Habits: Form New Ones and Break Old Ones

It’s the end of February, and how many of your new year’s resolutions are still making the daily cut? What happened to all that energy and enthusiasm – that motivation – that compelled you to make them in the first place? If you’re like me, it’s tapered off by now.

In fact, I was in such a malaise when it came time to make my resolutions for the new year that I failed to to even think about my resolutions. I drifted into the new year with no clear plans or goals! However, I did recover. Rather than letting my failure to plan become an insurmountable discouragement, I implemented a powerful technique designed to help me succeed even when I fail – a kind of plan for failure that I call Don’t Skip Twice.

Don’t Skip Twice is the practice of 1) knowing that you will sometimes fail to perform a daily practice that you’ve committed to and 2) planning not to fall completely off the wagon by 3) choosing to never miss fulfilling your commitment more than one time in a row.

You will sometimes miss an exercise, a journal entry, or a bed time. Avoiding this completely is practically outside your control and no matter how hard you will yourself to do you practice every day, you’ll fail occasionally. And if you let failing crush you, then missing a day here or there may be all it takes to push you down the dark path of giving up on your practice altogether. But rarely will missing your target two or more days in a row be because of something truly outside your control.

Being OK with missing a day and not becoming discouraged because you know that you haven’t really failed unless you’ve missed two days will minimize overwhelm and give you the emotional energy to start again the next day. Being able to start again is a critical skill because the formation of new habits always starts from a place of lacking the desired habit and thus from a place of inconsistency and frequent failure. But you must get back on track and do the practice day after day – so don’t miss twice!

So January passed me by, but I didn’t skip my practice twice. I selected February 1st as my new target date, I resolved to start forming some new habits, and I picked up the slack without losing all my steam.

This post is about habits. How to break bad old habits and how to form good new habits. The tools and techniques I’ve learned, used, and benefited from in my journey so far (such as Don’t Skip Twice) (Note). It is about how to be the kind of person who won’t have the same new year’s resolutions next January (or February) 1st.

The Immutable Laws of Habit Formation

1. Active behaviors tend to stay active; inactive behaviors tend to stay inactive.

Habitual behaviors gain momentum over time as each performance of the activity results in more of the feedback that encourages the behavior. In other words, habits become more likely to occur the more they are performed. Behaviors with no previous precedent are unlikely to occur and take a high amount of energy to initiate.

2. Energy cannot be created or destroyed; to stop doing something you must start doing something else.

You will never be able to quit one habit without replacing it with a different habit, because quitting a behavior requires quitting its triggering environment, which creates a vacuum that will be filled by another environment, containing different triggers, encouraging a different behavior.

3. You have habits for a reason; habits serve some useful purpose, even if they have negative side effects.

To replace a bad habit a with a good one, you must select a new habit that meets the same need as the hold habit, but in a better, healthier way.

How do Habits Form?

  1. Trigger: An environmental stimulus reminds you to take action.
  2. Action: You perform the action.
  3. Feedback: You derive the benefits (and other side effects) of the action.

This process occurs continuously, and forms the basis of the creation of both our neutral and negative habits, as well as intentionally created, good habits. It must be consciously observed and used as a tool, rather than obeyed as a master.

Motivation is Not Enough

Motivation is overrated. Often we want something so bad that we feel we will stop at nothing to get it. But the truth of human nature is that this feeling will soon dissipate, if not not in minutes, then in days or months. We will return to our baseline emotions and our old habits, and follow the inertia of our existing trajectory toward easy, passively determined goals. If you rely only on motivation to fuel your action, you will dream many things, start few, and finish almost none.

Similarly to how the key to productivity is to free your mind from the cognitive load of remembering and prioritizing all of your tasks in favor of an objective, external record system, the secret of successful people is not their inherent power of will – it is the their faithful performance of simple daily practices over the course of time, which reliably accumulate value.

This same process, only unconsciously performed, is how we form negative habits.

Why do We Fail to Establish Habits?

There are only a few fundamental reasons you fail to intentionally establish a habit.

  • You are trying you change too many things or form too many habits at once.

There are limits to your capacity to cope with change. Be patient and only attempt to add one new habit and subtract one old habit at a time. For every additional habit you try to change simultaneously, your energy will be disproportionately depleted, and both habits will establish more slowly than they would if developed in sequence, resulting in a longer overall acquisition time, and a less likely success.

  • You are trying to establish a habit that is too ambitious.

Some of the habits you’d like to have are complexes consisting of multiple other behaviors which are in and of themselves difficult to master. You need to identify the constituent parts of the behavior and establish them as habits before integrating them into a whole.

  • You are focusing on the outcome (goal, effect) rather than the behavior (habit, cause).

Large-scale goals cannot be achieved in toto; they must be achieved in small increments. There is no shortcutting the small increments. These small increments are in a sense the real goal. After visualizing the desired outcome, you must apply yourself to performing the small daily actions that cause it to come about.

  • You are not changing the environmental stimuli that trigger you to perform the old habit. Motivation is not enough! You must remove triggers to remove yourself from the habit formation process.

Your new, good habit is likely competing for energy and attention with an old, bad habit. Unless you remove yourself from the environment that triggers you to perform the old habit, you will continue to be triggered, likely perform the old habit, and the need that the old habit fulfills will be met, reducing your desire to enact the healthier alternative. You must actually replace old triggers with new triggers.

Practices, Not Goals

The key to achieving your goals is to focus, not on the end goal itself, on the daily practices that will progressively bring it into being. Consider these differences between gold and daily practices.

  1. The future is complex, unpredictable, and uncontrollable. The present is simple, predictable, and within your power to influence. Thus, goals imply that you control things you cannot control, which leads to misguided actions. Practices address things that are within your control, which leads to intended consequences.
  2. The best version of ourselves is always on the distant horizon, but a better version of ourselves is just a step away. Thus, goals, by comparison to ourselves, create negative self impressions, leading to stress and overwhelm. Practices, being continually achieved, show us we can succeed, leading to inspiration and courage.
  3. Extreme ups lead to extreme downs. Thus, the sudden achievement of large goals results in deep crashes afterwards. Daily practices can maintain a steady upward trajectory, resulting in a more manageable equilibrium.

The Analytic Method (TAM)

The hardest part of starting a new project, whether it’s a short term project or a long term lifestyle improvement, is getting started. This is because people often make the fatal miscalculation of thinking of that task is the end product, or is constituent tasks, but but not broken down small enough. If your starting-goal is too big, you’ll start and fail right away, or worse, never start at all because it’s too overwhelming. Step 1 of TAM is to start so small that you can’t say “no”; start so small that it doesn’t require any motivation to succeed.

So if your goal is to write a book, don’t sit down at your computer and tell yourself “time to start writing my book”. That’s a recipe for checking Facebook. To write a book, you’ll have to write a little every day, day after day, for a long time, and a sudden burst of inspiration can’t sustain that. So instead, break the project down into smaller and smaller parts until you arrive at something you know you can do without missing, failing, or procrastinating. Drill down past a chapter, past a page. After all, are you sure you can write a page every day from now till your deadline? If not, you better not start there or you risk “trying to establish a habit that is too ambitious” which will likely lead to failure. Start with one paragraph a day, or with one sentence if you must. Start with something that takes no effort to achieve, and you are likely to keep it up day after day which will allow it to become a habit – the type of habit that steadily accumulates value over time.

The Two Minute Rule

A good rule-of-thumb for starting small enough is the Two Minute Rule. Ask yourself, “Can I do this in two minutes or less?” If you can, it’s a good starting habit that you can expect not to fail, miss, or procrastinate because anything you can do in two minutes is probably small enough to require almost no motivation.

Another reason two minutes is the magic number comes from a concept in the Getting Things Done paradigm: if it can be done in less than two minutes, just do it now! Don’t put it on your to-do list for later. Just planning it will probably take take almost two minutes anyways. If you can learn to systematically do the easiest tasks right away without any hubub, you’ll have a much easier time getting started.

Of course, always doing the minimum is a recipe for not getting very much done, even if it does accumulate value over time. That’s where Step 2 of The Analytic Method comes in: add 1% improvements to this activity every day. This is like Step 1, but on repeat. You can always do 1% more. It takes essentially no additional motivation to add 1% more work to your practice today. This allows you to add value to your habit over time without confronting big jumps in activity and becoming overwhelmed.

Compound Marginal Gains (and Losses)

If you think you don’t have time for such slow improvement, take a moment to consider the remarkable power of 1%.  Percent-based gains accumulate exponentially. 1% of a small value is a small value, but as that value grows (by 1% each day) the value of 1% grows as well.

So, while in the beginning there is almost no difference between a habit that is 1% better than it was the previous day and a habit that stays the same, over time this difference becomes huge. Likewise, if you have a bad habit that is 1% more reinforced and extreme every day, it makes little difference at first but will eventually have a precipitous impact.

When you take into account that a new habit must replace an old habit, you see that, in the case of replacing a worsening bad habit with and improving good habit, the exponential effect is doubled. Changing your behavior only 1% per day can lead to radically different courses through life.

If you implement steps 1 and 2 of TAM successfully, over time you will increase the amount of work you are getting done on a given project. You may start out writing one sentence of your book per day and graduate to writing a whole page before too long. At this point, the amount of time or energy you have to work on this project might be exceeded by your habitual ability to keep working. When this happens, it’s time for Step 3: As your habits increase in size, break them back down into smaller units and do them throughout the day. This will allow you to keep developing your daily habit formation and increasing your productivity even when your habit becomes too expansive for its time slot or other practical limitations.

So, if you’re writing a chapter every morning, but it takes too long and you no longer have time to take the kids to school or eat breakfast, it’s time to break this habit down into units you can do throughout the day. First 10 pages in the morning, next 10 after lunch, last 10 after dinner. With the habit spread out like this, you may find that you can fit in more writing sessions this way, and may actually find more time to write.

Plan To Fail

One of the main reasons we start implementing a new daily practice after a burst of inspiration and then give up on it is because we miss our practice once and this small, unimportant failure initiates a permanent breakdown of the habit. Either because we feel our work was all for nothing, or it throws our plans off, or we feel like are not up to the task. And these things may be true, but only if we have no recovery plan. Life doesn’t always go as planned and every good plan has a Plan B. In this post I share a variety of techniques meant to prevent failure. But occasional failure is inevitable and must be embraced as a positive part of forming new habits. Here’s how:

The Algorithm

For each daily practice you wish to do, identify what the specific causes of failure to perform might be. If your practice is writing one page of your book each morning, you may determine that the following events will cause you to fail at your goal:

  • Waking up late
  • Having breakfast with friends
  • Driving to the airport for an early flight

Do any of these have to threaten the momentum of your daily habit? No.

For each of these potential challenges, identify an action you can do that is not hindered by the challenge but still functionally achieves your goal. IF you wake up too late to write your page before leaving for work THEN write it after dinner (or write two the next morning, etc).

You can create a helpful cheat sheet to remind you of the algorithms you have in place. Knowing that potential challenges to your goals have solutions that you’ve planned out beforehand is not only very calming, but will help you implement effective and timely recoveries so your habits don’t go off the rails.

Overall Goal: Write one page of my book each morning before breakfast.
Daily Behavior When Where
Writing session 7am Home Office


Potential Challenge If Then
Miss a session I wake up too late. Write one page in the evening after dinner.
Miss a session I have an early flight. Write two pages the next day.


Habit Stacking

The easiest way to find the space or time for a new habit in your life is to “stack” it onto another preexisting habit or routine. Take your supplements with lunch. Floss when you brush your teeth. Clean out your car when you get gas. The existing habits serve as reminders (triggers) to perform your desired behavior, and if your stack is well designed, they will actually make your new habit easier to do as well. Of course, we do this naturally to a certain extent but there is often more room for optimizing the ease and efficiency of our lives if we give it our attention.

Doing a formal assessment of your current habit stacks may open your eyes to spaces where new habits you thought you didn’t have the time or lifestyle for can fit. Here’s how to do it:

1) List out all of your current daily habits; things you do every single day without feeling resistance or needing to be reminded. For example: brushing your teeth, making the bed, getting dressed, going for a jog, checking the mail, taking a shower.

2) Group these habits into routines.

  • 7:30am: brushing your teeth
  • 7:45am: making the bed
  • 7:50am: getting dressed
  • 5:45pm: checking the mail
  • 6:45pm: going for a jog
  • 7:00pm: taking a shower

3) Add your new habit into an existing routine where there are complimentary dynamics. In this example, there is probably an opportunity to floss at around 7:40am or take out the trash at 5:40pm. The framework of your existing habits already has spaces in it that are perfect fits for other activities you’re neglecting. Shifting around your schedule to more harmoniously incorporate your new habits into your existing routines may result in your habits requiring less time or energy than you originally estimated.

Keystone Habits

One strategy that can aid you in adhering to your various practices is to develop a Keystone Habit. Your Keystone Habit is a daily practice that you choose to give special priority to because it enables you to perform the rest of your practices more effectively, and performing it will make you more likely to succeed in doing your other practices. A good Keystone Habit can add order to your day, encourage you to keep succeeding, and set off a chain reaction of discipline and self love.

To determine what habit you should choose as your keystone, prioritize all of your habits according to how much they contribute to your goals, and how those goals are ranked in terms of importance. This will help you determine what practices are of the highest value to you. The practice that is most effective toward your most valued goal is the habit you should use as your keystone.

The practice that is the most effective toward your most valued goal is not necessarily obvious. Human organisms are complex systems and the activities we partake in have positive and negative effects – often unpredictable and indirect – on wide ranging aspects of our lives. A good habit to give special priority to will be one that has a fundamentally transformative effect on many aspects of your life and helps you achieve a state of health wherein good habits are generally easier to develop.

So, if your most valued goal is to earn $75,000 before the end of the year (to keep it practical; one’s lifetime goals may be more spiritual, relational, etc; but in the context of, for example, a one-year plan, this could be a good main goal) your first thought may be that making cold calls for your side business every morning before going to your day job will be the most effective daily practice, and resolve never to miss a day, even at the expense of other habits.

But in reality, if you are eating poorly, sleeping poorly, lacking exercise, or have a head clouded with distractions and negative emotions, your sales efforts will likely come to nothing. A more effective habit will have a more systemic impact, e.g. eating clean, adhering to a sleep schedule, strength training, or a daily meditation practice.

With that in mind, reflect on your list of prioritized daily practices and try to identify which of them has the most fundamental and wide ranging effects on your goals in general. When selecting a Keystone Habit, try to strike a balance between the direct relevance of your practice to your main goals and the systemic value of the practice to your whole organism.

The Domino Effect

The Domino Effect is similar to Keystone Habits but refers to when the performance of a single practice sets up a chain reaction that makes you more likely to perform subsequent practices. A single habit can have this power on account of the three-step process of habit formation. When you do a practice you create positive feedback as a result, and this feedback can become the trigger for another positive habit.

Your bad habits already work this way. You hit snooze on your alarm and sleep in (action), making you feel rushed (negative feedback + new trigger), making you choose an unhealthy snack for breakfast instead of cooking a nourishing meal (new action). This is the Domino Effect working against you.

To harness the power of the Domino Effect to your benefit, make a special effort to start your day – or your session, project, etc – with the distinctly successful performance of a practice; allow yourself to feel the pride and gratitude of succeeding at that thing; and remain mindful of this encouraging feedback as you move on to the next part of your day, project, etc. The next part of your day is likely to be better than if you had not done this, both because the practical outcome of your habit has been achieved and because you feel encouraged and capable of success.

One habit that I have found to be an great domino-effect-inducing practice is making my bed in the morning. Read more about how to prepare yourself for all day success by getting your morning routine right in my post 5 Ways to Optimize Your Morning and Set Yourself up for All-Day Success.

Visual Aids

Human beings evolved for millions of years in environments that were much more primitive than our modern world, with smaller communities, fewer resources, less information, fewer distractions, slower pace, less change. Consequently, much of our biology and psychology is out of sync with the huge scale, rapid pace, and infinite choice of modern times.

This is why, for example, we fear plane crashes more than car crashes. Our fear is not based on abstract ideas that can only be comprehended intellectually. We know, if we think about it, that our chances of dying in a plane crash are negligible and that our risk of dying in a car crash is actually quite high. But we still say a prayer every time our plane takes off, and don’t give zipping around town in a car all day a second thought. Why? Because we believe what we see, not what we think. And when we turn on the TV, we see news stations reporting on the latest horrifying tragedy, however unlikely or unique it may be, and the primitive parts of our brain tell us to avoid such situations at all cost. The news doesn’t report on car crashes, because car crashes are so common that they aren’t really news any more – but that is the same reason they are so much more dangerous!

There are many other things in the modern world which we know or understand intellectually but have a hard time realizing, because doing so is an uphill battle against our evolutionary information processing equipment. We don’t realize poverty is a problem because we don’t see the starving masses in the streets of our town. We don’t realize eating sugar causes obesity because the length of time is takes the body to store excess energy as fat prevents us from seeing the effects directly. We don’t realize throwing our plastic away is polluting the oceans because the scale of oceans and human waste infrastructure far exceeds the scale of any context in which we evolved to make decisions.

Likewise, if you are trying to form a habit that will create long term value for you, in many cases the result may be indirect, delayed, or even invisible. For example, putting money into an investment account each month may gain you enormous benefit in the long run, but the gain is basically abstract (until you use the money) and doing this every month will be difficult because it will require action without activating the reward system in your brain, which was evolved for more tangible feedback.

The mind, with its vestigial decision-making faculties, must sometimes be hacked to be made to act rationally. Visual Aids are props that provide an immediate, sensory record of your progress on a given task and leverage this weakness of mind into a strength.

The reward you give yourself for completing a task doesn’t have to be overly hedonic. Just a basic visual indicator of progress or success can be enough to stimulate a feeling of satisfaction in you that would otherwise be a dry intellectual acknowledgement. A visual aid can be almost anything, and can vary from habit to habit. It should be easy to use and versatile. It doesn’t have to be meaningful, but if it is aesthetically compelling it will probably be that much more effective. Tactile aids are probably more effective, but digital ones work too.

Common examples include:

The paper clip system: Have two jars: one empty and the other full of paper clips, one paper clip for each task you have to do. If your task is to make 50 cold calls that day, then for each call you make, move a paper clip from the full jar to the empty jar. Watch the jar fill with an reminder of your progress and feel the sense of accomplishment that only comes from immediate sensory feedback.

Don’t break the chain: This method, popularized by Jerry Seinfeld, consists of keeping a calendar dedicated to tracking a certain daily practice. For every day that you perform your daily practice, draw a big red X on that day. Over time, watch the X’s form a long unbroken chain. The desire not to break this chain compels you to keep doing your daily practice.

Gamification: This comes in many varieties and may be more or less abstract depending on the extent to which it relies on narrative or character development, but fundamentally, whenever an application (or other system) is rewarding you with cute little badges, scores, levels, etc, it is tapping into your innate preference for simple tangible indicators of success. There are countless ways this can be incorporated into a daily habit practice.

There are three reasons why Visual Aids are so helpful to forming new habits

1) They remind you to start. When you don’t want to do something, it’s easy to forget. Once in place, Visual Aids serve as a reminder to do your practice.

2) They show your progress. Seeing your progress helps you keep track of how long you’ve been doing your practice and see what your longest streaks are. This information can be practical in ways ranging from keeping abreast of a deadline to identifying patterns of failure, and also has the psychological benefit of helping you genuinely feel the success of performing your practice.

3) They are are addictive. Not everything we do in life is a result of pure choice. We spend much of our time compulsively doing things we enjoy or avoiding things we fear, compelled by chemical or emotional desires. This is an evolutionary adaptation that allows us to act in a world of infinite options. It’s a tool, and it can make you healthy or sick. Being addicted to a beneficial activity is as good as being addicted to a detrimental activity is bad. Visual Aids tap into the addiction-prone reward system of our brains and provide us with the positive feedback that we crave, making us feel good when we do our practice, and giving us a physical and emotional desire doing it again.

*I am heavily indebted to James Clear for the content of this blog post. This was mostly a way for me thoroughly process what I learned from studying his work. Check it out.

By | 2017-07-15T15:14:02+00:00 February 26th, 2017|Uncategorized|