Building Better Habits

I’ve always had a big disconnect between what I aspire to do and what I actually accomplish. This year I’ve come a long way in closing the gap. Mostly, that’s because of a website called I give myself incentives to keep my word–be early, work out daily–and set stakes for failure: I commit to going to bed by 1am and if I fail to do that, I am billed $25, which goes to an anti-charity–an organization that supports a cause I hate–which for me is usually an anti-gay marriage group.

StickK works best for really simple black-and-white tasks, like my commitment to do 3 sets of back exercises every day. I’ve never missed a day. There is no room for me–a practiced rule-evader–to find leniency. Other commitments can be tougher, especially those that depend on other people. For example: I committed to not eating sugar.  However, if I’m over someone else’s house and they make food, it’d be awfully rude to refuse to eat something, so I modified my commitment the next week to have an exception for eating sugary stuff someone else makes for me.  However, when I have 10+ commitments I’m trying to keep, and most of them have exceptions and lots of specificity in order to help me avoid odd and arbitrary social outcomes, it’s really tough to remember what all my rules are, so I end up failing multiple commitments.

My recent epiphany was to make fewer commitments in general. It’s better to commit doggedly to a few essential things than to try to do too much, get lost in the complexity of my own rules, and end up messing everything up.  I need to prioritize what personal disciplines I’m trying to build. Is it more important for me to not eat sugar or is it more important for me to build better web browsing habits? I can do both, but not at the same time.  Instead of trying to add 10 new good habits to my life simultaneously, I should add them one by one.  Once I make a good behavior automatic, I don’t have to think about it anymore. (Doing exercise daily is now an ingrained habit; I’ve been doing it for 9 months straight and it’s now automatic and effortless.)  Right now, I’d rather focus on being more effective with my computer habits, so I’ll build a good rule for that and stick to it, and once I make that good habit deeply ingrained into my every day life, I’ll focus on fixing my eating habits. I’ll close with a couple of stragies I’ve used to get stuff done:

  • For big projects, create a commit to having your work done a week early. Even if you fail this task, you’ll have worked so far ahead in trying to complete it that you’ll still be ahead of a normal schedule to get all your work done early.
  • Create a commitment that says that you’ll do whatever you write down on a daily to-do list that day. This is my favorite commitment.  I used to write really long to-do lists and then a very small amount done each day.  Now I write short, focused, realistic lists.  This rule triples my productivity, makes me accountable to myself, and makes me dependable to others.
  • Create a commitment on how fast you return people’s emails, for instance, “I will return all emails within 20 minutes of my seeing them.”
  • Attack a maximum of 3 habits at a time, and ideally only focus one at a time.  This allows you to really focus on what you are trying to improve.
  • Tell others about your commitment; ideally people who can call you out if you fail. StickK has a way you can do this online, but I prefer to do it casually with friends and family.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>