So, everyone is talking about habits. There are books, articles, things social media. There are apparently “Habit hacks” that can help you become more focused, effective and productive. Help you stop being distracted, get you to quit smoking, eating healthy, exercising regularly. All you got to do, is form a habit. But is it really that simple? Or are we overemphasizing on habits and overlooking something else that’s also critical to success?
Check out my YouTube video that discusses this in detail. If you like reading instead, continue below.
What Are Habits?
Habits are basically actions that were once decisions that eventually become subconscious or automatic after many repetitions. In his book, Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg talks about the habit loop consisting of a cue, a craving, a routine and a reward. There is a cue: driving home on a nice sunny afternoon. There is a craving: desire to have a nice cold beer outdoors. A routine: Drinking those beers. And a reward: Intoxication. You repeat this loop enough times, and it will become a habit. BJ Fogg frames this as motivation, ability and prompt in his book, Tiny Habits. And James Clear, in Atomic Habits, calls it Trigger and Action. You get the point.
How do they work? Or, do they work?
Short answer, yes they do. In fact, they are incredibly effective and powerful. There are many well-researched examples of habit working its magic.
Consider Eugene Pauly’s Case, which is quite popular in medical literature. He suffered brain damage after being in a coma for 10 days due to Encephalitis, and lost all his memory. He would wake up, cook himself breakfast, forget to eat it, take a nap, wake up, then cook himself breakfast again, and would keep doing that until someone stopped him. But, there was something quite interesting that happened: One of the important parts of his daily routine was a walk around the block with his wife, Beverly. The doctors told Beverly that she had to monitor her husband constantly — if he ever got lost, he would never be able to find his way home. After all, he was unable to tell you which door in his living room led to the kitchen. However, they later discovered that Eugene, on multiple occasions had taken that walk by himself and managed to get home without being lost. He’d even collect pinecones on his way back. But, how? REPETITION.
With enough repetitions, a certain thing called “chunking” takes place where our brain converts a series of conscious actions into an automatic routine. So yes, Eugene could not remember or hold any new memory, but he didn’t have to, because his walk had become automatic.
Our brains can only remember up to 7 pieces of information with our conscious minds. So it’s constantly looking to optimize by converting any repetitive actions into automatic, subconscious behaviors, and it is quite good at that. So “if you repeat an action often enough, it will become automatic and therefore effortless”. This is called the Pauly Principle, aptly named after Eugene Pauly. The habit loop takes advantage of this exact thing.
How to create habits?
We take familiar cues and rewards, but replace existing routines with new ones. Repeat that enough times, and your brain will make an automatic association with the new behavior. For example, every time something triggers your craving for beer, without thinking anything, just do something else that you enjoy doing. Say, cooking. Every time the craving happens, you cook something nice for yourself. A bit inconvenient, but necessary to create repetitions. And the reward, is the satisfaction of making a meal, which you enjoy, and the delicious treat as well. Do this enough times, and this becomes automatic. The thing that used to trigger your craving for alcohol will subconsciously start triggering a desire to cook some food.
It works like magic. I’ve experienced this myself. I used to be a social smoker, mainly in a setting where drinks were involved. My trigger was a friend going out for a smoke after a few beers. My routine was “well, I will join you too” and my reward was the nicotine hit. I always wanted to quit, but struggled. So I used this habit hack. Every time my craving to smoke was trigger, I’d text myself saying “I’m in a situation where I could smoke, but I am choosing not to do so” That was my routine. Seeing those messages turn from 1 to 2 to 8 to 20 was the reward. I felt accomplished every time I texted myself. I have not smoked for a few years now. And this sounds crazy, but even today, when someone goes out to smoke and I stay back, I automatically pull out my phone. That’s how good our brains are at wiring subconscious behaviors with enough repetitions.
I always knew smoking was bad but just knowing that something is right or wrong does not invoke action. BJ Fogg calls this the information action fallacy: The idea that if you just give people the right facts, they will change their attitudes and behaviors, is flawed because a lot of our behavior is automatic, it is subconscious. To modify those, we need to use the existing cues and reward and rewire them to a new behavior.
This is exactly how Claude Hopkins convinced Americans with very bad dental hygiene in the 1900s to brush regularly. His ads told them that the thin film they feel on their teeth every morning was what caused the teeth to be off-color, and that brushing with Pepsodent would clear that film and make them more beautiful. None of it was true. But it didn’t matter. The cue was that film everyone feels each morning, the reward was it being gone and people looking more beautiful and the routine: brushing with Pepsodent obviously.
This is how Kelloggs used sugar as a craving and a reward to brainwash everyone into believing that breakfast was the most important meal of the day, and their cereals was the solution. This is how rats figure out how to navigate complex mazes to find treats, how cats learn to pull levers to escape dark boxes — it’s all automatic, it’s a habit.
It’s quite powerful and impressive actually.
By now, you are probably thinking — wait, didn’t you say we are overemphasizing the power of habit? And that there is something else that is more critical to success?
Yes, you are correct. And, this is the part where I’ll stop singing merits of habits and tell you when they don’t work.
When do habits fail?
I think habit hacks or habit loops are great tools for creating or replacing routines that are subconscious and automatic, and those that don’t require much deliberation on your part. Or when the routine you are trying to build is simple, and there isn’t any strong resistance against forming that routine. Eugene Pauly had no reason to not go for that walk with his wife. And walking is quite a simple activity. In case of Pepsodent, Americans just did not care for brushing, but they were also not trying to actively avoid brushing. And again, brushing is quite simple to do. As far as my smoking was concerned, I had a mild addiction to nicotine, but I had nothing against quitting, in fact, I was actively trying to. And texting myself is a pretty simple thing to do.
Where habits fall apart is when the routine you are trying to create faces strong and active resistance from yourself, or requires a defined structure to achieve. Let me explain.
One of the most common examples people use to back the logic of habits, is exercise. You come home from work, see your workout clothes as the cue, working out is the routine, and a nice little snack afterwards is the reward. See, this has never worked for me, because I despise exercising. And for me, to consider the snack as a respectable reward for my exercising efforts, it would have to be so big and likely unhealthy, that it would far outweigh the benefits of exercise that I just did. But, BJ Fogg, author of Tiny Habits has a solution for this. His method was, every time he flushed a toilet, he had to do 2 push ups. Over time, that became a habit, and throughout the day, he was doing almost 50 pushups. This sounds quite reasonable in theory, but is far from it in practice. Sure, he made a habit of doing 2 pushups and turned that into 50, but what is the intension of exercising? Get fitter, healthier, stronger? It is very well researched that to get any of those benefits, you would need what is called a “progressive overload” which can only be achieved by either increasing the weight you are lifting, or increasing the repetitions you are doing within the same timeframe, or by creating an isometric tension. 2 pushups at a time does none of that. So you either skip exercise because you dislike it so much, or make it so simple and effortless that it produces negligible benefits.
This is where goals come in. Putting your 110% effort in the gym, preparing for a marathon, becoming a better musician, studying for an exam — these things require deliberate and structured effort, they need the extra push of a challenge, a motivation, some external force that automatic habits simply cannot provide. For example, James Clear in Atomic Habits says that if you want to get better at guitar, just put it where you see it. And tie it to a trigger. Sure, you will play a few more times, but that is a horrible and ineffective way at improving at playing an instrument, which requires very deliberate and structured practice. That is why, these should be set as goals.
While habits are built on top of familiar cues, rewards and subconscious routines, goals require solid objectives, structure, commitment and most importantly, a concrete deadline. You can’t reach your goals by subconsciously repeating things.
Zig Ziglar, author of Goals, introduces the concept of activity vs. achievement, and warns us of mindlessly doing something just because it is a habit, without having sight of the results or properly measuring progress. Jean Henri Fabre, a French naturalist, did a series of experiments with processionary caterpillars to illustrate this. They are called processionary caterpillar because they follow each others in procession. He lined them around a flower pot until they formed a never ending circle. He put some pine needles in the center of the flower pot, which is the primary food of these caterpillars. The caterpillars started going around and around until they eventually dropped dead from starvation and exhaustion, with an abundance of their favorite food less than 6 inches away. They were doing an activity.
Hopefully you are seeing where I am going. Benjamin Hardy, author of “Willpower does not work”, outlines 4 key steps to creating solid goals:
- Knowing what you want and why you want them
- Creating forcing functions
- Outsourcing your behavior expectations to your advantage
- Designing your environment
Let’s say you’ve always wanted to run regularly, but aren’t a fan of it. You can barely run a mile. So you take the plunge and register for a marathon that is coming up in a few months with a goal of completing that marathon. Here’s how you’d set up that goal to make it objective.
- Ask yourself why you want to run a marathon?
- Maybe for the challenge?
- Maybe to check it off your bucket list
- Maybe your SO is running and you want to be a part of it as well
- Maybe you have a great cause, like running against cancer
- Create forcing functions that will push you towards this goal. According to Hardy, the most powerful forcing functions are:
- high investment Registering for a marathon 3 months in advance, you’ve paid for it and there is a deadline. You are now invested on running that marathon.
- social pressure You’ve announced it to your friends and family. You’ve had bet with a friend. That’s social pressure.
- high consequence for poor performance In this case, there isn’t a consequence for performance, but if you were actually competing, that would push you for performance.
- high difficulty If you struggle to even run a mile, a marathon is pretty challenging.
- novelty The fact that you’ve never run a marathon makes this quite unique to you.
- Rather than assuming how you would do and setting expectations of your performance yourself, you want to outsource those expectations and let those work for your advantage, The more you make your goal public, the more people will form opinions about how you will do. “You will do just fine, I trust you!” Or, “you can’t even run a mile, maybe you should try the marathon next year instead”. And everything in between. Regardless of what it is, support or discouragement, let that result in a positive drive for you. This is called the Pygmalion effect. It is the phenomenon whereby others’ expectations of a target person affect the target person’s performance. There is extensive research done about this idea where teachers’ expectations of their students affected the students’ performance. The point here is to take advantage of this to drive your goals.
- And finally, design your environment to your favor. And, I think this is where the two, goals and habits come together into perfect synergy. Charles Duhigg talks about Keystone Habits, small changes or habits that people introduce into their routines that unintentionally carry over into other aspects of their lives. Keystone habits have a ripple effect into other parts of life, creating positive change unexpectedly. These habits together can help create an environment that fosters accomplishing your goals, by making you generally effective and productive in all areas of your life. Exercising, food journaling, family relationships, consistent daily routine, positive thinking, meditation — are examples of keystone habits that can make a positive impact on accomplishing every goal you set.
So, then, the million dollar question: which one is it? Habits or goals? The answer’s likely obvious to you by now: BOTH. You need to Be able to build good habits and set concrete goals. One relies on repetitions and automatic behavior, the other one funnels external pressure and expectation to fuel you. And hopefully, this video has given you some insight into how to identify which activity is a better fit for a habit and which one is a good candidate for a goal. And this differs by each individual. Take exercise, for example. It is totally fine as a habit for most, but because of how much I dislike exercise, it is always a goal for me. I routinely set new exercise goals — a new 3-month challenge, a bet with a friend or a personal target of getting to a certain fitness level.
So you can decide now:
- Whether you want to run each day, or run a marathon in 3 months
- Whether you want to play the guitar each day, or play a song at your best friend’s wedding
- Whether you want to do 2 push ups every time you flush, or participate in a local spartan race in 6 months
Choose whatever works for you and make it work in your favor. In the end, what you are looking to do is use the best tool to become a better version of yourself.
I hope this was useful.