The Easiest Types of Habits to Acquire

The Experiment

In early March, I thought about how small habits have lead to huge wins in my quality of life. Spending 5 minutes being grateful everyday has increased my overall happiness and spending 3 hours a week on working on my sales pitch helped me be more confident in client meetings. I figured more good habits = higher quality of life, so I decided to take a shot at creating 5 new habits by April. These were:

  • Taking a cold shower
  • Meditating
  • Journaling
  • Reading
  • Singing

Reading, singing and journaling were habits that left me mentally exhausted, even though I implemented them regularly. Compared to those habits, taking cold showers every day and meditating were easy. Like taking candy from a baby. A baby who was valiantly lugging 4 bags of candy after a particularly successful night of Trick or Treating and had his Spiderman mask on backwards, impairing his vision. I picked up Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit to learn more about how habits are adopted.

The 4 Characteristics of a Habit

Duhigg defined a habit as having 4 characteristics. I’ll break down the showering habit using them.

  1. A cue. A trigger that makes my brain automatically start the habit. For showers, the cue was the desire to start my day.
  2. Routine. The action that takes place after the cue. This was the act of showering.
  3. Reward. The benefits of the action. I liked feeling clean, refreshed, and that I smelled good afterwards.
  4. Craving. The desire to experience the same rewards in the future. I wanted to smell good and feel clean every morning, so I continued to shower.

Easy Habits to Learn

The easiest habits to learn are those that have the same cues but greater rewards of the habits they replace. Cold showers had the same cue as warm showers (wanting to start the day) but the reward was greater. In addition to feeling clean and smelling good, I felt more energized and liked the fact that I started the day outside of my comfort zone.

Meditation had the same cue as my break walks (being exhausted from work) but with a better reward. Walking breaks resulted in me feeling moderately de-stressed and a little on edge. Meditating took away almost all my stress and increased my ability to focus as well.

Both meditation and cold showers replaced walking breaks and warm showers respectively. It was natural to replace the old habits with new ones because they offered a better reward for not much difference in work. Just as importantly, both new habits had the same cue as an old habit. Cues ensured that the habits took place regularly and automatically, instead of relying on willpower to get them started. I wanted to start every day clean, and I always got tired from working.

Journaling, reading, and singing all were much more fulfilling than watching Youtube or browsing Facebook. But despite a stronger reward, it felt very exhausting to implement these habits. This is because they had no cues and I was just relying on willpower to accomplish these habits after work. Without cues, these tasks didn’t happen automatically and weren’t actually habits. At the end of the month, I stopped doing these things daily.

This habit experiment has been a lot of fun – I’ll probably look to do another 1-2 month habit experiment soon. With a better understanding of how habits work, I’ll be better equipped to program habits that stick longer.

3 Comment

  1. Cues! That makes so much sense.

  2. Cues! That makes so much sense. I’m going to apply this right away.

    Do you use anything to track your habits? There’s quite a few apps for that, e.g. stikk, habitbully, beeminder, etc.

    I use a Google Spreadsheet myself, because it also functions as a daily schedule. Using the spreadsheet definitely helps my adherence, especially for the habits that didn’t have a cue. This idea came from my current favorite book ever: http://www.amazon.com/Motivation-Hacker-Nick-Winter/dp/0989279820/

    1. Darius Tan says: Reply

      So far, I’m just piggybacking off of certain feelings I have (wanting to feel clean) or want to relieve (stress). Spreadsheets don’t feel like a good cue to me for some reason. This is how I was tracking my habits over the experiment. They just felt really tiring to do.

      The habits could also have been difficult because a) the reward wasn’t tangible enough, and b) they weren’t replacing older, less effective habits.

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