How Can We Develop Good Habits That Stick

To change your life you need to leverage a power called habits. To use that power, we have to overcome the human curse: thinking that our thoughts define who we are. Our thoughts are just infinite possibilities of who we could be. The thoughts we act on reflect our true nature. When our thoughts are aligned with our actions, we live in peace. But when they’re unaligned, we live in chaos. So how can we move towards a more aligned life? By examining and tanking control of our habits. Enter Jerry Seinfeld Don’t break the chain technique.

Don’t break the chain

The story goes a young programmer By the name of brad Isaac was trying his hand at being a stand-up comedian. One fateful night Brad ended up performing at the same venue as the legend himself Jerry Seinfeld. In search of wisdom, Brad asked the legendary comic for advice on becoming a better comedian. Jerry’s advice: don’t break the chain.

The “don’t break the chain” method goes like this, a person decides that they want to improve their life. They either want to break a bad habit or cultivate a good habit. For example, let’s say the person wants to write jokes every day in order to become a better comedian. That person proceeded to take out a calendar for the whole year. They start performing the daily habit of writing jokes. After completing that habit, they draw a big red X on the calendar over today’s date. They repeat this the next day and then again the next day until eventually a tiny chain of red X’s has been developed

Studies suggest that the median time to build a habit is 66 days.

That means for roughly the first two months, it’s essential that the chain is not broken. The chain of red Xs begins to act as a psychological motivator and propel the person towards accomplishing their goal. It sounds simple but why does this technique work?

There are two key psychological pillars that support this technique, number 1 is the release of dopamine. Every time we complete our daily ritual and put the big red X on our calendar, we feel a sense of accomplishment. As a result dopamine “the feel-good hormone” is released. As you may already know our brains are wired to repeat actions that release dopamine, It’s like a feedback loop. This is also the reason social media is so addictive.

Pillar number 2 is loss aversion. As the chain gets longer, the stakes associated with not doing the habit rise. We start to feel like we have a lot more to lose, we might say things as I’ve already been doing this for 60 days in a row. I don’t want to stop now.

One of the most influential economists in the world, Daniel Kahneman performed a landmark study in which he demonstrated the principle of loss aversion. As stated in the study: “changes that make things worse (losses) loom larger than improvements or gains”. Simply put, our desire to avoid losing $5 is greater than our desire to gain $5, it’s human nature to avoid loss.

You may be wondering why is that? Some people believe that it’s a hardwired behavior passed down from our ancestors. There are more averse to losing because loss meant death. For example, having less food that was necessary resulted in death but having a bounty of food made life more comfortable.

The principle of loss aversion also applies to the don’t break the chain technique. Once we have a few red Xs on the calendar, our desire to not lose our streak is greater than any gain we might get doing any other activity. We’ve already committed so much time and effort to be consistent with our habit that we feel compelled not to break it.

Start small

One of the most common mistakes when trying to develop a new habit is that people start by directly jumping into the deep end. This could involve taking on too many habits at once or attempting to build a really difficult habit instead of starting small.

A lot of people think, that to be successful, they have to jump immediately into very difficult habits. If they want to read more books, they have to start reading 50 pages a day. But all progress is made in small steps.

To do something great, it would take a long time of incremental progress. And that progress is only possible if the objective at each stage is something that is slightly out of reach but that's still doable. 

Take for example video game designers. They can throw all sorts of interesting elements into their games, but most people will get overwhelmed and stop playing if everything is in front of them all at once. And that’s why smart designers build in steady progressions.

Make your initial habits easy. Read 10 pages of a book. Get up 1/2 an hour earlier than you normally do. And as you prove yourself over time that you can handle your habits, then slowly spiral up. Move that 10 pages goal to 20 pages, get up a little bit earlier than you were before, or maybe add a new habit to your plate. But in the beginning, start small.

Be prepared for bad things

A big mistake people make when building new habits is assuming that bad things don’t exist. They assume that everything will go well all the time and that nothing unexpected will pop up to derail them, which of course, means that they are not ready when something inevitably does.

So, realize that bad things are always there. Charles Duhigg, in his great book The power of habit, said: anticipate inflection points. Points at which you’re likely to run into pain, discomfort, or some inconvenience that’s likely to derail you, and then plan for those points in advance.

For some of these points, the only real plan you can make is to simply be ready for the discomfort before it comes. For example, in the book Duhigg reports on a study that focused on people who had gotten knee and hip replacement surgeries. To fully recover from a surgery like this, patients have to start exercising and moving almost immediately afterward. A lot of people never do fully recover because they can’t bring themselves to accept the pain involved. What the researchers in the study have to do was very simple. They gave them a piece of paper and they had them write down goals and action steps for what they were going to do to get that exercise in. These plans were very simple, like one man’s plan is to simply walk to the bus and meet his wife after work.

But in writing them down, these people were anticipating moments of pain and planning on how to deal with them. 

And the results of the study speak for themselves. The people who did this started walking twice as fast as the average patients.

Your habits should have a meaningful purpose.

To build a good habit that sticks, you should have a strong, personally meaningful reason for doing so. As the author, Simon Sinek would put it, You need to start with why.

Don’t try to adopt a habit just because someone you follow does it or because you saw it on your favorite YouTuber’s morning routine video. Before sticking to a new you habit you should ask yourself if it’s going to move you towards things that matter to you.

The author  James Clear rightly points out in his excellent book, Atomic Habits, "Good habits Can make rational sense, but if they conflict with your identity, you'll fail to put them into action.

You have to keep this in mind because it could be so easy to get up in emulation for the wrong reasons. Take reading for example. You see all these successful people on the internet reading tons of books every single week so you think that you have to as well. But what if the thing that you want to learn right now would be better learned in another way?

Depending on what you’re trying to do, some methods of learning might be more useful than another. So you have to make a clear purpose for the habit before doing it, to make it stick.

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