Categories
Education Lifestyle Productivity

Types of Habits and Designing Our Lives

“Most habits take on one of four common forms: things you want to start doing, things you want to stop doing, things you want to do more, and things you want to do less.”

Josh Kaufman (The Personal MBA)
My habits in their natural habitat

Before I dive into this post, I have to make a few honorable necessary mentions. Most of this information is from James Clear’s amazing book Atomic Habits, which I highly recommend. He explains the importance of developing systems and focusing our attention at the level of the habit in a seemingly effortless and powerful way. I also have to mention Josh Kaufman’s The Personal MBA, a must read book for entrepreneurs looking for well packaged high quality information. I think my must read book list needs some updating. Kaufman goes over more than just business, he also lays out a wealth of knowledge regarding habit formation and lifestyle design.

Intentionally creating our own lives starts with understanding our every day actions and how they develop into habits. I like to think of habits as belonging to the four categories mentioned above – Things We Should Start Doing, Things We Should Stop Doing, Things We Should Do Less, and Things We Should Do More. Meditating on these categories and articulating which habits fall into each category is a fantastic exercise in identifying key habits. Identifying which habits we want to start, stop, or change is the first step in creating our lives by design. Another way I like to identify habits is to categorize them as Old Habits – things I want to do less or stop all together – or as New Habits – things I want to do more or start doing.

The Habit Cycle

Understanding the Habit Cycle is like learning the anatomy and physiology of habits. The Habit Cycle explains how habits come to be and what we can do to make that process easier or harder.

According to Clear, habits have 4 stages that they follow. Cue. Craving. Response. Reward. Understanding each stage will help us intentionally create habits that we want in our lives and destroy the habits we don’t.

The Cue is the external stimuli that triggers the brain to start the behavior. When we see a cue, we get a Craving, which is the motivational force behind the habit. The Response is action or set of actions we take to potentially satisfy the craving. The Reward is what makes it all worth it and the last stage, the satisfaction of the craving.

The Habit Cycle – James Clear

Let me give an example to ground this in real life.

Let’s say I’m working on a blog post and I reach an issue in articulating what I want to say. Cue – I encounter a difficult situation. I start feeling stuck and my motivations change. I just want to be relieved of my frustration. Craving – yearning for relief. Despite my best intentions, I reason with myself that I am going to die sooner than I’d like and my experience of life is all that truly matters so I should stop blogging and play video games. I save my blog post, turn on my PS4 and have a good ol’ time. Reponse – leaving the challenging situation to play games. I feel delighted that I get to play my video games and my relief has come. Reward – obtained relief from tension caused from blogging. In this case, I layed out my provility to play video games when I’m confronted with difficult situations. Identifying the steps in this habit cycle helps me take the steps I need to ramp this up or turn it down depending on what I want for my life. For me, I love developing myself to overcome challenges in anyway possible so I’m going to try to break that habit and replace it with a new and more positive one.

If we pay enough attention to what causes our cravings, then we can take premeditated steps to intentionally create our ideal lives. We do not have to let the habit cycle run over and over, we can stop it at any point. We just need to know how.

Breaking Old Habits

Breaking old habits is a skill worth practicing. On our journey, we pick up ways of being or thinking that may have been useful in the past, but no longer serve a purpose to us in the present. I know I have more than a few habits holding me back from bringing about my Jungian Self.

The first thing we need to do when we’re breaking habits, is identifying the things we do that are not bringing us closer to where we want to go. Once those habits are identified, we can practice a few things to make those habits more difficult for us to live out.

Harness Friction

One of my favorite ways to break bad habits is to add friction to the mix. Friction can be thought of as obstacles preventing us from completing an action.

I’ll give an example to bring this down to Earth.

Let’s say we have a habit of spending too much time on our phone in the morning. The first thing we do when we wake up is check out phone and we end up losing track of time and it throws off our whole day.

Analyzing this situation in terms of friction, we can see that we are only partaking in the “bad” habit because there’s nothing stopping us from doing it! If we were to set our phone on the other side of the room before we go to bed, then there will be a lot of friction between us and checking our phone in the morning.

Those small, yet big, steps of getting out of bed and walking over to your phone gives you enough time to develop the willpower necessary to not act out the habit. Friction is what makes or breaks my habit formation 90% of the time. I’m so sensitive to friction, but I choose to use my susceptibility to measure the effectiveness of my environment.

I love using friction to my advantage. I can increase the friction to prevent actions that I don’t want, or I can decrease it and it’ll be easier for me to build the habits I desire.

Invert the Habit Cycle

Another effective way to break old habits is to invert each step of the habit cycle.

The first step is Cue. If we can cut out the cue completely, or at least make it invisible, then we have a fighting chance to break that specific habit loop. Let me give an example, if I see my PlayStation controller in my room I’ll get an urge to play and I’ll have to use willpower to fight off the craving. Instead of using willpower to break the habit cycle, I put my PlayStation controller in a place that makes it difficult for me to see it and the craving never exists in the first place.

Out of sight, out of mind.

Now, I still may get cravings to play video games, but this way I can control for at least 1 variable. To break the habit cycle at the cue stage, we can make our cues invisible.

The second step is Craving. To stop a craving we can use willpower to resist it (but that takes too much energy), we can make the cue invisible, or we can make the craving seem unattractive.

Let me put it this way, let’s say I have a craving to eat a snack at midnight. I can think about how good it will feel to satisfy my midnight craving and how happy I will be enjoying my little snack – thinking like this will just make me want to eat more.

Or I can think about how I’m developing a habit that could lead to an unhealthy lifestyle which consequently leads to a shorter and lesser quality functional lifespan. I can imagine my body failing me in ways that I take for granted now and the frustration I will feel confronting my true powerlessness.

Once the snack is framed like that, it’s much easier to say “How about a hell no.” Making things unattractive can stop a craving dead in its tracks.

The third step is Response. To stop the habit in the response stage, Clear recommends to make the response difficult. This goes hand-in-hand with my “add-friction” tip from earlier. If we add friction between us and our response, then we are much less likely to act out the response. This makes sense when we think about what the purpose of habits are.

We have habits to save cognitive load, and overcoming friction would add cognitive load, which works counter to habits. We have habits to make things easier, so making a response more difficult will cut off the habit before we get our highly sought after reward.

The fourth and final step is Reward. We love the reward because of one simple reason. It is satisfying. If we make the reward unsatisfying, there goes all the power!

Imagine, sacrificing what mean most to you only to receive a lackluster reward. The visceral and lingering feelings of disappointment will power through any urge to perform those sets of actions again. If we feel like what we doing isn’t worth it, then we aren’t going to do it again. Simple as that. Find what makes the reward sweet and ruin it.

Be weary that there aren’t just clever mind tricks that play into our breaking and forming of habits, but our emotional states as well. We tend to break the “good” habits and start the “bad” habits when we’re feeling H.A.L.T. – hungry, angry, lonely, or tired. When we identify with one of these 4 emotional states, we are way more susceptible to aiming down and following through with it. We are pretty tough people, but we only have so much willpower. Save your willpower for when we’re feeling one of the four detrimental emotional states. We should invert the habit cycle whenever we can so we can have the energy to fight when we need to.

Creating New Habits

Once we set ourselves free from our old bad habits, we can finally create new habits! But that poses the question:

How do we create new habits that last?

We can approach this a few different ways. If you’ve read my other blog posts, specifically about studying, then you know I’m all about finding a bunch of ways to do things and modifying them to create my own personalized system.

Optimize to Win

In his fantastic success manual, Tools of Titans, Tim Ferriss talks about the importance of meditating every day. While I do recommended practicing meditation, that isn’t what I want to focus on. People tend to have a difficult time creating a habit from meditation, after all most of the benefits only occur when meditation is being practiced as a habit.

Tim says when you start a new habit, you want to rig the game to win. It takes 5 sessions to make something a habit, and it doesn’t matter how long the sessions are. Keep it simple and make the first 5 sessions short. The first few times stepping up to the figurative plate will take significant willpower, but once we developed a little habit it gets easier over time. Optimize to win. Eventually our actions will eventually become what we are, I talk a little bit about this in my post Hypnotic Rhythm.

We don’t have to stop at making it short, we can make it easy too! When I first started working out consistently, I made my first 5 sessions short and easy and now it feels a little weird if I don’t get at least a little exercise.

Another thing we want to keep in mind when we are trying to create new habits is knowing that we only want to do things when we believe it will pay off for us. If we believe it won’t pay off or it’ll actually harm us, then we won’t do it. To take advantage of this bit of knowledge, we should presence ourselves to why starting this new habit is worthwhile. Be advised, this is different for everyone and requires rigorous self reflection.

Encourage the Habit Cycle

Another effective way to create new habits is to encourage each step of the habit cycle.

The first step is Cue. The cue usually kicks off the habit, but if we’re making new habits we might need a little extra help with this step. Make the cue obvious. I lay out my yoga mat and have my kettlebell out in the open so I don’t have to spend any time setting up. Working out consistently has always been difficult for me, but when I set out my equipment in a place that’s easy to see it’s much easier to just start working out. Making cues obvious can also be thought of as a method of removing friction.

The second step is Craving. This comes after the cue and gives us that feeling that we should be doing something. Craving a good habit is an interesting feeling, but one that we should try to encourage. Encourage the craving by making it attractive. Imagine, actually craving to workout or study. It’s not that hard when you think about how good you will feel once you finish or how much longer you’ll live if you’re healthy. Find reasons to pick the good choice.

The third step is Response. Once we have the craving to do something, our next move is to act. If we want the habit, to stick then we need to make it easy. I’ll use the example of my yoga mat and kettlebell again. Since the mat and kettlebell are already set up in the center of my room, it’s easy to just start working out. It’s actually easier to workout than it is to ignore the equipment! That’s why I put it in the middle of my room. I’m making it harder to ignore working out (stopping the old habit) and easier to start working out (creating the new habit).

The fourth and final step is Reward. This is what makes it all worthwhile. If we want to keep a habit going, we have to make the reward satisfying. Since I absolutely adore my video games, that’s usually the go-to treat for me after doing something difficult. Creating new habits is not easy and responding to those changes takes a lot out of us. I also love watching carefully written television like The Sopranos, Game of Thrones(Seasons 1-4), and Westworld. When I have the time I also love to cook. Sometimes I’ll make a really nice meal to reward myself for creating new habits. Find what makes you happy and indulge once everything is said and done.

Developing New Traits

The best part about knowing all is this is discovering that traits and skills can be developed through simple habit formation. This means we can create habits of traits that we admire in our role models within ourselves!

There was a study at Harvard which suggested that the most productive people don’t wait to be told what to do. Successful people take initiative and we can use the knowledge of breaking and creating habits to create the habit of taking initiative within ourselves!

The best best part – this doesn’t have to stop at initiative!

We can create a habit of being honest, courageous, hard working, dedicated, reliable, or any other trait that we would like. It’s not an easy task by any means, but it is possible with serious attention, dedication, and time.

The Issue of Willpower

Creating habits takes willpower. Sometimes it requires a lot and sometimes it requires a little. If we are trying to create new habits, we. need to find ways to minimize how much willpower we’ll need or designing our lives will be too difficult. We can minimize will power through optimizing our environment. I talk a little bit about that in Strategies for Better Studying Part 4.

If we set up our space to encourage the new habits and add friction to discourage the old habits, then willpower won’t be necessary!

James Clear talks about different ways to minimize required willpower by adjusting our actions to the habit cycle. At first, the changes will requires a huge amount of willpower, but every time we run through the loop we strengthen the neural pathways and the required willpower becomes less and less.

Josh Kaufman also talks about habit cues in his fantastic book, The Personal MBA.

“Habits are easier to install if you look for triggers that signal when it’s time to act. For example, if you want to take vitamins, it’s easier to remember to take them if you use another habitual action as a trigger for the action. Instead of relying on your mind to remember to take your vitamins in the middle of the day, you can use brushing your teeth in the morning or evening as a reminder.”

Josh Kaufman (The Personal MBA)

In addition to building a guiding environment, we can reduce willpower by focusing our attention on one habit at a time. Kaufman also mentions this in The Personal MBA.

“For best results, focus on installing one Habit at a time. Remember, you only have so much Willpower to use each day, and overriding your default mode of action depletes it quickly. If you try to install too many Habits at the same time, you probably won’t succeed at adopting any of them for long. Focus on installing one Habit until taking action feels automatic, then move on to the next.”

Josh Kaufman (The Personal MBA)

Creating and destroying habits takes a bit of practice, patience, and discipline. If these methods don’t work, try longer. We are surprisingly malleable creatures despite our proclivity towards habits and routine. Getting better: at first it’s uncomfortable, but later will be worth it. Perhaps the real lesson is to learn how to internalize discomfort and push forward, for once we do this we can do anything. Feel free to pick and choose which parts of this post you like and go forth to design your dream life!

Start by winning the moment right in front of you.

Categories
Education Productivity

Strategies for Better Studying (Part 4)

“Hard work is not always something you can see. It is not always physical effort.

In fact, the most powerful form of hard work is thinking clearly. Designing a winning strategy may not look very active, but make no mistake: it is very hard work.

Strategy often beats sweat.”

James Clear

This is the final part of my Strategies for Better Studying series. I recommend taking the parts which work best from each of these strategies and use them to create your own personalized study strategy. As long as we understand the principles behind the messages, we can create our own systems that provide support where we need it most.

I go over the principles of learning and studying in my post about Active Recall and Spaced Repetition. I recommend checking out Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 for more strategies to scrap for parts. Treat this as a buffet, take what you like and leave what you don’t.

Stop Multitasking

⬅ who remembers this?

So the truth about multitasking is that it doesn’t exist! Human beings are not capable of multitasking, what we actually do better thought of as task switching, or context switching. (Thanks APA!) We are never truly doing more than one thing at once. We may be switching contexts so quickly that it could appear as multitasking, but don’t be fooled by illusions.

Let’s say I were working on this blog post at the same time I was producing a song, I would have a difficult time of it because my brain is constantly switching back and forth between the two tasks.

My brain would be working on this blog post, creating new connections between ideas, and figuring out how to lay out my thoughts in a linear language until I decide to switch to music production. Once I switch over, my brain is now focused on sound selection, volume levels, and motion of the music. These two tasks require the brain to do different things and by constantly switching between them, our brain loses the ability to do any deep work. I mention the idea of deep work in Part 2.

Not doing deep work keeps the projects at a mediocre level. The highest quality products, ideas, book, songs, work is creating from long stretches of uninterrupted time. Let me bring this back to my example of blogging and producing. Let’s say I’m blogging and producing for 3 hours straight, ideally I should be getting a fantastic blog post and a fantastic mix, but the reality is the “uninterrupted” time gets “interrupted” every time I change from blogging or producing. So if I switch my task every 15 minutes, it doesn’t matter how long I sit at that desk, I’m only working on the blog post or the mix for 15 minutes. I’m no expert, but in my experience nothing amazing is created in either of these art forms in 15 minutes.

If we want to produce quality work, or study efficiently, we need to aim for working on 1 task for a long period of time. Lumping up a bunch of different responsibilities and working on all of them for 6 hours straight is a losing strategy. We would be much better of spending an hour or two on just one task than straining our brains trying to do everything all at once. The goal is to get into flow. Which also I talk about Part 2.

Context switching is much easier than we’d like to believe. Even something as small as a notification coming up can rip us right out of flow. This is why I recommend to work with notifications off. I talk more about that in the first part of my scheduling tips series.

Listening to certain music while working can also take us out of flow. When we listen to music, our brain has more input to process which adds extraneous cognitive load to our plate. I get a lot of pleasure from work with music, so I figured that little hit in productivity is worth it as long as I enjoy working. However, I don’t listen to music with lyrics. Lyrics rip us out of flow much faster than instrumental music because our brains will want to process the words and extract the message subconsciously. This is a task in itself, so a context switch would apply here and our productivity would take serious hits.

Focus on one thing at a time. Work with notifications off. Keep in mind that it takes 25-30 minutes of uninterrupted time to get into Flow. We all are incapable of multitasking and resisting that idea results in having a harder time completing lower quality work. Attempting to multitask is rarely worth it, especially if we are creating or working on something that we really care about.

Maintenance Rehearsal vs. Elaborative Rehearsal

Have you ever had to memorize a phone number? Whenever I have to, I say it to myself a few times and once I type it out, I instantly forget it! This type of thing happens whenever I know I have to memorize something quick that I know I don’t need later down the line. I still do this with vital signs when I’m with patients. I’ll take their vitals, say them to myself over and over, write them down, then forget them. (I’ll know what their signs roughly are, but not exactly. It may be a bad habit, but I’m human and my brain is just trying to survive.) This little trick is known as Maintenance Rehearsal. It keeps information in our short-term, or working, memory which is dependent upon our cognitive load. Maintenance Rehearsal is fantastic for memorizing information quickly that doesn’t need to be deeply thought about. It requires relatively little attention. I do not recommend using maintenance rehearsal for studying, but it’s a neat little trick our minds can do.

Much more suitable for studying is Elaborative Rehearsal. This type of memory rehearsal is more useful for transferring information from our working memory to our long-term memory (LTM), which is the goal for most learning. It involves thinking and internalizing the meaning of the information at hand, which is an attention expensive processes. Elaborative rehearsal is effective because of the depth required, the same reasons why Active Recall works. Using our brain to think about the meanings, accommodating new information, and connecting it to what we already know is an incredibly effective tool for moving information into our LTM. We do this when we think about a good novel or when we learn something that reminds us of something in our personal lives.

Maintenance Rehearsal is fantastic for phone numbers and other small tidbit that don’t need to move to our LTM, but Elaborative Rehearsal is what we want to focus on as students. Find the meaning in things, connect them to your life, and learn deeply.

Account for Spill Days

Spill Days are something that I started doing a few years into my scheduling game, but I didn’t have a name for them. Shout out to Dr. Ali Abdaal for giving me a catchy name for this extremely useful tool.

Scheduling is imperative for productivity, but more often than we’d like shit hits the fan and we get thrown off course. Back in college, I used to line my students up back to back so I can maximize the number of students I can help in a day. However, a huge problem came up. If I was late to one session, or if one session went over, then every single student after that would have to be pushed back and that was NOT a sustainable system.

The same thing can happen with planned days. If I’m planning to work on a blog post, film a YouTube video, produce a beat, and prepare for a birthday extravaganza (like I am today), but something happens that gets in the way of that, do I just put all of that off until tomorrow? No, can’t do it! Because I have other things planned that day too!

Should I just push off my entire life a day later because one day didn’t go as planned?

Hell no! I just put off the non-time sensitive stuff onto my next Spill Day! Spill Days are days specifically designed for catching up on all the things that don’t get done when life happens. I like making my spill days the day after I go out with family or friends since usually I get those days to myself. Spill Days can be thrown into our schedules as often or as scarce as we’d like. One thing I have to mention about Spill Days is that they are absolutely crucial. No one’s life goes as planned all the time, and we all need a little time to catch up. Knowing I have a Spill Day coming up reduces my stress when things don’t go according to plan because I know that my responsibilities will still be accomplished.

Something unexpected came up? Assign the displaced tasks to a Spill Day. The work you’ve been doing took waaaay longer than expected? Assign the displaced tasks to a Spill Day.

But what about time sensitive tasks?

Unfortunately, spill days aren’t useful for tasks that need to be done in the here and now. The best bet is reschedule any non-time sensitive tasks that day to a Spill Day and do the time-sensitive task instead of the non-time sensitive tasks.

Once I saw a job posting for a job that I really wanted, and I knew that it would close pretty quickly, so applying to this job was something I needed to do here and now. However, I did plan on producing a beat that day and I needed to maintain that schedule because my YouTube Channel has specified drop dates. Since I had more time to produce the song than I did with this job application, I decided to schedule my producing to the nearest Spill Day (which happened to be before the drop date) and did the application in place of producing that day. By the end of that week, I had an interview from that application AND I was able to get the song done. Unfortunately I didn’t get the job, but I was able to fulfill my responsibilities and maintain the view I have of myself as someone who gets their shit done.

Schedule Around Your Body’s Natural Rhythms

We all have a heart and it’s always beating in a special rhythm. Some call it normal sinus rhythm and it’s a sign that everything is working the way it should. I’ve always seen it as proof that humans are rhythmic creatures. Our hearts move to a beat, our bodies work through a cascade of reactions, everything doing their own thing but working together to make something much more spectacular, the human body. This is part of the reason why I love music so much. Each instrument, each track does it’s own thing, but in the context of everything else, the entire composition working together to create a beautiful song.

We have so many rhythms in us because they are part of nature. We have rhythms that govern sleeping, eating, and other habits. My dogs even have rhythms! They know what it is time to eat, walk, or sleep.

The main idea here is to learn and understand our own personal rhythms so we can effectively produce and perform with as little resistance as possible. Have you ever worked on a paper when you’re sleepy? Doing the work is difficult enough, but add that to the effort you need to muster up in order to just stay awake and you have yourself a miserable time. When we’re miserable, we’re less likely to repeat the actions that made us upset in the first place, so getting ourselves to work on that paper again will be even more difficult.

If we understand our rhythms, then we don’t have to worry about doubling up on the extraneous load. I pay attention to the times of the day when I’m more alert and schedule more cognitively demanding activities during these times. Knowing our rhythms reduces resistance to completing tasks and willpower necessary to work.

There are 4 main types of rhythms in the body:

  • Circadian Rhythms: a 24-hour cycle that includes physiological and behavioral rhythms like sleeping. I try to make sure that all of the work I care about most gets taken care of around the hours of 10am to 2pm because that’s when I’m most alert. I save low demanding tasks for the evening when I have less gas in the take, so to speak.
  • Diurnal Rhythms: the circadian rhythm synced with day and night. I notice the times when I sleep and wake and try to schedule my life around those times rather than force myself to get up strictly at 5 am every day. Sometimes my schedule can’t be helped and I have to do that, but when I can I make sure I schedule around my own sleep/wake cycle. This changes over time, but nowadays I’m up around 8 and I’m in bed by 11 or 12. Since I know this, I keep my schedule within these hours. The idea is to work with the rhythms I already have, not exercise more willpower to force productivity.
  • Ultradian Rhythms: biological rhythms with a shorter period and higher frequency than circadian rhythms. The time I eat is a good example of this. I pay attention to the times I’m hungry, and unless I’m fasting, then I try to eat at times so I’m not taken away from my work while I’m in a flow. I try to keep my breakfasts light and high protein so I don’t crash or get hungry during my peak hours from 10-2 and I try my dearest not to eat late because it slows me down in the mornings.
  • Infradian Rhythms: biological rhythms that last more than 24 hours, such as a menstrual cycle. For ladies, the menstrual cycle is something to consider when planning out what kind of work you will be doing. Scheduling physically difficult work while dealing with period cramps or other symptoms could add extra unnecessary stress. Scheduling around our rhythms helps us be mindful of how we are going to feel in the future. In my experience women tend to be better at this than men, but it is something that everyone can practice.

While everyone may not be in a position to control their schedule to perfectly fit their rhythms, but trying to plan the day to day activities with these things in mind will reduce much of the unnecessary stress that comes with living.

Create a Guiding Environment to Minimize Willpower

“Your environment will eat your goals and plans for breakfast.”

Steve Pavlina (1971 – )

I don’t know about you, but I’m terrible at telling myself what to do. Whenever I do something, I always find myself trying to look for ways out. The moment I hit a bit of friction, I usually decide what I’m doing isn’t worth the energy and just stop. This was a huge problem for me when I was younger. At first, I thought I had to just ignore the friction and brute force overcome it but I wasn’t able to do that 100% of the time and that was extremely difficult. I needed something that helped me get things easily and that worked every time I tried it. Then it hit me!

What if I create a place that made my work as easy as possible?

A place where I didn’t have to overcome any friction! A place where my work was something that I wanted to do and was easy to do. As a high school senior, I knew that I needed to get serious about getting my work done, especially if I wanted to become a doctor. So I payed attention to what pulled me away from my work. I determined I was too easily distracted and I needed a place to go with little to no distractions. My solution – reverse all-nighters. I would sleep as soon as I got home from school at 3:00 pm, wake up after 8 hours at 11, then work all night into the next school day. I learned a lot of these crazy experiments. This was terrible for my retention and the next day at school I was mentally useless, but I was able to focus on my work like I never had before. The late night atmosphere was conducive to my productivity because whenever I was looking for a distraction or a reason to not work, there was none in sight. It was brutal, but my environment kept me on the path.

Today, I’ve had a few changes to fine tune this method and now I create guiding environments that aren’t detrimental to my health. My home office is set up so I can do all the work I need to do with as little friction as possible. Create the spaces so they are conducive to the function of what we use them for.