Habit Formation and Rituals
I wanna move on to talk specifically about habits, routines, and rituals. Most of us don't realize that habits really are the building blocks of all creative work. People write books because they have a writing habit, people build a prolific body of photography work because they take pictures on a regular basis. But the pitfall that we all deal with when it comes to habits is the fact that we attempt to make drastic and unsustainable changes, as we were talking about. If you go from never having written a word in your life, saying tomorrow I'm gonna wake up and I'm gonna write a thousand words, you might be able to do it tomorrow, and then you'll come back the next day and say forget it, I can't sustain this. Same thing that Cal was talking about with interval training. You don't go from zero to 90 minutes. You would never go to the gym if you've never lifted weights before and try to lift hundred-pound barbells, you'd really hurt yourself. And so, the way that we actually deal with th...
is is what one of our partners on our team calls minimum viable actions, to start with the smallest thing possible. So, I'll give you an example, and then I'll share a story that James Clear shared with me on the unmistakable creative. When people come to me and tell me they want to develop the habit of writing every day, or develop the habit of writing a thousand words, I tell them don't worry about writing a thousand words, develop the habit of sitting down and opening up a notebook every day. That's it. Because if you do that, what will happen, inevitably, is that the inertia will carry you into the habit. If you keep doing that for enough days in a row, eventually, your brain will say, well, I'm here, I might as well sit down and write something. And James Clear had a really great example of this, it's what he calls identity-based habit creation, so, and I wanna share that with you right now.
I first came up with this idea after talking with a physician, but the basic idea behind identity-based habits is most people focus on what I would call the outer layers of behavior change, things like your performance, or your appearance, or the outcomes that you have. If you ask most people to set a goal, take weight loss, for example, since that's a popular one, they might say, "Oh, I wanna lose "20 pounds in the next four months." And that's fine to have a specific goal, but the problem is it's all focused on this outcome. So, if you get to the end of four months, and you've only lost 12 pounds, for example, you feel like a failure because you didn't hit this arbitrary number that you've made up in the first place. But that's exactly the opposite of how you should feel because you're making progress on the goal, you're actually much closer than you were four months ago. So, you should feel good about yourself, but we don't because we focus on the performance or the appearance. Those are the outer layers of behavior change. The inner layer, though, is your identity, or the type of things that you believe about yourself. And what I find is that often we try to achieve some type of behavior change without changing the underlying identity or the beliefs. Every action that you perform is driven by this fundamental belief about whether it's possible or not. And sometimes we can fake ourselves out and force ourselves to go to the gym if we don't believe that we're the type of person who works out or force ourselves to make a sales call if we don't believe that we're good at marketing. But if you change the beliefs that you have, then the actions become so much easier. And so, I think this is one reason why it's so hard to stick to new habits, is because we often try to achieve this performance- or this appearance-based goal without changing our underlying identity. As an example, if you take the workout example, and it's like, OK, I wanna lose 20 pounds in four months. So, you could either focus on that, or you could ask yourself who's the type of person who could achieve this goal. Well, it's the type of person who doesn't miss a workout. So, then, you just focus on building the identity of being someone who doesn't miss workouts rather than focusing on the outcome. Once you've built the identity, and you're like, oh, I'm gonna be here every day, then you can worry about moving on to the results and the performance. And I actually have a real example of this. I was speaking with a reader, I had lunch with him, and he said that he lost over a hundred pounds over the course of a year or two. And when he first started going to the gym, he set this rule for himself where wasn't allowed to stay at the gym for longer than five minutes. He could go for five minutes, but he couldn't stay for six. And he did this for four or five weeks, and then, at that point, he was like, "I'm comin' here all the time, "I kinda feel like stayin' for longer." So, he focused on building the identity of someone who doesn't miss workouts first, and then he moved on to the performance- and the appearance-based stuff. Then he moved on to, OK, I'm gonna be here all the time, how do I actually improve.
Pretty cool, right? A much easier way to approach behavioral change and habit change. We make it so hard for ourselves, and we set such unrealistic goals for ourselves, and, as a result, instead of trying to change, we give up completely on attempting to make the change at all. So, I wanna talk briefly about the habit loop, which we had referred to earlier. This is actually based on the work of Charles Duhigg, who wrote an amazing book called The Power of Habit, definitely worth checking out if you haven't. But the basic idea is this: that habits, basically, are all the result of this structure. We have a cue, we have a routine, and then we have a reward at the end of that routine. So, mentioned to you earlier that I have a meditation habit. Took a very long time to develop, it was something that I struggled with for a very long time, but I'd had enough convincing evidence that this would be a worthwhile habit. When every single person I talked to told me that billionaires had developed meditation habits, I thought this is a convincing enough case, I think I need to develop this habit. But I couldn't get it to happen. So, what I did was I applied this structure to it. So, I wake up in the morning, I have an alarm. That's the cue, and that cue tells me to go brush my teeth and set the coffee maker to brew. The routine is the 10 minutes to meditation. And then, the reward is the cup of coffee at the end. The cup of coffee at the end is actually the most critical part because if you don't have a reward at the end of the routine, you're less likely to stick to the routine. So, simply changing the structure of when I was having my coffee. Because it takes about 10 minutes for the coffee to brew, I have to wait for it to brew, so I figure, OK, while I'm waiting for the coffee to brew, I might as well do this thing that I've been saying I wanna do, and, at the end of it, I get rewarded with a cup of coffee. Really simple framework that you can use to apply to virtually any habit. So, I wanna turn it over to you guys and have you walk through this framework and see how you would apply it to a habit that you've either already developed or you want to develop. Reva, let's start with you.
So, going back to the morning routine example, for me, I was just thinking one way I can leverage my morning routine would be to reward myself for creating my social media post afterwards 'cause it could be part of my journaling process, and it's rewarding to get that done and not have that be a distracting factor later.
I've been wanting to get back into a meditation routine, and I've been trying to think about (laughs) how to, how to get that back in. Currently dogsitting right now for the next two months, and so, that's like throwing everything off (laughs).
Yeah, I imagine it would.
But I have this daily doodle habit, and that could be my, I love doing that, so that could be a reward. The challenge is fitting that in with the dog and everything, but what would be really lovely is to fit in the meditation and then get back into bed where I do the doodling, and that would be the reward.
Mm-hmm, yeah. The thing is that when we have a reward at the end of the habit, we're much more likely to stick with the habit. It's when we don't have any sort of reward from the habit, it doesn't feel particularly fulfilling, it's just, oh, I have to do this thing, it's repetitive, it's annoying, it becomes an obligation instead of a privilege, something that we dread rather than something that we look forward to. Now, inevitably, there're gonna be days when you screw up. There're gonna be days when you don't manage to hit your word count, you don't manage to stay and do whatever it is that you say you're gonna do. Somebody asked me the other day, "Do you always follow this morning routine?" And I said, if the surf is up, no, I don't (laughs) follow the morning routine. That's a good reason to ditch the morning routine. Now, again, credit to James for this idea. He said, "If you happen to miss a day, rather than missing "the day, reduce the scope but stick to the schedule." So, you do two minutes of meditation instead of 10. You do 500 words instead of a thousand. And it turns out that missing a single day has no long-term impact on whether or not you maintain a habit. And the reason that this is so powerful is because of the fact that when you convene it day upon day in the same space, a powerful energy builds around you. And this leads us into what we call rituals, right? So, everything we've been talking about has effectively been leading up to how we combine these things to create rituals. And rituals provide a number of benefits. First off, they provide us with a certainty anchor. Basically, in a life that is inherently uncertain, particularly when we do creative work or we're working as freelancers, having something that you do every day gives you a way to reduce the anxiety that comes from the fact that you deal with a tremendous amount of uncertainty. And, inevitably what happens with a ritual is that your environment and your behavior get linked. If you do the same thing in the same space every single day, at a certain point you won't even have to think about doing that thing. When I sit down at my desk at 6:00 am. with a cup of coffee, I don't have to think about the fact that I need to read or I need to write, I don't have to put it on a to-do list because I've done it so many times in a row that the behavior and the environment are completely linked. And that's why Steven Pressfield says that this basically causes an energy to build around you. The other thing that it does is it reduces decision fatigue. Remember, we were talking earlier about willpower, and the fact that we make hundreds of decisions all day long, at the beginning of the day, all of which result in decisions fatigue, making it very difficult for us to work on our highest-value work. But when we use a ritual, what we've done is we've automated all of those decisions, and suddenly you have no more decision fatigue from all of those things. And then, finally, it basically preserves our cognitive bandwidth for our most valuable work that we wanna do. So, couple of things about designing rituals. First, some really simple steps: Basically the habits, what is gonna be in the ritual, is it gonna be I'm gonna write every morning, I'm gonna take pictures every day, I'm gonna sing, I'm gonna dance, I'm gonna draw, I'm gonna doodle, whatever it is, whatever the habit is gonna be. Every ritual needs a time. What time is it gonna be, is it gonna be at 6:00 a.m., is it gonna be a 7:00 a.m., is it gonna be the thing that you do right when you wake up in the morning? And then, of course, a space, a place where you're actually gonna follow through on this ritual, a place where you're gonna do it. Because, as I said before, the behavior and the environment eventually get linked if you keep showing up day after day. So, something you're gonna do, when you're gonna do it, and a place you're gonna do it. And it's not about what works, but what works in your situation because this is gonna be different for everybody. Everybody has different rituals, everybody has different things that work for them. Take what works for you, discard what doesn't. And feel free to modify it. You're gonna probably change this constantly throughout your life and throughout building a lifelong creative practice.