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Building Positive Habits, Mental Models for Self-Forgiveness and Helping Others Change
How to develop good habits by leveraging the four components of behaviour, using mental models to stay on track and simple rules for helping others.
Welcome to this week’s newsletter on forming positive habits! We’ll cover:
How to leverage The Four Components of Behaviour to build positive habits.
Three mental models that can be applied throughout your day to contain mistakes, forgive yourself, and get back on track quickly.
Three rules for inspiring change in others.
The Four Laws of Positive Habit Adoption
There are four components to a behaviour (cue, craving, response, and reward) that can be purposefully engineered to form good habits. All four aren’t required for every new habit, but the likelihood the behaviour sticks increases with the number of laws applied.
Law #1: Make It Obvious
Determine the cue(s) of your target habit and make it easy to see. Obvious cues will be more likely to grab your attention which increases the probability you’ll act on them. The difficulty of this step lies in determining what the cues of your new habit are. Either you’ve never performed the behaviour before or you haven’t yet nailed down a consistent routine.
Observe Your Behaviour
Start with self-awareness. Fold a piece of paper in half three times and stick it in your pocket with a pen. Next time you successfully perform or fail to engage in your target behaviour, write down the who, what, when, where, and why.
This will help you better understand how your time is spent and determine what triggers your behaviour. Be detailed but don’t judge yourself. Gaining clarity on the context around your ability or failure to perform a habit will help determine its cue.
“What gets measured, gets managed.” – Peter Drucker
Sometimes, simply observing the habit is enough to inspire change (Hawthorne effect). The act of intentionally noticing a habit makes its cues more apparent, spotlights our biases, and distinguishes the stories we tell ourselves from reality.
Design Your Environment
Thoughtfully architect your environment to make your target habit the obvious choice. For example, if your habit is nutrition-related then changing the food in your house can decrease the amount of willpower required for a new diet to stick.
Law #2: Make It Attractive
In the short-term, habit adoption is about finding a way to make the habit attractive. Over the long-term, your social environment and the tribes you associate with, your self-identity, will drive your habits.
Crossfit is a great example of a tribe. Those who join a Crossfit gym quickly begin to associate as Crossfitters. When they go to daily workouts, they signal to others at the gym that they are part of the group. The relationships and sense of belonging they develop keep them coming back.
Increase your motivation to perform a habit by making it appealing, exciting, or anticipated. How you inspire these emotions in yourself is up to you.
Prioritize and Build Slowly
To be successful in building habits, you must first be selective. You can’t have or be everything at once. Start with the one habit that, if successfully adopted, would really excite you. The one that would make developing all future habits easier.
“Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.” – Anais Nin
Once you have confidence in your ability to form habits, your world will expand. Learn Spanish? No problem. Take up Krav Maga? You got it. Building habits is a skill that once proven to yourself will become part of your self-identity. Our self-identity can be used as a source of unlimited power to align reality with how we view ourselves.
Find an Accountability Partner
Humans are social to the core. We don’t like letting others down or failing to act in line with what we say. An accountability partner is someone who is striving to achieve the same objective or is able to hold you to your word.
“A goal without real consequences is wishful thinking. Good follow-through doesn’t depend on the right intentions. It depends on the right incentives.” – Tim Ferriss
Use a partner, family member, or friend.
Seek someone who shares the same objective as you.
Hire a coach (this could be a virtual coach like StickK).
Option #1 is beneficial for those who couldn’t bear letting down the most important people in their lives. But for others it could foster a sense of complacency since their mom, friend, or spouse will ultimately forgive them if they don’t go on that run three times per week.
Option #2 presents a similar situation. You may be motivated to keep your word on a 6 AM workout with a new gym acquaintance while others couldn’t care less if they bail on a stranger.
Option #3 instantly raises accountability because of the financial cost. Arguably, the value of a coach is derived simply from putting your money on the line. If you don’t successfully develop the habit, you spent that money for nothing. On top of the financial incentive, a coach wants to see you succeed. They will help you implement the ‘how’ necessary to achieve your ‘what’.
Law #3: Make It Easy
As James Clear writes…
“Take whatever habit you’re trying to build and scale it down to something that takes 2 minutes or less to do.”
This is the two-minute rule. If your goal is to read 20 books per year, start with one page right now. If you want to exercise every day at 4 PM, put on your athletic clothes five minutes before. The more convenient and simple a habit is, the more likely the behaviour will be performed.
“The heaviest weight at the gym is the front door.” – Ed Latimore
Before a habit is improved, optimized, or scaled up it must be developed. A master business plan or detailed exercise regimen is useless without action. The two-minute rule forces you to start and then adjust as you go.
Master getting started until it’s ingrained in your self-identity. When you’re the type of person who isn’t afraid to start and shows up consistently, your world is full of options. Begin now, optimize later.
Law #4: Make It Satisfying
Create rewards and reinforcement mechanisms to make the behaviour enjoyable or pleasurable enough that you will repeat it. Although the work involved in performing the habit should create a sense of satisfaction, you may need an extra push to come back.
Do not reward yourself with food or by purchasing something. Nutrition and spending habits are two areas people struggle with most – they don’t need to be further complicated by associating them with a behaviour.
Instead, carve out time to do something you love. Go on a hike, watch a movie, or do something with friends. How you reward yourself or reinforce behaviour is up to you but be cognizant of the subconscious associations you’re creating.
Mental Models for Staying On Track and Self-Forgiveness
Split Your Day Into Quarters: Eliminate The Spiral Effect
“Fail small, not big.” – Gretchen Rubin
Split your day into quarters (morning, afternoon, dinner, night) to eliminate the spiral effect. Instead of binging the rest of the day after eating a donut in the morning, contain that loss to the morning quarter. You can get back on track next quarter. There’s no need for one blown meal to turn into over-indulgence for the rest of the day.
It’s rarely the first mistake that interferes with success, but the spiral of repeated mistakes that sometimes follows. Splitting your day into quarters helps mentally contain slip-ups to keep failures small and get back on track quickly.
You will make mistakes and go off course, that’s okay. But guilt and self-judgement will only make you feel worse and digress further from the person you want to be. Accept you’re not perfect, contain mistakes to a quarter, and move on.
The ABZ Framework and Backcasting: The Importance of Perspective
Life is about perspective. Nothing is static and the reality we interpret is coloured through our eyes. Putting on one pair of glasses can make you feel like a helpless victim while another will allow you to take charge of your life and achieve what you set out to.
The ABZ Framework
Know your ABZ’s:
A: Where you are in the present moment.
What’s your current reality? (don’t tell yourself stories, get to the truth)
What are your skills, strengths, and weaknesses?
B: Your immediate next step.
Don’t try to plan everything out.
You don’t need to know the ‘how’ (C through Y) right now – it will change as you progress.
Boyd Varty conveys this message by encouraging his readers to track their life. Just as a wild animal tracker goes from print to print with the goal of finding a lion, you must search for the immediate next step that will push you closer to Z – where you want to end up.
“In my own life, I have often struggled with the first track. Full of grand visions and the desire to do something great, I often couldn't find the first small beginning and then the next small beginning. I couldn't dial huge possibilities into small practical actions. I couldn't trust that doing enough of what needed to be done today would, with time, render a path and an outcome that could be great. I had to learn to be in the process of transformation, not trying to be transformed. You can't skip past creating to the creation.”
– Boyd Varty in The Lion Tracker’s Guide to Life
Z: Where you want to end up.
This is your North star. Track your Z as you continually move from A to B to ensure your overarching direction is on track.
Repeat the ABZ process until you arrive at your goal.
How did I get here?
What decisions did I make?
You can then work backwards from the outcome with a clear vision of the goal but flexibility in how to get there. Don’t become a hostage to one plan – there are lots of ways to achieve the same goal. Make use of opportunities as they arise and pivot when needed.
Underlying Principle: Keep the ultimate goal in mind and correct as you go.
Mindfulness Meditation: The Tool to Make Strategies Stick
A daily practice of mindfulness meditation will allow you to notice and silence your self-judgement so you can rapidly forgive yourself and immediately correct course after slipping up. Observe reality for what it is without judgement, stay flexible, and don’t allow small bumps to sway you too far off course.
Helping Others Change
Trying to help others change is really difficult. But if someone important to you is struggling, you want nothing more than to help them. The suggestions here do not replace the need for clinical assistance if warranted, but may be enough to spur change in some situations.
Start small, scale down expectations, and make it really simple to get started. Focus on one behaviour at a time and only progress once the target habit is being performed consistently. Starting small builds momentum that will carry over to more difficult changes.
Change the environment. Whether they go somewhere else or rearrange their living space, a new environment can make a monumental impact.
Praise the good, ignore the bad. Although there is a time and place for calling people out on bad behaviour, it can cause discouragement in the initial phases of change. Focus on reinforcing good behaviour and building momentum.
And, as always, please give me feedback on Twitter @jackrossdixon or by responding to this email. What did you like? What do you want more of? Other suggestions?