Implementing Habits

I’m addicted to progress and development. My favorite quote is by Curt Lindström, who coached Finland’s national team to its first World Championship in ice hockey in the Spring of 1995. He kept saying the same thing during the practice sessions: “Lite bättre!” — a little bit better. He wasn’t telling the team they need to step up their game to another level. The requirement was just doing specific things a little bit better every day. For a long time, I’ve approached my life with the attitude of trying to go to sleep as a better version of myself than I woke up.

This attitude towards progress is easy in personal life as there are endless aspects to improve. In professional life, meaningful progress is easy in any new role but gets more difficult over time — especially in strictly defined roles. This is the nature of learning most skills. Learning is rapid in the beginning and slows down over time.

Learning curve

Figure 1. A logarithmic curve represents the relationship between skill acquisition and time.

Positive habits are the best way I know to become lite bättre — consistently and reliably. I’ll explain the key concepts and tools that I use and how I frame things for myself when implementing new habits. I’ll share real-life examples throughout.

The four steps to a new habit

The Step The Question
1. Reflection Why do I want this?
2. Motivation How do I make this easy and fun?
3. Success criteria How to win consistently?
4. Eliminate resistance What is thwarting me?

1. Reflection - Why do I want this?

Before deciding to create a new habit, spend time researching the subject. We must clarify why we want the habit and if that habit gets us closer to the desired big-picture results. A few questions guiding us towards clarity:

  • Will this habit trigger the change you want?
  • What is the end goal for you with this habit?
  • Are you intrinsically motivated for the change?
  • What are you willing to sacrifice for achieving this change?
  • How will your life look like after you have acquired this habit?

New habits are small changes to how we live. Changes are easier to accommodate when we value the outcome of the changes, regardless of convenience. If we make a change to improve something meaningful, sacrificing something is reasonable. If you want the change only because society values it or to impress your boss, it’s not something you want. Reflection before the commitment is key to successful actions, and crucial for changes.

Reflection overlaps with motivation because motivation often comes from intrinsically wanting to change. Being willing to sacrifice is necessary for change, as no change is only positive. It may be necessary, it may be the right thing to do, but there are always drawbacks.

I have not always answered these questions before implementing habits. Flossing is one example. For 235 days in a row, I flossed every day. Between 20/08/2016 and 16/09/2018, I flossed on 713 days out of 758. What a waste of time! Even though the American Dental Association still recommends flossing (because you’re not harming yourself), even the organization recognizes that there’s little to no merit to flossing at home 1. I wanted to test how to take something I dislike and make it part of my daily routine. I doubt I would have flossed for two years if I had asked myself the questions above.

While unproductive, my experience with flossing is an encouraging example of what well-chosen habits can do for us. When something menial and painful can become part of our life for two years, it’s easy to envision how a well-chosen habit can move us towards our goals. Spending the time and energy to validate and dissect what we want, ensures we are focused on the right thing.

2. Motivation - how to make this easy and fun?

Motivation does not come from motivational videos, quotes, or speeches. That’s inspiration. Motivation comes in two forms: intrinsic and extrinsic. By choosing habits we are intrinsically motivated to undertake, we maximize our odds of success. There are two ways to motivate yourself: rewards and punishment — the stick and carrot. Both have worked for me, although the older I have gotten, the more I have used reward over punishment 2.

Since we want to be consistent, we need to make the habit both easy and fun. Easy, so we don’t need to find inspiration to complete the task. Fun, so it adds energy to our day 3. If you want something only for a short time, ignoring one or both of these guidelines is fine. As an example, keeping a food diary is usually a sprint, where we commit to it for at most seven days, so it’s fine for it to be difficult and energy-sapping.

It’s not always obvious how to make things easy and fun. For years, going to the gym was hard. I used to push myself to the limit every time I went to the gym (3-5 times a week). I stayed consistent with it because I wanted the results. However, it often didn’t energize me, nor did I look forward to the pain. Nowadays, I exercise every day. I don’t “kill myself” at the gym every day, but rather listen to my body to determine what it would benefit from today. Sometimes it’s just a light row on an erg, sometimes a hundred heavy deadlifts, and sometimes an exhausting metcon4. The key is that I do something physical every day, the difficulty depends on how I’m feeling that day. This change has made training easy for me. I don’t have to do anything, I choose what I want to do. This has also made it fun: I do what feels right, which means I don’t need to go beyond what feels right. Sometimes being dizzy walking down the stairs after the workout feels right, sometimes not even breaking a sweat feels right. That balance allows me to stay consistent.

3. Success criteria - how to win daily?

Defining success is imperative. Without a clear definition and a sufficiently low bar for success, it is unlikely that the habit is both easy and fun, leading to inconsistency.

Choose the smallest possible progress you could do today to be a little bit closer to the achievement — that is your success criteria. It doesn’t mean you must stop there, but that’s the bar you are going to reach every day. Sometimes we clear the bar by a lot, sometimes we just about squeak above it. Consistency equals results, which is why we keep the bar low.

Keeping the bar low is only for the daily targets, though. The long-term targets should be large, optimally massive. The long-term vision is where the inspiration comes from, motivation comes from making daily progress.

4. Eliminate resistance

Are there things that are blocking you from succeeding? An example is trying to build a habit of going running in the morning. Is it too cold to toss the blanket aside? Increase the room temperature in the morning or wear more clothes to bed. Is it frustrating to dig for the running clothes and shoes in the dark? Lay the clothes out beside the bed during the evening. Do you feel hungry in the morning and need to eat before running? Have a protein shake while tying your shoes. All these are things adding resistance to building the habit: we must first recognize these resistance points and then set up processes to eliminate or minimize the resistance.

Noticing what’s stopping you from succeeding is just a step towards success. You don’t need to hit it out of the park on the first swing! It’s fine to fail — we just need to stick to the plan and remove blockers. If you fail, note down why and then structure a process that eliminates the reason.

One of the easiest habits for me to pick up was reading books. I had tailwinds, as I was already reading! All I needed to do was to switch from reading news to books. I picked a book by Ryan Holiday called Daily Stoic, which has one-pagers on stoicism with dates tagged on them (built-in tracking!). The book was available as an e-book, so I downloaded it to my phone and added a reminder for each morning to read a page of it. This eliminated two failure points: not having the book available or not remembering to read it. When I saw the reminder, I was three taps away from the page I needed to read. The more you can remove resistance, the better.

While reading was easy, writing consistently has been extremely hard for me. It took me two years to find a routine that works. Initially, I made the common mistake of only trying to do it weekly, which meant there was little progress, no routine, and no momentum. However, it wasn’t deciding to write daily that made the difference but to write early in the morning. Going to sleep early to have undisturbed time in the morning to focus on writing is what enabled consistency. Each morning starts the same way5: wake up, read 10-20 pages, and write for at least 20 minutes. Typically after writing, I exercise but as exercising is something that comes easy to me (nowadays), I don’t schedule and prescribe it the same way. The easier the habit is, the more freedom we can give ourselves.

Keep it simple

These are the four building blocks that every habit needs: understanding yourself, making it easy & fun, defining success, and eliminating resistance. It’s easy to start but hard to stay consistent. For consistency, keeping the actions small and their frequency high are the tricks that all habit masters recommend 6.

I do not know why doing something daily is easier than doing the same thing three times a week. That is what the literature claims, the people mastering their habits do, and what I’ve seen true in my experiments. I assume it is because we have daily routines since we are born and the daily cycle is biologically inbuilt in us. If you want a change, take a tiny step forward every day.

In the end, success to me is about the process and the daily steps forward, not about the results. It’s that way because it’s rare that we can control the results, but we can control the process. Results have lots of variance on them, so measuring them in the short term is futile 7. As NFL coach Bill Walsh wrote: “Concentrate on what will produce results rather than on the results, the process rather than the prize."8

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  1. Only professional flossing has scientifically proven value. In practice, that would mean visiting a dental hygienist five days a week for flossing. From Floss/Interdental Cleaners under section “Evidence”. ↩︎

  2. There are benefits to using punishment over reward. Loss aversion allows us to leverage potential small losses as motivation. An example: betting with a friend that you can run 400 meters in under 60 seconds can be the motivation that pushes you to begin running more consistently. Cognitive flexibility allows us to reframe punishments as rewards over long periods. An example: a tough workout can be a punishment or reward — it depends on the person’s mindset. ↩︎

  3. The idea of measuring things by their impact on personal energy levels was introduced to me by Scott Adams in his brilliant and controversial “How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big”. Measuring personal energy levels is a measurement based on simple observation but it captures many essential and underlying incentives. ↩︎

  4. Metabolic Conditioning, often abbreviated as metcon, is a term popularized by CrossFit. In essence, it’s high-intensity interval training that combines both strength and cardio elements into the same workout. ↩︎

  5. To be more precise: used to start the same way, until the 17th of June, when our daughter was born. Since then, she has dominated the period from early evening to late morning and subsequently changed how my mornings have been like. The mornings were starting to be too easy, so it’s good to have a new challenge readily available! :) ↩︎

  6. I’ve read dozens of books around self-improvement and/or habit formation — the consistent recommendation across the literacy is high-frequency and tiny actions. One of the best and most practical books on habit building is “Atomic Habits” by James Clear. If you want to dive deeper into the topic, that’s a good place to start! ↩︎

  7. If there’s one thing that millions of hands of poker teach you, it’s that you can make all the right decisions and still lose — in the short term. In the long term, if you keep making the right choices, it’s impossible to lose. ↩︎

  8. From Bill Walsh’s aptly titled book “The Score Takes Care of Itself”. ↩︎