Habit Forming

These are my slides/notes from a small presentation I gave at a Walrus all-hands meeting in November 2020.

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Let’s talk about forming habits...

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But before we talk about forming habits, let’s define what a habit is and set some boundaries...

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Changing long-term habits is rare.

Hooked (p25):

The fact is that successfully changing long-term user habits is exceptionally rare.

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Habits are LIFO.

LIFO means "last in, first out." In other words, the habits you’ve most recently acquired are also the ones you’re most likely to drop first. ... The enemy of forming a new habit is your past habit because old habits die hard.

Even when we change our routines, the neural pathways remain etched in our brains, ready to be reactivated if/when we lose focus.

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Habit forming time is variable.

BJ Fogg:

"there’s no research that shows 21 days is a good span to create a habit"

I had actually always heard 2 weeks, but whatever interval you’ve heard, it’s wrong and there just isn’t any evidence to back it up.

A 2010 study found that some habits can be formed in a matter of weeks while others can take more than five months (Hooked p31). The researchers, however, did find that the complexity of the behavior and how important the habit was to the person greatly affected how quickly the routine was formed.

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Addictions are self destructive and are not the type of habits we are going to talk about forming.

A habit is when "not doing an action" causes a bit of pain. But the word pain is somewhat hyperbolic.

A better word might be itch. An itch is a feeling that manifests itself within the mind and causes a mild discomfort until it is satisfied. The habit-forming we want to do is to provide some sort of relief to this itch.

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So now let’s talk about forming a habit in three easy steps...

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Step 1. Think small.

BJ Fogg:

"To create a new habit, you must first simplify the behavior, make it tiny, even ridiculous. A good tiny behavior is easy to do, and fast"

Instead of saying you’re going to floss your teeth, say you’re going to floss 1 tooth. Instead of saying you’re going to read for an hour a day, say you’re going to open a book every day.

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Step 2. Do it after something you already do.

BJ Fogg:

"put it after some act that is a solid habit for you, like brushing your teeth or eating lunch."

You need to find an after something slot for your new habit to live in. In other words, when trying to form a new habit, figure out what it can come after.

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Step 3. Repetition

Once you’ve figured out what you want to do, and slotted it into your existing routine, you can now focus on actually doing it.

BJ Fogg:

"at first, you’ll need reminders. But soon the tiny behavior will get more automatic. Keep the behavior simple until it becomes a solid habit."

The idea is if you do something small, like floss one tooth, and commit to doing it after a normal part of your routine, like after brushing your teeth, chances are you will floss more than one tooth, but you can form the habit if you are committed to at least flossing one tooth.

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Sources

The main sources for all this information is Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products by Nir Eyal and BJ Fogg. BJ evidently came out with a book called Tiny Habits this year, but he came and talked to 500 Startups in like 2011 about forming habits and everything I talked about today is from my notes of that event, and I’m guessing the book expands on what he talked about at the 500 Startups event, so I’m looking forward to reading the book.