Trying to Build Habits? Here’s 6 Indispensable Tools

Put Your Best Choices on Autopilot

When I say tools, you might expect a list of 6 apps that will magically help you build habits. Nope. Instead, this is much better, this can last you a lifetime. These tools are mental models you can apply to building habits.

Building and changing habits is not just a matter of willpower. In fact, the major obstacle to change is not weak will, it’s a misunderstanding of how habits work.

One of the strongest books I’ve read is the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, which I wrote about here. And so if we want to be highly effective, we must learn the capability to build new habits.

Understanding Habits

Understand how habits work to make it easier to identify, change, create and destroy them. In other words, to use habits to your advantage.

Habits are a 3 step loop: a reminder, a routine and a reward.

the habit loop

  • A reminder can be the time of day, an alarm or cellphone ringer or even a changing traffic light.
  • The routine is the ‘non-thinking’ action that you take. Examples: brushing your teeth, getting out of bed, picking up the phone or driving forward.
  • The reward can be positive or negative. Reinforcing or destroying the routine.

Why habits matter

Did you know that almost half of the things you do everyday repeat in the same location?

This is not a coincidence. Habits are “autopilot” behaviors which save our energy for creative problem solving. For me, whether writing, coding or finding a way out of a tight submission, creative energy is how I find success. What about you?

So, realizing the value of habits is key, but it’s not enough. The next step is identifying a few priorities and fashioning them into powerful levers. A few habits can produce other positive changes. These are often labeled keystone habits.

It’s not clear why, but for many people, fitness is a keystone habit that triggers major change.

Other keystone habits:
– Eating family meals
– Making your bed each morning
– Keeping a food journal

Habit building tools

Trying to build a habit without tools, is like farming without tools. It’s possible, but it is tough and horribly inefficient.

Tools are what separate us from the animals … well, except monkeys, octopuses, crows and whole bunch of other animals, but I digress. These tools are mental frameworks – a way of thinking about habits that make it easier to control them.

1. Motivation

I’ve written before about how intrinsic motivation is more sustainable than extrinsic. This infographic might help

motivation types

Purpose is the foundation for sustainable, long term motivation. Figure out your life’s purpose and day-to-day motivation becomes much more achievable.

2. Reminder

Save mental energy for the important stuff and reduce the effort it takes to remember to do stuff. Reminders are the first step in our habit loop, execute here and you’re well on your way.

The obvious answers here are calendar reminders on your phone, but I find them imperfect. Too many experiences with phone reminders that I get into the habit of ignoring (pun intended). For me, reminders are most effective when they’re unusual or unexpected.

Some other ideas:
– exaggerate: 50ft tall numbers to remember my locker combo
– incongruity: put the reminder where you least expect it
– outsource: to a virtual personal assistant, Amazon Echo or your little brother

To go a little deeper, another type of reminder is a behavior chains.

3. Behavior Chains

The simplest example here is brushing -> flossing. You’re good about brushing your teeth, but always neglect flossing (like I used to). Chain your flossing with your brushing. I love this idea – every time you brush at night, floss one tooth. For at least 66 days.

Now you’ve used an existing habit to build a new one!

How long it takes a new habit to form can vary depending on the behavior, the person, and the circumstances. That said, according to a 2009 study, it took an average of 66 days for participants to form habits.

4. Tracking

I mentioned 66 days in the behavior chains section. This seems to be a key number for building habits. Do (or avoid) something for 66 straight days and it transitions from being a to-do to a habit. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. You tell yourself “once I get 66 days in a row, I’ve got it”, but who cares? Placebo is as good as the real thing.

Jerry Seinfeld and his calendar is exemplary of tracking success. Interviewer Brad Isaac tells of Jerry’s calendar. Here’s how it works:

He told me to get a big wall calendar that has a whole year on one page and hang it on a prominent wall. The next step was to get a big red magic marker.

He said for each day that I do my task of writing, I get to put a big red X over that day. “After a few days you’ll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain.”

“Don’t break the chain,” he said again for emphasis.

5. Reward & Gamification

Build rewards into your behavior to find habit success – habitcess.

I gave one example earlier – say “victory!” after you floss your teeth. Sometimes, the habit produces the reward. Like the endorphins you feel after working out, or the way you look in the mirror after a few months of eating well.

A great approach to celebrating your success is gamification.

Gamification is exciting because it promises to make the hard stuff in life fun – THE OED

Gamification is using rewards like points, advancement and shared competition in non-games.

I use Habitica. It’s a free, open-source (which is important to me) app that turns your life into a role-playing game. My little guy is level 42 now. He gains levels every time I floss, meditate, review my goals, spend time outside, move my body or express gratitude.

You can even do multiplayer challenges, although I haven’t tried that feature yet. If anyone wants to, let me know and we can team up.

6. Troubleshooting

This is a learning concept I’ve been using with my wrestling students. When we explore specific techniques, I tie the techniques to general principles. Lately, we’ve also spent time addressing common failure points. If we can identify where things go wrong, we can prevent or at least address these errors.

Troubleshooting as a learning principle ties well with the Stoic exercise of pre-mortem. The basic idea behind the pre-mortem is to write down the worst things that can go wrong before starting.

There’s two major benefits to the pre-mortem:
1. be prepared to address things before they go wrong
2. realize that the worst that can happen is really not that bad

With this in mind, think about failure points when you build habits before getting started, eg:

  • Forgetting
  • Not having time
  • Lack of willpower

And how to address them, simply:

  • phone reminders
  • schedule in calendar at start of week
  • start with tiny changes

What about you?

Do you know how to build habits? What are some common failure points for you? Anything you learned today that’ll help in the future? Let me know in the comments.

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