Routine Maintenance: How to Build Habits

11 Aug

With Mark Paluta

Building a habit means trying to maximize the probability of doing something at some regular cadence.

max [P(do the thing)]

This is difficult because we have time-inconsistent preferences. When asked if we would prefer to run or watch TV next Wednesday afternoon, we are more likely to say run. Arrive Wednesday, and we are more likely to say TV.

Willpower is a weak tool for most of us, so we are better served thinking systematically about what conditions maximize the probability of doing the thing we plan to do. The probability of doing something can be modeled as a function of accountability, external motivation, friction, and awareness of other mental tricks:

P(do the thing) ~ f(accountability, external motivation, friction, other mental tricks)

Accountability: To hold ourselves accountable, at the minimum, we need to transparently record data. Without an auditable record of performance, we are liable to either turn a blind eye to failures or to rationalize them away. There are a couple of ways to amplify accountability pressures:

  • Social Pressure: We do not want to embarrass ourselves in front of people we know. This pressures us to do the right thing. So record your commitments and how you follow-up on them publicly. Or make a social commitment. “Burn the boats” and tell all your friends you are training for a marathon.
  • Feel the Pain: Donate to an organization you dislike whenever you fail.
  • Enjoy the Rewards: The flip side of feeling the pain is making success sweeter. One way to do that is to give yourself a nice treat if you finish X days of Y.
  • Others Are Counting on You: If you have a workout partner, you are more likely to go because you want to come through for your friend (besides it is more enjoyable to do the activity with someone you like). 
  • Redundant Observation Systems: You can’t just rely on yourself to catch yourself cheating (or just failing). If you have a shared fitness worksheet, others will notice that you missed a day. They can text you a reminder. Automated systems like what we have on the phone are great as well.

Rely on Others: We can rely on our friends to motivate us. One way to capitalize on that is to create a group fitness spreadsheet and to encourage each other. For instance, if your friend did not fill in yesterday’s workout, you can text them a reminder or a motivational message.

NudgeReduce frictions for doing the planned activity. For example, place your phone outside your bedroom before bed or sleep in your running clothes.

Other Mental Tricks: There are two other helpful mental models for building habits. One is momentum, and the other is error correction. 

Momentum: P(do the thingt+1 | do the thing_t)

Error correction: P(do the thing_t+1 | !do the thing_t)

The best way to build momentum is to track streaks (famously used by Jerry Seinfeld). Not only do you get a reward every time you successfully complete the task, but the longer your streak, the less you want to break it.

Error correction on the other hand is turning a failure into motivation. Don’t miss two days in a row. Failure is part of the process, but do not let it compound. View the failure as step 0 of the next streak.