Mastering your habits

A common reaction I witness when I talk about habits is negativity: most are seeing habits as sclerosed rituals which forbid creativity, remove all the fun & freedom of life. I guess we are all familiar with some elders doing the same meaningless thing repeatedly until they die.

Judging the tool for what people are doing with it is missing what you can achieve when you decide to master it. Most let external factors dictate their habits instead of taking control.

Brain Science: what is a habit?

First, let's take a step back to have a better understanding of what is a habit in the brain.

Habits are neuronal paths strengthen by repetition in your brain, which makes them very easily triggered.

That is correct, we are full of habits even when we think we are not.

"But I am always being random therefore I do not have habits"

Try a very simple experiment: stop being random and plan things in advance. Hard? Yes, because being random IS your habit. And there is nothing good or bad about it: it will all depend on the people and situation. Some might hate figuring out everything the last minute when traveling for business, while some others might enjoy the ride during vacations.

Where habits come from?

Now we have a common understanding about what habits are, it is pretty easy to see how they are created and outlast their context. Eating a square of chocolate every time you are stressed? Creating a new habit. Watching TV after work to relax? Creating a new habit.

Now, remove the stress or take some time off after a month: chances are that you will continue to eat chocolate every day or watch TV. Because the habits are now set, you will have to fight them if you want to change.

To make it worst, the entertainment and lately the software industries are using well known flaws of the brain like the Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO) to force their ways into your daily life. This trend was pushed by the urge of people to get everything for free. And as you know, free is not a sustainable way to generate income. So all created business models to "farm" your data. But in order to work, they need you to use their products as much as possible, and there is no better way of achieving that than creating habits.

Why is it so hard to change your habits?

Existing neuronal paths are easily triggered. Thus when you are exhausted, they will likely be your defaults if you are not mindful about it.

The thing is: you cannot erase neuronal paths, you can only let them die and/or override them; unless -of course- you are ok to get a lobotomy. And this is why bad habits are so hard to remove, you cannot delete them.

Positive Habits

Overall, good habits make your life more meaningful as you take control of your time in order to follow your goals.

“The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work.” - William James

Creating rituals helps you perform better. Little is known or considered that your engagement & focus are of limited supply. You start every morning with a pool of energy which is burnt through the day. Redirecting the energy you spend on meaningless decisions to the things which matters is essential to improve your work.

"Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work" - Stephen King

“I only write when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes at nine every morning.” - William Faulkner

Habits help your productivity and creativity. Successful people use rituals to enter in the state of flow. They act like triggers which help a lot when you have to do deep work.

In the daily rituals, you can witness a wide range of famous people habits. This book is showing that:

  1. All high performers master their habits, whatever discipline they are doing.
  2. Everybody is different and thus have different habits.

It's also interesting to note that some use unhealthy habits to be productive, which we will of course, not cover. The takeaway is that we are all different and each should decide for themselves what works and what doesn't. One common mistake is to give up after trying somebody else's habits, because you did not realize you were different (ex: early birds vs night owls).

Finally, habits are not all about work. Rituals are very useful for your downtime in order to recharge your batteries. It's a great tool to keep a good work-life balance and can even improves your social life if you decide to dedicate time to others. In fact, you cannot achieve high performance if you do not protect your downtime. It will only work for a while until you burn out. But our goal here is to have a sustainable meaningful life.

Taking control

So far we have seen how bad habits landed in our daily life, it's now time to take control. But first, let's acknowledge that you probably have already started. Going to the gym, running, painting, cooking, reading... all recurring activities beneficials to your health or well-being are positive habits. You just need to extend them to the areas in your life you want to improve.

It is all about try and refine, seeing what works and what doesn't. Once your start to understand how you work, you can then fully take advantage of it.

In my case, I know that I am better at solving problems in the morning as I need my full attention in order to get out of my confort zone. So I have optimized my day around this fact: I tackle the most demanding work during the morning. Then, as the day goes, I manage less and less challenging tasks until I finish my day by replying to emails and plan for the next day. I also try to get all my meetings in the afternoon to protect my most efficient time. It doesn't mean I can't do anything productive after lunch, but that there are more chances that I will procrastinate if I try to.

Once set, the good habits are easier to trigger, just like the bad habits were. I am not saying however that they are as easy to trigger because most bad habits are based on our physical and psychological flaws; on the opposite of positive habits which relies on mindfulness. Yes, bad habits have an edge but once your rituals are set in, it leaves not much room for them to come back.

Identify you goals

Changing your habits is twofold: you need to promote your good habits while you reduce or entirely remove the bad ones.

First you should list the goals you want to achieve and translate them into rituals. For example, if you want to increase your knowledge, you might want to create the habit of reading. Then, list the habits you want to change. Reading requires free time to do so, so the usual habit to reduce is watching TV.

Once you have identified them both, you can start to take actions. You could decide to cancel your netflix account so you won't be tempted watching too much TV. Then use the time you get back to create the new ritual of reading to override it.

The transition can be very hard especially at the beginning as your old habits try to kick in. It feels like fighting an addiction. But add enough frictions to your old habits and easiness to your new ones and you will see results pretty fast.

Let's see a few mind tricks to achieve that.

Remove the stimuli

The brain is designed to treat any signal it receives. It was very handy when we lived in caves, hunted and didn't want to end up in the stomach of a predator but not that awesome nowadays. Why? Because the stimuli are the mechanism which makes you react instead of deciding what to do. Those are the perfect tools for the industries to force their way into your life.

There isn't much you can do about it but to remove them entirely. It cures the root cause, instead of trying to fight the symptoms they produce: fear of missing out, lack of attention, unhappiness, depression and so on.

So reduce social media, check them mostly after work, once everything you wanted to do is done. Stop reading news in the morning (or at all) as they are focused on alarmism and negativity which drains an incredibly amount of energy.

How can I talk about stimuli without talking about what you have in your pocket? Smartphones notifications should be cut down entirely. Not only they take your attention away but they also break your flows or anything relying on focus. Following the trends of being busy instead of doing real work; Apple, Google and Microsoft have built notification systems not only on their phones, but also on tablets and laptops which are a disaster for productivity.

The way I have setup my devices right now is all silent mode, no vibration. No notification of any kind to ensure I never get my flows broken. The only notification I allow on the home screen are messages on the phone and reminders. No email, no app notification, no nothing.

Everything can wait, nothing is more important than what I want to do. I stay in control and I decide when I check once I am done with the important things. Nobody dictate my life and that's how you should do it too.

Add friction to bad habits

Your old habits kick in because they require less energy for your brain to trigger. So, the trick is to add more friction so you use your brain natural laziness to your advantage.

A great yummy example is french fries; since the advent of fast foods, cafeteria and restaurants, it's very easy to eat a lot of them. Now, let's add some friction by creating the following rule: from now you are only allowed to eat fries when you make them at home. Suddenly, they are not that easy to eat. You have to prepare them, fry them, clean the mess and as a bonus, you get the smell for a few days. All those new frictions will probably make you eat them once a week at best.

Adding some extra steps is a very effective way to fight your old rituals. However some are so strongly ingrained that this method won't be enough as it relies in part on your willpower. For those extreme cases, blocking is a more powerful tool.

The obvious for entertainment is to cancel any unlimited streaming services but in order to tackle social media or news, some applications designed for "focus" can help. They allow you to block anything you want following specific rules you define. You can decide to block Facebook and Twitter until after work and then only allow them for a cumulated time of 1H. Now you cannot access the websites at all even if your brain wants to. Now you don't waste your energy to prevent your old habits to trigger: you have no choice. And this helps a lot to detoxify from social medias and news.

Remove friction from good habits

Now if you use the inversion mental model, you realize that you can use the same trick to promote good habits. Instead of adding friction, you now want to remove as much as possible so your new rituals become easier to trigger.

Replace your TV remote on your side table by the book you want to read. Prepare healthy snacks in advance so next time you are hungry, you will be less tempted by an industrial bar. Leave your gym clothes next to your bed so you will be less prone to resistance the next day.

Those are easy and quick fixes, but with positive habits the biggest friction to remove is uncertainty. It happens when you start anything new and is usually the reason of why you revert to your good old habits: bad habits are not bound to your goals and thus, require no definition or planning.

Let's say you want to write a book. If you only protect your time but don't know yet what you will do, chances are you won't do anything. The freedom you get by not defining a subject, action points or todos is leaving enough room for external factors to influence your brain. This is for example, why some people get coaches at the gym: somebody is making the plan for you.

The best way to remove uncertainty is planning. It doesn't have to be very specific: deciding to write a single paragraph every morning whatever the quality is enough (and used by some authors). It will create and reinforce the habits until you feel no more friction and focus on your goals. So your job is to spend sometime upfront to plan so you don't have room to think anymore when you have to do it.

It's not as time consuming as it looks. I define my goals each month and create my tasks accordingly weekly. Then everyday after doing my rituals, I prepare my next iteration depending on how much I achieved that day. This takes me 20 minutes at worst for my monthly planning, 10 minutes for my weekly and 5 minutes daily. As a result, I mostly don't procrastinate anymore. Big improvement.

Save your energy from the meaningless

Fulfilling your goals requires energy & attention, but just like your time, they are limited in quantity. Every decision in your day, as little as, choosing what to eat, cook or which clothes to wear, tap into your energy tank. The act of choosing can be so demanding that studies have shown that the brain can give up entirely when too many choice are given.

A good habits to keep your energy for meaningful tasks is to mutualize all those recurring decision. Plan all your meals weekly, choose your work outfit in advance, schedule your mandatory shopping, automate as much as you can. The mutualisation has an impact on your global energy level especially if you try to pack a lot during your day.

Ritualize your downtime

You need to carefully protect your downtime as it is the key to a sustainable high performance and a healthy life. There are mainly two things to be aware of.

Beware of your old habits. You don't want to leave them too much room to kick in. You worked hard to remove the stimuli from your life don't let them back full speed during your downtime. They would undo all you did and you would be constantly fighting yourself back into your rituals. So hold on your gatekeepers. They also have the benefits to help you create more quality time. Nobody likes dinning with friends who are constantly checking their phones instead of enjoying the moment.

Downtime IS downtime. A lot of people feel bad taking time off. They think they are wasting time which could be used to do more work. This is actually a fallacy. Science have shown that your brain needs downtime to rest and organize all the things you learnt during the day (mainly during sleep). Checking your work email, trying to do a last task is likely to prevent your brain to rest and in the end, makes you burn out. Don't be afraid of letting go, Charles Darwin was working roughly 4h a day when he wrote "On the Origin of Species".

So the key is to use ritualization so no work or stimuli gets in. You can decide to dedicate your evening time to your friends or family, going to a new restaurant weekly, spend your Friday nights playing boardgames, anything fun that makes you feel rested.

Takeaway

I hope you can now see some benefits of mastering your habits. It's a very effective way to improve your life, to feel more fulfilled by using rituals. The key is to take control of your time so there is no room for external factors to creep in. You don't have to go all in at once, you can incrementally add habits and see if you like the results. As we have seen, it doesn't mean that you have to be active 100% of your time (you can't), but it's a great tool to ensure that all the things your care about are given a priority in your life.