3 Steps to Productive Habits
“Chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken.” — Warren Buffet
If you’re like most people, you have a New Year’s resolution in place and you may have even stuck to it so far this year. Good for you! Realistically though, you’re going to fail. How long have you said you really should get in shape, or lamented the need for more quality time with family and friends? The fact is, despite the most earnest commitment, resolutions just don’t work.
We make well-intentioned goals, with the false belief that we just lack commitment and motivation; that all we need is a good kick in the ass to get us going. This couldn’t be farther from the truth, so please stop being so hard on yourself. There are better ways to achieve your full potential, with minimal headache.
First, realize that the key to success at pretty much everything comes down to creating productive habits. A habit is defined as a behavior that happens almost involuntarily. I define “productive habits” as behavior that get you what you want in life automatically, without you really trying.
But productive habits don’t just appear out of thin air. They are created by assembling a chain of individual behaviors, like a string of pearls. These individual behaviors, over time, change our daily actions and in turn, our lives. Productive habits move us to our full potential, morph us into the people we want to become, and ultimately give us the life we want.
There are three steps to forming productive habits:
Step 1: Have no goals
You are really confused right now, aren’t you? Everything you’ve learned about getting what you want in life has centered on the importance of goal setting. You’ve probably heard that you should always start with the ends goals first. I beg to differ.
Now I’m not saying setting goals never works. I’m saying it only works in certain contexts. In situations where someone else is asking you for output, like at work, goals are critical. Goals are also helpful when training to become an expert. However, most of us aren’t shooting to become world-class experts. You’re likely not struggling in competition with others, but with yourself.
See if any of these goals ring a bell:
- “I’m going to lose 20 pounds by summer.”
- “I’m going to run a marathon.”
- “I’m not eating carbs for a month.”
How did those work out for you? Did any of these goals make your life better in the long run? Yeah, I didn’t think so. That’s because these kinds of goals aren’t optimizing for what’s really important, namely living an enjoyable life.
I call these kinds of goals “BUT Goals” because they are Big, Un-fun, and Time-boxed. These kinds of goals add misery to your life and people are biologically programmed to avoid things that cause them pain. If your goals are not enjoyable, you’ll quit. Therefore, when creating productive habits, remember: hard work doesn’t work, so dump the goals.
Instead, forget the end destination and begin a journey. Your journey must be enjoyable, endless and easy. It is along a journey that your productive habits will form. A journey sounds something like this:
- “I want to cultivate a love of exercise.”
- “I want to learn to enjoy building wealth.”
- “I want to enhance my enjoyment of time with my family.”
Step 2: Find your MEA
Now that you know what journey you’re embarking on, your MEA will help guide the way. Your MEA is your:
A MEA is a behavior, which is simple, small and just a little enjoyable. It’s so simple, so small, and just enjoyable enough, that you can see yourself doing it for the rest of your life. For example, let’s say you are on a journey to “enjoy improving my dental health.” If you don’t already floss, you may determine that flossing would help you along your journey. But instead of saying, “I’m going to floss every night” you might make a MEA to “floss one tooth.” This simple, small, and slightly satisfying behavior is all you need to get started.
One way to know if you’ve found your MEA is to try what I call the “duh test”. Stand in front of a mirror and ask yourself if you can do your MEA. Did you say, “well of course I can, duh?” You should feel that the behavior is laughably easy. If so, you’ve found your MEA. But if you cringed, hesitated, or doubted, then scale it back, your behavior is too hard.
MEAs help you form tiny habits by ensuring you start your journey with the simplest possible behavior. Like the trunk of a tree as it grows, habits are formed through layers. Doing a tiny behavior until it becomes a habit allows you to add the next, more complicated, and more challenging, behavior. Over time, these progressive habits build into life-defining change.
Step 3: Track it
Keeping a record of your MEAs is critically important for two reasons. First, it reminds you of the new habits you are forming, providing a checklist of things you’re working on. Second, it gives a critical jolt of positive reinforcement your brain needs to continue the behavior. By simply checking a box that you did your MEA, you are wiring powerful circuitry in your head to reinforce the new behavior.
Tracking is easy, and there are new technologies which make it even simpler. My favorite is a website called 42goals (though I’m not a big fan of the name per my “no goals” rule, it does the job). The site provides a simple interface to list out your MEAs and keep track of those you complete. Of course, you could accomplish the same thing with a spreadsheet, a wall calendar or just a piece of paper, but I like the portability of an online solution. Personally, I place a shortcut to 42goals on my phone’s home screen to remind me of the MEAs I’m tracking and provide easy access throughout the day.
As you keep track of your MEAs, these tiny behaviors will turn into habits and with time, you’ll become more skilled at completing them. You’ll want to challenge yourself with new habits that build upon old ones. The habits will grow along with your ability to do more.
But what happens if you don’t? You will inevitably not do your MEA on some days. Don’t worry, it happens. Failure is built into my system. If you find yourself not doing your MEA for a day, even two or three, don’t sweat it. Just get yourself back on track the next day with the intent of doing your MEA regularly. If, however, you find that you’re regularly missing your MEA and can’t seem to ever get it done, then you need to reassess if your MEA was really minimal enough.
Make the action simple and easier. If your intent was to journal each night before bed, and you find yourself not doing it, make the action simpler to accomplish. Can you write just one sentence? How about just opening your notebook? Still not doing it regularly? How about simply laying out your pen and notebook every night before bed? Really simplify the action until it’s something you can do regularly and for the rest of your life. Falling off the wagon is ok, just find the MEA and use it as your safety when the behavior you’re striving for proves too difficult.
Remember that to get the things you want in life, you need to trick yourself into WANTING to do the things you know you NEED to do. The method I described above is a proven method for accomplishing any self-directed behavior. With these three steps — having no goals, finding your MEA, and tracking — you’ll be doing more than striving for a fleeting resolution; you’ll change your life for good.
Originally published at www.nirandfar.com on January 11, 2012.
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Nir Eyal is the author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products and blogs about the psychology of products at NirAndFar.com.For more insights on changing behavior, join his free newsletter and receive a free workbook.