First the powerful part. Most of our day-to-day behaviors, both good and bad, are the product of habit formation. So much of what we do is operating on auto-pilot — with contextual cues in the environment triggering the “release” of a pre-programmed set of behaviors that happen largely outside our conscious awareness.
Really, it’s an amazing feat of human psychology. A hyper-efficient and economical mode of acting that doesn’t require the high price tag of conscious thought. It’s because of habits that we are able to reserve our brain power for the more pressing tasks that come up. Those which enhance our learning potential.
The element of mystery comes into play when we think about how habits happen. The basic components of habit formation have eluded behavioral and neuroscientists for decades; only recently have we begun to get a handle on the underlying brain-based mechanisms.
Top performers know how to get their habits work for them.
Consider the following evidence: Effective habit formation has little to do with goal-setting.
That’s right. Habits don’t care about goals.
In fact, findings show that getting people to reflect on their goals actually prevents them from forming good habits. It’s the reason why so many of our habits are bad habits. They don’t care about what we (and our goals) consider is “good” or “bad” for us. Habits happen regardless of these sorts of evaluations.
Top performers know this
Top performers rely on their habits, not their goals.
Ben Franklin, a man of countless successes, recognized the importance of this when he said that “habit is one of the most wonderful principles of the whole human constitution. The special function of habit is to make that which is at first irksome for us to do, pleasant after a time to perform.”
Ben Franklin: Master of habits
As Benny here so astutely pointed out, habits start off as annoying little behaviors that over time become more enjoyable. It’s that getting over the initial hump that makes the initial part of habit formation so incredibly difficult.
And what we’re seeing in the science is that no amount of willful goal-setting will get a person there.
Yes, top performers know this. They design their life in terms of what I call “cue-based habitual systems.” Systems whose primary function is: to increase the odds that a targeted behavior will occur.
Goals are for amateurs. The real power lies in cue-based habit. Here are four ways that top performers leverage these systems.
1. They form new habits by relying on cues in their environment
When deciding that a change in behavior needs to be made, top performers don’t sit down and pen out their “top 10 ways to achieve X” then expect the change to happen overnight. They’re smarter than that. They instead turn to the cues of the surrounding environment. B.J. Fogg, Stanford Psychologist, once noted: “There’s just one way to radically change your behavior: radically change your environment.”
Top performers know this. First they carefully observe the environment around them – be it physical, natural, social, technological – and see which string of cues will most likely “release” the habit, first in their mind and then, over time, in their behavior.
They then manipulate only those surrounding environmental cues that they know will cause the sequence of habit to form. Equally as much, they remove the cues that will likely impede the targeted behavior from happening.
2. They form new habits by thinking about rewards
They’re also perceptive of the rewards associated with the environmental cues. The ask themselves, What new reward can be earned by implementing this behavior? If it’s highly reinforcing, they expect the process will happen easily. That is, the habit will be more likely to form over time.
If they notice that the reward of the targeted behavior is underwhelming, then they know the habit doesn’t stand a chance of surviving. In these cases they might experiment with changes in contexts/cues to see which ones produce more favorable rewards.
3. They maintain good habits by keeping things steady
Knowing the importance of the environment, they’re equally careful not to disrupt the systems that work well for them. To maintain their good habits, top performers know to keep certain contextual cues in place.
There’s a delicate balance between changing things up (disrupting the environment) and keeping things as is (stabilizing the environment). Achieving this balance means knowing how to effectively segment the different elements of one’s life.
For instance, a top performer will gladly experiment in an area of their life/work where they’re searching for a new habit to form (see Point 1 and 2). But they won’t muck about in another area where the existing habits already work well. Doing so is a sure fire way to kill a good habit.
The balance between habit formation versus habit maintenance is often a trade-off. Top performers are aware of these trade-offs and navigate them wisely. Forming a new gym routine, for example, might throw off the string of cues that maintain a person’s writing routine. They know this and are adept at optimizing for different – and at time conflicting – habits in their life.
4. They break bad habits by interrupting cued sequences
Top performers are aware that no amount of goal- or resolution-setting will break a habit. Habit interruption is impervious to reinterpretation or rapid change, no matter how serious a goal may be (how many times do some people avow to quit smoking?). The reason is because habits consist of deep-rooted “memory traces” in the brain. The only way to disrupt these traces is to disrupt the actual process itself.
Top performers do this by being vigilant of what contextual cues lead to the occurrence of a bad habit. They target the sequence of events that can easily be removed and cut it out from their behavioral repertoire.
For example, let’s say a person is attempting to cut down on compulsive email checking. They notice that the behavior of “looking at smartphone” acts as a cued sequence that prompts the undesired email checking. Knowing this, they remove the cue altogether, they disrupt the sequence: They remove their phone, turn it off, or disable certain apps that make it harder to get to their email.
When we understand how habits operate, we can design our life around them. We can have the say in which ones we keep (the good ones) and which ones we abandon (the bad ones).
Which brings us back to our opening statement: Habits are as powerful as they are mysterious.
Yes, they are remarkably powerful. That much is true. But mysterious? Not for the top performer. They’ve solved the mystery of habit.
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