Everyone wants to build better habits. But the problem is, very few of us are willing to do the work to make those habits a reality. We hope it’ll all just magically fall into place. One day we’ll wake up early all on our own, meditate, and then head to the gym. Then we’ll have a healthy breakfast and get right down to work on our life’s passion project. Everyday will be fruitful and productive!
…That’s not the reality though is it?
Such perfect conditions have never happened for anyone, and they’re never going to happen either. It’s not because of a lack of trying or desire. For a long time, I wanted to get into the habit of reading for 1 hour each night, and regular meditating, and regular exercise — and I did try a few times to make those things happen. It wasn’t the effort or desire that was the problem, it was that I using the wrong system.
Most people try to form new habits by going cold turkey. “I’m going to read one hour every day starting on Monday.” The problem with such a strategy is that it doesn’t take into account how our brain really works.
Our brains are always looking for the easiest things to do, the path of least resistance. We’re programmed to do the thing that requires the least effort. If you can internalise that fact, then you can learn how to easily form better habits.
Thinking and Instant Gratification
The human brain has been evolving for thousands of years. Yet the vast majority of those years have been the same in terms of brain function and objectives. Out in the wilderness, our human ancestors had to quickly learn how to hunt for food, hide from predators, and take shelter during rainstorms. All of it was based on immediate rewards. You had to get food as fast as possible while expending as little effort and energy as possible. When taking shelter from a rainstorm, your objective was to get under a big tree or cave as fast as possible, not to build an umbrella.
All of these primitive processes of survival are based on instant rewards. It’s only recently that delayed gratification has become valuable. It’s become valuable to work hard for the same salary now in order to grind for promotions or to study for years in school with the hope of establishing a stable long-term career. We realize that when we invest money, it takes time to grow — withdrawing now is OK but withdrawing later is better. Friendships and romantic relationships require significant long-term effort, while the best fruits of those relationships come later when trust and strong bonds have formed.
The primitive processes still dominate our brains’ thinking. We’re still wired up to go for those instant rewards as that’s been the better strategy for more time in our evolution. Our brains don’t want to do the higher effort things because that doesn’t align with how we had to operate for thousands of years. We’re far more inclined to do the things that accomplish our objective with the least effort.
Based on this, it makes sense that habit formation will be most efficient when the habits require little to no effort. If you can somehow make the habits which you wish to form simpler and easier to accomplish, then you’ll be far more likely to achieve your goal. You must change your habit formation system by focusing on simplifying your habits as much as possible
Make Positive Habits Easy
We’ve now established that to form better habits, you want to make them as easy as possible to do. The goal is to reduce or completely eliminate any friction in committing to your habit. Because our brains are wired for instant gratification, any kind of extra work has a chance to derail your habit formation. So, you want to eliminate that work as much as possible.
If you want to get into the habit of reading every night, make picking up a book as easy and obvious as possible. Place the book in a place where you spend a lot of time. If you like reading during breakfast, put your book on the kitchen table or counter. That way, whenever you walk by it, you’ll be reminded to read. If you spend lots of time in a home office, consider placing the book on your office desk.
What we’re doing here is forcing the habit which we want to form to be in close proximity, within reach or at least sight. It serves as a constant reminder and ques to do the habit, while also being extremely convenient. Give your brain no reason to avoid your habit — keep reminding it of how easy your habit is.
It always helps to look at a few examples. Here’s a few other positive habits and ways of making them easy.
Brushing Your Teeth
If you want to get used to brushing your teeth before bed, put your tooth brush on top of your bed. You can put a towel there and then the tooth brush on top to stay clean. Whenever you walk into the room to sleep, you’re being reminded to brush your teeth by the visual que of seeing your tooth brush. You’ve also minimised the amount of willpower you need, since now your tooth brush is conveniently right in front of you.
Self-Reflection and Journaling
To get into the habit of self-reflection and writing in a journal, carry around a pen and notebook wherever you go. There are pocket sized notebooks that are light and easy to walk around with. If you want something even lighter, you can even fold up a few sheets of paper and put them in your pocket. Just the fact that you’re carrying paper and pen will trigger your brain to write more often. Once again it’s super easy to do since you’re never having to look for pen and paper.
To get into the habit of exercising every morning, put your gym equipment or clothes in the middle of your doorway after walking into your bed room for the night. You can hang them on the doorknob or put them on a chair in front of the door. Every time that you wake up, you’ll be reminded of your habit to exercise as you exit the room. That simple, convenient reminder will be your trigger to stick to the habit.
Make Bad Habits Hard
Just as there are good habits that have a positive impact on your life, so are there bad habits that negatively impact you. Often times, we see the negative impacts as clear as day, but still don’t have the will power to stop the bad habit.
That’s a huge amount of time if you ask me, especially when you add it up over months, years, and even decades. That time could be spent on learning a new skill, advancing in your career, building better habits, or having family time.
Social media and TV companies know all about our human tendencies. They’ve made the habits of checking social media and watching TV extremely easy.
When you watch Netflix, you don’t have to click on the next episode of the TV show to play it — it automatically plays it for your. Plus, Netflix has endless content and recommendations that would take you a lifetime to get bored of. Every social media platform out there from Facebook to Twitter to TikTok has a mobile app. Those things are absolute traps — push notifications conveniently slipped to your phone let you jump straight into the app with a tap of your finger. From there, there’s more endless content awaiting you.
Those companies have made it easy to get sucked in to the bad habit of spending too much time on their platform. Instead, you want to reverse those triggers and make them more difficult.
If you’re looking to spend less time on social media, start by removing the apps from your phone. You’ll almost immediately start spending less time on social media, since your brain sees that is requires more effort to get to it.
To take things a step further, have someone else or a password program reset the passwords on all of your social media accounts every Monday, only revealing them to you on Friday night. You’ll have the whole weekend to browse, but the fact that you don’t have access from Monday to Friday will get you used to living without the bad social media habit.
TV and Netflix
If you’re looking to slow down on your Netflix time, consider making access to your TV harder all together. When you’re done watching, move the remote to another room entirely and unplug the TV. This simple act of making Netflix require more effort to watch, needing to grab the remote and plug in the TV, will help curb your habit.
To make it less convenient on your laptop or computer, install a website blocker. WasteNoTime is a Google Chrome Extension that allows you to block websites for for a certain time period that you can set. So if you’re not ready to go cold turkey, you can start with 1 day, then 2, and so on.
To establish a healthier diet and stop with the junk food, switch grocery stores. Normally, when you go grocery shopping, you know exactly where all the sweets and treats and unhealthy junk food is. But when you go to a new store, it’s harder to find them. Your brain sees that you have to put in extra effort, and so will have an easier time picking up the healthy food than going looking for the unhealthy stuff.
Forming good habits and stopping bad ones isn’t hard. In fact, in order to build good habits, it should be easy. The challenge was never the habit itself, but rather the system you are using to form the habit.
Instead of trying to force it, work with your brain’s natural tendencies. Make good habits easy and convenient, and bad habits hard and inconvenient. With this new habit system, you’ll find your habits far easier to control, since you’re following your natural evolutionary system.
The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg
Atomic Habits by James Clear