“Chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken.” -Warren Buffett
We’re not so different from robots. As we get older, we live our lives in loops just as closed as robots. That’s why Warren Buffett stresses getting your habits right early on.
I was reading the book The Power of Habits.
It tells the story of a man called Eugene, who recently suffered from some brain injuries. This caused him to have a short memory (1 minute or less) and therefore, he could not function like a normal human being.
The crazy part was that scientists studied him and found that he still somehow able to go for a daily walk around the neighborhood and remember where his house was.
Warren Buffett said that forming great habits are one of the great keystones to success. He said they are easier to form when you are younger so it is better to start early.
That’s what lead me down a path to learn how to forge good habits and improve bad habits. After all, Mr. Buffett is one of the most successful businessmen in history and are lives are based around habits. We are creatures of habit.
But how do you actually form and change habits?
Most people fail at this because they try to change their habits based on their family’s (or Uncle Joe’s) bad advice and hope for the best. And nothing changes. They fail to go to the gym consistently. They still eat junk food when they get home or do drugs. They still watch an hour of TV a day even though they know it’s bad for them.
And they give up trying.
Instead, let’s turn to science to see why it’s so hard to change habits. Because this book reveals new techniques on how you can actually change habits. I’m going to show you how today.
The Science Of Forming Habits
Let’s get back to Eugene’s story:
Eugene could barely function on his own. Yet his morning routine stayed the same because of his ingrained habits. This is because habits are behaviors that are bodies make automatic (like muscle memory) so that we do not have to think consciously about them to make them happen, which frees us up to think about other issues.
This is a great time saver. Think about when you first drove a car. The first time, you were worried about everything from the steering wheel to the brakes. After a while, everything becomes automatic.
That’s what happened with Eugene. They found that he was able to remember how to walk around the neighborhood everyday, cook breakfast, and find his house because of a key process to habit formation:
Triggers. These two elements are the core to forming (or breaking) any habit.
Despite his memory loss, Eugene saw visual cues that reminded his body of where to go next even though his memory was blank.
He woke up and went on a walk because his body wanted to, not because he really thought about it.
He was clueless when experimenters asked where his house was throughout his walk. But his body unconsciously followed visual cues around the neighborhood that lead him back home.
They tested this by removing one or two triggers (such as certain trees or areas of the neighborhood). And it was true. He could not complete his walk.
They tested this theory again with a card game experiment involving Eugene.
The card game was a memory exercise that required flipping over the card to confirm if you were right.
Despite his horrible memory, he was able to score very well in the game.
Scientists discovered the biological process for how a habit is formed…
Write this down. This is how habits are formed:
Triggers (also called Signs or Cues)-> Routines -> Reward -> Repeat until habit forms.
Triggers and signs are the things that cause or trigger a habit before it begins or while it’s happening: an itchy fingertip might trigger the habit of biting your nails. Signs are things that occur during your habit: a daily habit of walking the neighborhood has expected signs that are the same each time: the same trees in the same places and the same houses or smells.
If enough triggers or signs are missing, the habit will not awaken or form.
A standard routine repeated over and over with key triggers and signs with a expected reward at the end ultimately creates a habit.
Scientists found that we form habits to be able to use our brain power for other things. They also found that the body cannot tell what is a good or bad habit.
How did they find this and what does it mean?
They used rats. They wired their brains up with tons of wires and found that after repeating a routine numerous times, the level of brain activity needed goes down incredibly.
It makes sense.
When you’re first driving a car, you’re focused on getting everything right: backing up so you don’t hit anyone, making sure the brake is off, pushing the pedal down slowly, and so on.
Overtime, it’s so second-nature you can be thinking about other stuff while you do it.
Habits are formed so that we can better user our cognition for other stuff. The body knows its a daily task so it puts it into autopilot.
But because of the process they are formed, routine->triggers -> reward, bad habits can seem in as well. The body can’t tell the difference.
How To Form Good Habits
To form good habits, you must have the right triggers, the same routine, and make sure there’s a reward.
Experiments show that triggers, also called visual cues or signs, are really important.
If you take enough of these aways, the habit won’t be formed.
Eugene experienced this with his walk.
Also, they found that every morning, Eugene would get mad when his wife would leave for work without saying anything to him. Even though he forgot why a couple minutes later, that anger followed him for a long time.
By changing one of the signs that are part of the routine, Eugene didn’t have the anger anymore. In this case, they made his wife talk to him briefly before she left, even though he would forget it minutes later.
For you, this could mean just making sure that small things like the route you drive to the gym or the routine before you stretch is similar.
The final piece of habit formation is rewards and repeating.
Having an expected reward at the end constantly is needed to start forming the habit into something permanent. In Eugene’s card game experiment, this could be as simple as a quick mental confirmation that you were right.
And, of course, repeat until it forms.
Set Things Up To Be No-Effort
The most classic example is setting yourself up in the morning so that working out is no-effort: your gym clothes are laid out right in front of you when you wake up, your bag is packed and ready, and you’re ready to get up and go.
It works. By eliminating the friction and work so you don’t become daunted or overwhelmed by excuses or laziness, it can make things a lot easier.
If you want to write more blog posts, having the computer and browser set up so that it’s easy access to immediately log in and start writing eliminates obstacles and barriers that allow your motivation to decline. An example of this would be waiting 7 minutes for a computer to boot up because you have an old computer.
Reward Yourself More Each Time
Increasing the rewards and making sure you reward yourself each time you create a habit will further cement the habit and motivate you.
The reward doesn’t have to be related to the habit.
This video shows that once the habit is ingrained, you can keep doing it even if you take away the reward.
Sandwich New Habits in between Familiar Habits
Radio stations found that people are much more likely to adopt and like a different song if it is played in between very familiar, well-known songs.
Butchers had a hard time selling intestines and liver until they packaged it as “the new steak” since people were familiar with steak.
Gyms found that people were more likely to keep paying for membership when people form relationships with the employees, go with friends, or make friends at the gym. (source of all of these come from the book Power of Habit)
People are more likely to adopt things that they are familiar with. Add new habits in between a group of familiar habits to adopt them.
The key takeaway: Wrap a new habit you are trying to form within familiar routines. A great example is to form a place of friendship and a social community at the gym to go more consistently.
Believe You Can
In the book The Power of Habits, they assert that belief that you can change a habit is important. Many people fail to form great habits and get rid of bad habits because they truly don’t believe they can.
The book points to case studies where belief helped people push through when other things failed: a football team winning the Superbowl (the highest level championship) and attributing it to their belief and people breaking alcohol and health habits by forming social communities where they could convince each other to believe.
Form Social Groups To Keep You Accountable
One of the biggest things they have found to help with habit formation is finding a group of like-minded people you can meet with at least weekly to hold yourself accountable, help you believe, and develop habits together.
In the studies they examined, they have found that when all else fails, the one thing that has helped them create good habits is a social community.
When All Else Fails: have A Higher Calling or Purpose
Other than social groups, the one other thing they found that got people through to forming good habits was a higher purpose, calling, or a traumatic personal event like a divorce or death that motivates them to change. While you can’t perform the last one, you can do the others even if you’re not religious.
In the book, they have a case study of a man who was addicted to crack and alcohol. Despite a lot of treatment and years of work, he still relapsed when he thought he was cured.
Although he was atheist, he was encouraged to look to a higher religious calling to help him. He looked to a higher outside force outside of his control (it wasn’t exactly a religious one. Just some unknown force), despite believing it was preposterous.
It actually helped him change his addiction.
Alcoholics Anonymous is a well known national organization. It has 2 million members and 115,000 groups as of 2014. The crazy thing is that it has one principle you must follow in its rules that goes against any science: you must give yourself to a religious or higher calling. Perhaps there is something here because it has helped many people overcome their alcohol addiction.
Giving yourself to a higher power that is out of your control may help with neurological networks in your brain that give you greater belief, hope, and persistence to keep going.
How To Improve Bad Habits
Bad habits can never be erased from our neurological wiring once we obtain them. However, we can replace them so that when we get the same triggers and signs (itchy fingers), we do something other than what we were used to (biting our nails).
To break bad habits, you want to look to replace the routine with good habits.
The book The Power of Habit has found that those who broke bad habits did so by keeping the cues and rewards the same, but just changing the routine.
So if you bite your nails, do something else with your hands instead. If you drink too much soda, drink something else instead. Reward yourself with the same feeling though: a pleasant sensation in your mouth (seltzer water) or an easy feeling in your fingertips (massage your fingers).
The message is simple: Keep the same reward and cues because you are used to them, but change the routine.
A huge part of habits is the craving. When the craving kicks in, change the routine so that you work towards the same rewards with a different cue.
An example would be: when you crave nicotine from smoking cigarettes, look to doing different routines like nicotine patches.
Form Keystone Habits First
What is a keystone habit?
Keystone habits are habits that when formed, make it easier to form other habits. Therefore, you want to form these first.
One of the best keystone habits is a daily habit of exercise. I have found it useful to aim low initially with a habit of just 10 or 15 minutes every day or every other day so I don’t burn out with a goal that is too big.
Exercise works great as a keystone habit because of all the science that has proven to start happening when you become more healthy: you have more energy, you are happier, you get more done, and so on.
Keystone Habits List
Charles doesn’t list many other keystone habits in the book, but based on his principles, these may be other examples:
- weight lifting.
- exercise (jogging).
- goal journaling.
- food journaling.
- gratitude journaling.
- making your bed.
- healthy breakfasts.
- visualization exercises.
- celebrating your wins in a daily journal.
- planning out and prioritizing every week.
To illustrate, food journaling is useful because it helps you eat better, which improves your health, which improves your focus and energy, it improves how much you can exercise, it extends your life, and changes your long-term food routines.
The Baby-Step Method
This method is exactly as it sounds. Have infinitely small goals.
I have constantly been burnt out after setting large goals. Add that on with wanting to over-achieve, and you burn yourself out.
Example: I plan to go to the gym for an hour after not going for over a year. I get there, feel great, an hour is up, and then I want to “over-achieve” and end up staying 2 more hours. I end up feeling alright afterwards but the next 2 weeks shows that I have somehow been burnt out: I don’t return to the gym again.
Any fitness guru will tell you that consistency beats killing yourself once a month or once a week.
What has worked for me is baby-steps: I set a mini-goal of 10 minutes at the gym every other day. It’s so small and easy that I can do it and it helps me stay consistent.
You can’t expect to jump from working out zero times a week to immediately working out 7 times a week for 3 hours each.
Jerry Seinfield is one of the most famous comedians in history. What people would be surprised to know is that he is also very financially successful, with a net worth of around $820 million, primarily through re-runs of his show Seinfield (one of, if not the, most successful sitcom in history).
An article was written from someone who asked him for advice. Apparently, he creates a habit by having a calendar and crossing off the day if he does what he’s supposed to each day. Over time, the chain of X’s gets longer and you feel bad and don’t want to break it.
He recommends using a calendar that shows the whole year on one page and marking the X’s with a red marker.
Use This Infographic If You Ever Forget
I found this great infographic on the author of this book’s blog. It summarizes what you need to do depending on where you are in the process.
Habits never really disappear.
Once you program them in, they will re-emerge if you set up your life to awaken them. This can be good and bad depending on which habits you form.
The book The Power of Habits goes into extensive more detail on the scientific studies about this, but it is clear that:
- habits can be created
- habits can be ignored and changed
- bad habits can be eliminated
Understanding the basic concept of routine -> reward can help you remove or create a habit.
Make sure you check out the book The Power of Habits, which you can buy by clicking here, for a more in-depth look at good habit formation. If you go through my link, I will get a small commission.
The biggest mistake you can make is reading all these tips, acknowledging how useful they are, and never taking action on any of them. I have done this in the past myself. Don’t do the same thing.
How will you use this immediately in an innovative way?