To Start a New Habit You Have to Ask One Question

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Habits are notoriously difficult to manipulate. We typically fall into patterns of behavior unwittingly and then get stuck. It’s tough to ditch old habits and it’s tough to start new ones. Unless you have an understanding of how they work. Hopefully, this will help.

BJ Fogg, the author of Tiny Habits, has observed five main obstacles that prevent people from forming new habits: time, money, physical effort, mental effort, and routine. Any one of those things, or several of them together, can derail your most noble habit change initiatives. So what’s the solution? Start with a simple question: how can I make this easier?

Humans generally operate by default, and they usually default to the easiest option. Steve Jobs tapped into this idea when he created iTunes. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the music industry was sweating. The rise of software like Napster and other illegal digital downloading options made music theft alarmingly pervasive. Free music wasn’t just annoying for artists and producers, it threatened to shut down the entire industry. Music may be created for the sake of art, but there would be significantly fewer artists if no one was being paid to create the music. Jobs realized that people wouldn’t stop downloading free music for a moral reason, but they might for a more convenient reason. Thus, iTunes was born. The easiest way on earth to obtain music. Sure, there was a cost, but Jobs knew that people would pay for convenience, that they would drift towards ease. The iTunes/iPod music experience not only transformed the music industry, but also saved it. Jobs made obtaining and listening to music easy.

I think about some of my own recent habit initiatives. I’ve been trying to get out of bed early and consistently for a while with little success. I’ve tried moving my phone away from the bed, I set my clothes out the night before, I even prep the coffee maker in the evening so coffee is hot and ready when I wake up. The issue isn’t time, in fact, it would give me more time if I could nail this habit. It’s not a question of money, I don’t have to pay anything to wake up on time. Nor is there any problem fitting my desired wake up time into a routine. But it does involve some physical and mental effort to get out of bed on a cold dark morning. So my previous efforts are good, they definitely make my desired habit a little easier, but they haven’t tipped the scale yet, I need to make it easier.

Fogg also outlines a concept he calls ‘starter step.’ This is the idea that you don’t have to digest the entire habit all at once. Our habit initiatives often fail because we’re stuck on an all-or-nothing approach which relies on motivation to take action, and motivation is nothing if not fickle. Fogg suggests instead of trying to suddenly incorporate an hour-long gym session into your day, start by packing your workout bag in the morning. The habit you need to develop is not going to the gym and throwing weights around for an hour, you simply need to pack your gym bag every morning. If your gym bag is packed and ready, your mind will be more receptive to the idea of stopping by the gym on your way home from work. If you want to walk every day, focus on simply tying on your walking shoes. You don’t have to pressure yourself to workout or walk, just habituate the starter step and you’ll find yourself doing the workout or taking the walk more often than you don’t.

So I’ve come up with a starter step of my own to make my regular-wake-up habit initiative as easy as possible. Every morning when I climb out of bed to silence my alarm, I will turn on my lamp for ten seconds. If after the ten seconds I still can’t resist the warmth of my flannel sheets, fine, I’ll keep working at it, but my guess is that the light will wake me up enough to eschew the flannel and get started with my day. I wish I could say I’ve already proven this theory and it’s foolproof, but I’ll have to let you know how it turns out. Here’s to the unending pursuit.

How can you make your habit easier?

My favorite Steve Jobs story

I’m a little late to the party, but I finally read Walter Isaacson’s, Steve Jobs. It’s a scintillating read. Here’s my favorite story Isaacson shares:

When the iPhone was first conceived, it was on the heels of massively successful iPod and iTunes launches. Jobs, never one to wait for the opportunity to innovate or cannibalize his own products, decided to move forward with a phone which would combine the iPod’s music prowess with a communications device. 

Initially, the iPhone had two designs in development, one mimicking the wildly successful iPod (with a circle wheel and everything), and one more radical, utilizing a multi-touch, full screen. The circle wheel design was inherently limiting, requiring the use of the circle wheel to navigate and dial phone numbers, while the touch screen model was inherently radical and interesting. Jobs ultimately decided on the novel touch screen device. The decision presented a whole new set of questions, like what operating system to program and what physical materials to use. The iPod had, up to that point, used a plastic screen and initially that seemed useful enough for the iPhone as well, but Jobs had other plans. His unwavering commitment to beautiful designs led him to conceptualize a glass screen, which unfortunately would be much more fragile and liable to scratch. Undeterred, Jobs began researching glass design solutions. His search led him to a meeting with Wedell Weeks, the young CEO of Corning Glass. Weeks shared that Corning had developed a super-strong, even scratch-resistant glass (named ‘gorilla glass’) back in the 1960s, but they hadn’t manufactured it because there was no demand. It was exactly what Jobs was looking for, he immediately asked Weeks to produce enough, in 6 months, to supply the new iPhones at launch. Weeks quickly decried the request, saying it was simply impossible. No Corning plants were set up to manufacture gorilla glass, it couldn’t be done. Jobs “stared at Weeks, unblinking. ‘Yes, you can do it,’ he said. ‘Get your mind around it. You can do it (P472).’”

Weeks still recalls the story in astonishment. Corning converted an entire production plant in Kentucky, put their best scientists and engineers on the project, mass-produced a glass that had never been made, and fulfilled the entire initial iPhone order in under 6 months. Weeks has a plaque on his wall with the note he received from Jobs on iPhone launch day, “We couldn’t have done it without you.”

Jobs encountered obstacles just like the rest of us, but this sort of response is different. Jobs saw the world as bigger, with more possibilities, and he was able to inspire his vision in other people. He certainly wasn’t gentle or subtle, in fact, he could be an incredible jerk, but people routinely report that they accomplished more than they ever thought possible when working with him. He didn’t let obstacles become excuses. He didn’t let difficulties constrain the possibilities he saw. “Get your mind around it. You can do it.”

Book Takeaways – Atomic Habits

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This year I’m a part of a book club. Each month we read one book in the genre of self-improvement and meet to discuss our findings and takeaways. January’s book was Atomic Habits by James Clear. Along with the regular book club meeting, I’m going to highlight some key ideas and actionable items for you, my readers. Books may be the single best source of knowledge and wisdom available to humans. I love reading, and I love sharing ideas I’ve read so this exercise will tick a few boxes for me. Here goes. 

  1. Outcomes are a lagging measure of our habits, we get what we repeat. This is great news because it means we can work to change our habits and get different outcomes. 
  2. Goals are not correlated to results. Clear makes an impactful point that winners and losers have the same goals. Goals are helpful for providing direction but mostly worthless in obtaining a desired result. For that, we need systems/habits.
  3. Habits change identities. I consider this Clear’s most profound and important contribution to the discussion of habits. We fail to make lasting behavior changes routinely, regardless of our intention or passion, the size or specificity of our goals, or the breadth of our knowledge. Even when faced with an ultimatum, change or die, (ie, change your diet or your diabetes will kill you) people fail to change. The reason is that our actions are closely knit with our identities, and we fail to change who we are. The antidote is to start with a tiny action. Just do something good, however small. Each good action is undeniable proof that we have acted like (been) a different person, and that begins to mold our identities. The point of all this self-improvement effort is not to accomplish goals, it’s to become different people. I don’t need to lose 20 pounds, I need to become a healthy person. I don’t need to make $200k in five years, I need to become a valuable coach. The pounds and money are only byproducts.
  4. Make good actions easier and bad actions harder. In order to begin taking the small actions that will shape our identities, it’s helpful to set ourselves up for success. Humans drift toward the path of least resistance by default, so remove resistance from good actions and add resistance for bad actions. A few examples: 1) Set out your workout clothes before bed so it’s easy to wake up and get dressed for the gym. 2) Unplug the TV after each use so you have to plug it in if you want to watch something.
  5. An implementation intention is critical for habit building and behavior change in general. We tend to set goals and hope for some motivation to begin working on them. The problem is that motivation is scarce and inconsistent. An implementation intention solves that problem, it means we make a plan to implement our new habit by giving the habit a regular time and a regular place. In order to do something different, you must have a plan for it. If you intend to work out, choose a regular time (that fits into your schedule), and a regular location (whether it’s a space in your house or gym nearby). We make plans for all sorts of important things in our lives, habits call for the same attention.
  6. As a general rule, the more immediate pleasure you get from something, the more suspicious you should be of its long-term benefit. Not that we need to stop doing things that make us happy, just be aware that immediate pleasure and long-term benefits are almost never congruous.
  7. At some point, it comes down to who can handle the boredom of taking regular good action, day after day. You become healthy by eating good meals every day. You get strong by lifting the same weights over and over. You gain wealth by doing the same important function of your work time after time after time. Fall in love with the process, embrace the boredom.
  8. Success is not a goal to achieve, it’s a system of improvement, an endless process of refinement. It’s incredible what you can build if you just don’t stop.

Why don’t we use the gold standard anymore?

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Today we no longer use a gold-backed currency. Even when the dollar was backed by gold, the U.S. government would adjust the gold-to-dollar ratio with regularity, essentially muting any effect of the currency’s gold backing. So while officially abandoned in 1971, we’ve been off the gold standard for quite a while, since about 1914.

Beginning in and around the 19th century, developed nations almost universally adopted the gold standard. Uncoincidentally, the 2nd half of the 19th century is heralded as one of history’s great economic eras. But, in 1914, at the outset of WW1, developed nations involved in the fighting began moving away from the gold standard. They were faced with two options to finance war operations: 1) increase taxes, 2) leave the gold standard and print money. Option one would have been supremely unpopular, option two would accomplish the same thing as option one just without the national outrage. Taxes are one thing, people understand what’s happening, they’re giving up their money for a government to provide services that the collective majority generally agrees upon. Fiat money is different. Instead of imposing additional taxes, fiat money allows the government power to print money, devaluing the currency and causing citizens to end up with less money via inflation. Imposing taxes and printing money grant the same outcome for governments, they end up with more money, and it also creates the same outcome for citizens, they end up with less money. The issue is that citizens have a measure of control over taxation by voting, complaining, revolting, etc. They have very little control over printing money.

It’s impossible to prove, but nevertheless an interesting thought experiment: what if governments hadn’t abandoned the gold standard in 1914? In all likelihood the war would have endured for a fraction of the time it did in reality. Taxes would have been imposed (the only way for governments to fund the war), they would have been incredibly unpopular (because ordinary people didn’t care about petty monarchical conflicts between nations), governments would have run out of money to fund their war efforts, and the war would have ground to a halt, almost certainly sooner than four years, and more probably within one year. Again, it’s impossible to prove, but certainly possible.

Since 1914 little has changed, fiat (government-issued) money is the currency of the age. Taxation has steadily decreased over the last one hundred years while government spending has steadily increased by borrowing and printing notes. A return to the gold standard at this point is all but impossible. The fact is that gold, while a great purveyor of value, is impractical for day to day use. It’s heavy, it’s hard to divide into smaller bits, and it’s costly to keep secure. These are the reasons why gold was concentrated into central banks and traded via government promissory notes in the first place.

Unfortunately, every example in history involving the utilization of soft money (money that’s easily producible) has eventually resulted in large-scale economic collapse. That’s not to say it’s impossible for fiat money to succeed, the U.S. government, while far from perfect, has not inflated the currency to disastrous levels, and may not for a long time. But no human or human institution has been able to stave off the temptation to over-print currency indefinitely.

So that’s depressing, is there a solution? We know that hard money (money that’s scarce and/or hard to produce) is foundational to thriving economies. Gold is the best example we have of hard money, but it has inherent flaws that make it difficult to use in our modern world. An interesting development in the last decade is the inception and rise of crypto-currencies. I won’t pronounce Bitcoin the ultimate salve of modern economics, but it’s certainly worth keeping an eye on. Crypto-currencies offer many of the beneficial characteristics of gold (difficult or impossible to produce, widely accepted), and avoids many of gold’s pitfalls (it’s not heavy, not hard to divide, and inherently secure). The market will ultimately decide if some type of crypto-currency is any type of answer, for now, it’s a fascinating concept. 

A story about preparation

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I learned an important lesson in high school about preparation. Some peers and I participated in a talent show/fundraiser event. A group of us got together to perform a funny old song, the details are foggy (probably for a reason). I was the lead singer, and I was pretty confident about the whole thing, the band, my part, the quality of the material. We were really going to impress some people. Maybe I yet hadn’t learned how to pay attention to nervousness, maybe I just way overestimated my own abilities, or maybe a bit of both, but the level of preparation I gave to my lines was minimal. I only sort of had the song memorized, but I was sure it would all be in my head when the lights went bright and the music began. I was even confident that they’d be there after I forgot the first time, while on stage, and had the band start over. I even thought maybe I could piece it together after the second restart, while still on stage. Somewhere through the third disastrous start, my Dad, sitting near the front row, motioned for me to use the lyrics which I (thankfully) had in my pocket. The fourth try went mostly without a hitch, though I was so broken by that point I was having trouble even reading the words. For high school me, it was fairly devastating, but emotions run high in high school. I remember thinking that the thorough humiliation I had undergone was just a wound to my overworked pride. But my Dad talked to me afterward in the depth of my despair, and said simply, “you gotta prepare.” So I learned that preparation is important.

In college, this important lesson was reinforced in a much happier way. I’m not usually a performative type person, but I ended up in another performance event (as I think back, my brother was an instigator for both of these groups and he does have the performance gene), this time lip-syncing. We gathered a few close friends, five us of in all, and set out to imitate NSYNC’s famous ‘Bye Bye Bye’ dance. We spent hours upon hours in the basement of our small college gym, dealing with crappy wifi and incomplete YouTube videos, rehearsing the beautiful (depending on the refinery of your tastes) choreography of NSYNC. The crowd was significantly larger this time (and included my future wife), the lights brighter, the music louder, and the stakes much higher. But this time an amazing thing happened, the first try went off without a hitch! And not only that, but we also won the category for ‘best applause’! We were a hit! So I learned that preparation pays off.

Preparation usually isn’t a lot of fun. The fun part is the game, or the performance, or the meeting, or the presentation, or whatever it is. But here’s the deal, the fun part sucks if you haven’t prepared, and it can be better than you hoped if you have.