How do I create good habits that really stick?

"The less you do. The more you do."

My first ever podcast appearance is now live! A month ago, Adrian Reyes (a former LinkedIn colleague and all-around gem of a human) and I published this Gridology post. Adrian has his own podcast called Driving Ambition, and I jumped on his show to further dissect the grid we created together. If you’re new to Gridology and missed the post, here’s our 30-minute conversation on how you can better sustain your ambition.

I have been thinking about starting a Gridology podcast for a while now, and my appearance on Adrian’s show felt like a good test run. After having a listen, let me know if starting Gridology: The Podcast sounds like a good or bad idea.

Email me, and let me know

Today is also post #20 of Gridology. Given that humanity tends to celebrate numbers that end in zero, I figured why not call it out. I would have never made it this far without all of you, my readers. Every time you engage with or share Gridology it drives me to get better. Thank you. My sights are set to #30!

Now, let’s get to today’s grid:

Habits are our default settings. Building good habits versus bad ones requires focus, commitment, and support. It’s a topic that has been top of mind these last two weeks. After adopting Murray, my fiancé and I have been sculpting the habits we desire in our pup. With that, comes cleaning up our fair share of accidents with disinfectant spray in one hand and paper toweling in the other.

I kid (only sorta)—Murray, for being on this planet for just 10 weeks, is a complete dream. When put in a position to thrive, he does. Each day he gets a little better at sitting patiently before he eats, responding to his name when called, and not picking up things he shouldn’t (although he is a massive leaf and flower petal stan). He loves a challenge, is sensitive to feedback, and is a quick learner.

Our work training Murray—setting him up with good, life-long habits—reminded me of the scientific way our minds automatically react to specific triggering events. As Charles Duhigg explains in The Power of Habit (sorry James Clear I haven’t read all of Atomic Habits yet), a habit can be broken down into a simple three-step loop:

  1. Cue — Something happens… I say “sit” to Murray and make the accompanying hand signal.

  2. Routine — Because something happens, you perform an activity… Murray sits down.

  3. Reward — Once the activity is complete, you receive a reward. Treat time! Nomz.

With repetition, this habit loop gets stronger and stronger, leading to a heightened craving for the reward and greater anticipation for the cue to set off the routine. After working on sitting for two weeks now, Murray really gets it. It’s rare that he doesn’t sit when told. He understands the link between the verbal and hand command to the action he needs to perform. He loves his treats, and he will work for them. That’s the whole point.

See! He sits… and for long enough for me to even snap this photo!

We’ve created a good habit, which is actually a fancy way of saying that we figured out a way to automate intended actions repeatedly over time. We set up a habit that is simple and desirable through every step of the loop. The cue and the routine are easy. The reward is tasty. We have a strong support group—both my fiancé and I are committed to teaching this habit. Plus, whenever Murray meets a new human friend, that person is usually eager to help reinforce his sitting habit.

Murray’s success here can actually be mapped to a grid, and we can apply this grid to forming desirable habits for ourselves.

On the x-axis, we have the level of difficulty of the cue and routine. To successfully create a habit, we need to focus on having these steps in the loop be as easy to complete as possible. To have an easy cue, it requires being specific. As James Clear writes on his blog:

“…[L]et’s say you want to build a new habit of doing 10 pushups each day at lunch time. You might start by choosing a time-based cue and saying something like, “During my lunch break each day, I’ll do 10 pushups.” This might work, but it’s not very specific. Do you do your pushups at the beginning of your lunch break? At the end? Any time?

To have an easy routine, it requires being simple. Using the same example above, doing ten pushups is easy to understand, and it takes just 10-20 seconds to complete. See, simple! The routine becomes complex as more components are added. If you had set your new lunch habit as doing 10 pushups, 30 situps, and 100 jumping jacks, that would be more daunting and probably lead to failure. As we will discuss, it is much easier to start small and add components to routines than it is to start with complex ones.

On the y-axis, we have the intensity of your support network. To be successful in building a good habit, we typically need others to help lift us up. Gridology is a perfect example here. Before starting this newsletter, the only person I had to keep me accountable to writing every week was myself. Thus, it didn’t happen. Now, I have 219 people who are expecting an email in their inbox around 8 am ET every Sunday morning. When other people are holding you accountable for recognizing the cue and completing the routine, it’s more likely that you will succeed in building your new habit.

Understanding the Grid

To create a good habit, you want to find yourself in the top right quadrant. When you aren’t in the top right, there is some action or step you can take to adjust your cue, routine, or support network to increase your likelihood of success.

On Your Way

Your habit has a simple cue and routine, and you feel supported by your network to succeed. With repetition, focus, and time you should be able to make this loop become an automatic habit. What’s important here is that just because you have a perfect habit loop created, it doesn’t mean that you are set for life. It requires maintaining those components consistently over time. A habit I had been able to build successfully was rolling out my muscles before starting a workout at the gym. Here’s how I did it:

The cue: I change my clothes and walk out of the locker room.

The routine: I walk straight to the stretching mats and roll for at least 5-minutes.

The reward: I hydrate and get to begin my endorphin-filled workout.

The support: When I was going to my physical therapist, every session would start off with them asking me if I’d been rolling and stretching.

This worked. For months I went to the gym, changed my clothes, rolled, and hydrated. It became automatic. I felt better and looser because of it. When I stopped going to physical therapy (my tendinitis went away), I started to roll less often. Without support, my mindset shifted. I started to think I could roll every other time I went to the gym. Every other time turned into once a week. As I write this, I can’t remember the last time I rolled my muscles. Just because you have moments where you land in the top right, doesn’t mean you have successfully built a good habit that really sticks.

Get More Help

Your habit has a simple cue and routine, but you don’t feel supported by your network to succeed. Sometimes every component of building a good habit could be set up perfectly, but you still fail at making it stick. I’d argue it’s because you didn’t have anyone to help hold you accountable. We all have lofty dreams for ourselves. We want to write a screenplay. We want to become super fit. We want to start painting. These things have been on top of our minds for years. It’s going to take more than just a new habit loop for you to actually start doing them. For example, after taking the GMAT during my senior year of college, I knew I would need to take the test again. About a year or so later, I picked up my old books and started studying. I had a good habit loop going:

The cue: I’d come home from work or the gym during the weekday.

The routine: I’d study for an hour.

The reward: I’d be able to watch some TV.

The support: None.

You see where this is going. I failed. The routine worked for a week or so, but it slowly faded out of my life. All of a sudden, I had forgotten that I was supposed to be studying for the test. About a year later, I tried studying again. This time, I didn’t make the same mistake. I told close friends and family that I was taking the test again. I actually signed up and paid to take the exam. For the next six months, my network would frequently ask me how studying was going. While annoying, it prevented me from slowing down or stopping. The result: I took the test six months later and achieved a score I wanted.

Keep It Simple

Your habit has a complex cue and/or routine, but you feel supported by your network to succeed. In this quadrant, you will probably fail to create your good habit because you’re making the cue and/or the routine too complex. With habit building, it’s easier to add to a routine than to start off big. A prime example for me is trying to get fit. When I notice that I’ve let my athleticism slip, I always want to flip a switch and make a big change. To adjust, here’s the incorrect habit loop I, unfortunately, try to set for myself too often:

The cue: I leave work.

The routine: I do an hour of cardio, then stretch, then do 6-8 weight lifting activities.

The reward: A smoothie for dinner.

The support: I tell lots of friends and my fiancé I’m on a health-kick so they hold me accountable.

What went wrong? For starters, my routine takes about two full hours to complete. That’s a hard thing to do every time I leave work. This makes it an easy thing to forgo. I’m much better off creating a streamlined routine of doing 20 minutes of cardio every day (or even simpler: on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays). After a few weeks of success, then I can upgrade to 30 minutes, then 45, then an hour—slowly building to where I want to be. Because my routine was too complex, I didn’t set myself up for success. On this point, I always think back to one of my favorite movie scenes of all time:

“The less you do. The more you do.”

Hilarious, but incredibly insightful. By doing less, we can actually set ourselves up for success. Keeping it simple allows you to not even think about the routine—it should just become automatic. In my example, the routine was the complex component, but you could find that the cue is complex, too. Think back to our earlier example of doing push-ups during lunch. The cue was too unspecific. Simplifying and reducing user-choice makes for a strong cue.

Headed For Failure

Your habit has a complex cue and/or routine, and you don’t feel supported by your network to succeed. Here, to be blunt, you’ve set up your habit loop incorrectly. You have complex cues and/or routines. Your support network is weak. While your desire to create this habit may be strong, your intention isn’t worth much when it comes to shifting our default settings. In order to succeed, follow the steps outlined in the Get More Help and Keep It Simple quadrants.

Grid Shortcomings

  1. This grid assumes that you have set up a reward that you really crave. If your goal is to create a habit to read for 10 minutes every day the moment you wake up, your reward could be a big, necessary cup of coffee. No reading… no coffee. If the reward was instead 10 pushups, I’m fairly confident your new habit won’t stick. You crave the coffee in the morning. The 10 pushups you probably wouldn’t miss.

  2. This grid assumes you are practicing your cue and routine as often as possible. Repetition matters. Despite what is widely believed, it doesn’t take 21 days to build a habit. The real number is closer to 66 (and that’s just the average… it could take longer). Consistency is important. After all, a habit is something you are trying to do consistently or a long period of time.

Good habits are hard to build because it requires stopping bad habits that have years to gain momentum. We have to do our best to be Superman—to stop a moving train.

And once we have the train stopped, we need to create the habit loop to start moving it in the opposite direction. With the right cues, routines, rewards, and support, anyone can build a good habit. There’s no way around it. This is hard work, but it’s not impossible. It takes a long time for good habits to really stick. Hopefully, though, not too long for Murray—we’re starting to run out of paper toweling.

Life’s only as confusing as you let it be,

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