Tiny habits – A simple, yet extremely powerful approach for you to build better habits

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

I did a program last week. It’s called tiny habits. (http://tinyhabits.com/ by BJ Fogg)

It’s a simple, yet extremely powerful idea to drive behavioral change and build habits.

It’s a 5 day program, where you have to choose three tiny habits, and do them for five days. Your tiny habits should have these three parts.

  1. An anchor
  2. An action and
  3. A celebration

The anchor:

The anchor is a habit that is already completely established, or things you do on a regular basis. For example, brushing your teeth, removing your shoes, opening your laptop, or picking up a call.

The tiny habits approach has a very simple idea at its core. Let the new habit piggyback on an existing habit. You already brush every day. Just drink water right after that. Or hang the keys on the wall, right after you remove your shoes.

The action:

The action has to be ridiculously simple (I mean it. Ridiculously). Some of the examples that BJ Fogg gives include, just flossing one tooth at time, or meditating for just 30 seconds). You might say that you don’t want to floss just one tooth, you want to floss all of them, or that you want to meditate for 30 minutes, not 30 seconds. But trust me (or trust BJ Fogg), you will get there. Well practiced tiny habits, will pave the way for stickier bigger habits. The key here is to keep it so small that the limbic system in our brain does not offer any resistance at all. (Read my elephant, foot soldier analogy if you want to understand this better). The 30 second meditation can move to 60 seconds in a week, and to 2 minutes, 5 minutes and so on.

Celebration:

Celebration is a key part of the tiny habits approach. Celebration lets your brain know that you had a win, and it will start craving for more such wins. The celebration has to be immediate. Right then and there. A yaay, or ‘That’s great’, or wow! or “I am awesome” would do for celebration. But celebrate for sure.

These were my tiny habits for last week

Habit Anchor Celebration
1 I will drink 2 gulps of water immediately after I open the car door A big smile at the mirror 🙂
2 I will do 10 pushups immediately after I wake up Play music
3 I will hang the keys on the wall immediately after I remove my shoes “Yaay”

Yaay

But you might ask, “What if I don’t remember.What if I don’t remember to the hang the keys after I remove the shoes?” BJ Fogg has a simple solution. Repeat the routine a number of times. For eg, for my third habit, I wore the shoe, went out of the door, came back in, removed it and then the put the key on the hanger. I repeated this routine about 5 times, and haven’t forgotten it since.

I am completely bought on the power of tiny habits to build sticky habits.  Because for me, it covers all the basic principles of habit formation.They are:

Keep it small and simple

Piggy back, and

Celebrate the small win.

You can read more about these three in 4 war habits to build better habits.

And I wholeheartedly recommend you to head to http://tinyhabits.com/, and set your tiny habits for the week. The next program starts on Monday. Trust me. You won’t be disappointed with the results.

Why I totally trashed my productivity plan. And why you should too.

I had a pretty interesting productivity plan. Till about a year ago. This 4 step plan looked something like this.

Step 1: Get super frustrated with the mess. Both physical and mental

Step 2: Clean up the room, look at the long to-do list, and create an infallible super plan to get things done.

Step 3. Follow the infallible super plan for a few days till, almost inevitably, the infallible plan crashes like the Titanic. (Mostly within a week)

Step 4: Go back to step 1. Repeat for years and years.

And then it happened. One day, I trashed it forever.

waste basket

Picture courtesy: http://www.freeimages.com/profile/nkzs

Almost 6 months ago, I read a book called “The power of habit –  Why we do what we do in life and business” (Almost by accident. Greeshma (my partner) ordered it for herself.) The book got me started on the idea of habits, and I got hooked. I started reading up anything on habits that I could get my browser to. I read zen habits, BJ Fogg, Gretchen Rubin, and so on.

And then I realized that there was a better path to productivity.

Habits.

You see, habits are brain’s way of automating. How many times have you taken the turn towards office, when you were actually going somewhere else? Do you put in the right leg first into your trousers or the left leg? Always the same one? These are habits at work.

So, how were habits going to help me be more productive?

To answer this, let me first list out the productivity issues I tried to tackle with a productivity plan.

  1. I wasn’t getting things done.
  2. I was unhealthy – Joint pains, low energy etc
  3. My work space and home were in chaos
  4. I wanted to write, but I couldn’t find the time nor the energy.
  5. I was sleeping way too late.

With a productivity plan, what I used to do was to plan a day which will take care of all these issues. It looked like this.

Wake up at 6, exercise, then write and have breakfast. Work (finish all the tasks on the to-do list), come home, spend time with friends and family, have dinner, clean up, make a to-do list, and go to bed. (I am sure it looks similar for most of you). The problem, like I stated before, was that this was not sustainable.

With the habits plan, I had a different approach. I could build a few habits that will take care of these issues, and then my brain will automate those behaviors. For example, if I have a habit of creating a schedule for the next day (I will write later about why a schedule and not a to-do list), it would, to an extent, take care of my problems with getting things done. If I have a habit of waking up at 6 every day, I would have the time to write. If I have a habit of exercising for 30 minutes a day, it will almost take care of my health (With the bonus that I will fall asleep easier). If I have a habit of cleaning up my house every night, I would be living in a clean, peaceful place.

A habits approach requires more patience and persistence than a simple getting-things-done approach. As I have already written in the article “4 war strategies to build better habits,” you can’t build new habits all at one time. You will have to work on one at a time. So, a complete transformation of your day isn’t possible in a week, or even a month, or two. It will require persistence for a longer period. May be a year.

On the other hand, if you are willing to persist, a habit plan can be truly rewarding. If you can build 4-5 key sticky habits a year, those habits will stay with you for a life time. Imagine yourself as a person who always wakes up at 6, exercises, writes/reads, gets your things done consistently, and sleeps and wakes up on time. Motivating? What’s all the more motivating is that you will stay that way for a long long time. (Maybe even your entire life)

A habits approach is about deciding what kind of a person you want to be and building the right habits to be that person.

I want to be the kind of person who wakes up at six every day, exercises, writes, reads, spends enough time with the family and achieves most of his life goals. So, in the last 6 months, I have managed to build 2 major habits..

  1. I write a schedule every night for the next day – this has hugely improved my productivity. I have gotten more done in the last 6 months than I have in over 3 years.
  2. I wake up at 7 almost without an alarm: My target is to wake up at 6, but I have taken baby steps, and have started waking up at 7 consistently (it used to be 8:30). In the next 2-3 months, I hope to be able to wake up at 6 regularly. (There are those odd days, when I oversleep, but I don’t kill myself over them). This has given me time to write regularly.

Over the next year, I will add the other three habits (Exercise, clean, wake up at 6) to my life, and then, I would consider myself truly productive.

And yes, I am not saying that habits and habits alone make me productive. They form the foundation on which I apply other principles. I believe that should work for you too.

So, have I convinced you about habits, and how they can be great for you? If not let me invite someone else. Someone who is an undeniable expert. The Greek guru – Aristotle. In his words.

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

4 war strategies to build better habits

Estimated reading time: 6 min.

“I will wake up at 6 a.m. exercise, eat breakfast, do X amount of work. Spend enough time with my family, read and go to sleep early.”

At one point or the other in life, all of us have made these affirmations. We get so tired of the haphazardness of our lives that we decide one day to become disciplined. The next day, we wake up on time, do some exercise, and stick to the ideal disciplined life. Most of the times we do this just for a day. Sometimes we manage to stick with it for a couple of days. Sometimes, a little more. But ultimately, we fall back.

Why?

It’s simple. Our brains resist change. They are designed to. To understand this, let me introduce you to our protector. The limbic system.

The limbic system is the part of our brain that controls emotions, memories and habits. It is partly responsible for our survival. It was the limbic system that helped the early man notice the difference in the noise of the birds around him and alerted him of the possible presence of a predator.

Unfortunately, the limbic system uses the same reason to resist change. To protect us from unfamiliar surroundings and actions. Wake up at 6 instead of the regular 8, and like an uncle or a grandpa, it raises its eyebrows (the reverse is also true. If you are used to waking up at 6 and then wake up at 8, it will still have problems). If with one small change, it raises an eyebrow, you can very well imagine what kind of havoc it wrecks when we plan a complete transformation.

The other side of the limbic system is the pre-frontal cortex, the rational part of the brain. It tell us that it is good to exercise, convinces us, but unfortunately can’t do much to make sure that we do it (That is the job of the limbic system). A major change is always a war between the limbic system, and the pre-frontal cortex, and most of the times, the limbic system wins.

So, does it mean that we cannot make or break habits? Of course not. We can break or make habits easily with a little guile.

Habit creation is essentially moving a set of actions from our pre-frontal cortex to the limbic system, and with a little help, a habit can sneak in to the limbic system without alarming it.

Like I said, the pre-frontal cortex is at war with the limbic system to infiltrate habits into it. So, we need a few war strategies to help it win. Imagine that the limbic system is a big fort, and that pre-frontal cortex (which is our side) is trying to infiltrate it. What are the strategies we can use?

chess

  1. Send in one at a time:Remember that you are trying to infiltrate. Not wage a big war. Send in one habit at a time. This won’t set off the alarms. If you want to get up early, read at night, exercise, and all that, just focus on one. Once you successfully infiltrate one, it can help the others too. For example, if you start exercising regularly, it will be easier for you to fall asleep on time, and consequently get up early.
  2. Start with the easy ones: Do not send in the elephant first. Send in the foot soldier. It’s easier for him to sneak in, and it gives us a small win. A small win motivates the army (Physiologically, a small win makes dopamine flow into the pleasure centres of the brain, and this motivates you further), lifts its spirits, and motivates it for more infiltration. Start with a habit of reading ten pages a day, or doing 10 push ups when you wake up. These are easy, and will give you a sense of achievement.
  3. Camouflage: Like in any war, camouflaging is a very important tactic in beating the limbic system. Build your new habit on top of an existing one. Send in a soldier behind an elephant. They won’t notice. For eg: If you already have a habit of watching TV at night, read during the ad breaks. Then slowly as it gets accepted as a habit, replace more of TV with reading.
  4. Persist:I love battering rams. They are great at attacking forts. They keep attacking and persist at it. These rams have to continuously attack the fort to break it. If it pauses, or takes a break, the enemy would reinforce the walls. It’s the same with the limbic system. You need to keep going at it. If you want to build a lifelong habit of reading,Read every day for at least 30 days (Most researchers talk about 21 days to set a habit.  That’s actually the minimum. Some habits take longer).  Once you infiltrate it completely, the limbic system will protect the habit with all its might. It will remain there forever, unless you take the effort to break it once again.

So, do not wait now. Start the war. Use these strategies, and start the infiltration. Infiltrate till you have enough of your habit soldiers in the limbic fort, and you will keep winning.

Let me know about your infiltration. Let me know in the comments. I love reading about war.