The brain is constantly rewiring itself and forming new neural connections. Once thought fixed in adulthood, it turns out that our brain is actually a learning machine designed for general intelligence. It is this adaptability that allowed us to survive on barren plains and snowy tundra alike, regardless of age or prior skills. Without this mutability, we could not have survived.
This feature, known as neuroplasticity, is why modern humans are capable of learning anything from how to use a computer to how to disassemble a carburetor. Practically speaking, neuroplasticity means that, no matter how old you are, you can alter your thinking process and skill set. There are, of course, limits to your skills based on your genetic code— but the only way to test the boundaries of your capabilities is through the forges of focused learning and practice.
It is essential to understand that while your brain can dramatically change, it does so over time.
Given time, however, you can see extraordinary changes. Many of these come from forming the unconscious automated behaviors that we call habits. Much of our life is dictated by habit, from our commute to our morning routine. This cuts down on decision making and enhances efficiency. Thinking is a cognitively expensive task; habits allow us to conserve precious energy and take action effortlessly.
Many of your current habits are serving you well: you brush your teeth, shower regularly, go to work or school, wake up at a regular time. In fact, there are probably only a few habits you need to add or tweak to completely alter your long-term trajectory.
Since habits form naturally, their construction process can seem opaque and impossible to crack. Luckily there’s an easy three-part formula to creating or changing new habits:
- Trigger (also called the “cue” or the “antecedent”)
- Behavior (i.e. the habit in question)
- Reward (also called the “consequence” in psychological literature)
You’ll notice that, if you use the official psychological nomenclature, this sequence forms an easy-to-remember acronym: A-B-C (antecedent-behavior-consequence). I prefer using the terms “trigger” and “reward,” however, since they better capture the spirit of those two components.
Most of us attempt to alter our behavior by addressing the behavior itself. Unfortunately, removing a behavior is a poor way of inciting change. This is because of Hebb’s Law, which states that neurons that fire together, wire together.
With repetition, these neural circuits become stronger and more efficient. Eventually they form a habit, which means the trigger-behavior-reward actions are bundled together in a neural link within your brain. Since they’ve formed as a unit, they must be treated as such. Subsequently, we must start at the beginning of the chain—the trigger—and also examine the benefits of a habit—the reward—to fully deconstruct and alter our behavior.
There are literally dozens of daily habits you can install. Unfortunately, behavioral change is difficult, and implementing too many changes at once is disastrous.
In fact, implementing more than one major change at a time—without some sort of external mandate (e.g. a job/school)—is a recipe for failure.
Note that certain positive habits don’t need to be tracked or developed. As an example, I read and market regularly, without any sort of set schedule, tracking system, or specific design. I do these things because I enjoy them. You typically have to use the system outlined above, and consciously design your habits when desirable behaviors aren’t sticking or you’re finding that undesirable behaviors have taken root. I did nothing to develop my reading habit other than buying books that I enjoyed and leaving them around my house (e.g. having lots of potential triggers). For marketing, I enjoy running ads, and the variable reward of creating a winning ad keeps me coming back.
My first strategy, in fact, when testing a new behavior isn’t anything fancy or complicated. I don’t start tracking or designing habits or anything else.
I just try it and see if I like it.
That’s because the easiest habit formation strategy is doing things you enjoy. This goes for habits you need to actively design, too; even if you don’t like eating healthy, there will be foods you like or can tolerate (carrots/peppers for me) and ones you will not eat under any circumstances (GTFO, salmon). There are multiple ways to achieve the same objective. Nietzsche said it best: “Many people are obstinate about the path once it is taken, few people about the destination.”
If an objective matters, be extremely unreasonable about the outcome, but extremely flexible on the habits and system that gets you there.
By the way, since you might be thinking that’s great about liking stuff, but can you reach a professional level letting the chips fall where they may?
Yes. I read a ton of books about marketing (and other topics). I earn a full-time income between my marketing clients and courses.
That being said, certain things need to get done…and maybe that’s just not happening. Which is where understanding habit design is critical. And the most important components? Triggers and rewards.
Triggers and Rewards
Counterintuitively, the best way change a behavior is not by adjusting the behavior itself, but the triggers immediately preceding it (which ignite the chain) and the rewards coming immediately thereafter (which reinforce the behavior). Most of us focus on eliminating the behavior itself (known as extinguishing). This is possible, but it’s generally much easier to either remove triggers entirely or repurpose them for other habits.
Things like waking up or lunch are great triggers to build habits and routines around, since they occur without input from you. Other common actions—coffee drinking, sitting down—also make for great triggers.
The key here is consistency. The best triggers occur reliably on a daily basis, with minimal (preferably no) input on your part. Automatic reminders (reminders on your phone or calendar) are also great triggers. When you have to remember a specific trigger, that adds another potential point of failure to your fledgling habits. Triggers include:
- Locations or environments
- Sensory stimuli (sounds/sights/smells)
- Common repetitive actions (going down the stairs, entering a room)
- Reminders (e.g. notes or automated messages/emails from software/apps)
- Conscious actions (e.g. sitting down at your computer, having a cup of coffee, putting on a specific song)
- Automatic actions (e.g. waking up)
Understanding triggers was eye-opening for me and totally reshaped how I approached behavior change.
But the reward at the end of the habit formation process is also important.
Rewards are just positive consequences of the behavior. These can either be intrinsic (e.g. the satisfaction of having written) or extrinsic (watching a TV show). There’s generally a focus on intrinsic rewards, but nothing suggests that these are better for forming habits. So just choose what works best for you. And please, whatever you choose for a reward—be it a snack, TV show, YouTube video, or some reading time—make sure it’s something you actually enjoy. A plain chicken breast is not a reward for a workout, and instead associates negative feelings with the preceding behavior.
Note that a reward does not have to be a grand gesture. It can be as simple as checking off your habit in your tracker or giving yourself simple praise like “good work.” This type of brief self-talk is helpful for course correcting in the moment and reshaping your mindset (over time).
One other interesting wrinkle on rewards is the concept of variable rewards. This is the driving force behind why we get stuck checking email or social media, playing games like World of Warcraft (which have randomized loot drops), or playing slot machines. The random rewards actually build more powerful habits than a guaranteed reward.
Experimenting with different rewards and triggers is critical. If a habit doesn’t stick, then try troubleshooting the reward or trigger first as the first part of your calibration process.
Let’s say you get an hour break for lunch at work, and would like to use that time more efficiently. You probably already have an existing set of lunchtime habits, so this is an instance where we need to identify existing triggers and rewards.
- Lunch (trigger)
- Go out to a restaurant with friends (behavior)
- Social interaction/fun (reward)
Depending on the habit in question, it will probably take a little while to identify the rewards (or triggers). In this case, the trigger is obvious, but the reward will require some experimentation and analysis. For instance, we might believe that the reward at lunch is the taste of the food. We can test this hypothesis by eating at a different restaurant, not eating at all or eating something bland.
Eventually, once we’ve uncovered the true triggers and rewards, we can then repurpose our old trigger for a new behavior:
- Lunch (trigger)
- Write for 15 minutes (behavior)
- Eat my sandwich (reward) or go socialize with friends (reward)
Note that we can either introduce a new reward, or simply repurpose old behaviors as rewards by changing the order.
This is extraordinarily simple, but it’s powerful. Remember that it also requires experimentation: nailing the correct cocktail of triggers and rewards is a personal art. Keeping records—e.g. whether you kept with a habit, what it did, how you felt about a reward—is extremely helpful.
As for creating a new habit, let’s take the trigger of taking a shower, which many people don’t have a set routine after:
- Take a shower (trigger)
- Read craft books for 20 minutes (behavior)
- Watch a 5 minute YouTube video (reward)
Note that, as stated above, we’re using common triggers. This is because, after you’ve started a new habit (or begun changing an old one), its formation is merely a matter of repetition. Daily or multiple-times-a-day habits are best, because they burn a behavior into your neural architecture much quicker.
Consider bad habits, like mindless snacking or cigarette smoking: they have numerous common triggers, built-in rewards, and are repeated 10+ times a day. It’s no wonder that people can add such habits to their lives in a matter of days or weeks.
Luckily, the same is true for good habits: repeat them often, and they’ll quickly become automatic.
Routines are simply chains of habits strung together. Using the last habit we outlined above, we can repurpose the final element in the chain (the reward) as a trigger for a new behavior, like so:
5 minute YouTube video (trigger) > 15 minutes of marketing (behavior) > breakfast (reward)
Then, we can build on that further:
Breakfast (trigger) > 15 minutes of exercise (behavior) > 30m video game (reward)
As such, we now have a morning routine that looks like this:
- Take a shower (trigger)
- 15m craft reading (behavior)
- 5m YouTube video (reward/trigger)
- 15m of marketing (behavior)
- Breakfast (reward/trigger)
- 15m of exercise (behavior)
- 30m video game (reward)
You can keep chaining behaviors endlessly, but I recommend keeping your routines simple. Why? Because each additional element you add introduces another point of failure. When you skip a link or two in the chain, it is common for the routine to fall apart.
It’s critical to build routines around consistent, robust triggers, and construct them from relatively easy-to-adhere-to individual components.
Many of us start with something stupid, like 1 hour of meditation, followed by 1 hour of exercise, then 2 hours of writing—with no rewards or breaks in between. Not only is this terrible habit formation protocol, but it’s also incredibly fragile. Even those among us with flexible schedules have 2 – 3 days a week where a four hour block will be interrupted. Combined with the onerous task load, this makes such a routine almost impossible to automatize.
Since willpower is unreliable, our behavior change is going to be short lived.
A good routine that you can follow is far better than an ultra-efficient ironman gauntlet that you can only sustain for two weeks.
Remember, the goal is long-term change.
And good news: if you pick the right habits for your routine, then perform them daily (or, for the advanced, multiple times a day), you can make a ridiculous amount of progress. 15 minutes of daily writing, assuming a leisurely pace of 1,000 words an hour, produces one 62,500 word novel per year. Increase that to 30 minutes—one sitcom re-run—and you have two novels. I wouldn’t recommend trying to go beyond an hour. We’re humans, not robots, after all.
There’s a balance between routine and experimentation. A certain level of discipline allows you to produce content and progress with your skills. But to reach another level, you often have to restructure your routine or habits in a way to burst through a plateau. Thus, your schedule should involve a balance between volatility and routine. This balance between chaos and routine is specific to the individual, and even depends on the project or circumstances. For example, you might be highly regimented while writing your novel, with a specific set schedule, then completely disengage from that during the publication or marketing process. Or you may have a consistent “pattern” of chaos, like me, where I don’t have much of a routine, but my habits get done in order of how I feel during the day.
Finally, some people are almost exclusively driven by other motivations. This will vary based on the task. I am a very deadline-oriented writer, in that it’s hard to narrow my focus (particularly the scope of the writing) until I have to. Until then, the creative possibilities are so vast that, without the outside pressure, habits are not sufficient to produce output. That may be you as well (deadlines are a powerful force for pretty much everyone in any discipline). However, the reason I’ve laid out this framework, even if it doesn’t always apply to my writing, is simple: certain objectives can only be accomplished through habits. The two key examples are diet and exercise: there is no single burst of three or five days of furious effort that will overcome a year of inactivity. Thus, while you may not apply habits to everything, you need to understand them so that you can apply them where they’re necessary.
And if you are a deadline driven writer, a word of recommendation: make sure you have rest between projects. Otherwise that approach quickly becomes unsustainable.
In Part 7, we’ll cover tactics.
1. Take one of your objectives and reverse engineer a habit. Then figure out a trigger and reward to implement it.