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After last week’s 3,000-word history article, I thought I would do something a little different today and pull out my very first newsletter email — when this was originally sent out, I had a grand total of five whole subscribers!
I appreciate everyone that has subscribed since then, but as far as I can tell on my end, only 21 current subscribers have read this email on the website.
Thus I decided to go back through the article, improve it where my limited skillset affords me the ability to do so, and share it with everyone this morning.
The point of this article is to look into the process of habit formation and understand how we can use that to our advantage over time.
Small Improvements Compound Over Time
It is so easy to overestimate the importance of one defining moment and underestimate the value of making small improvements on a daily basis. Too often, we convince ourselves that massive success requires massive action.
— James Clear, Atomic Habits
Life is complex. It’s also uncertain. Sometimes chaotic. Mostly surprising. Wonderfully full of new things — many of which, in pre-modern times, could kill us. And we humans tend to prefer not dying. Fortunately, we have been practicing surviving for quite some time and have developed a way to cut down on that chaos with a bit of order: the ability to form habits.
However, and unfortunately for those humans looking for more in life than just survival, these habits often have more control over us than we have control over them.
So What are Habits and Why Do They Control Us?
Jason Hreha, a behavioral scientist who writes about life and business, summarizes that “habits are, simply, reliable solutions to recurring problems in our environment.” For Clear…
A habit is a behavior that has been repeated enough times to become automatic. The process of habit formation begins with trial and error. Whenever you encounter a new situation in life, your brain has to make a decision. How do I respond to this? The first time you come across a problem, you’re not sure how to solve it… you’re just trying things out to see what works…
Whenever you face a problem repeatedly, your brain begins to automate the process of solving it. Your habits are just a series of automatic solutions that solve the problems and stressed you face regularly.
So, in summary, habits are unconscious programs that free up our conscious mind to solve those non-recurring new problems that are constantly thrown our way.
It’s too mentally expensive to try to figure out what you should do every day when you get home from work — it’s much easier to have a program that loads without you knowing and tells you to change clothes. Putting on running shoes loads the running program. Seeing a bourbon bottle loads the drinking program.
The important takeaway is that habits are unconscious. That is the entire point — for you to not have to think about them. Whether you notice them or not, the habits are running. This means, for better or for worse, your habits are in charge of your actions.
This is important because your actions define who you are today and who you will become in the future. Are you physically active? Are you lazy? Are you conscientious? Do people like to be around you? And so on.
The Importance of a Targeted Identity
Fortunately, humans are conscious, which at times has its benefits.
We can consciously uninstall old habits we don’t like while installing new, better ones. In order to do so, Clear suggests we need to realize that 1) habits are best changed by a change in your targeted identity as opposed to individual goals alone and 2) your system of habits is far more important than your goals — you do not rise to the level of your goals, but instead end up where your habits logically should take you.
Starting with targeted identity — it is much easier for a runner to wake up early in the morning and head out into the rain before work than it is for a businessman wanting to get in shape. A musician can’t help but find time to practice violin, but the college student who wants to be able to play her favorite songs occasionally can easily find things get in the way of practice. The runner and musician have no choice but to act in ways that are aligned with who they are.
But how do you convince yourself that you are a runner or musician?
It is through your actions — which is where this gets a little bit circular — our future identity is a lagging indicator of today’s systems. The only way you are a healthy person today is to have acted as a healthy person in the past.
And your habits drive most of your actions — they are votes for tomorrow’s you. Smoking a cigarette is a vote to be a future cigarette smoker. Remembering to kiss your wife in the morning is a vote to be a future loving husband.
This all sounds nice and interesting, but also kind of circular, so how do we actually do anything about all this? Where do we start?
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We Need to Understand How Habits Form
The first step is understanding how habits form — and they form thanks to the dopamine reward system.
Clear lays out this “habit loop” as occurring in four phases — there are cues, cravings, responses, and rewards. In short, things in your environment remind your brain of a time it received a dopamine spike, prompting it to replay the action that caused the dopamine spike most consistently when you were previously in a similar situation.
That action is the habit.
So how do you take advantage of your brain’s pathway for programing you? You need to make it easy for your brain to program itself in the way you want it to. Your brain is merely responding to the dopamine hit, it doesn’t…
… actually want the habit itself. What you really want is the outcome the habit delivers.
The greater the obstacle — that is, the more difficult the habit — the more friction there is between you and your desired end state. This is why it is crucial to make your habits so easy that you’ll do them even when you don’t feel like it.
Thus, you need to make the habit cycle easy for those habits voting for the future identity that you want and difficult for those voting for a different identity.
Focus on Your Environment
This is often done most easily by focusing on your environment. The “environment is the invisible hand that shapes human behavior,” meaning that time and place drive your actions more than anything, according to Clear.
When you walk into the kitchen, do you automatically open the refrigerator door without thinking? When you check an email on your phone, do you also open all your social media even though you weren’t planning on it? You need to take stock of these cues and the associated habits before you can start to make changes. What do you do every day and what triggers those habits?
This is not easy — remember your habits are unconscious. That means even if you are paying attention, you are going to miss habits. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.
It is impossible to do this constantly, but sit down and replay parts of your day when you did things you are proud of or disliked. See what cues caused you to act as you did. Make sure to notice if another habit was the cue for your action — is there a chain of habits getting you to where you ended up? It takes time, but you’ll learn a lot about yourself.
After you have figured those out, you need to put yourself in an environment where it is obvious what you want yourself to do. This is where preparation and willpower today can change who you are in the future. It’s almost like time travel — low budget of course, but still effective.
Do you need to go run every morning? Put your running shoes and clothes on the floor next to your bed. Do you need to wake up in the morning at a certain time? Put an alarm clock in another room. Today’s you just changed tomorrow’s you through preparation when it was easy, not by waiting for willpower when it is difficult.
Another powerful result from understanding your cues is recognizing when something in the environment is the cue for a bad habit. Often the easiest way to change a bad habit is to override it with a new one.
When your friends go out for a smoke, do you always stand up to go when they ask? Now that you have noticed why you are pulling out that pack of cigarettes, you can decide if you are fine with it or would like to change it. Want to override it? Force yourself to pull out flashcards for a new language every time they ask.
If you are consistent, a new positive habit has hijacked an old one because you paid attention to how your environment was pulling you along.
Don’t Try to Do Too Much at Once
And this all sounds terribly difficult, doesn’t it? That’s the opposite of easy, which is what we were going for. And this is why it is important to start small.
Reading a new book every week sounds like a great habit. But it’s an impossibly difficult first step. Start with reading a page a day — see where that takes you. Maybe that is too hard because you are tired when you get home. In that case, start with sitting in a chair holding a book for 2 minutes a day. Make it easy to start. Eventually, you will also open that book.
Starting to run is the opposite of fun and easy. Start with putting running shoes on every morning. (I’ve done this, and you will feel stupid while doing it, but it works.) Because it’s odd just having on running shoes, you might even step outside. While you are there, maybe your brain might say “why not take a walk?” Walks can take a while, so why not just jog a little?
A month later it is second nature to go out and run to the best your health will allow. If you had never started small, a month later you would still just be browsing social media on the couch.
Starting small can also help prevent us from falling into the trap of constantly preparing to act perfectly and, as a result, never acting. To steal from Sir Robert Watson-Watt, a British radar pioneer, “give them the third best to go on with; the second best comes too late, the best never comes.”
While it is great to wish that you had the perfect workout routine and the best nutrition plan, if you spend all your time comparing theoretical future versions of you doing those routines, there is no more time left to actually do them. And, at this point, can actually discern best from good enough?
There is time to perfect things as you go, but if you never get going, there will be nothing to perfect.
But Even Starting Small, It’s Not Always Simple
But then there are bound to be days where we don’t have the time or energy — what are we to do then? We are only human, after all.
The trick is to stave off the need for perfection — consistency is more powerful than perfection. Whatever the habit is, do it even if you have to do it poorly.
“Too often, we fall into an all-or-nothing cycle with our habits.” If you have been consistent in studying a new language every day, but today you just don’t have it in you — spend two minutes instead of thirty. Two minutes is a success and you have kept your habit.
But what if we actually can’t even get past zero minutes?
It is good to realize that even those that succeed fail at times — so the first step is realizing that all is not lost. But you must be paying attention so that you can catch the mistake before it becomes a new habit.
The first mistake is never the one that ruins you. It is the spiral of repeated mistakes that follows. Missing once is an accident. Missing twice is the start of a new habit.
Consistency is key, but you will trip and fall along the way. Stand up and add a little more motivation the next day to keep you moving on.
Regardless of What You Do, The Habits are Running
And it’s a slog for sure, with ups and downs. But what is interesting about all of this is that you don’t actually have much of a choice — you have to play the habit game, so to speak.
You have a set of habits that got you to where you are today. Those are either moving you towards the future identity that you want — or they are taking you down a different path.
Which direction are you moving? Are you happy with that?
The title is inspired by the proverb “Manners Maketh the Man,” The phrase is attributed to William Horman as it is found in his 14th-century textbook The Vulgaria, but similar to Ben Franklin’s Poor Richards Almanacs, it is likely Horman was transcribing proverbs with much earlier origins. More recently (relative to the 14th century), the phrase was popularized by the movie The Kingsman.
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Take care and have a great rest of the week,
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“Before I get started writing articles again, I want to walk through a few things and re-introduce the newsletter in a modified form that should hopefully be more meaningful and interesting for both you and me. That should also help you determine if you are still interested in staying subscribed.”
But What For? Writing about anything, as long as it’s interesting