Paul Nixon's Blog |||

The Magic of Habits

1. Introduction

Let’s kick off with four ideas that I believe to be true

  1. Only bad things happen quickly - expect anything worthwhile to take a long time
  2. We experience more pleasure on the way to achieving our goals than we do when we attain them
  3. Happiness is the byproduct of living a meaningful life, and meaning tends to come from striving and self-discipline
  4. We overestimate what we can achieve in the short term, and underestimate what we can achieve in the long term

Of course this is not to say that they always hold true, for every person, in every situation, for all of time. To state a principle is not to imply there are no exceptions.

However, if we accept the directional accuracy of these statements we can start to glimpse the utility and power that cultivating good habits can have in making a better life for ourselves.

2. Habits vs Willpower

There have been studies that show around 40-odd percent of our daily behaviours are driven by habits.

Habits free us from decision-making and using self-control, leaving our willpower intact for other things. With time and repetition we stop consulting our intentions and just keep acting. How much do you think about the canonical example of brushing your teeth every morning?

Habits, good and bad, are hard to break so it’s worth some upfront endeavour to fashion good ones and take advantage of the automaticity that comes along for the ride.

And what of the role of motivation and willpower? Summoning great motivation is great for achieving hard things and so has its place in life, but it is unreliable and high levels of motivation are scattershot and unsustainable. Self-control is a short-term strategy only - we need a different approach if we want to achieve long-term results.

3. The magic of compounding’

My recommendation is to start new habits in the smallest way possible. Your intuition will tell you that the benefit over time will look something like this. (The units on the y-axis are, obviously, bananas’).

Habits Expected

However, stick with it and the reality will look more like this spectacular, multi-coloured masterpiece.

Habits Actual

Why? Because that tiny habit you started grows. A personal example - I decided to reduce my caffeine intake. So I started really easy - no coffee after 15:00. I did that for a while, then no coffee after 13:00, then 11:00, then I decided to have one coffee a day first thing in the morning and no more.

And there’s more. Every time you deliver your habit, you feel good. And you build belief in your ability to change - and so you add more habits. In the same way - starting tiny, then allowing them to grow and flourish.

All this takes time of course, but what’s the hurry.

5. Rules for making a new habit

Let’s work through the process of creating a habit to do twenty press-ups a day. A noble ambition.

5.1 Make it tiny

Make it so easy that you will definitely be able to do it every day. Make it utterly ridiculously easy. The key to building habits is repetition so the most important thing is that you do it every day. Don’t try and force yourself to do twenty press-ups a day - the moment your motivation starts to wane, you’ll first miss a day, then more, then give up. Hope and aim for the big goal each day by all means, but the habit should be to do at least one press-up per day.

5.2 Write down when, how and what you are going to do

Or, using psychology jargon - create an implementation intention’. Implementation intentions should be in the form

When [cue] I will perform [behaviour]

The cue is the prompt you’ll use to remind you to carry out the habit - and you should aim to make it as prescriptive and specific as possible. So After I have cleaned my teeth in the morning…’ is much better than Every morning…’.

So, for our press-up project

When I have cleaned my teeth in the morning I will perform at least one press-up

5.3 Tracking

Not everyone is going to like this idea very much - but unfortunately I really must insist. You have to keep track of your habits and progress. I know it sounds nerdy, it’s definitely uncool, but it works. The benefits of tracking include, and are not limited to

  • Reminding you to act every day
  • Holding yourself to account
  • Creating a material, visible sense of progress
  • Generating a sense of reward as you tick off each day

You’ll end up with a preferred way of doing this, but to help you kick things off I’ve made this downloadable Monthly Tracker.

6. Summary

All of us want a better life than the one we have. Not because we are greedy, but because our brains have been made this way by evolution. The price we pay for the survival of our ancestors is a life of chronic dissatisfaction - as the Buddha himself was saying only a few millennia ago, nothing is completely satisfying.

It is a common delusion to think that we might find something to short-circuit the process, that there is something out there that would leave us satisfied forever. However, if silver bullets existed, we would have found them by now.

Perhaps the best we can do is settle for something less than a magical or fortuitous transformation. Something that is both easy, realistic and more powerful than our intuitions would suggest.

The accretion of tiny behaviours, repeated for a long time, create unexpected striking results. They also create something more important than the results - a sense of control, mastery, discipline and joy along the way.

7. Suggested Reading