Streaks are powerful until they are fragile
You ever do something for x days in a row and feel really good that you were able to pick up the streak? Like the streak was the momentum.
And then you miss one day, and breaking the streak was so deflating, it’s literally like the habit was never there. Disappeared. You stopped doing it altogether. And then the streak became not doing the habit. And that seemed to gain just as much momentum as the new habit streak.
In that way I think new streaks are really powerful. The end of a streak equals the beginning of a streak that is not doing the thing that created the original streak.
Streaks are great until you break them. The longer they get the easier it is to break. It’s non-ergodic.
Over time, something interrupts the pattern or new info sows doubt. Here’s an example of how I dropped a 15 day publishing streak: Wrong questions lead to wrong answers.
The trick then is to prop the habit up with more than just reliance on the brittle thread of a streak.
“just start” aka “only five minutes” works best for tasks requiring complex setup to start
This one is great for procrastinators.
If I’m dreading something, it’s easy to convince myself to just start that work. For most of the tasks I dread, it’s less dreading the task than the actual setup to get started on the work. Once I get going, I find the joy in the work, the possibility of progress becomes more real.
Normally, this is:
- opening up my code editor and relevant files, figuring out what to put in the command line to start up an environment and connect to a database (I’m clunky at command line), and more recently, have an improved git flow, which requires a refresher on notes taken and occasionally looking up articles
- opening up Illustrator and Photoshop and finding/opening the relevant files to work on, often digging for “linked” assets I forgot to embed if I moved things around or haven’t left everything open
- running crawls in Screaming Frog which requires looking at a site’s templating and DOM structure to set up extraction targets, connecting to Google Analytics, Google Search Console, and Ahrefs
What’s interesting to me there, because I really enjoy all those things once I get going, is that the sludge (resistance) is in multi-step processes that often require doing some mundane thing that could either be automated or better organize.
Habit stacking (routines) is how you insert new small habits into your day, but there needs to be congruence
Almost always, I need a daily habit to use as a trigger for a new habit. The subtlety here is what habit I am finishing is that I’m using as a trigger for the new habit.
Let’s say I want a reminder to check Slack channels because a client uses it, I can tack that on to do after checking my email. But it probably doesn’t make sense to tack on to brushing my teeth. But if I want to chug a glass of water every day, I can tack that on to brushing my teeth.
The smaller the habit, the easier it is to tack it on without issue.
Bigger habits are different, they require being broken down into smaller habits that rely on multiple triggers per day
In how audience-based businesses might handle initial success, I dance around an important point.
The point is you find initial success through the compound effects of having a good mix of things you do that result in progress over time. But then you are stuck in that pattern, even as returns start to diminish. In fact, returns can diminish for years before you actually realize it.
So you need to layer new things in. BUT you’ve already figured out about how much can fit on your plate. UNTIL you add a new thing in. Which throws everything off and ends up being really hard to execute on.
What happened was, you judged your finite ability to attend to something new, something not automatic, against a career of doing habit/process things for your business that had become automatic. “I do so much, what’s one more thing on a plate that is so big and has to this point been manageable.”
Releasing the pressure valve
This is why I have trouble sleeping. Not because I’m not a teenager anymore with no aches and pains or sleep problems. But because I stack my responsibilities, and then I can’t juggle them all in my mind, and then my subconscious gets overwhelmed trying to process it all when there are too many unfinished tasks related to the responsibilities I’ve taken on.
Much better to have my plate be 80% full and eat all of it than overflowing and eat half of it.
Big affects-everything type habits
The problem with trying to do bigger habits is they are unwieldy. Any big habit has a bunch of moving parts, a learning curve, and requires a series of changes often throughout a day.
They can side swipe your rhythm and momentum significantly if they are too big.
I am now doing PT with my (awesome) aunt.
She’s figured out that my body is rotated and I can’t use my right arm without my shoulder blade “winging” out, probably from an old sports injury. It feels like I can’t relax one side of my body. Like my left brain is tensed up and stressed out and sending those signals to the right side of my body.
Apparently this has been a key source of my neck pain on and off for the past few years. I know this because after a week of her exercises my neck pain is much better.
Initially, she gave me about 8 to 10 exercises to do. They are all really hard in the sense I have to really concentrate on keeping my shoulder blade tucked doing them. And even then, it just wants to slide out.
How to get new big habits to stick
Because I recognized I was avoiding it because it was too challenging and I couldn’t get the mental reward of a job well done after focusing, I knew I’d be discouraged.
So we adjusted.
I will now do just 4 to 5 exercises a few reps each at a time throughout the day. That’s easier, it will help me be mindful and reset an intention. We chose the 4 that I can do correctly just to build the motor habit.
Now, even as I sit or go on a run, I feel uneven and that triggers me tuck it in. What used to be global discomfort is now my trigger for correcting a 15 year problem. I think that’s really neat.
Characteristics of getting bigger habit changes to stick
As far as I can tell, big habit change happens and sticks when
- the pain is severe enough and only slowly goes away as a new habit is built and then comes back as you fall off, or
- the mindset change, the way you think about the before/after, is so significantly different, its almost a personality change.
- you completely change your environment, who you interact with, and the trigger scaffolding that makes up your day
- you set the stakes very high, using a global like you wire $10k to a friend and tell them to donate it to the Trump Foundation if you don’t do some measurable habit for a
For #1, I’m reminded of the PT stuff. I spent 12 hours at the computer on Monday, my neck pain came back for two days. I’ve redoubled my efforts to be conscious of my position, how active, how much stretching, posture awareness, etc., throughout the day as a result.
For #2, I’m reminded of quitting nicotine. I quit many times between 16 and 32, on two occasions for over a year. But it wasn’t until I read Alan Carr’s Easyway to Stop Smoking and then actually stopped for a few weeks with that mindset, that the way I think about smoking and “smokers” completely switched.
In my mind today, there is nothing about who I am that is a smoker. I have an aversion to smelling smoke passing a smoker on the street. When I quit for a year plus the first two times, I would smell that smell or walk by a convenience store and be triggered with a craving. Now I can’t even imagine having that craving. The mindset shift influences how my lizard brain interprets that sensory experience.
For #3, I still think you should move every 5 years or so. There are lots of benefits like being better able to pinpoint memories in time based on where you lived, related, having better time perspective over the decades, and being forced to consider what possessions to keep or get rid of. I think we get stuck when we get stuck in one place too long.
Changing everything is easier than adding a new big habit
You can’t add one new big habit to your daily life. Okay, in the above two cases you can, but to add one new big habit,
But you can add 3 to 5 of them. You do it by committing to transformation and the only way you can commit to transformation is by significantly changing your environment or, at least, the scaffolding that dictates the sensation/perception of your environment.
I get that “no matter where you go, there you are,” but the environment can dictate lots of habits, you get to know yourself better, your goals change, and you can influence those things by moving somewhere more appropriate for the outcomes you want.
If you can’t / won’t move, you can take a 2-3 month hiatus. I know, also very hard and harder as we get older and responsibility stacks up. I know I am not eating my own dog food here because this is really hard, and even harder now.
COVID did this. It changed enough, that we then questioned most everything.
We used to spend too much on coffee because the top rated coffee place in the world is a block away. They shut down during COVID for two months. When they reopened, we got two bags. It was like $30. We poured them into a coffee jar we use, and it filled it halfway. The bags look big, but hold very little. We only noticed that and stopped spending $10/day there because they shut down long enough for us to interrupt the pattern, to then get to a point where we had the perspective to reevaluate.
Moving or planning a temporary move does something similar. It forces us into having some perspective and lets us reevaluate the responsibilities we’ve been stacking.
#4 is interesting. Setting the stakes really high is for the really tall order things when you don’t have much existing will power or energy.
I’m not sure it’s the best approach. It certainly can’t be used everyday. I think it’s better to be kind and patient with yourself and tinker with the other approaches for effectiveness.