How To Build Better Habits: A Crash Course
Lifestyle

How To Build Better Habits: A Crash Course

In this post, I talk about my system of building habits, as requested by someone on Instagram. It’s a six-step system built over the years. Each section is summed up with a takeaway that summarises it perfectly.

No time? Listen to it instead

Last week, on Nudge › How’s Instagram, I asked people what they wanted me to write about on the blog. Today, I’ll be talking about the first one: Habits. The best way, I figured, was to share my own system and hope it helps other people out. I built this over the past four to five years and I’m still iterating over it.

An Anecdote

2017 was about to end, and so was my undergraduate programme. I had decided to take a gap after college some six months later. However, my issue was simple. I had just begun changing my life by adding some habits, and overall, just adding more responsibility and accountability. If my trips to Dehradun on the weekend were any indication, it was that a change in environment would trigger an instant loss in everything I did.

For some reason, the lifestyle I wanted to craft didn’t seem to take hold in my family home in my hometown. There were issues with space and then, living alone versus with people has one significant difference: your day is not just yours alone.

So, before my gap even arrived, I had decided to craft a system of sorts to make sure my newfound lifestyle doesn’t fizzle out. Some came later and helped me understand why what I did worked. Some, I figured out on my own. I’m still figuring it all out as I go.

Let’s begin there and see where that takes us.

1. Don’t Focus on the Method: Adapt

The devil is in the details, especially when it comes to forming new habits. This logic was one of the first things I figured out when I moved to Dehradun and couldn’t find enough space to do my bodyweight workouts in the house. We have a rather small one in Dehradun and, in classic Indian middle-class fashion, it has a lot of stuff in it. But that’s just blaming the environment.

So, I boiled each habit – exercise, reading and others – to their intended goal or outcome and not their process.

The Three Things Rule

That’s where my Three Things Rule comes in: Do three things every day. One to get your body moving; one to get your heart beating; and one to get your mind working. Once you do all three of them, the day is good. Everything else is extra credit.

How does that fit in here? It fits in because it boils down a specific bodyweight workout that requires me to have enough space to simply: get your body moving. It manages to throw the method out the window.

Now, all I had to do until I figured out a way to get everyone on the same page and get some space created for my workouts, was to get my body moving. So, every evening during my gap year, I’d take a brisk walk around the city. The route was a closed loop of about 6-7 kilometres. My friends and I also started doing hikes on Sundays, so that was an added activity.

Eventually, the walks started ending with me in a cafe where I would read for two hours. So, the habits got stacked. More on that later.

Keeping It Going

Eventually, I did manage to begin working out and got myself just enough space available for my mat and movement. The Three Things Rule helped me avoid the first excuse that often pops up because we’re too stuck up on the process instead of what we’re trying to achieve. We should be looking at what they do for us.

Takeaway: Habits are behaviours that do something for us: exercise gets moving, reading helps us gain knowledge as well as entertains us, crosswords help us think faster and better. If any external factor changes and the same activity is challenging to keep up, change it to another that achieves the same goal. Don’t focus on the method. Focus on the goal.

2. Delay Gratification: Play the Long Game

During my gap year, I was out having coffee with some of my friends. It was then that I faced the inevitable question: So, what are you doing during this time of freedom?

To which, I remember answering, “I’m focusing on the long game. I’m building a system of sorts to do little things every day. I’m studying some courses too and just developing habits that I know I can sustain.”

That was two years ago, and I’ve still kept that system alive.

The Long Game: What?

I think I’ll directly quote Shane Parrish here,

The short game is putting off anything that seems hard for doing something that seems easy or fun. The short game offers visible and immediate benefits. The short game is seductive.

The long game is the opposite of the short game, it means paying a small price today to make tomorrow’s tomorrow easier. If we can do this long enough to see the results, it feeds on itself.

Shane Parrish, Farnam Street (here)

The Long Game: How?

I’ve figured out two simple rules which also feed into one another. The first one is repetition: show up every day. The second one is simplicity: go easy enough on yourself.

If you show up every day, it starts getting easier. When it is easy, you tend to show up every day. The second one is especially true with activities like working out. It’s a feedback loop.

So, there is a sweet spot, a Goldilocks zone of sorts, where you can comfortably sustain a new behaviour. This loop helps you play the long game. It keeps you going on most days.

Second-Order Thinking: Ask Yourself, “Then What?”

Asking yourself “and then what?” is what Shane Parrish summarises as Second-order Thinking. It is something I still have trouble grasping at every day, but it is a sound way to think about your life and actions. First-order Thinking goes till the action. It’s about the If and the Then.

Imagine you’re walking in the street and it’s sunny. You pass by a store, and an advert for Coke caught your glance. You start to think: “I guess I can do with some cola?” and you walk into the store, get it, and exit, sipping away your sugary cola, satisfied.

That’s First-order Thinking.

And Then What?

Second-order Thinking would have you ask, “I guess I can do with some cola and then what?” One won’t hurt. However, if it is a street, you cross by daily, and if it is a store your pass by every day, you see where this is going. The sun will shine on you every day, and it will be hot every day. The habit isn’t too far away.

An alternative, if you want to get something, is to get a bottle of water. An even better is to carry your own. The smallest, invisible choices are where we form the habits that stick the most. Second-order Thinking visualises those choices which in turn, helps you focus on the long game.

Takeaway: The Long Game helps you focus and prioritise better. However, playing the Long Game is tough, so how do you do it? Remember to keep it simple enough and do it every day. If you can start by doing it every day, great. If you can’t do it every day when you begin, simplify further. Also, think in Second-order and try to avoid short term gratification. It comes with practice but start by asking yourself, “and then what?” every time you make a decision.

3. Don’t Break the Chain: No More Zero Days

No More Zero Days is something I learned about last year. It helped me immensely in getting my life back together after some personal chaos in September. The idea first originated on a Reddit comment. The idea was so perfect that it somehow grew into an entire movement.

No More Zero Days is the first rule in the famous comment. There are, of course, other rules in user /u/ryans01 philosophy and all four of them are some of the best advice you’ll find about life. For this article, let’s focus on what he calls, “Rule Numero Uno: No More Zero Days.”

The idea is simple. If it’s 11:58 PM and you had to read today but you couldn’t. Read a page right now. Read a paragraph before midnight. Just make sure you “read” something not to break the chain. The idea is never to break the chain.

Takeaway: If you planned to do something today and somehow couldn’t, don’t let the day end with it being a zero. Anything is greater than zero. If you wanted to read today, read a page. If you wanted to work out, do one pushup. Make sure you keep the ball rolling.

4. Understanding Identity: Find Your Trigger Habits

In Atomic Habits (apologies for quoting it consistently, but the book is just that good), James Clear mentions a shift in identity. In an example that he gives for the same, he says that when someone is trying to quit smoking, how they deny a smoke, is indicative of whether they’ll succeed or not.

If they say, “No, thanks, I’m trying to quit”, they’re still in their old identity. I am a smoker, and I am trying to let go of it. If they say, “No, thanks, I don’t smoke”, it’s a minor shift, but that establishes their intended identity in their head.

My Trigger Habit: Brush, Floss, Wash

A couple of years ago, I wrote this piece on what I called a Trigger Habit. It was about how growing up in the Indian middle-class, we didn’t have habits for good dental hygiene. We just brushed our teeth. The other two steps are not too big in India, even today.

However, when I went to college, I began following the three steps: brush, floss, wash, twice every day. When I’d go home though, we won’t have mouthwash, for example. It just wasn’t as integrated with the lifestyle. That has started to change now, which is a good thing.

Anyway, whenever I would have a change in environments, all I had to do was continue with this habit, and somehow, everything followed. My will to workout came back, my reading resumed, the whole shebang!

Identity Reinforcement

Today, I know what a Trigger Habit does: it shifts and reinforces the identity. It’s not very different from the smoking example in Atomic Habits. When I choose to make sure I carry out my dental hygiene as I prefer it, I tacitly say to myself, “I am someone who carries out healthier habits such as, dental hygiene.” That changes everything.

Finding a Trigger Habit isn’t something I’ve understood yet, but the few friends who did try to find their own could do it for themselves. So, perhaps, it is different for each person. However, finding it is essential.

Takeaway: Find your trigger habit. It could be the simplest change in your lifestyle between the old and the new you which reinforces that the new you is here right now, and it helps get it all back together rather quickly.

5. One Thing At A Time: Add One, Let It Brew

When I talk to people about starting or picking up new habits, there is one mistake I often find. Most people focus on a lot of different habits at the same time. Now, there are studies both for and against this point.

However, in my understanding, if you’re picking up two very difficult or extreme changes at the same time, it increases friction. It’s a more significant distance to a new you. It takes more effort and is not in-line with keeping it easy.

There is a sweet spot here. For example, you don’t have to start working out slowly, and only add another activity once you’ve worked out consistently for an entire year! You can start working out, let it brew for a few days, say a week. Once you do that, you can then add another habit, usually right before or after. That’s what is called Habit Stacking. I touched upon this common idea in the previous post about everyday experiments.

Takeaway: Start with one habit, let it brew for a few days and as you get into a flow with it. Once you feel you can do it easily every day, whenever that is for you, add another habit right before or after it. Stacking it makes sure you pick up on the new habit quicker. So, the number of days between habits fall once you keep stacking habits.

6. Schedule Everything: It’s That Simple

When I first start a new lifestyle change, I do what I talked about in my article about the Eisenhower Matrix – I make sure it’s on my calendar. Habits are the “Important but Not Urgent” part of the matrix, so their natural course of action is to schedule them.

Sticking to things is a thousand times easier if you get a notification every day about it. It doesn’t even have to be your calendar per se. It can be anything. You can use a habit tracker, a note on your phone (with notifications) or anything else.

The thing is, when you get an alternative activity for that time, your first response should always be, “Oh no, sorry, I’m doing X at the time. Can we work around that?”

Once you can see that you’re losing track of the habit, you get the kick of accountability.

Starting a new behaviour or picking up on a new habit is easy said and subsequently forgotten. However, once it’s on the calendar or a list, it’s real. You’ve scheduled it at a time which means you’ve written it down.

Studies show that writing down your goals or actions makes it 42% more likely you’ll achieve it.

Takeaway: When starting a new habit, make sure you schedule it. It should have a time of its own, and it should be a priority for you. Having it on a calendar makes you accountable because writing it down always serves better than saying, “I’ll start reading tomorrow.” Also, it helps you keep track of whether you did it or not, again, bringing in accountability.

The Nudge

Building habits is the most talked-about lifestyle change of all time, probably because the benefits are rather obvious. Over the years, many people have come up with their systems for building better habits. You can take all that learning, apply some rules of your own, and start picking them up. I think it is essential to find your fit, but it doesn’t harm to start at someone else’s system.


Original Featured Photo by Bruno Nascimento on Unsplash


Footnotes

I’m going to split this into two sections, books and articles.

Recommended Books

  • Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions by Dan Ariely (here)
  • The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg (here)
  • Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones by James Clear (here)
  • Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell (here)

Reference Articles

  • Why is it So Hard to Stick to Good Habits? by James Clear (here)
  • How to Build a New Habit: This is Your Strategy Guide by James Clear (here)
  • The Surprising Power of The Long Game by Shane Parrish (here)
  • Second-Order Thinking: What Smart People Use to Outperform by Shane Parrish (here)
  • The No More Zero Days comment from /u/ryans01 on Reddit (here)
  • Neuroscience Explains Why You Need To Write Down Your Goals If You Actually Want To Achieve Them by Mark Murphy on The Forbes (here)

One last thing, I’ve posted the Takeaways to Instagram (nudge.how) and Twitter (nudgehow).


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