"The ultimate purpose of habits is to solve the problems of life with as little energy and effort as possible."
Thank you for joining me for my seventh blog series, highlighting decision-making and the brain. This is my public exploration of what drives decision-making and how we can use that information to make better decisions, resulting in better outcomes.
Blogs 1-6 so far have focused on how our mind processes data, tries to make it digestible and then build models of the world from it. We are now moving into ways we use this simplification idea to improve our decisions.
Why are we talking about habits?
Habits are a great way to take advantage of the natural tendency of finding the 100th time of doing something almost effortless. An example of an almost universal habit is brushing your teeth or having a morning shower. I do not need to think of whether to do either as it has been a routine nearly all of my life.
Thank you to topucu for the visual.
What are habits?
A habit is defined as a practice performed regularly where sometimes you don’t even know you are doing it. The benefits of taking on a new good habit is that it is a high leverage decision ie a decision which has large cumulative positive impact.
Habits are really interesting as they highlight one of the key inputs to memory and learning, which is repetition. By repeating an act over and over again, our brain builds a really well trodden path to do something. This is not just a psychological thing, physically speaking your neurons that lead you to perform these acts will start to strengthen and soon, your brain will start to find it easier to follow this habit rather than have to think and do something else.
A habit becomes comfortable - with repetition the brain activity needed to perform it slowly decreases. Eventually only the bit of the brain that performs the task is required to activate. This reduction in overall brain activity is consistent with autopilot rather than active thinking about something.
Good and Bad habits
Not all habits are good, and I certainly have many bad habits, the worst one being finishing any open bar of chocolate in the house! Whereas good habits seem hard to establish, it feels really easy to establish bad habits. After a long period of having mostly healthy snacks I convinced myself that dark chocolate was healthy and got it with my afternoon coffee. Fast forward 3 years and I associate the afternoons with coffee and dark chocolate. The problem now, is that rather than dark chocolate being a really indulgent pleasure that I look forward to, it’s now just a habit that's expected. In my experience, bad habits happen when you give into an impulse a few times and just can’t row it back. One good test of whether something is a good, neutral or bad habit is whether you experience regret afterwards (I often do after the chocolate raid!).
A good or bad habit has a large cumulative impact when viewed as a compounding effect.
Thank you to James Clear for the visual.
I had been resistant to establishing habits as a younger man. I felt it was quite restrictive and took spontaneity out of my life. It was also a lot of effort to go through the cognitive effort to put in the upfront work. Needless to say I am now convinced about the power of habits.
Habits are useful because they:
- reduce daily decision making
- move you towards a direction you have chosen
- allow you to compound your efforts
So now we have established how useful good habits are, how can we do better to establish them? The guru of this subject is James Clear, and I would encourage you all to read Atomic Habits - a relatively light but hugely useful book.
The 4 key themes to establishing habits
I am going to use my aim to improve swimming as an example of a habit I have set myself recently to provide a live example. The reason I chose to try and establish this habit, was on a recent trip to Cornwall I picked up paddle boarding and felt my swimming was not up to scratch. It also felt like a good way to get low-impact exercise with a low chance of injury (which for someone like me with weekend warrior tendencies was an important part of it).
1. Set a clear goal
Swim 40 lengths
If the goal was to be a better swimmer and do some exercise, I thought it was important to set myself a goal. I chose 40 lengths as it is a round number (1km), seemed to be a sweet spot of a stretch target but something which could be achievable within 45 minutes which is generally the longest time I would have available during the week.
2. Make it specific
Go to the St Helen's pool near my house every Friday at 6am, have my swimming gear and towel prepped from the night before in a bag. Aim to swim 2 more lengths than last time - review when get to 40 laps.
To be this specific, you need to have done the upfront work of making sure you have the right things, and know where and when you are going to do it. I had to join the swimming pool which was a bit of hassle, but with the clear goal it felt very satisying preparing for it. Having the aim of 2 more laps than last time allowed me not to think about how many laps to swim and particularly when I was feeling a bit tired, stopped me convincing myself to take it easy.
3. Make it satisfying
I get a lot of satisfaction from recording how many lengths I have swum and seeing the graph. I hope to get to 40 in just over a month's time. When I get there I am going to reward myself with swimming gear (maybe a lap counter?).
4. Make it stick
There are three things that really keep it together.
i) Make sure it is something that is doable to start with so that the dread of doing it is not too high. Start relatively small i.e. if you want to swim 40 laps, start with 10 and work your way up.
ii) Use the carrot and/or stick i.e. reward yourself for good progress. If you are really finding it tough, use the stick and make yourself donate to a cause that you really oppose e.g. to a lobbyist that opposes measures to avoid climate change
iii) Do it frequently enough for it to be a habit. On a daily basis many people report that 30days is required to create a habit, and maybe 10 weeks for a weekly one.
The key takeaways from today are:
1) Habits help you move in your desired direction without too much ongoing effort.
2) Good habits compound, and incredible things can be achieved through consistency
3) Habits are most effectively established, when there is a clear goal that is made specific, satisfying and are stuck at it long enough to stick.
Thank you for joining. Next week, I will focus on the topic of nudges.