“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit. ”
This quote is probably the most truthful about success ever written. Success doesn’t come overnight, it’s the result of continuous and consistent efforts towards a certain goal. Fortunately, being more consistent and building new habits is a thriving research topic with a myriad of insightful findings on how to eradicate unproductive habits and install productive ones. The following sections focus on the most important principles.
Losing weight, gaining muscle, working harder, studying longer, etc… All of these are associated with discipline. Whoever’s willpower is strong enough will achieve all of the above easily. The environment, we think, plays only a little role in the process. Recent research, however, tells a different story.
Dr Gareth Hollands found that reducing the size of your plates can reduce calory intake by 159 every single day. We often assume that we’d be objective; that we’d eat until we’re full and then stop; that this is a fixed process solely based on how our body works. But we’re strongly influenced by our environment. Daniel Kahneman notes that our brain is arranged topologically. In our brain, neurons and synapses that represent similar words are indeed closer to each other. That means, the more often you use certain words together, the closer they are next to each other in your brain. Consequently, less energy is spent on neural signals, which makes your brain more efficient.
Yet, this fact comes with strong consequences. People who saw pictures of old people, even if these pictures were displayed for such a short time so that the conscious mind couldn’t notice them, started to walk slower on average. This is why we tend to eat less if a similar portion looks bigger on a smaller plate. This is why we are happier after we smiled for 15–30 seconds, no matter how unhappy we were initially. A study found that people who held a pen in their mouth – which got them to smile at least anatomically – rated cartoons as funnier afterwards. Therefore, manipulate your environment in such a way that it maximises your productivity.
A second concept revolves around people being lazy. Indeed, Dr. Gareth Hollands found out that we eat more if food proximity increases. That is, if the fridge is closed, we’re much more likely to eat more. As simply and maybe even self-evident this seems to be, this has strong implications for our daily lives. It is difficult to not consume sweets if they’re in the apartment and – even worse – in immediate reach. Instead, it is much easier to resist not buying sweets at all; especially if we’re not hungry when shopping.
Did that picture make you hungry? My bad; but this starkly demonstrates how much we’re influenced by our environment.
How habits actually work
Further resources you might want to check out are here.
What you might want to take away from this is mainly:
First, find your keystone habit. There is likely one habit, which, when implemented, will trigger a whole series of further positive habits. Which one will it be for you? Second, for all of your current and future habits, you might want to list the respective cues, routines, and rewards separately to see how you can install them into your life. If you’re wondering about which habits to pick, the next section will give you a good list to choose from.
Zen To Done is the best and easiest system of productive habits we know. It focusses on 10 basic, different habits which change your productivity and prioritisation skills drastically. The 10 habits are:
You can buy smaller plates to eat less. You can expose yourself to a green environment to be more creative. You can listen to classical music to calm down and be more relaxed. You can think of your hourly wage to be more productive and derive less pleasure from procrastination or leisure. You can chat with more intelligent people to become more intelligent yourself. Environment matters. Create an environment that gets you where you need to be. This is no mean feat – take as much as 2 hours solely to think about creating the right environment for you.
When you go shopping, do it when you’re not hungry. When you’re angry, don’t act immediately upon that emotion. If you want to be productive, be around productive people. Have desktop screensavers that quote successful people with geezy quotes about productivity and achievement. If you want to be successful, surround yourself with successful people. If you want to drink less alcohol, well, same thing. If you’re addicted to smoking, make it as hard as possible for you to smoke. Do not have cigarettes at home. If you go somewhere, try to do so without cash to buy any cigarettes. If you’d like to get up early, place your alarm clock far away from your bed so that you have to get up to turn it off. If you’re likely to procrastinate, leave your phone at home and use a website blocker. Priming matters.
First, list all the habits that a) currently make you productive, b) currently prevent you from being productive, and c) are not part of your current set of routines at all but will make you more productive once implemented. This can range from reading for an hour every morning to meditating before you’re going to bed to integrating a to-do task into your to-do list the moment you’re thinking of it. If you’re missing some of the Zen To Done routines, you might want to focus on establishing these habits first. Second, once you have listed all your routines, write down the cues and rewards attached to those routines. Third, for the habits you want to avoid, think about how you can change cues and rewards to eradicate them. For your new habits, think about which cues and rewards will be necessary to install them sustainably.
Never start with implementing all of the habits at once. Take one habit, implement it, and then take the next one. In his autobiography, which is available for free here, Benjamin Franklin focuses on one habit for 30 days, after which he starts implementing a new one. He has experimented with shorter and longer timeframes and found 30 days to be ideal. This scientific paper found that making a habit fully automatic in your daily life differs greatly among individuals. The timeframe varied from 18 to 254 days with 66 days being the average time it took individuals to automate their habits. Moreover, this time might differ from habit to habit. So only start implementing the next habit once you’re absolutely confident that you have the capacity to do so. Once you find your keystone habit, you’ll naturally be implementing several habits at once. Even though this might happen, make sure that the habit you’re currently focussing on is cemented down first, until you devote mental energy to other habits. Naturally implementing several habits at once doesn’t mean you simultaneously need to dilute your attention.