Video: For Habits, the Strategy of First Steps.

I’m doing a video series in which I discuss the various strategies that we can use for habit-formation.

Habits are the invisible architecture of everyday life, and a significant element of happiness. If we have habits that work for us, we’re much more likely to be happy, healthy, productive, and creative. My forthcoming book, Better Than Before, describes the multiple strategies we can exploit to change our habits. To hear when it goes on sale, sign up here.

I identify four strategies that are so essential that I call them the “Pillars of Habits”: Monitoring, Accountability, Scheduling, and Foundation.

Today I’m going to talk about the Strategy of First Steps, which is one of the three Strategies that relate to “The Best Time to Begin.” (Here’s a complete list of the Strategies.)


Want to read more about some of the ideas I mention in the video?

I mention “tomorrow logic,” which is related to the ever-popular Tomorrow Loophole. The fact is, once we’re ready to begin, the best time to start is now.

I also mention that some people do better when they start small; others, when they start big. This is a key distinction to understand about yourself, one which I cover in the Strategy of Distinctions.

I suggest that we should be wary of stopping. There are many reasons for this, and one is the danger of the finish line.

Finally, I refer to the “don’t break the chain” approach to habit-formation. Many people find this very useful.

How about you? Have you found First Steps to be a particularly important phase in your habit-formation?

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Finding It Hard to Change a Habit? Maybe This Explains Why.

This weekend, I spent a huge amount of time reading — ah, my favorite thing to do. One book I read was the Letters of James Agee to Father Flye. (I just read Agee’s A Death in the Family, and loved it, so wanted to more of his work.)

Because I’m writing my book about habits — Better Than Before — these days, everything I read or hear makes me think about habits, and reading this book was no different. I was struck by something that Agee wrote, in February 1951, when he was about 41 years old.

He’d had serious heart trouble, and had been hospitalized, and had been told by doctors that he needed to cut back on drinking and smoking.

Agree wrote:

I am depressed because whether I am to live a very short time or relatively longer time depends…on whether or not I can learn to be the kind of person I am not and have always detested.

And indeed, Agee didn’t cut back on the drinking and smoking, and died of a heart attack, at age 45, in a taxi on his way to see a doctor.

In Better Than Before, I talk about the strategies we can use to change our habits, and Agree alludes to the strategy that took me longest to recognize: the Strategy of Identity.

When people find it hard to change a habit, when they keep trying and failing, often an issue of identity is involved.

Our idea of “this is the kind of person I am” is so bound up in our habits and actions that it can be hard to see. But our sense of identity can make it easier or harder to change a habit.

Often, habits can’t change until identity changes. For instance, a person identifies as the fun one, the one who says “yes” to everything — but also wants to cut back on drinking. A person identifies as a workaholic, but then wants to work reasonable hours. The identity is incompatible with the change in habits.

James Agee liked to drink and smoke, certainly — but he also considered himself that kind of person. So to change his habits, he had both to stop drinking and smoking, and also “learn to be the kind of person he was not.” But, he wrote, he detests that kind of person! No wonder it was hard for him to change. Change meant fundamentally altering himself to become the kind of person he’d always detested.

In Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, a character says, “One regrets the loss even of one’s worst habits. Perhaps one regrets them the most. They are such an essential part of one’s personality.”

Over and over, I’ve seen, that to change a habit, sometimes people have to grapple with a fundamental shift in their identity.  A while back, a commenter here summed this up perfectly:  “Food and eating used to play a big part in my identity, until I realized that my baking and being a ‘baker’ was resulting in being overweight. So I had to let that identity go.”

It can be exciting, but also painful or sad, to relinquish an identity. Sometimes it’s necessary, to allow important changes to occur. The more aware we are of a clash between the identity we have and the habits we seek, the more we can shape our actions to reflect our true values.

Have you ever had to re-think an aspect of your identity, in order to make an important change? It’s a lot more subtle and challenging than it sounds, at least in my experience.

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“There Is No More Miserable Human Being Than One in Whom Nothing Is Habitual”

“There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision, and for whom the lighting of every cigar, the drinking of every cup, the time of rising and going to bed every day, and the beginning of every bit of work, are subjects of express volitional deliberation. Full half the time of such a man goes to the deciding, or regretting, of matters which ought to be so ingrained in him as practically not to exist for his consciousness at all.”

— William James, Talks to Teachers on Psychology

William James is certainly one of the great thinkers about the nature of habits. I find myself quoting him constantly. And I absolutely agree with his point: the key benefit of making habits is that they relieve us from the weariness of decision-making.

Whenever I hear someone talking about the importance of making “healthy choices,” I think — no! Don’t keep making healthy choices! The more we choose, the more likely we are to choose the wrong course. Choose once, then don’t choose again. Decide not to decide.  Use habits.

In an earlier draft of my forthcoming book about habits, Better Than Before, I used this quotation as one of two epigraphs, along with this quotation from John Gardner (which haunts me). But in a recent revision, I chucked them both and picked an entirely different quotation; how I love choosing epigraphs.  If you want to know when the book goes on sale, sign up here.

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When Facing Temptation, Are You an All-or-Nothing Person? A Quiz.

This morning, I had a long, heated conversation with a friend about the distinction between Abstainers and Moderators. I really do believe that this is one of the most helpful insights I’ve ever had, about how to change your habits.

Of course, I’ve been thinking non-stop about habits for the book I’m writing, Better Than Before. In it, I identify the strategies that we can use to make and break our habits.  (If you want to know when Better Than Before goes on sale, sign up here.)

One of my big conclusions: if you want to change a habit, you should start by understanding yourself.

Self-knowledge is so important that I spend two chapters on it. First: the Strategy of the Four Tendencies. It’s very, very helpful to know your Tendency.

Second: the Strategy of Distinctions. Although it’s always a bit artificial to divide people into distinct categories, I find that it’s very helpful. For instance, are you a marathoner or sprinter? When we know ourselves, we gain more command over ourselves.

However, one distinction is so helpful for habit change that I devoted an entire chapter to it: the Strategy of Abstaining.

In a nutshell: “Abstainers” do better when they resist a temptation altogether (I’m an Abstainer). “Moderators” do better when they indulge moderately.

Abstaining is a counter-intuitive and non-universal strategy. It absolutely doesn’t work for everyone. But for people like me, it’s enormously useful.

As an Abstainer, if I try to be moderate, I exhaust myself arguing:” How much can I have?”” Does this time ‘count’?” “If I had it yesterday, can I have it today?” But Abstaining ends those draining debates. I don’t feel deprived at all. If I never do something, it requires no self-control to maintain that habit.

It’s a Secret of Adulthood: By giving something up, I gain. As my sister so brilliantly phrased it, “Now I’m free from French fries.”

You’re an abstainer if you…
– have trouble stopping something once you’ve started
– aren’t tempted by things that you’ve decided are off-limits

Moderators, for their part, find that occasional indulgence both heightens their pleasure and strengthens their resolve. They may even find that keeping treats near at hand makes them less likely to indulge, because when they know they can have something, they don’t crave it.

You’re a moderator if you…
– find that occasional indulgence heightens your pleasure–and strengthens your resolve
– get panicky at the thought of “never” getting or doing something

The key is: Which way is easier for you? I know Abstaining may sound hard, but for me, it’s easier. Truly! Also, what approach allows you to avoid feeling deprived? For good habits, it’s very important not to allow ourselves to feel deprived.

If you’re interested in pushing further into Abstainers and Moderators, consider these questions.

If you’re not having success with being a Moderator, would you give Abstaining a try? I admit that I’m a 100% Abstainer type. You wouldn’t believe what I’m abstaining from these days. That’s a discussion for another day, but here’s a hint: read Why We Get Fat by Gary Taubes.

What has been your experience?

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My New Book about Habit Formation, as Distilled in 21 Sentences.

Every Wednesday is List Day, or Tip Day, or Quiz Day.

Today: My new book about habit-formation, handily distilled into 21 sentences.

As I may have mentioned, I’m working on Better Than Before, a book about how we can change our habits. It’s at the copy-editing stage now, so it’s really nearing completion — both thrilling and slightly terrifying. (If you want to know when Better Than Before goes on sale, sign up here.)

In each chapter, I identify a strategy we can use to make and break habits.

I was thinking of Lytton Strachey’s observation, “Perhaps the best test of a man’s intelligence is his capacity for making a summary.” So I decided to try to summarize each chapter of Better Than Before in a single sentence.  The entire gist of the book, in 21 sentences.

You may think, “Twenty-one strategies! That’s overwhelming.” It may seem like a lot, but it’s actually helpful, because you can choose the ones that work for you. For instance, if you’re a Rebel, you’re not likely to use the Strategy of Scheduling, but the Strategy of Identity would work well. Or if you’re an Obliger, the Strategy of Clarity will be much less important than Accountability.

Many experts suggest one-size-fits-all solutions for habit change — and boy, it would be great if there were one magical answer that helped everyone. But we’re all different, so different strategies work for different people.

In fact, that’s why the first two Strategies relate to Self-Knowledge…


The Four Tendencies: To change your habits, you have to know yourself, and in particular, your Tendency. (Are you an Upholder, Questioner, Obliger, or Rebel?)

Distinctions: Knowing yourself is so important that it’s not enough to know your Tendency, you must also recognize your Distinctions. (For instance, are you a Marathoner or Sprinter? Under-buyer or over-buyer? Finisher or Opener? Novelty-lover or Familiarity-lover?)

 Pillars of Habits

Monitoring: You manage what you monitor, so find a way to monitor whatever matters.

Foundation: First things first, so begin by making sure to get enough sleep, eat and drink right, move, and un-clutter.

Scheduling: If it’s on the calendar, it happens.

Accountability:  You do better when you know someone’s watching–even if you’re the one doing the watching.

 The Best Time to Begin

First Steps:  It’s enough to begin; if you’re ready, begin now.

Clean Slate: Temporary becomes permanent, so start the way you want to continue.

Lightning Bolt: A single idea can change the habits of a lifetime, overnight. (Enormously powerful, but hard to invoke on command.)

 Desire, Ease, and Excuses

Abstaining: For some of us, moderation is too tough; it’s easier to give up something altogether. (Works very well for some people, and not at all for others.)

Convenience: Make it easy to do right and hard to go wrong.

Inconvenience: Change your surroundings, not yourself.

Safeguards: Plan to fail.

Loophole-Spotting: Don’t kid yourself. (The funniest strategy. I love collecting loopholes.)

Distraction: Wait fifteen minutes.

Reward:  The reward for a good habit is the good habit, and that’s the reward to give yourself.  (The most misunderstood strategy.)

Treats: It’s easier to ask more of yourself when you’re giving more to yourself. (The most fun strategy.)

Pairing:  Only do X when you’re doing Y. (Simple but surprisingly effective.)

 Unique, Just like Everyone Else

Clarity: The clearer you are about what you want, the more likely you are to stick to your habits.

Identity: Your habits reflect your identity, so if you struggle to change a particular habit, re-think your identity.

Other People: Your habits rub off on other people, and their habits rub off on you.

Have I forgotten any strategies? Which ones appeal most to you? I’m an Upholder, so I like just about all the Strategies.

Habit-formation is an endlessly fascinating subject. If you want to know when Better Than Before goes on sale, sign up here.

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