J.D. Moyer

beat maker, sci-fi writer, self-experimenter

Making Good Habits Easier — What Is Most Effective?

Brain training!

Brain training!

I’m fascinated by the science of habit formation. Habits are a gray area where we don’t exert free will directly, but we have some choice in terms of how our habits are shaped. We can set up cues to trigger behaviors in ourselves and others, and reward desirable behaviors to condition and reinforce specific neurological pathways.

I’ve been experimenting with modifying some of my own habits over the past year or two. Here’s a short list of habits I’ve successfully implemented:

  • writing fiction every weekday, around 1000 words/day (or working on world-building, outlining, or revisions for about 2 hours), and keeping a work log
  • strength exercise every weekday (dumbbells or body weight exercises)
  • walking about twenty minutes a day
  • implementing a new dental health routine
  • upping my billable consulting hours from about 65 hours a month to about 80 hours a month (to cover increased costs helping a family member, but also increasing own expendable income and savings rate)

In terms of starting new habits and keeping them going, the two most effective techniques for me have been emotional commitment and tracking.

Other habit change methods, such as manipulating cues, understanding intrinsic rewards, and adding extrinsic rewards have been helpful, but not as instrumental as the former two.

Let’s Get Real. What Works?

The purpose of this post is to be clear about what the core of habit change is, and what is fluff or window dressing.

In my experience the single most important factor is the emotional intensity with which you commit to the change.

I’m not sure if this commitment can be rushed. For myself, sometimes I know that I’m going to need to change something in the future, but for whatever reasons I’m just not ready to commit. Maybe it’s because of fear, or a feeling that I don’t have enough time or energy to make the required changes, or just that changing will be too hard.

It’s often negative feelings that finally galvanize the change. Maybe I’m fed up with the old way of life, or tired of the poor results I’m getting from my current way of doing things.

I do know that it’s a very different feeling to consider doing something, or to dip a toe in a “see how it goes,” than to commit 100% to a new set of behaviors.

For me it helps to focus on both immediate rewards (the inherent pleasures of the new behavior) as well as future rewards (improved health, income, status — whatever it may be). At the same time, maintain a vivid picture of the pain and suffering involved with the “old way of doing things.”

The other most effective practice, in my experience, is tracking progress.

“What gets measured, gets managed.”
– Peter Drucker

When I’m trying to implement a new behavior, spreadsheets are my friend. For fiction writing, I use a daily writing log. For tracking my consulting hours and billable time, I use a spreadsheet that not only calculates how close I am to my monthly goal, but also generates other helpful numbers like remaining workdays.

If you are serious about changing your behavior, write down what you do and what the results are. This applies even to simple counts like “how many days without smoking.”

Everything Else

Everything else is fluff. Of course there can be value in motivational “tricks” like giving yourself rewards, or analyzing a behavior to see if the “bad part” of the behavior can be removed while still holding to part of the psychological reward (if you take outside smoke breaks, don’t forget to take breaks and go outside after you stop smoking).

Go ahead and make that public bet on the internet that you won’t drink for 30 days, or whatever. It can’t hurt, and might even help. Put your running shoes by the door so they remind you and are easy to locate and put on. That will probably help out a bit.

But for long-term change in your life systems, emotional commitment and behavioral tracking are the most effective habit change techniques.

Please share your thoughts (including disagreements, if you have had a different experience) below.

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2 Comments

  1. Hello JD! great post as usual!
    Are you dismissing giving yourself rewards out of personal experience?
    Dan Ariely wrote that he tricked himself into associating his medicine injections (with terrible side effects) with pleasurable activities like watching movies so that he could keep his schedule:
    http://danariely.com/the-books/an-excerpt-from-the-introduction-of-%E2%80%9Cthe-upside-of-irrationality%E2%80%9D/
    (I know, you could argue that he was very intensely committed)

    • Definitely not dismissing rewards … and I use rewards myself to enhance motivation and improve performance. My point is just that the emotional commitment is more important, because it directly associates the behavior with the rewards the behavior directly provides or will provide.

      Also if any technique is working for someone, I would say stick with it! I’m hoping to offer perspective for someone who might not be sure where to start, or which techniques are most effective.

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