Date read: 2022-01-12
How strongly I recommend it: 9/10
Read more on Amazon.

High-Level Thoughts

Really helpful framework for improving your habits. The kind of book you can re-read every year or two, because you can always be improving your habits. First read in 2018, now re-read - helpful both times. Feels like it would be helpful for people along the 'quality of current habits' spectrum.

Highlights

Systems over Goals

What's the difference between systems and goals? Goals are about the results you want to achieve. Systems are about the processes that lead to those results.

If you're an entrepreneur, you goal might be to build a million-dollar business. Your system is how you test product ideas, hire employees, and run marketing campaigns.

If you completely ignored your goals and focused only on your system, would you still succeed? I think you would.

Goals are good for setting a direction, but systems are best for making progress.

The problems with goals:

  1. Winners and losers have the same goals. Every Olympian wants to win a gold medal.
  2. Achieving a goal is only a momentary change. It's like treating a symptom without addressing the cause
  3. Goals can restrict your happiness. There's an implicit assumption that "once I reach my goal, then I'll be happy".
  4. Goals are at odds with long-term progress. When your hard work is focussed on a particular goal, what pushes you forward after you achieve it?

You do not rise to the level of your gals. You fall to the level of your systems.

These systems are your habits.

Changing identity to change behaviour

Behind every system of actions is a system of beliefs.

Behaviour that is incongruent with the self will not last.

The ultimate form of intrinsic motivation is when a habit becomes part of your identity.

When a smoker trying to quit is offered a cigarette replies "no thanks, I'm trying to quit", this person still believes they are a smoker who is trying to be something else. The person who replies "No thanks. I'm not a smoker" no longer identifies as someone who smokes.

When developing a positive new habit, intrinsic rewards like better mood, more energy and reduced stress kick in. At this point, you'll become less concerned with chasing the immediate rewards - the identity itself becomes the reinforcer. You do it because it's who you are and it feels good to be you.

Incentives can start a habit. Identity sustains a habit.

Habits as brain patterns

Whenever you encounter a new situation in life, your brain has to make a decision: how do I respond to this?

Neurological activity is high during this period. The brain is busy learning the most effective course of action.

If you stumble upon an unexpected reward, you alter your strategy for next time. Your brain catalogues the events: "that felt good - what did I do right before that?"

You're feeling anxious, then go for a run and it calms you down -> reward
You're mentally exhausted from a long day and playing video games relaxes you -> reward

After facing a problem many times, you brain begins to automatically solve it. These are your habits.

Now, your brain skips the trial and error and creates a mental rule: if this, then that.

Habit formation is incredibly useful because the conscious mind is the bottleneck of the brain. It can only pay attention to one problem at a time.

"How long does it take to build a new habit?" is a common question. But people should actually ask "how many repetitions are required to make a habit automatic?"

In practice, it doesn't really matter how long it takes for a habit to become automatic. What matters is that you take the actions you need to take to make progress.

The habit loop

Habits are a loop of cue, craving, respond, reward.

A cue in your environment makes you want something. The response is what you do and the reward is what happens.

Rewards satisfy the craving and teach you which actions are worth remembering in future. Your brain is a reward detector.

These four stages provide rules for creating good habits and breaking bad ones:

  1. Cue: To create a habit, make it obvious. To break a habit, make it invisible
  2. Craving: To create a habit, make it attractive. To break a habit, make it unattractive
  3. Response: To create a habit, make it easy. To break a habit, make it difficult
  4. Reward: To create a habit, make it satisfying. To break a habit, make it unsatisfying

It is the anticipation of a reward - not the fulfilment of it - that gets us to take action.

Gambling addicts have a dopamine spike right before they place a bet, not after they win.

The pointing-and-calling technique

Pointing-and-calling is a safety system designed to reduce mistakes.

As operators run the trains in Japan, they call out everything that happens. "Signal is green.", "All clear!" Everything detail is identified, pointed at, and named aloud.

It reduces errors by up to 85 percent and cuts accidents by 30 percent. It is so effective because it raises the level of awareness from a non-conscious habit to a more conscious level.

You can apply this technique to yourself by creating a habits scorecard, by pointing-and-calling every habit that you have. Make a list and label each behaviour as good, bad or neutral.

The process of behaviour change always starts with awareness.

Make specific plans for habits

Implementation intention is a plan you make beforehand about when and where to act. Studies have shown that they're effective for sticking to our goals. Make a specific plan and you are more likely to follow through.

The simple way to apply this strategy is to fill out the sentence:

I will [BEHAVIOUR] at [TIME] in [LOCATION].

e.g.:

  • I will meditate for one minute at 7am in my kitchen.
  • I will study Spanish for 20 minutes at 6pm in my bedroom

Don't wait for inspiration to strike. Simple follow your predetermined plan.

Habit stacking

You often decide what to do next based on what you have just finished doing.

Going to the bathroom leads to washing and drying your hands, which reminds you to put dirty towels in the laundry.

Habit stacking is a special form of implementation intention. You pair a new habit with a current habit:

After [CURRENT HABIT], I will [NEW HABIT]

e.g.:

  • After I sit down to dinner, I will say one thing I'm grateful for that happened today.

You can insert new behaviours into the middle of your current routines. For example you may turn "Wake Up -> Make my bad -> take a shower" into "Wake Up -> Make my bad -> place a book on my pillow -> take a shower", to encourage yourself to read more.

Motion does not equal progress

It's easy to be in motion and convince yourself that you're still making progress. You think, "I've got conversations going with four potential clients right now. This is good" or "I brainstormed some ideas for that book I want to write. This is coming together."

Motion makes you feel like you're getting things done. But really, you're just preparing to get something done.

When preparation becomes a form of procrastination, you need to change something. You don't want to merely be planning. You want to be practicing.

You don't need to map out every feature of a new habit. You just need to practice it. You just need to get your reps in.

Decisive moments

Every day, there are a handful of moments that deliver an outsized impact.

The moment you decide between ordering takeout or cooking dinner. The moment you decide between starting your homework or grabbing the video game controllers. These choices are a fork in the road.

The difference between a good day and a bad day is often a few productive and healthy choices made at decisive moments.

Researchers estimate 40-50 percent of our actions on any given day are done out of habit.

A habit can be completed in just a few seconds, but it can also shape the actions that you take for minutes of hours afterward.

The two-minute rule

To make a new habit easy, start with a version that is scaled down to two minutes.

  • Read before bed each night -> read one page
  • Do thirty minutes of yoga -> take out my yoga mat
  • Run three miles -> tie my running shoes

As you master the art of showing up, the first two minute simply become a ritual at the beginning of a larger routine.

An alternative application of this is: when you're not in the mood to do something, promise to doing it for 2 minutes.

Make bad habits impossible

I often find myself gravitating towards social media during any downtime. If I feel bored for just a fraction of a second, I reach for my phone.

It's easy to write off these minor distractions as "just taking a break," but over time they can accumulate into a serious issue.

I experimented with a new time management strategy. Every Monday, my assistant would reset the passwords on all my social media accounts. On Friday, she would send me the new passwords. I worked all week without distraction, then had the entire weekend to enjoy the social media.

Once my bad habit become impossible, I discovered that I did actually have the motivation to work on more meaningful tasks.

Our brains prefer immediate rewards

You value the present more than the future. Behavioural economists refer to this as time inconsistency. A reward that is certain right now is typically worth more than one that is merely possible in the future.

Overeating is harmful in the long run but appetising in the moment. Smoking might kill you in ten years, but it reduces stress and eases your nicotine craving now.

The costs of your good habits are in the present. The cost of your bad habits are in the future.

You can turn instant gratification to your advantage by giving immediate positive reinforcement after a behaviour.

This is particularly helpful for habits of avoidance (ie. behaviours you want to stop doing). For habits like "no alcohol this month", nothing happens when you skip happy hour drinks. It can be hard to feel satisfied when there is no action.

One solution is to make avoidance visible. Open a savings account and label it for something you want - maybe "Leather Jacket". Whenever you pass on a purchase, put the same amount of money in the account. Skip your morning latte? Transfer $5. The immediate reward of seeing yourself save money toward the leather jacket feels a lot better than being derived.

Recovering when habits break down

The first mistake is never the one that ruins you. It is the spiral of repeated mistakes that follows. Missing once is an accident. Missing twice is the start of a new habit.

This is a distinguishing feature between winners and losers.

The problem is not slipping up; the problem is thinking that if you can't do something perfectly, then you shouldn't do it at all.

Lost days hurt you more than successful days help you.

Writing a habit contract

A habit contract is a verbal or written agreement in which you state your commitment to a particular habit and the punishment that will occur if you don't follow through. Then you find one or two people to act as your accountability partners and sign off on the contract with you.

For example, Bryan Harris wrote a roadmap for losing weight:

  • Phase 1: Get back to strict slow-carb diet in Q1
  • Phase 2: Start strict macronutrient tracking program in Q2
  • Phase 3: Refine and maintain the details of his diet and workout program in Q3

He then wrote out the daily habits he'd need, such as "write down all the food that he consumes and weigh himself each day".

He listed the punishment if he failed: "If Bryan doesn't do... [action X], he will give Joey (his trainer) $200."

The strategy worked.

Finding the area to focus on

In theory, you can enjoy almost anything. In practice, you are more likely to enjoy the things that come easily to you.

The most common approach is trial and error. A more effective way is considering the explore/exploit trade-off.

In the beginning, case a wide net and try lots of things (exploration). Then, shift your focus to the best solution you've found - but keep experimenting occasionally.

As you explore options,  ask yourself the following questions:

  • What feels like fun to me, but work to others?
  • What makes me lost track of time?
  • Where do I get greater returns than the average person?
  • What comes naturally to me?

Successful people fall in love with boredom

What do really successful people do that most don't?

At some point it comes down to who can handle the boredom of training every day, e.g. doing the same lifts over and over and over.

Professionals stick to the schedule; amateurs let life get in the way. Professionals know what is important to them and work toward it with purpose; amateurs get pulled off course by the urgencies of life.

The only way to become excellent is to be endlessly fascinated by doing the same thing over and over. You have to fall in love with boredom.