re specific and detailed.

One way to ensure that you treat this cue as a trigger for action is to practice it. Suppose you want to practice journaling after entering your room after work. Practice this by pretending that you are coming home from work, actually entering your room, and then journaling. Do this a few times to ingrain the cue as a cue. Try mentally rehearsing the actions in detail throughout the day. Remember, habits are automatic behaviors. They are meant to be a part of your character. Building an automatic behavior requires practice.

To strengthen the habit loop, introduce rewards. After you do your routine, follow it up with an activity you positively enjoy. Whether it is munching on chocolate or taking a warm shower. Reward yourself for following through! You can also consider enforcing the behavior by holding yourself accountable. If you are writing for the public, make a public commitment. Share your progress! You can also raise the stakes and enforce a financial penalty if you don’t follow through.

In order to know whether you’re following through, you’ll need to record. Many activities are easy enough to track, like journaling. For other habits, like exercise, you’ll need to set time aside to record when you follow through. Apart from the obvious reason that you should know whether you’re doing what you want, tracking your habit is also useful for building the right system. If you notice that a cue isn’t working, change it. Consider changing rewards.

This is where the third part, iterate, comes in. If at first you don’t succeed try again. Change the trigger. Introduce different rewards. Up the stakes. Make the routine easier, start small and build on small wins. Building a habit is a process, not something one should expect to get 100% right the first time.

Having a system for building habits is exceptionally useful. To ensure that you do what you want, you need to consider who you are. Making a habit a core part of our identity can ensure that you follow through.

There are two ways to do this.

First, take advantage of the fact that humans are social beings. A powerful source of our own identity is who we surround ourselves with. As Seneca realized, this can be a blessing or a curse. Choose company who shape your identity in the way you want it to be shaped. Don’t do the opposite.

Second, remind yourselves of your beliefs and values. Why do you want to build this habit? What purpose is it serving? If you want to journal nightly, you may remind yourself of how you are the kind of person who values truth (accurately assessing yourself), confidence (noting when you fulfilled your goals), and self-improvement.

As you build out a successful system for building habits, you’ll become the kind of person who follows through. And as you become this person, you’ll become better at building habits.

Stoicism — Philosophy as a Way of Life

Articles about Stoic Philosophy for modern living

Caleb Ontiveros

Written by

Founder of Stoa http://stoameditation.com/. Philosophy PhD dropout.

Stoicism — Philosophy as a Way of Life

Articles about Stoic Philosophy for modern living

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