I wrote the following piece for An Apple a Day Digest – a new digital magazine on diet and lifestyle.
In the annals of human history, there have been few problems as intractable as the “Habit Puzzle”. Everyone, from Aristotle to Jerry Seinfeld, has come up with a unique theory or piece of advice. In recent decades, scientists have joined the fray, working hard to unravel the mechanics behind a successful habit induction. However, as Jeremy Dean lays out in his magnificent book, “Making Habits, Breaking Habits”, when it comes to habit formation, there are no hard and fast rules. Simple habits, such as drinking a glass of water after breakfast, can be fully formed within three weeks. Other, more challenging behaviors, may take months or years to coalesce into a smooth-functioning routine. However, even given this complexity, there is still hope. We must always remember that there are certain fundamental rules that dictate human cognition and behavior, and, arising from these steadfast principles, we can think about habit formation in a methodical and logical manner.
This is why, when thinking about habit formation, we should remember the following dictums:
1. We are lazy.
Energy is a scarce resource, and we have evolved to expend as little effort as necessary. Think of a bird in flight. It flaps its wings vigorously in order to get going, and gain altitude. But, after a brief bout of furious flapping, opens them wide and coasts forward.
We’re the same way. In the interest of getting a rippling six-pack, we may vigorously exercise on the daily basis. However, our initial burst of energy and motivation will most likely come to a screeching halt in fairly short order. Unfortunately, unlike our feathered brethren, we don’t have wings to glide on. Our burnout is going to be met with a quick crash – not a graceful flight forward.
However, there’s a lesson to be found in the bird analogy: an initial burst can be used to travel far and wide. By utilizing the initial energy burst that’s present in any behavior-change initiative, we can change our environments to help us on our quest toward habit happiness. We can make sure that our fridge is only filled with vegetables, and other healthy foods, instead of cold cuts and colas. We can take the time to move all of our sweets into a high-up, hard to reach, cabinet. We can put a hook in the wall, where we’ll hang our water bottle, right next to the entrance to our house. In short, we can use our initial motivation to design our environment so that it makes the behaviors we want part of the path of least resistance.
We can make an environment that makes healthy living easier. Always build your environment for your laziest self.
2. We’re incomplete dreamers.
Try and imagine the last dream you had. What did you look like? What kind of clothes were you wearing? Where did the dream take place? Were you in a green forest? A red room? What did the bed look like? I bet you’re having a hard time piecing together a vivid picture. This is because we systematically overestimate how much we actually know. You may have once read a book on the Revolutionary War, and fully expect to be able to tell me about the historical circumstances that precipitated it. But, it’s likely that you would need to read up on it a bit before you could recall the full story. The inner depths of the mental world is a fuzzy place – even though we think it consists of crisp images and picture-perfect recollections. The same thing occurs with our aspirational fantasies. We may have an internal image of ourselves being quite active and consistently exercising, but it’s unlikely to be very realistic or helpful. This is because our mental image, our mental plan, is too abstract. In order for us to achieve a goal, we need to have a clear image of what we are going to do to achieve that goal. We need break out goals down into specific behaviors.
Too often, I hear that people want to get in the habit of “eating healthier” or “exercising more”. However, these are outcomes, not behaviors. How, specifically, are you going to eat healthier? Perhaps you can eat a salad for lunch each day – that is a specific behavior that you can make into a habit. Similarly, instead of exercising more, perhaps you can go on a 30 minute walk around your block each night at 8:00PM. That is a specific behavior that you can imagine and plan for.
Don’t be an incomplete dreamer – break your goals down into specific behaviors you can do.
3. We’re bad at multitasking.
In today’s hectic environment, we’re often pulled in dozens of directions at once. We have errands to run, work to do, and emails are pouring into our inbox at a breakneck pace. We’re in a reactive state of damage control, not an active state of self actualization and habit formation. When we’re reacting to our environments, it’s unlikely that we’re building the habits and positive outcomes that we want. In the reactive thrashing of today’s noisy environment, it’s hard for us to think clearly about what we want and what we should do. This is why it is vitally important that we fill our homes, and work-spaces, with reminders of what we want.
Do you want to drink more water each day? Make sure that you have water bottles at eye level in your fridge. Put a thermos on your desk at the office.
Motivated to start going to the gym? Place your gym shoes in front of your door. Make a gym bag each night and put it next to the shower.
Maybe set up a daily event in your calendar (Google Calendar, Outlook, etc.) titled “Go running” at 7:00PM – with an alert/alarm that pings you thirty minutes before.
Be sure to do this for each of the healthy behaviors you want in your life.
4. Laziness happens for a reason.
As a final point, remember that while laziness is built into our biology to help us conserve energy, it also is our body’s way of telling us something important. It may be that you’re not getting enough sleep. It may be that you’re not getting enough protein, or eating nutritionally deficient foods. It may also mean that you feel overwhelmed and are constantly stressed throughout the day. If you feel a total lack of energy and motivation, it may be your body’s way of telling you that it’s off kilter. Remember, building new healthy habits is a demanding process, and needs to be built on a foundation of health. If you have droopy eyes from an overly demanding and stressful life, you need to take care of that before you can begin to optimize everything else. Before you start running five miles a day, perhaps you should start making sure you get eight hours of sleep a night, and are eating healthily.