The Secret To Forming Super Productive Habits

If we don't know how habits work we'll never develop better ones. Let's get to it.

The reason it's so hard to form productive habits is the same reason they're so effective when they're in place: It's all about willpower.

So once we understand willpower, we can better hack the habits.

Roy F. Baumeister, a Florida State University psychologist who has co-authored books on the subject (like, fittingly, Willpower) has studied the way that willpower is a finite resource within your day.

What we call willpower--the ability to resist temptation and privilege long-term benefits over short-term pleasures--comes from the same reservoir of energy that you use up in making decisions. Which has big impacts on how habits get formed or dropped.

"A dieter may easily avoid a doughnut for breakfast," Baumeister explained to the American Psychological Association, "but after a long day of making difficult decisions at work, he has a much harder time resisting that piece of cake for dessert."

Habits are super hard to form, then, because when we start trying to form them, we have to pay down an initial transaction cost of willpower--and since we're innately lazy, that doesn't sound like very much fun to your lizard brain. But thankfully we are mammals. One of our killer apps is being able to think about the future.

We can recognize that our actions today will shape who were are tomorrow: an insight that helps set ready-to-realize intentions, like learning a skill, switching careers, or landing your dream job.

Circumventing the laze: making actions easier

Armed with the above insight, we can hone in habit-construction hacks: What we need to do is work with, or maybe even exploit, our lazy, ridiculous natures, rather than macho-ing against them. So let's inform our cunning.

Be incredibly specific

In a yet-to-be-published interview, Happiness Project author Gretchen Rubin stressed the importance of having specificity in your habit construction, since this gives you the most ready feedback. Instead of saying to yourself "eat healthier!" you can say "have a salad for lunch four times this week!" Then, at the end of the day, week, or fortnight, you can look back to see if you indeed did have that veggie-laden midday meal or not.

Make those goals super small

"Setting big goals is exciting," advises Pick the Brain blogger Deane Alban, "but starting with small boring goals is more likely to lead to success."

So if you hate vegetables, maybe it's two salads a week. Or if you're trying to start a meditation practice--which, research suggests, enriches just about every part of your life--start by sitting for 5 or 10 minutes a day. And if you're a couch creature, immediately running miles a day isn't sustainable, so maybe go for a 15-minute walk.

These micro-actions have a way of re-patterning your biases, Alban explains:

Taking small actions tricks your brain. Your subconscious likes to be in control--it doesn't like change. A big change often sets up subconscious resistance, but you can sneak a small change by it.

So by doing these small actions again and again--perhaps assisted by a ritual-forming app--we can make a slow but seismic shift in our unconscious resistance. This, we can infer, means that we won't have to spend so much willpower energy on doing the healthy, productive thing in the future.

Understand how long this is going to take

There's some folk understanding floating our there that it takes 21 days to form a habit: A study from the University College of London recently set that to rights. Rather, it's 66 days until an action becomes something you do without thinking.

For this study, 96 people (which is, to be fair, not nearly enough to be properly statistically significant, so take the results with a grain of salt, or a piece of fruit, if that's the habit you're trying to build) were recruited who wanted to form a new habit like eating a piece of fruit with lunch or going for a 15-minute run every day. Then, as PsyBlog notes, they were asked if the action could be done "without thinking" or was "hard not to do."

The average result was that a "plateau of automaticity" was reached after 66 days: that is, the behavior became as regular as it was going to get. Interestingly, missing a single day didn't mean that habit had a less likely shot at forming. And, of course, there was a qualitative difference to adoption rates: Drinking a glass of water came much more readily than doing 50 sit-ups a day.

The lesson, then? Maybe they should have started with 20.

Have a favorite habit-forming hack? Please lend us your comments.

[Image: Flickr user Nagesh Jayaraman]

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16 Comments

  • Jon D. Andre

    "Or if you're trying to start a meditation practice--which, research suggests, enriches just about every part of your life--start by sitting for 5 or 10 minutes a day."

    That's exactly how I got my meditation practice to develop into a habit - started with a few minutes multiple times a day, and worked my way up to what I do now over a month long period, consistently ramping it.

    Full disclosure - I took a self-study course that recommended this process, and it is an excellent resource: meditationshift.com (if you are looking to start meditating - which everyone should!).

  • Deane Alban

    I'm a big Fastcompany fan & I was extremely pleased (and surprised!) to see my post from Pick the Brain quoted here. If I may put in a plug for my own site :) this post was originally published on http://BeBrainFit.com. Thanks!

  • Cheryl Cookmeyer Cabrera

    although, I have found that willpower and habit are one thing, but the best way for me to be motivated and productive is to get my mind in the right place, finding reason to do whatever it is that needs to be done is much more inspiring to me and gives me an inner drive than simply habit and willpower. I'm not discounting habit and willpower, but the difference is an attitude of a "chore" as opposed to a "passion"

  • Hunter

    If any of you are interested in finding out more about habits and how they work check out the book, The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. 

  • Tomas

    About 4 months ago I started to meditate. My goal was 5 minutes first thing in the morning. I'm now up to between 20 and 30 minutes. 

    Wrote post about my experience: https://medium.com/life-hacks/... Maybe it will help someone trying to get started.

  • Sid

    Using a pedometer has changed my walking habits. I used to be almost obsessive about efficiency. Take the shortest route. Carry huge loads so I only have one trip. There is something about seeing the step numbers increase that motivates me to move more--even when I'm not wearing it.

  • Brad Patterson @ Kwaga

    This post solidified a number of things for me, and I enjoyed the pepper of research to back it up.  Thanks Drake.

    I'd say success has a lot with the structure you build into new habits, and structure can come from 1) community 2) goals 3) visualization 4) reminders 5) planning, tracking and revisiting your change/efforts 6) knowing why you want to change 7) identifying triggers/clue that hold you back.

    I've recently started using an iPhone app to remind and track my changes.  Called "Habit Maker, Habit Breaker".  Pretty happy with it after 2 months and those 66 days actually seem to make sense!

  • Braden Keith

    I just realized I made a habit of drinking a bottle of water every morning before work. I just made it easy for myself by putting water bottles on my way out the door. Now I just fill that bottle up every day and drink it all day long. Crazy thing is I wasn't intentionally making it a habit, but 7 months later I'm still doing it.

  • Samina

    Good article! After years of fighting my cravings for chocolate in vain, I found a way I think is working (for me). Rather than two chocolate bars (or 4 choc cookies) a day, I GAVE MYSELF PERMISSION to enjoy the same amount only twice a week... for almost two months... and now only have it once a week. I'm hoping to gradually cut back on the amount somewhat, but for this to work for me, I needed to know (and accept) that I'm never going to give up chocolate altogether.

  • CC

    Just switch to some nice dark chocolate... it's so good for you that it's practically a vegetable!

  • Srinivas Rao

     I had spent several years trying to get into the habit of writing 1000 words a day. The hack went somewhat like this

    1) Write what I was thinking
    2) Don't concern myself with quality
    3) Work my way up from 300, 500, and eventually past 1000

    Now it's a habit. I can't not write in the morning. Something feels off. 

  • Carsten Scheuer

    Great approach, Srinivas! We used a similar one in a business context to motivate all of our team colleagues to write brief "day reviews" regularly. (We'd developed a simple tool for that purpose. The background was that motivation and productivity within our team had suffered over the years due to a lack of recognition and appreciation. Regular writing had turned out to be a really good method to stop this downward spiral.)

    BTW: I must admit that your approach is even better than ours! ;-)

  • Srinivas Rao

    HEHE. I can figure out how to build a business around mine it might be more useful. What do you guys actually do? I'd love to check it out

  • Carsten Scheuer

    Hi Srinivas, maybe my answer doesn't get approved at FC due to the link included, so I'll repeat it here:

    Please take a look at teamspir.it - this is the public version of our internal "team log book" tool we've released recently. We're currently evaluating some ideas for interesting new features, but we'll only implement them if there's a real demand by the users. (It's not easy in general to establish the habit of regular writing within a team, but if the tool's just a little bit too complicated or unhandy, it's almost impossible.)

    BTW: I've already bookmarked your really interesting blog! ;-)

  • Stephanie

    GREAT ARTICLE.

    I've been trying to get in the habit of being more active in general, considering I sit at a desk for most of the work day. What enforces my habit building is having someone or something benefiting from my habit other than myself. For instance, my dog! Everyday when I get home from work I immediately go take him on a walk or jog and he loves it! On rainy days I put on my rain coat and rain boots and just play with him in the back yard. It's great exercise for both my dog and myself.