My Path to Uncovering the Power of Habit Formation
I’m fascinated with habits. I love the romantic notion that tomorrow is full of infinite possibilities, and the reality is what we did yesterday is the best predictor of what we’ll do tomorrow.
In fact, depending on which research you look at, between 30–80% of our daily activities are on automatic pilot. Whatever your percentage, habit patterns translate to a significant portion of our day.
Take a shower. Brush your teeth. Check Facebook. Drive to work.
Have you ever got all the way to work and didn’t remember how you got there, like I have done? We were on auto-pilot and the habit routine in our brains took over.
I got really interested in habits a little over a year ago as I began working on an experiment for a talk I gave at the Quantified Self Global Conference earlier this year, the event for people using self tracking tools to gain insights into their lives. I quickly learned if you could break down the habit process that occurs in your brain and take control of those habits, it could have a transforming affect and take more control over your auto-pilot mode.
It wasn’t too long after I gave that Quantified Self talk that I was in full habit formation mode and was ready to use all I had learned over the previous year to wake up earlier and be more productive — to become a morning person.
This is the story of the surprising things I learned along the way, using behavioral change and habit formation to get my grumpy butt out of bed and thrive in the morning hours.
Habit Forming Products
I was deep in my Quantified Self experiment and looking at correlations in my data when I started researching habit formation more deeply. I ended up for a meetup hosted by Yelp HQ in San Francisco for a talk by author Nir Eyal. I wanted to learn more about how the same habit formation approach I was researching for my personal wake up experiment was a key part of the business strategy and product design of so many of our everyday products.
Eyal says that a habit is done with little or no conscious thought. In business terms, a “hook” is an experience that connects a person’s problem to a company’s solution with enough frequency that it becomes a habit.
Add this up, and you get a loyal customer. You also get the title of Eyal’s book: Hooked.
He outlined a four-step framework that companies can use to design a habit-forming solution:
Trigger: This is either an external trigger such as an ad or billboard, or an internal trigger such as hunger or depression. For example, Eyal suggests that people check email more often when they are depressed.
Action: This is what you do in response to the trigger, such as watch YouTube videos or open another Budweiser.
Reward: This is why you perform the action; it’s your payoff. In a business sense, the idea reward is fulfilling but leaves the customer wanting more.
Investment: This may be the most nuanced of all of Eyal’s observations. It’s something you do — such as Like a Facebook post — that loads the hook for the next trigger.
“We are all robots when uncritically involved with our technologies,” philosopher and media theorist Marshall McLuhan noted in the early 70s. His words are even more relevant today, as smart companies use research and frameworks — like Eyal’s Hooked model — to build habit-forming services that spawn billion dollar companies.
In other words, a company’s motivation is profit. Your motivation is a better life, or a more productive life.
It became clear after listening to Eyal, learning about habit formation isn’t just transformative it’s a necessary skill to navigate our connected lifestyle.
Habit Formation Workshop
The 2015 Quantified Self Conference & Expo was in full swing and with my talk thankfully done on the first day, I signed up for a workshop by Tiago Forte, founder of a professional training and consulting firm based in San Francisco, Forte Labs, which creates “training programs to equip knowledge workers with productivity skills for the digital age, including Design Thinking, Workflow Design, Behavior Design, and Quantified Self.”
The habit formation framework presented during Forte’s workshop was — not surprisingly — similar to Eyals work since it is based in part upon some of the same research out of Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. At the core, it’s a simple neurological loop of cue, routine, and reward. As Charles Duhigg states in The Power of Habit, a book I started reading just prior to the workshop:
First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future.
As a collegiate athlete, I was unknowingly using the power of habits to drive my consistent success. Whether the race was against Olympic calibre athletes or against weekend warriors at a local road race, my pre-race process was the same my coaches trained us on — visualization, nutrition, warmup. By the time I got to the starting line, I had primed my mindset for success.
Bob Bowman, the coach of the most decorated Olympian of all time, Michael Phelps, championed the “small wins” habit approach that helped him repeatedly be successful.
“If you were to ask Michael what’s going on in his head before competition, he would say he’s not really thinking about anything. He’s just following the program,” Bowman was quoted in Duhigg’s book. “But that’s not right. It’s more like his habits have taken over. When the race arrives, he’s more than halfway through his plan and he’s been victorious at every step. All the stretches went like he planned. The warm-up laps were just like he visualized. His headphones are playing exactly what he expected. The actual race is just another step in a pattern that started earlier that day and has been nothing but victories. Winning is a natural extension.”
As Forte started to put us through the exercises in his workshop, I was more than sold on how learning to break down the habit process could transform any aspect of my life. As an entrepreneur, I saw how this could radically change how I approach product and organizational development.
One of the initial exercises in the workshop was to identify our individual habit type using Gretchen Rubin’s descriptions of how we uniquely respond to habit formation. Rubin has written extensively on the subject including in her book Better Than Before. She outlines these four types:
1. Upholders respond readily to outer and inner expectation
2. Questioners question all expectations; they’ll meet an expectation if they think it makes sense — essentially they make all expectations into inner expectations
3. Obligers meet outer expectations, but struggle to meet expectations they impose on themselves
4. Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner alike
Turns out I’m a mix of Rebel and Questioner. Since the Rebel is more challenging for habit formation, I chose to build my experiment around a Questioner profile. As Forte told me, a Questioner is the archetype for Quantified Self habit formation. While all types can use the tools of Quantified Self to form habits, the Questioner is most responsive to success with these tools.
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” — Will Durant
My Habit Formation Experiment
During the workshop, Forte put us through a process to surface a keystone habit — a habit that when created creates a chain reaction, rearranging your other habits as you integrate the habit into your life. Next was to make it so simple it was nearly impossible to say no.
So I chose to get up an hour earlier to have more time for everything I wanted to achieve in a day. Being a Quantified Self person, I downloaded a self tracking app. There are many great habit formation apps, but I chose a simple, inexpensive app called Good Habits.
The idea is to check off each day you achieve the habit and make a note when you don’t so you can see what is causing you to not execute the habit loop.
My cue was waking up. I do that every day (hopefully). So that is already a built in habit. The routine would be to get out of bed rather than hitting snooze. The reward would be checking off the habit in my app. Since I’m regularly slow in the morning, I decided to initially add another reward, bacon. I love the smell of bacon in the morning and that smell is entrenched so deep in my brain from childhood; I knew it would be a powerful, albeit dog training-like, reward.
To start, I made it so simple that I couldn’t say no. Even if I got up 1 min earlier, I declared success and gave myself the reward.
Once I got to starting my day about 30 minutes earlier, it started to get harder. Even with the bacon, my success rate was ~50%. I could see the keystone habit benefits. Getting up earlier allowed me to get more done in the day, allowed me to do more personal projects during “my hour”, ensured I had time for a morning meditation and short workout, and gave me a start to the day with more focus and energy.
With all those amazing rewards, why was I only successful half the time? It turns out the number one reason was what happened the night before. Did I get to bed too late? Did I drink alcohol? Did I feel I needed more workout recovery time?
So I started looking at my habits before going to bed to ensure success for this important keystone habit. I planned better for recovery sleep after big workouts. I started a bedtime routine that would ensure I was in bed at a certain time and that I didn’t drink alcohol after a certain time of the evening. I increased my success of this keystone habit above 80% and eliminated the reward of bacon in the morning.
Now when I’m not successful, it’s because I’m making a conscious choice that my evening activities are most likely at the cost of my morning hour. Though, the longer I’ve been creating this keystone habit, the less often I want to give up my morning hour. It seems, I’ve become what I never thought I would love being, a morning person.
“Habit is either the best of servants or the worst of masters.” — Nathaniel Emmons
For everyone who has tried to change your diet or quit smoking, you know changing habits is by no means easy.
“On average, it takes more than 2 months before a new behavior becomes automatic — 66 days to be exact,” behavioral psychology, habit formation, and performance improvement specialist, James Clear, wrote referencing research on this subject. “And how long it takes a new habit to form can vary widely depending on the behavior, the person, and the circumstances.”
It’s worth the effort.
Knowing the success a pre-race small-win routine had in my collegiate athletic career and learning how to break down the process with my morning wake up experiment, I’m convinced habit formation is a key tool to help create your own reality, live deeper within your values, and thrive in our interconnected, Hooked world.
If you’re interested in learning how to better utilize the research on behavioral change and habit formation in your life, I’ve outlined a few key resources to get your started:
· Transform Your Habits: The Science of How to Stick to Good Habits and Break Bad Ones — This short ebook by behavioral psychology, habit formation, and performance improvement specialist James Clear is an easy, concise overview. I also highly recommend you subscribe to his email newsletter.
· Curated Habit Resources — This is a great list of resources related to habit formation from productivity consultant and workflow designer Tiago Forte, who I also highly recommend following on Twitter.
· The Power of Habit — I really enjoyed reading this book by Charles Duhigg especially for its insights on how habit formation can transform organizations.
· Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday — While I didn’t read this book by New York Times best seller Gretchen Rubin, it was highly recommended by Forte during our workshop and was just released in paperback. I’ve added it to my 2016 reading list.
· BJ Fogg — Definitely follow this Stanford innovator & psychologist. His work is repeatedly referenced in just about everything I’ve read about habit formation.