Changing Habits Big and Small

You are a bundle of habits. They come in many sizes. Some you are aware of, many you are not. They are behaviors that survived long enough to become ingrained and are therefore on some level successful – but probably not optimal (though they may have been when you developed them).

Habits – good habits – are beneficial because they solidify successful behaviors while leaving your conscious mind free to work on more novel problems.

Your habits are reinforced by one another and the environment in which you life and move. An action prompts another action which sets the stage for another. Habits form a stream of actions that sweep you along rather smoothly. After all, when the transition from one action to another is jarring it is soon replaced with something easier.

You are a bundle of habits, and sometimes you want to change.

But that’s not always easy.

Your habits feed into each other. Each habit is maintained not because of its usefulness to you but because of its usefulness to your entire behavioral system. Like a stray cat it will stick around as long as you feed it. Unlike a stray cat it will bring along a friend, who will bring another friend, and so on.

Behaviors may be thought of as costing two things; time & decision-making. Time is a hard limit; we have so much in a day. Decision-making is a “softer” cost but mentally taxing and therefore annoying.

A behavior that becomes a habit does not cost less time (though you will probably figure out a way to do it faster), but it does cost significantly less decision-making.

And because that habit is always part of your behavioral system it will smoothly feed into the next decision-minimized habit, and so forth until you run out of time for the day. When the alarm rings the next morning the stream of habits begins to gush again, rushing you through the day until you trudge back to bed wondering what happened.

You are a bundle of habits, and sometimes you want to change.

Changing behavior is easy in theory but a new behavior must replace an existing habit – an existing habit that has already been optimized for easy transition. The new behavior will be a jarring one because it clashes with the existing flow.

How to make it happen?

Repeating the new behavior until it becomes a habit is the obvious answer. The comfort of routine will help with most anything once you get it going. If you keep it up it will eventually become an element in your behavioral system.

But remember that your behavioral system was optimized for the lifestyle you had before the new behavior. Unless the transition to the new behavior is as or more smooth than to the one it replaced you will find the new behavior jarring. Someday you might slip back into old habits. It’s always easy to justify the first lapse, but it is the beginning of a trend.

According to the book “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg, people find it easier to quit smoking while on vacation. Why? The schedules and triggers developed over time are absent on a vacation, removing many of the prompts that lead to a smoke.

If you want to make changes in your daily life, consider the following guidelines:

  • Change the beginning of your day. Your behavioral cascades probably begin with an alarm. By making changes at or near the beginning of the processes you will face fewer triggers and expectations set up by prior actions and habits.
  • Make big changes rather than small ones. Because your habits and actions form a reinforcing system, a single small change will often seem uncomfortable and out of place. Replacing large sections of your behavioral system allows you to construct something that reinforces itself.
  • Identify keystone habits that set the stage for everything else. Changing these will have disproportionate effects downstream.

Conclusion

We like to think of ourselves as rational and independent beings. If we want to see real results we need to lay our egos aside and look at the real mechanisms of our lives. One of those mechanisms is the habit.

Habits and environmental prompts are inevitable. Rather than fighting them or pretending they aren’t there, use them to your own advantage.

Every new habit dwells in the ruins of an older habit. If you want it you have to earn it.

Author: Ransom

Ransom is the proud head of a young family. Raised by parents who remembered the old ways, Ransom is committed to passing down the lessons he learned to the next generation of hungry men both at church and online.

117 thoughts on “Changing Habits Big and Small”

  1. “The second half of a man’s life is made up of nothing but the habits he has acquired during the first half.”

    – Fyodor Dostoevsky

  2. My good habits:
    Getting up early on weekdays
    Exercising after waking up
    Always being to work on time no matter what.

    My bad habits:
    Just about everything else.

  3. So how long before Jammy busts up in here to blame us all for the Pittsburgh shooting because somebody used triple parenthesis once.

          1. Yeah, that’s why I’m not going there. Last few times I’ve checked it, it was completely dominated by Jammy sperging out.

  4. More muscle memory than habit, so only somewhat related, but it was humorous. Electric goes out last week. Got out the butane camp stove to make dinner, light some candles, etc.

    Go in to the bathroom and flick the useless light switch. Laugh at myself.

    So we’re settled in, had dinner, now the baby needs hot water for formula. Wife fills the kettle, pushes the butane stove aside, sets the kettle on the electric stove-top, turns the knob. She realizes her mistake, which is immediately followed by realizing I was sitting there watching this whole sequence with a broad smile on my face. We laugh, and talk briefly about how funny it is our routines are so hard to break, even when the reality in opposition ought to be blindingly obvious.

    Not ten minutes later I go back to the bathroom and flick that useless light switch again.. I think I cursed at myself, as my wife laughs this time..

            1. Godfather XII: Moe Greene RETURNS from Hell to Kick Some Ass in Order to Make the Business Run Right

      1. That sounds like a terrible idea. I think that evening was the most fun evening we ended up having all week.

        I’m really beginning to hate unforced distractions.

    1. Give formula to the baby cold. If they are hungry they don’t mind. Punk kid needs to man up anyway.

      Seriously, we would have dry powder and a water bottle sitting in the diaper bag for when we go somewhere.

      1. You sir, appear to be in need of some education. So I present the following list of items which, according to the Chinese, are Instantly Fatal Especially To Babies:

        An exposed belly button
        A slight breeze
        Cold beverages

        I have neither the need nor inclination to dispute this stupid yet ancient wisdom.

        1. My wife had problems nursing, baby couldn’t ever get enough. We started off with our oldest, warming up the milk. Problem was, it gave the baby no incentive to stick with real milk, so he wanted to only have the formula. So, my wife really struggled with him. Used the pump and all that. Eventually, we tried the cold formula approach to supplement him. It worked, he would nurse on mom more, but if she couldn’t keep up, there was the bottle.

    2. Every.

      Time.

      That stuff is so ingrained it’s laughable. I think the awareness part of the brain and the action part of the brain are entirely separate entities.

    3. “There’s a light switch in my apartment. It doesn’t do anything, but I flick it up and down a couple of times whenever I pass by it. The other day I got a letter from a woman in Germany saying cut it out.”
      – Steven Wright

    1. Yes, you see, because he is so vile, patriotic peace loving citizens have the duty to use whatever means necessary to resist his calls to violence.

    2. They’re so bad at trying to make it look like its something real. I swear they’re getting to Scooby Doo levels of “deception”

      1. Not that bad, I’ve been getting up at 0430 the past 2 weeks because of work anyway so I decided to just own it.

        1. It’s a shock at first but it gets kind of nice after a while, doesn’t it?

          All the world is asleep while you get your boots on.

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