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How to form the habits you want and eliminate the ones you don’t

by Andrianes Pinantoan

In my last article, I talked about how industry leaders often enter into a state of flow. In flow, people do things for their intrinsic value, and thus a day feels like a minute.

It’s the ultimate productive time.

Here’s another secret of hyper-productive individuals: habits. As Aristotle once said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

Our Limited Cognition

The reason your productivity is dependent on your habits is simple: we are all cognitive misers. We have limited cognitive capacity, and every conscious decision we have to make draws a bit out of our cognitive pool.

Here’s an example: studies have shown that the more exhausted you are, the more likely you are to consume unhealthy food. Think about the last time you have had a long day at work, did you cook yourself a healthy meal when you are home – even though that’s what your body needed to recover – or did you simply order pizza?

Dan Ariely, a psychologist at MIT, conducted an experiment where he asked two groups of students to remember a string of numbers. Group A had a two-digit number to memorise and Group B had a seven-digit number to memorise.

All the students needed to do was walk down the hall and tell the researcher in another room what that number was. Here’s the catch: halfway down the hall, they were offered either a bowl of fresh fruit or a slice of chocolate cake.

And guess what? The group B, who had to remember a longer string of numbers, were more likely to choose chocolate cake than group A. Lesson: even this tiny cognitive strain of having to memorise a seven-digit number is enough for us to choose junk food over healthy ones.

This is why great people often make habits out of every mundane part of their lives. Steve Jobs, for example, was known for wearing the same outfit everyday. Tim Ferriss, bestselling author of the Four-Hour series, advocates eating the same meals repeatedly so you don’t have to think about them.

Every time you have to consciously think about something, not only will it spend your cognitive energy, it will also act as a chance for you to fall off the wagon. So why risk it?

One Small Step At a Time

Now here’s the tricky part. People usually try to form habits after they’ve read an article like this, or have attended a seminar, or when something dramatic happened in their lives.

They then resolve to “change their lives”, saying, “Tomorrow, I will eat only salad, exercise for an hour a day, spend more time with my kids, read more books, drink more water, update my skills, sleep earlier, wake up earlier, and start recycling.”

True to their words, they would do all of that, but only for a short time. Now that you know of our limited cognition, how long do you think they lasted?

Usually a couple of days. In fact, a study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology found that only 75% of new year resolutions made it past the first week. By 6 months, only 46% made it. So it’s not surprising to find that various other studies estimate that up to 92% of resolutions fail.

The reason for this is rooted deep in our subconscious. To our “lizard brain”, change – even positive changes – are dangerous. When there’s routine, you can tell what exactly is going to happen in the future. Change, on the other hand, introduces uncertainty.

To overcome that uncertainty, your subconscious sabotages your efforts to improve your life and gets you back to where you were.

This is why the best way to form habits is to introduce change gradually – take small enough steps so as not to trigger your subconscious mind. Now, some of you are going to protest that the process will be extremely slow… that’s where the second part comes in.

The 80/20 Rule

The 80/20 rule (also called the Pareto principle) is the fact that in many cases, 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.

For example, in business, 20% of the business’ customers generate 80% of the business’ profit. In school, 20% of your study efforts results in 80% of your grades. In the gym, 20% of your workouts results in 80% of your fitness goals. And in society, 20% of the population own 80% of the wealth. Economist Vilfredo Pareto, who the principle was named after, even found that 20% of pea pods in his garden contained 80% of the peas.

What this means is that you want to focus your limited cognition on the 20% of causes that results in 80% of the effects.

Let’s take fat loss as an example. Did you know that it takes 50 minutes of jogging to burn off the calories your get from… a bottle of soda? This is why some of the most successful people in fat loss never bothered to exercise when they got started. Exercise is simply not in the 20% of causes that results in the 80% of effects.

They focused on one thing only: their diets. If you want to take this further, consider this: when Pareto looked at different subsets of the population, the 80/20 rule still applies. The top 3 richest men, for example, are worth as much as the next seven put together.

Changing diets is still quite a big task. So all the dieters did in the first few weeks, was focus on changing only their breakfasts by consuming a high-protein breakfast within 30 minutes of waking.


We have gone through two things so far: take one small step, and make sure it really matters.

There’s still one more problem with that: life often gets in the way. Sometimes you just forget to do it – and every time you skip a day without establishing your new habit, it will break down just a little.

So here’s what you need: triggers. Triggers are like reminders that get you to take action.

For example, what is your trigger to eat? Believe it or not, for most people, it’s time, not hunger. If they couldn’t tell the time, they would eat later – and therefore lesser – than they normally do.

Similarly, what is your trigger to STOP eating? To many people, the trigger to stop eating is the end of a TV program, not a full stomach.

Triggers should also make your “one small step” easier to act on.

Here’s an example: a couple of years ago I wanted to establish a habit to go to the gym. I procrastinated and rationalized my decisions – it took me 6 months before I regularly made a habit of working out. The trick that did it was simple: I slept in my gym outfit, packed my bag the night before and had my running shoes ready.

I then placed all my equipment right beside my bed so that I couldn’t avoid them as soon as I woke up. This was during winter, so this arrangement allowed me to immediately prepare to go to the gym instead of changing in the cold!

That’s it.

So if you want to drink more water, buy a big bottle, fill it up and place it right beside you. You’ll drink more water than when you have to get up to fill a cup in the kitchen.

If you want to eat more vegetables, buy a bowl of salad and resolve to finish it in the office before you go for lunch (you don’t want to make the decision between a Big Mac and a salad when you’re hungry!).

The same principle applies to eliminating a habit. If you want to visit Facebook a little less this year:

  1. 80/20 Rule: When do you log into Facebook the most? For many people, it’s in the office.
  2. Take one small step: Resolve not to log in within 2 hours of arriving in the office.
  3. Triggers: In eliminating habits, you need to remove triggers instead of adding them. In this case, remove Facebook from your “most visited websites” list in your browser. If you somehow receive notifications of new updates, remove that too.

Progress from there only when you can stick to this one 100% of the time.

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