William James (Psychologist; First to offer a U.S. psychology course)
“The chains of habit are too weak to be felt until they are too strong to be broken.”
Samuel Johnson (Author; Life of Samuel Johnson)
“Good habits are worth being fanatical about.”
John Irving (Author; The World According to Garp)
The road to success is stacked with habits.
Everyone wants more time and energy. Remember when you were a kid and each day seemed to last forever? But then you got older. And the days grew shorter. Now, months pass by like days and days fly by like minutes. This happens because, as we grow older, we fill up our days with more and more decisions and premeditated activities. When you’re a kid, you don’t have any plans. You don’t make difficult decisions. You wake up, someone feeds you, takes you places, takes care of you, and tells you what to do. The rest of your time is spent playing without an agenda. As result, your days were endless and your energy levels were limitless. Compare that to now. The average adult makes anywhere from 612 to 35,000 decisions a day. Each of these decisions takes time and energy. Eventually, these decisions start to pile up, weighing you down and locking you into place. Understand that decisions prevent success. It’s impossible to fulfill your purpose in life by making more and more decisions. Even if you consistently make good decisions, even if you’ve done everything right in your life up until this point, things are only going to get worse. You’re going to keep running out of time. You’re energy levels are going to continue to plummet. The only way to reverse course is to stop making decisions and start stacking habits.
Decisions Make You Weak
Decision fatigue refers to the deteriorating quality of decisions made by an individual after a long session of deliberation. Decision fatigue is also known as ego depletion, a term coined by the social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister. Baumeister’s work has demonstrated that you have a finite store of mental energy for exerting self-control. When your stores are empty, your ability to make good decisions turns to crap. One of Baumeister’s studies divided college students into two different groups. The first group was labeled the Deciders and were told that they would get to keep a gift at the end of the experiment if they made a series of choices between the gifts. Would they prefer a pen or T-shirt? A red T-shirt or a black T-shirt? A candle or a T-shirt? A vanilla-scented candle or an almond-scented candle? The second group, or Non-deciders, spent the exact same amount of time contemplating the exact same products but without making any choices. Instead, they were asked to give their opinions about the gifts. After the questions, all of the participants were told to hold one of their hands in ice water for as long as they could (a classic test of self-control). The biological impulse is to pull your hand out of the water, so self-discipline is needed to keep your hand submerged. The Non-deciders lasted an average of 67 seconds, while the Deciders lasted an average of only 28 seconds. Deciding between simple items that carried no significance made the students twice as weak.
There’s no such thing as a good decision. There are three ways to avoid making needless decisions that weaken your self-discipline. First, you can automate your decisions by having someone, or something else make them for you (like having a computer program or an investment company manage your 401K). Second, you can adjust your environment by getting rid of distractions that force you to make decisions (if there’s no ice cream in the freezer you don’t have to decide NOT to eat it every night). Third, you can ritualize as many decisions as possible so that they stop being decisions and start being habits. Habits are the opposite of decisions. Decisions impede success, habits lead to success. One habit can erase more than a dozen decisions from your daily life. This is because habits are scalable. The key to replacing your decisions with habits is understanding how habits are created, replaced, and stacked.
Hack Your Habits
In the book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg discusses experiments with mice that show how habits affect our behavior and brain function. During the experiments, MIT researchers surgically placed wires and probes inside the brains of healthy mice and dropped them into a maze. Then, the researchers monitored the mice’s brain activity as they navigated their way through the maze. During the first maze run, the mice’s brain activity was very high, especially in the cerebral cortex. Yet, the mice went through the maze very slowly. They had to scratch and sniff the walls to find their way to the cheese at the end of the maze. Over the next few weeks, the mice found their way through the maze faster and faster. At the same time, something interesting happened – the mice’s brain activity went down. Their cerebral cortexes, including the parts associated with memory, were almost silent. The mice were finding the cheese faster but using far less mental energy. The only part of the mice’s brain that was still active was a tiny part called the basal ganglia. The researchers concluded that the mice’s brains had off-loaded the maze-running sequence from the cebral cortex to the basal ganglia and stored it as a habit. The researchers also made two other interesting discoveries. First, they were able to activate the mice’s basal ganglia to run the maze-running script using a “click” sound as a trigger. Second, they were able to reactivate the mice’s cerebral cortex by changing the maze or by moving the cheese.
A habit loop consists of a trigger, a routine, and a reward. In the above experiment, the trigger was a “click” sound, the routine was the maze-running script, and the reward was the cheese. A more practical example of a habit loop would be getting in your car after work and driving home. You’ve probably noticed that if you drive the same route home from work over and over again for months and months you will start to do it automatically. In this example, the trigger would be getting off work, the routine would be the route-driving script, and the reward would be arriving home (to have dinner, see your family, relax, etc). After driving this route repeatedly, your brain activity goes down. The routine is off-loaded from your cerebral cortex to your basal ganglia. This is why you can drive home and not really remember the time you spent driving – because your habit was in control of your decisions. The rest of your brain engages only when something new is added to the routine, like road construction or a swerving car.
Habits are never broken. No one can quit a habit cold turkey. A person can; however, replace a routine. Studies show that once a habit is formed, it stays stored in your basal ganglia for life. Your habits, both good and bad, are anchored deeply in your psyche by your triggers and rewards. The only parts of your habits that can be changed are your routines. For example, if you smoke, your odds of quitting are dramatically increased if you replace the routine of smoking with another routine, like working out. Most smokers are triggered by stress to have a cigarette. By smoking, these people receive the reward of a relaxing and pleasurable high feeling. It’s impossible for smokers to completely delete stress (the trigger) from their lives. Likewise, it’s impossible for them to delete the desire for pleasure (the reward) from their lives. But they can delete what lies between the two – the routine. By working out in response to stress, instead of smoking, the smokers can receive the same relaxing and pleasurable high feeling. The difference is these feelings are brought on by healthy endorphins instead of unhealthy nicotine.
Stack Your Habits
Habits are scalable. You can turn one good habit into 20 good habits by stacking routines on top of each other. The key is to use a really strong trigger, backed by a long-standing routine, to trigger a second routine. Then, use this second routine to trigger a third routine, on and on, until you have a long chain of routines that lead to a reward. The strongest trigger I’ve been able to find in my life is the simple act of waking up. As long as I’m alive, this trigger will exist. And, for as long as I can remember, I’ve been brushing my teeth right after waking up. These two things are my really strong trigger, backed by a long-standing routine. When I wanted to start working out on a daily basis, I stacked the routine of working out on top of the routine of waking up and brushing my teeth. When I wanted to start eating a healthy breakfast every morning, I stacked the routine of eating a healthy breakfast on top of waking up, brushing my teeth, and working out. When I wanted to start this blog, I stacked the routine of writing 5 pages on top of my routine of waking up, brushing my teeth, working out, and eating a healthy breakfast. My morning habit has continued to scale to include over 14 different routines, each acting as a trigger for another routine. Consequently, I don’t make a single decision from about 6AM to 12PM each day. This keeps my schedule open, my mind free, and my energy levels high (the reward).
Let your environment make decisions for you. It is better to make a bold decision, choose poorly, learn from it immediately, and take action to correct it than it is to deliberate obsessively, sap all of your energy, choose correctly, and have no time or energy to follow through on your choice. Your goal is to identify the actions that further your purpose in life and turn them into habits as quickly as possible. The best way to do this is by favoring action over planning. Plans involve decisions. The more you plan, the weaker your mind becomes. Action, on the other hand, will make your decisions for you. Your actions will either bring you closer to your goal or take you further from it. You can use this feedback to identify which actions are productive and turn them into stackable habits. Of course you will never completely free yourself from the responsibility of making good choices. But you can free yourself from decision fatigue and from feeling trapped in your own life. The more good habits you stack on top of each other, the fewer decisions you will have to make. As a result, you will free up your time and energy for the things that matter, like playing and indulging in the people and projects you’ve been putting off.