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Thursday, December 15, 2016

Hack Your Habits to Transform Your Life

No force on Earth is more powerful than the human habit.


Has a New Year’s resolution ever made a permanent difference in your life? Maybe you stuck with it for the first week of the year. But dang it, January is cold. Some mornings it’s hard to just get out of your warm bed, let alone trudge to the gym, write a blog post, or meditate before work. By February, our best-laid plans are all but forgotten.

Resolve to regularly track, review, and shape your habits.

But it’s not really the cold that’s to blame. The problem was that your resolutions required perpetual resolve. But life happens, and inspiration inevitably fades. You can’t expect yourself to stay inspired year-round. You need to rest your success on something sturdier.

Instead of making specific resolutions, make one resolution that will beget a year full of resolutions. Resolve to regularly track, review, and shape your habits.

The Power of Habit

Nothing is more powerful than the human habit. Individual actions are what make things happen. And establishing a habit is a “super-action” that sets the general course of future actions.

You establish a habit simply by making it a point to do a certain behavior every day or on some other regular basis. When we do the same thing repeatedly, we program the part of our brain called the amygdala to help us do that action more automatically. The habit becomes even more ingrained if we pair it with a cue: for example, doing push-ups right every morning when we get out of bed, or writing down your top priorities for tomorrow every time you get ready to leave the office.

What makes habitual action so powerful is that it recurs so reliably, because its automatic nature means it doesn’t depend on the individual’s fluctuating willpower. The freed-up willpower (which is a scarce cognitive resource) can then be used for additional purposes.

People often think discipline is about willpower. In a sense, it’s the opposite. Discipline is most steady and ironclad when it consists of good habits. And habits, again, are behaviors that come easily: that don’t require much willpower. Breaking old bad habits and building new good ones is hard, but following through with existing good habits is easy. Becoming disciplined takes a lot of willpower, but being disciplined requires pleasantly little.

So, while building habits and discipline may be tough at first, you will be making life for yourself much more smooth, pleasant, and easy in the near future.

Choose Your Habits, Choose Your Fate

You choose your fate by choosing your character. And you choose your character by shaping your habits.

To establish a habit is to pave the road ahead. Your path can either be a groove or a rut. By getting yourself in a habitual groove, you make progress come easy. By getting yourself in a habitual rut, you condemn yourself to frustrating struggle and stagnation.

Habit-formation is unavoidable. The only question is whether you form good ones or bad. And good habits don’t happen by accident. If you don’t consciously create your life’s grooves according to your own highest values, your basest whims will drag you into ruts.

Habits comprise much of one’s character. And as Heraclitus said, “A man’s character is his fate.” You choose your fate by choosing your character. And you choose your character by shaping your habits.

By shaping your habits, you can radically transform just about anything about yourself. “I’m kind of lazy. I’m not good with money. I’m not an athlete.” These are not eternal facts. They’re manifestations of habits, and all habits can be hacked.

Don’t Break the Chain

But you won’t be able to reprogram your amygdala unless you keep at it. A single skipped day can lead to another, and before you realize it, your sprouting habit will be nipped in the bud. When building habits, whether you follow through on an action is a choice that bears, not just on today, but on a long series of tomorrows. Remind yourself of that when you’re considering excuses for skipping. As Jerry Seinfeld famously said about working on his comedy every day, “Don’t break the chain.”

A great way to keep the chain intact is an approach by Stephen Guise called “mini-habits.” The idea is to make your target habits ridiculously easy, so that it takes hardly any willpower to do them. This has two major effects. First, it makes it much easier to keep “the chain” unbroken, which again is paramount. Secondly, the hardest thing about doing something is often getting started. Once you start, you acquire “emotional momentum” that makes it easier to continue. So, you are likely to go way beyond the minimum you’ve set for yourself.

For example, Guise used to struggle with getting himself to exercise regularly. Then he gave himself a daily “one-pushup challenge.” This daily regimen was easy to maintain without skipping. Moreover, once he was on the floor anyway, he would almost always keep going. Building from this approach, Guise was finally able to get in shape.

After reading about and trying many habit hacking techniques, the best I have found is S.J. Scott’s “habit stacking.” The idea is to follow a cue by doing, not just one habit, but a checklist sequence of several quick ones. This makes it much easier to remember more small but powerful habits. I highly recommend checking it out.

Apps for That

In the hacking of habits, another trick is to track. Think of a way to measure the useful habit you want to establish or the hampering habit you want to minimize. Then set daily goals for yourself, i.e., at least 20 minutes on the exercise bike or practicing the piano, no more than 30 minutes on Facebook, complaining at a family member no more than 3 times, etc. Download timer and tally apps onto your smartphone to keep score. (I’ve used Hours and Tally.)

If a new habit is sticking, can you raise the bar?

Then, on some kind of calendar, mark the days that you meet your daily goal. (For this, I’ve used the app Momentum.)

Do this only for as many habits as you can sustainably manage, at first perhaps no more than one in each of the major categories of your life: health, intellectual development, emotions, relationships, work, etc.

Now this is the key part. Review your habit projects every single day, ideally always at the same time. Assess how you’re doing. Review your “habit stack” checklists. Look at your calendar and notice whether you’re having success streaks. Free-write in your journal (I use Evernote) about it.

If a new habit is sticking, can you raise the bar? Ramp up to 30 minutes on the bike? Go for zero times fussing at your family? (Believe me, achieving this last one is mind-altering and life-changing.) Has your winning streak been so long, that you can consider the habit established? Can you move on to a new habit?

If a habit is not sticking, should you lower the bar to something more within reach? 15 minutes on the bike? 10 minutes? 5 even? Start with baby steps if necessary. Once you unlock a smaller, attainable achievement, you can always ramp up to larger ones later.

If it helps, draft a questionnaire for yourself that you can copy and paste into each daily journal entry.

Sculpting a New You

All details about your specific habit projects are negotiable. The key is to keep at the overall habit-monitoring project. Keep seeking progress, however small. Sustained, small progress will inevitably accumulate into transformative changes in your life. By the end of the year, you’ll be a different person: a new and improved you.

Even a mountain of limitations can be eroded away by the steady drip of a daily practice: by the almighty power of habit.

If you continually hone and ramp up your health regimen, you’ll feel a year younger instead of a year older.

If you establish the habit of reading inspiring books and writing thoughtful articles every day, your perspective on life will be deepened and expanded.

If you monitor and reflect upon the way you think about and talk to other people, you can gradually but fully purge yourself of toxic mental and emotional habits, and radically improve your sense of well-being.

If you do one thing every day to develop a new skill, you’ll have that skill, and at an astounding level.

If you do one thing daily to build an online side-business, you’ll have had invaluable practical lessons in entrepreneurship and will likely have created a new income stream for yourself: maybe even a new career.

Again, none of your limits are immutable. Even a mountain of limitations can be eroded away by the steady drip of a daily practice: by the almighty power of habit.

Restore the Core

Whatever you do, don’t condemn yourself over lack of progress. Self-condemnation is useless for your purposes. And remember, this is all about you and for you. No matter how many days you miss your goals, just keep checking in with yourself every day and keep adjusting. Did you miss your habit review yesterday? Don’t condemn yourself over that either, much less use it as an excuse to give up entirely. Just habit-check today: do it now, even.

You can determine your days and sculpt your soul.

Your daily habit review is your anchor, your lifeline, the essential core of all your self-improvement efforts. No matter how bad it gets, no matter how severely you relapse into a rut, you can always get your groove back by restoring your core: by returning to your daily habit review. Once you restore your core, you can start rebuilding out from that center and get back everything you temporarily lost.

As Will Durant wrote, paraphrasing Aristotle, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

You can determine your days and sculpt your soul. Just keep hacking your habits.


  • Dan Sanchez is an essayist, editor, and educator. His primary topics are liberty, economics, and educational philosophy. He is the Director of Content at the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) and the editor-in-chief of FEE.org. He created the Hazlitt Project at FEE, launched the Mises Academy at the Mises Institute, and taught writing for Praxis. He has written hundreds of essays for venues including FEE.org (see his author archive), Mises.org, Antiwar.com, and The Objective Standard. Follow him on Twitter and Substack.