JAMES CLEAR: One of the places I like to suggest starting us with what I call environment design. So basically, the things that are on your desk at home, your kitchen calendar, your office at work, they influence your behaviors.
And if you can restructure your physical environment, or your digital environment, then you’re more likely to actually stick with the right habit. So as an example, lot of people feel like they watch too much television. So walk into pretty much any living room, where do all the couches and chairs face? They all face the TV. It’s like, what is this room designed to get you to do?
Now I’m not saying you have to restructure your entire house, but there are a range of choices you could make, right? You could take the chair and turn it away from the television and have a face a coffee table with a book on it or you could put the TV inside a wall unit or a cabinet, something behind doors so you are less likely to see it.
You could also increase the friction of the action in the environment. So you could like unplug the TV after each use, and then only plug it back in if you can say the name of the show that you want to watch, so you are not just like turn Netflix on and find something.
So that’s example of curtailing a bad habit with environment design, but you can also use it to promote good habits.So for example, I used to buy apples and I would put them in the crisper at the bottom of the fridge, and I wouldn’t see them because they were tucked down there. And so then, two weeks later, they would go bad and I’d get annoyed because I’m throwing food out and throwing money away.
And so I bought a big display bowl and I put it right in the middle of the counter and put the apples in there, and now they’re gone and like 3 days just because it’s obvious. There’s a study that I mention in the book from Massachusetts General Hospital. They went into the cafeteria at the hospital, and they added water to all of the fridges, and they also added some of those little rolling carts that have water in them by the food stations in the cafeteria.
And that was all they did. They didn’t talk to anybody.Then motivate anybody.And then six months later water sales are up 25 percent, soda sales down 11 percent and I always think that’s interesting because if you were to go up to any person in that room and be like, why you drinking a coke? They would saying like I wanted a coke.
Why you have water is this is what I felt like having but the truth is some percentage of them chose it just because it was obvious, just because of what the environment nudged them toward. As far as making habits easy, there are a variety of things you can do, but the simplest one is just a scale your habits down to something that is very easy to do.
And I like to recommend the 2 minute rule, which basically says you take whatever habit you’re trying to build and you scale it down to something that takes 2 minutes or less to do.
So you do yoga 4 days a week becomes take out my yoga mat? Or read 30 books a year becomes read 1 page. And sometimes people resist that a little bit because they’re like, okay, I know the real thing I want to do isn’t take my yoga mat out, right? I know I actually want to do the workout. Like, I’m not just looking to build this habit of taking this mat out all the time.
So if it’s a mental trick, and I know it’s a trick, like why I would fall for it? And if you feel that way, then my recommendation would be: well, actually in the beginning, for the first few weeks, limit yourself to only 2 minutes. All you do is put your shoes on, running shoes on, and step out the door, and lock the door, and then you walk back inside.
Or all you do is take your yoga mat out.It sounds funny. Like for example, so I had a reader who ended up doing this. He lost a lot of weight, lost over hundred pounds. And for the first 6 weeks, he only went to the gym for like 5 minutes and then he would leave. So he’d get in the car, drive to the gym, get out, to half and exercise, get back in the car, drive home.
And it sounds ridiculous, right? You’re like okay, clearly, this is not going to be the thing that gets this guy in shape. But when you step back for a second, you realize he was becoming the type of person that went to the gym 4 days a week. He was mastering the art of showing up.
And I think that this is like a really deep truth about habits that gets overlooked a lot, which is a habit, must be established before it can be improved, right? It has to become the standard in your life, your new normal, before you can worry about optimizing it or from there.
If you don’t become the type of person that goes to the gym for 5 minutes, you don’t have a chance to be the person who stays for 45 minutes 5 days a week. So I think so often were so focused on finding the perfect diet plan, the ideal workout program, we’re so focused on optimizing, that we don’t give ourselves permission to show up in a small way.
But even if it’s only for, you know, 5 minutes, for 5 push-ups, or 1 sentence that you write, do something so that you can master the art showing up and make it your new normal, and then once you become that person, well, then you have a lot of options for expanding and improving from there.
There’s this great story that I mention in the book about “Twyla Tharp”, who was a famous dance choreographer and instructor. And she trains for, still even now, she trains for 2 hours a day. She’s, you know, 50s, 60s, she’s been training for a long time, dancing her whole career.
But she doesn’t actually focus on the exercise habits. The habit that she focuses on building is: I put on my workout clothes and my sweatshirt, and I hail the cab on the side of the street. And if I’ve done that, then I’ve completed the habit.
And I think that the insight that she realized is that, habits are often the entry point not the end point. They’re the cab not the gym. They’re like an entrance ramp to the bigger routines in your life.
And if you can master that habit that like little decisive moment that determines what happens in the next chuck of time, then the rest of it kind of falls in line. I have this moment each morning where either I open up Evernote and I start writing the next article I’m going to work on, or I go to ESPN and I check the latest sports news.
And what happens in the next hour is really determined by what happens in the first like 30 seconds because if I go to ESPN, then the next hour is kind of short. but if I start writing article, if I master that entry point, then I’m kind of speeding in the right direction and the momentum carries me into the rest of the task.
And I think that, for me that’s a little bit inspiring when it comes to building habits because what you realize is that there’s actually not that much to change. There maybe 5 or 10 of those little decisive moments, those little entry points throughout your day, that determine whether the next chunk of time is productive or not.
And if you can organize your environment, or join a community, or restructure your habits so that those entry points are mastered, then you’re much more likely to live a good productive day.
So many of our habits or socially reinforced I have a whole chapter in the book, but even though I wrote a whole chapter on it, I think I undersold the importance of social environment and how important it is for building your habits?
So you have a job interview and you wear a dress or a suit and tie, and not a bathing suit or workout clothes, or something just because you know that’s the expectation of the other people in the group. Or you walk onto an elevator, and you turn around to face the front even though you could face the back, or the side, or whatever, but that’s not what people do, so you do that everybody else does.
Or you move into a new neighborhood, and you walk outside on Tuesday night, and you see that all of your neighbors have the recycling bins out. And you are like, oh, we need to sign up for recycling because I guess that’s what people like us to do in this neighborhood and then you stick to that habit for 20 years, right?
Mostly because it’s socially reinforced and so there are all kinds of things: the things we do at work, the way we dress, the things we do at school, the religion we do or don’t practice, they’re all reinforced by the people that are around us.
So I think the punch line to this is that you want to join a group, to join a tribe, where your desired behavior is the normal behavior, because of its normal in that group, then it’s going to give you a reason to stick to it, because your habits are going to be a signal to the people around you.
Hey, I belong to, right? Like I get it, I fit in.I’m part of this tribe as well. So social environment is a big driver of whether you stick to habits for the long run. And joining groups that have your desired habits I think is a great way to reinforce those for good.
One reason bad habits sticks so readily, that they form so easily, is because bad habits often the immediate reward is favorable, right? Like what’s the immediate reward of eating a donut. It is kind of great. It’s sweet. It is sugary. It tastes good. It’s only the ultimate reward if you repeat that habit for 6 months, or a year, 2 years that is unfavorable.
Meanwhile, good habits are often the exact opposite. The immediate reward of going to the gym, or going to the gym for like a week, isn’t really that great. Your body is probably sore and you don’t have much to show for it. Your body looks the same. The weight has not really changed.
But if you stick to that for 6 months, or a year or 2 years, then the ultimate reward is favorable. and so a lot of the challenge of building good habits and breaking bad ones is figuring out how to pull the long term costs of your bad habits in the present moment, so you feel a little bit of that pain right now and have a reason to avoid it, and pull the long term rewards of your good habits into the present moment, so it feels good and you have a reason to kind of make it through that like valley of death in the beginning and stick with it while you’re waiting for those delayed rewards to accumulate.
But there are other things that you can do in the short term to feel more gratified while you are working on those habits so here’s just one little tactic. Let’s say that you’re either trying to work out or build a habit of meditating or something, and so each time you do your habit of meditating for 5 minutes, you have this little jar of marbles you got like a hundred marbles in there and 90 are red and 10 are blue.
And after each instance of your habit, you walk over and you pull a marble out of the jar. And if you pull out one of the 90, then nothing happens. It’s just like pat on the back, good job you did what you were supposed to. But if you pull out one of the 10, then you get some kind of reward that’s exciting to you.
Maybe you get to watch Netflix for an hour and not feel guilty, or go for a walk outside, or take a bubble bath, or buy yourself a new jacket, whatever it is, like something that feels rewarding. And what you just did was you introduce an element of immediate gratification and of like surprise and delight to the whole process.
And so yeah, that first week when you’re meditating, you still might not identify as a mediator or you still might not have a sense of calm watch over your life, but you have this other interesting thing that is rewarding right away, that maybe gets you to stick with it while you’re waiting for those long term rewards to accumulate.
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