By taking the time to grasp a basic understanding of how our brains operate we can learn to use it more effectively and become a more prolific results-getter.
Without this understanding is like owning a Ferrari without taking the time to understand and learn how to drive it properly. You can't get it to perform to its potential and you're simply not making the most out of the incredible machine.
In this post I want to talk about the single most important discovery that I made about the design of our brain that's really helped me tame and manipulate the wild animal inside of me and allow me to do difficult things on a consistent basis.
A Story of No Discipline
I haven't always been very disciplined in my life
In fact, I would say that for a large majority of my life I have been completely the opposite...Especially when it comes to deep work.
Deep work, where you get lost in a state of flow because you're so focused and deeply engaged in what you're working on, used to be so elusive to me. I would go weeks and weeks without managing to get myself in that state.
Intellectually I knew that I needed to get into that state on a regular basis, but I just couldn't bring myself to do it. No amount of thinking or reasoning with myself helped this situation. I spent many hours trying to find a mental "frame" through which to pitch to myself the benefits of deep work... but it didn't work
I lacked the skills and self-knowledge needed to design a system that would consistently get me into that state.
I've since made quite large inroads and have managed to build some difficult habits into my life. Of course, the way I did this came from a completely different place than I expected. And that's what I want to share with you today.
First let's look at the problem, then I'll give my best solution (which, by the way, is continually being developed).
The Problem: The Impatient Elephant and the Wise Rider
Your brain is in a never ending conflict with itself...
In the red corner, you have the extremely powerful, large and automatic subconscious part of the brain that is very animalistic by nature. This thing wants sex, food, sleep, to avoid pain and have as much pleasure as possible. Immediately.
This thing can't tie an action now to a reward next week. It's only appeased by actions that produce immediate results.
You eat, you're immediately rewarded. You sleep, you're immediately rewarded. You have sex, you're immediately rewarded.
And then in the blue corner, you have the "smart" and "wise" part of your brain. This part is called the prefrontal cortex. This part has way more understanding of the complexities of modern day life and is able to understand that consequences often take a long time to materialise.
This part of the brain understands that if you work out three times per week for the next 6 months, then you'll eventually be fit. It understands that if you deliberately practice your writing every day for a few years, you'll be a recognised author.
To further paint this picture, I'm going to use an analogy that was first introduced to me by a book called the "Happiness Hypothesis" by Jonathan Haidt...
Imagine a small rider on top of an incredibly large and powerful 1,000 lbs elephant...
The rider is doing its best to control the mammoth, but it's a constant battle. The mammoth is fiercely independent and difficult to override and when it decides to go a certain way, no matter how hard the rider pulls on the reigns, that's where they end up going.
Of course, in this analogy, the rider is your prefrontal cortex and the mammoth is your animal brain.
So why is this important?
Well, here's the thing:- To live a successful life and be a prolific creator, you need to learn how to give control back to your rider.
Simply put: You need to learn the skills of manipulating the elephant to go where the rider knows is best in the long term.
It's very easy to recognise this, but it's incredibly hard to do in practice.
Designing a Habit System
Any big result that you want to attain is going to come through an action that you repeatedly do on a regular basis.
"We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit."
The problem with habits is that there's no immediate reward...
It's not uncommon to do something every day for months or years before the result ever comes to fruition.
In other words: Your animal brain hates habits. Yet habits are probably one of the most cruical elements of success. If you can continually work on a skill for years, you'll be in the top few percent of people in the world. You'll be successful.
Here's the thing: You don't need a habit. You need a habit system.
Deciding on the habit that you want to implement is the first step. The next step is to run through the checklist below and design a habit system to support it as strongly as possible and ensure that you stick to it consistently.
The Warrior Habits Elephant Trainer
This is the system that I'm currently using to make sure that I stick to my important habits.
These habits include:-
- Recording a video on a daily basis
- Writing on a daily basis
- Reading on a daily basis
- Hitting the gym three times per week
- Still having enough time to my day to day busy work
This system has enabled me to stick consistently to positive and productive habits while still having plenty of time to do things that I really enjoy doing.
Of course, I can't take credit for any of the ideas here. I've just pulled together a bunch of things that I've learned from reading as much as I can about habit formation into one system that we can use.
Here are the steps:-
- Decide a suitable reminder and reward
- Create a minimum commitment
- Purposely design your environment to assist you
- Predict "resistance points" and design traps to snare yourself
- Track your achievements visually and build up momentum
- Plan for enjoyment and downtime
- Plan for failure
- Take care of your Core Habits
1. Decide a Suitable Reminder and Reward
A not very effective approach to instilling a new habit is something like this:-
"I'll commit to doing 90 minutes worth of writing each day at no specific time, just when I feel like I have the time to do so".
Why isn't this effective?
It relies far too much on willpower.
You set out with the best intentions of sticking to this schedule but as time progresses you'll find it harder and harder to "find the right moment" and follow through.
Scientists have found that a better approach is to sandwich your habits up with a trigger and a reward.
Each morning you have your morning coffee and you immediately sit down and do your daily reading. Once you're done, you follow this up with a healthy lunch out.
The trigger for your habit is drinking a nice coffee and your reward is to eat lunch.
Over time these cues generate an automatic habit response. You'll drink your coffee, and it will feel normal and natural for you to sit down and do your daily reading. You'll have minimal resistance (if any) and minimal willpower will be required. This is the ideal.
This trigger and reward system is a very effective method of creating habits for two reasons:-
- The trigger removes the deliberation of "should I do this now, or later?" and signals to the brain to expect the reward after the routine.
- The reward creates a positive feedback loop for the brain so that it knows that this loop is worth doing again.
It's not enough to just have a reward, though. The reward must be such that you crave for it when the trigger occurs. Scientists believe that this is the key part of changing the neural pathways in your brain to support your new habits.
The trigger kicks of a craving which is satisfied with the reward. The neural pathway is strengthened every time this happens making it easier to do the loop again next time. This is how habits are formed.
How to Choose a Suitable Trigger for Your Habits
The approach I use to list down all of the actions that I always do on a daily basis, for example:-
- Have a shower
- Drink a coffee
- Eat lunch
- Check emails
- Write my daily ritual
- Travel to my co-working office
- Eat breakfast
- Eat dinner
From that list, I'll choose the trigger that makes the most sense.
At the time of writing this post, here's my current habit schedule:-
Morning breakfast and coffee
Daily ritual and reading
Motorbike to my coworking space (I love riding my motorbike)
Arrive at coworking space
Food! Order lunch
Day to day work
Arrive at home
Viewing my YouTube account live on my account while eating snack
Video published (on Monday, Wednesdays and Fridays)
Head to Gym
Healthy dinner after workout in restaurant
This is a pretty packed day, but I'm usually done by early evening giving me the rest of the time for sport, recreational activities that I enjoy doing and chatting with friends.
2. Create a Minimum Commitment for Each Habit
I was inspired to include minimum commitments in my habits system by a book called "Mini Habits" by Stephen Guise...
The author let himself get into pretty bad shape and wanted to go to the gym to lose some weight and get stronger. But he just really didn't want to do it.
No matter what, he just couldn't get himself to go the gym, even though he knew that he really should.
His answer was to just start doing something stupidly small and build up from there. In his case it was doing just one press up per day. Long story short - this led him to building up a consistent workout habit three days per week.
Here's the thing...
When trying to incorporate a habit into your life, you will experience resistance. There will be times where you really, really just don't want to see your habit practice through.
You'll try and think about all the reasons why you should do it, trying to rationally convince yourself why it's important to follow through... but it won't work.
Rather than trying to rationalise and intellectualise all the reasons as to why you should do the work...just get started.
"You can’t think your way into right action, but you can act your way into right thinking." - Bill Wilson
Convince yourself to do the smallest possible thing towards your daily habit. What tends to happen is that your brain slowly switches into "ok, we're doing this" mode.
- If your daily habit is to read an hour each day, then commit to reading a single page.
- If your daily habit is to write, then commit to writing a single sentence
- If you daily habit is to record a video, then commit to getting in front of the camera for 30 seconds. Even if you have nothing to say.
- If your daily habit is to go to the gym, then commit driving there without committing to doing the actual workout.
The chances are that once you get going and you start getting into it, you'll do much more than your daily commitment. In this way, it's a bit of a trick for your brain.
However, even if you only manage to do your daily commitment, it's still a success for you. You've still got something done and you've reinforced that habit further.
So, come up with a minimum commitments for your new habit. This is your "success criteria" if you like.
This minimum commitment should be extremely small, something that only takes a few minutes, but that you can still consider a victory if you achieve it.
Here are my current minimum commitments:-
Daily ritual and reading
Read 2 pages
Write 50 words
Day to day work
Do at least one task or reply to one email
Get in front of the camera for 30 seconds, even if content is nonsense
Head to Gym
Drive to the gym and do one single set
Having minimum commitments offer greater flexibility and a fallback if you're having a really bad day.
You can complete all your minimum commitments within half an hour... it means that:-
- If your day to day work starts to get pretty intensive and takes up a lot of your time, you can still manage your daily habits
- You can plan for trips / adventures without jeopardizing your habit building
- If you have a bad day, you can convince yourself to just do the minimum commitment leaving you with a positive feeling of success.
Habits need to be done regularly and consistently in order for them to stick. The minimum commitment leaves you with little excuse for not following through and greater flexibility.
3) Purposely Design your Environment to Assist You
This is a really big part of the habits system and can make a huge difference in your ability to stick to do hard things consistently.
The key point is that you need to design your environment to make it as easy possible to stick to your habit and as hard as possible to fall off the rails. I call this: setting yourself up for success.
Imagine you're trying to work on a habit to drink more water on a daily basis. What can we do to make this as easy as possible to follow through? Let's run through the options at our disposal:
Level of Environment Assistance
With no environmental assistance then you have to get up and go to the kitchen each time your habbit trigger occurs. This means disrupting your focus and could negatively effect the amount of deep work you do on a regular basis. Clearly this is not ideal.
Have a bottle of water right next to you on your desk
This is better than going to the kitchen. You can drink regularly without disturbing your workflow and focus. Doesn't require the unnecessary additional effort of walking to the kitchen.
Have a cooled water dispenser right next to you
This solution doesn't require the additional burden of remembering to purchase and bring the water bottle each time you sit down to work.
It's always there in plentiful amounts.
You don't even have to think about it any more. It's a set and forget system.
Just by taking the time to think about your environment and tweak it to support your habit, you make it far easier to follow through.
Here's another example of tweaking the environment that I personally use for recording videos:
I know that I am highly likely to experience resistance right before I record a video. Therefore it's crucially important that I design my environment to make it effortless to get shooting...
So how do I do this?
I have a makeshift fully prepared video recording studio in my room. The camera always has a full battery (charged from the night before) and is sitting on its stand in exactly the position I need.
My lighting is also set up in exactly the right position. Same for the black background canvas that is hanging on my wall.
My microphone is sitting right next to the camera, also with fully charged batteries.
Why is all this important? It means that when it comes time to record, I can simply stand in front of the camera, turn on the light, attach the microphone and start recording. It takes me less than 20 seconds to do this - it's effortless.
Contrast this with going through the rigmarole of setting up both the camera tripod and the lighting tripod and plugging everything into the wall, finding the camera and the microphone and checking the battery levels of each respectively, hanging up the background canvas and doing a test recording to make sure everything is in the correct position...
The willpower depletion that comes from doing all of that nonsense before even hitting the record button would guarantee my failure at sticking to the habit.
Let's consider some other examples of designing your environment to support your goals:-
- If you're trying to lose weight, don't keep sweets, chocolates and other foods that you're trying to avoid in the house. If you start craving for things that you shouldn't be eating, you'll have to go all the way to the shops to buy them which could be enough of a deterrent to put you off.
- If you want to go to the gym tomorrow, get your gym clothes ready the night before and put them next to your bed. In the morning, when you wake up, they're right there.
- If you want to be more focused at work, leave your distracting phone at home or in the car, turn off all communication apps on your computer and use ear plugs to protect yourself from interruptions.
- To save money you can automate your finances so that money is automatically transferred from your current account to your savings account at the start of each month.
There are so many ways you can set up your environment for your success. It's just a case of taking some time to think about to design how it can support you, rather than hinder you.
It's amazing how simply taking the time to consider how you can optimize your environment can make such a big difference.
4) Predict Resistance Points and Design Traps to Snare Yourself
Whenever I decide to do instill a new habit in my life, I can almost always predict ahead of time the parts that I will find extremely difficult to stick to.
For example: If I'm trying to instill a gym habit, I know that I'll experience the most resistance right before I have to leave for the gym. Once I'm at the gym, I never have any problems seeing the workout through.
Another example is that when recording a video I'll have resistance right before I'm recording. This will be exacerbated if I don't have a clearly defined script that I'm comfortable with and have rehearsed.
In the above examples these two points of resistance need to be handled so that they don't stop me from following through.
There are techniques to handle these points of resistance in the moment (see point 2 about "just getting started"), but you can also put in place what I call "traps" ahead of time.
These traps or "snares" as I like to call them leave you in a really nasty predicament if you don't follow through and they are designed to appeal to your elephant. The traps are both painful and immediate, something your elephant respects.
Let's use the gym example for clarity...
I can predict that I will have resistance before I head to the gym. What traps can I lay?
- I can agree to work out with a friend who also wants to get into shape and we can hold ourselves accountable.
This works well because if you miss a session on your own, then it's no big deal. But if you know that you're letting someone down, that's an added layer of pain.
You can ramp this up even further by agreeing that the first person to miss a workout has to pay the other person $100.
There are accountability apps online that can help you set this up.
- If you don't have a gym partner to train with, no problem. You can give $200 to a friend/spouse/partner and tell them to give it to charity if you miss a training session.
- You can sign up for some kind of physical challenge or assault course in the near future that costs money and that you can't do in your current state of fitness. You can also invite your friends to join you.
Better yet, commit to donating the money to charity if you complete the course.
The idea is that you come up with creative ways of trapping yourself into doing hard things by raising the stakes and making the benefit/pain more immediate.
In the early days of creating videos, I had an accountability agreement set up with my friend. We committed to publishing videos once per week. If either of us failed then we had to pay the other person $100.
This rule definitely helped me put videos out on days when I really didn't feel like doing it.
5) Track Your Achievements Visually and Build Up Momentum
It's important that we celebrate small wins. For each day that successful habit reinforcing day that goes by, you need to give yourself a pat on the back. To celebrate.
The best way of doing this is to track your victories in a very visual and public way.
- A large calendar that's on the wall with a green tick for each day that you stick to your habit.
- A glass that contains a paperclip for each day that you've succeeded.
- A spreadsheet that you look at regularly and is publicly viewable.
I find that an important part of doing this is to make sure that you can visually see the current momentum number. In other words, you should be able to immediately see how many times you've successfully done your habit in a row.
If I look over at my calendar, I can see that today I have a momentum score of 25. I know this immediately because I have a massive green "25" showing there.
So, why is monitoring so effective?
Studies show that this kind of monitoring and tracking improves your chances of sticking to things.
There are a few subtle psychological things going on here:-
- It's designed to serve as a reminder for you. Each time your calendar/paper clips or spreadsheet enters your attention, it serves as a gentle reminder of what you're trying to achieve. It's never far from your focus.
- As you build up momentum, you'll have a constant visual reminder of how well you're doing and you'll the pain of breaking that chain becomes larger. Nobody wants to break a string of ticks with a huge red cross. This is why I recommend highlighting your "running score".
So come up with a way that you'll publicly track your progress. Make sure it's highly visual and that you can clearly see your chain of momentum growing over time.
6) Plan for your Enjoyment and Downtime
The temptation when starting a new habit is to go all out. Generally speaking, the motivation is high and you're excited at all the benefits this is going to bring you.
The temporary motivational high makes it very tempting to work 16 hour days and focus relentlessly on the thing you're trying to achieve.
Every spare minute of the day you're focusing on your new habit...
That's great, right? How can this possibly be a problem?
The problem comes from willpower. It's a finite resource that we all have and needs to be used smartly. It's a bit of a balancing act between maximizing short term progress and "stickability" (the ability to stick to something) over the long term...
Here's a great metaphor for this...
When I was younger I used to play an athletics game on my computer. One of the races in the game is a 10,000 meter run and to win it requires a certain degree of strategy.
On the left hand side is a colored bar that represents your athlete's remaining energy. As the player, you can control how hard the athlete runs over the duration of the race.
When I first took part in this race I used to burn it way too fast at the start. The athlete would be knackered after about 2,000 meters and would either finish last or sustain an injury and fail to complete the race.
Clearly, given the length of the race, a smarter strategy is pace the athlete accordingly.
The same is true for habits...they are a matter of balance.
It's far more important to consistently do something over the long term than go nuts for the first few weeks and wear yourself out. It's the stereotypical tortoise vs hare scenario.
I know, for a fact, that I can't sustain 12 hours of focus per day for the long term. I also know that if I don't include flexibility and times where I can do things that I enjoy, I'll fail.
The importance of incorporating downtime to rejuvenate has been studied extensively and is known as Attention Restoration Therapy (ART).
With all this in mind, here's the one thing I recommend:-
Stop Working at a Certain Time Each Day and Do Stuff You Enjoy
I only work up to 1800. After this, I'm done for the day.
My fun and relaxation schedule changes fairly regularly depending on how I feel but currently it looks like this:-
On Tuesdays and Thursdays I will often go out and practice pool with my playing partner and on Wednesdays and Fridays I will go out for dinner with company.
I also interchange this with feeding homeless dogs (something that I enjoy immensely), going to the beach to watch sunset (there is quite a lot of evidence to suggest that nature is highly effective for attention restoration), exploring new places and other random excursions.
On the weekend I aim to do my minimum commitments and not much more. The rest of the time is sidelined for spending time with people and doing things that I enjoy doing.
The net result of this is that when I sit down and work, I'm recharged and in a great state for deep work, something that I constantly strive for.
7) Plan for Failure
Sometimes life gets in the way and you won't be able to meet your minimum commitment.
Hey, don't worry about it - this small failure doesn't make you a failure, it just makes you human.
The good news is that while habit formation takes quite a long time to build (average range is from 18 to 254 days with an average of 66 days), it doesn't matter if you miss a day or two along the way.
When it comes to failing, here are a few key points:-
- Just do something. Even if you can't make your minimum commitment. Something is better than nothing.
Can't get to the gym? Do one push up
Can't write your post? Write a sentence
Can't read your book? Just read a page
A small failure is better than a big failure.
- Be wary of failure stacking. Missing one day is not a big deal, but it's problematic when these days accumulate.
If you miss your habit on one day, pay particular care and attention that you nail it the next day.
8) Take Care of your Core Habits
If I sleep in and get up late then, for one reason or another, I very rarely have a productive day...
Psychologically I'm unhappy that I've wasted some of the day but physically I'm also lethargic. The unfortunate net result is that I'm less likely to have a productive day and stick to my habits.
This link between getting up early and having a strong, productive day is something that I've grown to recognize and accept. Simply put: this is one of my core habits.
My business partner has fitness as a core habit. If he doesn't regularly exercise at a high enough intensity his mood suffers and that cascades down into other areas of his life.
So what is a core habit?
A core habit is one that every other habit is dependent on. It's something that has to be in place first, before you can reliably stack other habits on top. Without this core habit in place, everything else falls by the wayside.
What are your core habits? Are there things that you absolutely must have in place before you work on additional habits?
If so, you need to own them. You need to be all over those core habits like a cheap suit.
For me, this meant doing a bunch of reading and research about how to make sure I stick to a consistent sleeping schedule and get a good night's sleep. I bought a sleep mask, adjusted my sleeping environment, experimented with supplements like melatonin and will shortly be going for an operation to remove a cyst that's obstructing my breathing.
I can't tell you what your core habits are, but take some time to figure out what they are and get them in check.
To be continued...