20 Dec 2013
By Belle

4 approaches to building habits


I pick lots of personal improvements to work on but I'm not so good at actually building them into habits—those things you do without even thinking about it. That's what I really want my reading, running and French to turn into: habits that just happen without me putting in any conscious effort.

I've read quite a bit about forming new habits and I know there are a bunch of ways to go about it, so I thought it might be interesting to bring them together and see how they compare. You might already know what methods work best for you, but in case you don't, I hope you find this helpful.

Let's start with the toughest one:

1. Deterrents

The deterrent method is basically the idea of punishing yourself if you don't complete your new habit.

If you're trying to get to the gym every morning at 6am, you might set up a punishment for the days when you don't. The idea comes from the fact that we tend to be more motivated by losing something than by gaining something.

This principle is called loss aversion. Psychologist and Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman explains it in Thinking, Fast and Slow (my emphasis added):

When directly compared or weighted against each other, losses loom larger than gains. This asymmetry between the power of positive and negative expectations or experiences has an evolutionary history. Organisms that treat threats as more urgent than opportunities have a better chance to survive and reproduce.

There are a few ways this can work in our favour when building new habits. One is to set aside some cash as a bounty. If you don't complete your task, the money goes to a predetermined party—usually a friend or an organisation or cause you dislike. I once heard a story about a lady who pledged to donate money to the Ku Klux Klan if she ever smoked again. She never did.

Maneesh Sethi at Hack the System has written about using this method to get himself into the gym. He pledged $50 to a friend and was determined not to waste the cash just to get out of exercising. He also mentions a couple of other great deterrents to try: letting a friend publish an embarrassing video of you, or letting them send off a resignation letter to your boss.

This method can get pretty extreme, but I guess it comes down to how much you really want to build up the habit.

2. Rewards

Alright, enough punishment. Let's talk about getting something nice in return for hard work.

The reward system is fairly straight-forward: it's just the opposite of the deterrent method. If you complete your task, you get a reward.

One way I like using this is to set a goal of becoming regular in my new habit before getting a big reward. For instance, if I want to start running more regularly, I might set a goal to run 3x per week for 12 weeks, with a reward at the end. The neat thing about this is that although the reward is what's motivating me to keep running every week, by the time I get to the reward, I've actually created a real habit.

Charles Duhigg writes in The Power of Habit that experimenting with different rewards is key to finding out what works:

This might take a few days, or a week, or longer. During that period, you shouldn’t feel any pressure to make a real change – think of yourself as a scientist in the data collection stage.

I think James Clear's note on habit rewards is important to remember, too:

Only go after habits that are important to you. It’s tough to find a reward when you’re simply doing things because other people say they are important.

3. Identity-based habits

The trouble with using rewards or deterrents to build up your habits is that unless the habit is fully formed, you'll stop doing it when you take away that external motivation.

Identity-based habits are more intrinsic—they become part of who you are, making you more likely to stick to them.

James Clear explains this really well when he says that our current habits and behaviours reflect the kind of person we believe we are, either consciously or subconsciously.

The problem he identifies in setting new goals or trying to build new habits is that we often set out to change our performance or our appearance (i.e. I want to lose weight or I want to run every day) without changing what we believe about ourselves.

So I might start running every day, but subconsciously I still believe I'm not someone who goes running. I feel like an impostor when I'm running. Thus, the habit never truly clicks.

On the other hand, if I start out by deciding I'm the kind of person who runs every day, I can work outwards from this belief, building up a habit that confirms it. Every day when I go for a run (even a tiny one: see method #4) I have a small win—I prove to myself that I am the kind of person who runs every day.

4. The 2-minute rule (or, start small)

This last one is probably my favourite habit-forming technique of all. I learned about it first from Leo Babauta at Zen Habits, and I've been a fan ever since.

The 2-minute rule focusses on the importance of building the habit rather than drastic improvements.

The example that Leo uses is flossing. If you're trying to build up the habit of flossing your teeth every day, it'll be easy to get bored of that and quit.

But if you set a tiny goal, say, just flossing one tooth, you'll find that it seems pretty ridiculous not to do that. It's so small a task that you might as well do it as not.

You can use the 2-minute rule for a time-based habit, like playing guitar or writing. Just start with 2 minutes. Another great example is running or going to the gym—just put on your exercise clothes. If you don't go anywhere, that's okay. Putting on your workout gear is the start of building a real habit.

This works in two really cool ways. First, you're much more likely to keep going once you've started. Getting started is the biggest hurdle, so by making that step tiny, it's much easier to get into it and you'll probably floss most of your teeth anyway, instead of just one.

Secondly, what you're really doing here is building up a habit. That is, making it something you do without fail, and without consciously thinking about it. It's just something you do. If you set the bar as low as flossing just one tooth, you can stop after that if you want to. If you find you really don't want to floss any more teeth, you don't have to. Just doing one means you've succeeded for today. And because you start doing this all the time, eventually it'll become second nature to floss one tooth.

I bet you can see where I'm going with this. Once the habit is formed, then you can add a second tooth. And a third. These ones will come much easier, since the habit itself is already there, you're just extending it.

Neat, huh?

There's loads more research to dig into about habits. In particular, habit triggers and stacking habits together are topics I want to explore on the Exist blog soon.

Image Credit: kaneda99

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