How to Build Habits (Why Relying Willpower Doesn’t Work)

Photograph by Coen Van den Broek

Photograph by Coen Van den Broek

"We are what we repeatedly do.” - Aristotle

There was a time in my life where I was running about six miles a day, nearly every day. I didn’t become that annoying person overnight. 

The first time I went out on a run, it was on a track at a community college near my childhood house. The loop was one-quarter mile, so I had to run around it four times to complete a mile. The first time I went out, I couldn’t run around the loop once without stopping. I only ran/walk a mile that day. 

Then the next day, I woke up and ran/walk another mile. I slowly progressed, but before I realized it, I could run a mile without stopping. And eventually I could easily run six. 

I was in college at the time and my friends watched me transform into this person - a person who regularly sought out a runner’s high - a runner. And because of this habit that I built, people would love to tell me how motivated I was and how I clearly had much more willpower than they had. I didn’t argue, but I also didn’t realize they were wrong. It wasn’t willpower or motivation, I simply built a habit. The habit became so ingrained that I created a new identity surrounding it.

Why willpower doesn’t work

Willpower relies on motivation and decision-making. It is a finite resource that requires you to use your mental faculties to either convince yourself to do something or talk yourself out of doing something. It’s exhausting. And when it inevitably doesn’t work, you blame yourself.

Decision making, like will power, and automatic behaviors like habits happen in two different parts of the brain. Neuroscientists have discovered that the part of the brain where decision-making happens is pre-frontal cortex; the basal ganglia is the part of the brain responsible for forming habits. The basal ganglia also plays a key role in the development of pattern recognition, memories and emotions. Once a behavior becomes automatic and habitual, the decision-making part of your brain isn’t really involved anymore. It effectively checks out and you go on autopilot.

Here’s why this is an incredible advantage: we can form habits that require complex behavior while only using minimal brain activity. In other words, our brains already possess the mechanisms that allow us to stop relying on willpower and default to habits.

The Habit Loop: Understand whats driving you

According to researchers at Duke University, habits account for about 45 percent of our behaviors on any given day. That’s almost half of our behaviors that are unconscious and habitual. Simply accepting whatever habits we’ve formed is one option. Alternatively, we can try to deconstruct and potentially construct habits by understanding how they’re formed and how they work.

Every habit has three parts: the cue, the behavior and the reward. 


The Habit Loop

Cues can vary. Cues can be any of the following: time/day, a location, emotional state, an event or people. I’m sure you have habits that are triggered by all of these cues. Whether you are conscious of it or not, you most likely have a some sort of routine when you first wake up (time). You probably have certain habits that you do Monday through Friday that differ from your weekend habits (day). When you go into work, you probably have a routine before you start working (location). Social media and eating crappy food could be bad habits you default into when you're in a particular emotional state, like boredom. And your cell phone buzzing (an event) probably always gets you to pick it up and pay attention to it.

Even with the all the studies done by neurologists and psychologists, the big caveat still remains: every person and every habit are different. So each habit and each person may require a different approach to make a new habit or break an old one. 

Here are some examples of ways that I’ve made and broken habits. 

Use the cues

Father Time 

Time-based cues are fairly common, but if you don’t stop to observe them, you might not even notice them in your life. You probably don’t have to tell yourself to wash your face and brush your teeth when you wake up in the morning. You’re probably just a zombie going through the motions until your brain reacts to another cue. And if you have ever looked at the clock at night and thought, “Oh, it’s time for me to get ready for bed,” then you’ve experienced a time-based cue.

When I wanted to make sure I had enough time in my week to work on my business instead of just in my business, I simply looked to my calendar. I found a date and time that I could focus on the business finances. On my calendar, I blocked off an hour every Wednesday morning. I made myself unavailable for meetings, calls and anything that wasn’t my weekly finance time. During that time I get caught up on the bookkeeping, send and follow up on invoices, review whether or not I’m on track for my goals and pay my bills. It’s been over a year since I started this habit and it’s forced me to focus on something that I knew was important, but wasn’t prioritizing. I’ve been able to experiment with ways to increase my revenue because I built the habit of paying attention to my finances.


Attach and stack

Whether you’re aware of it or not, technology already grooms us to build habits based on events. If you have notifications turned on on your phone for any app, you’re probably in the habit of checking your phone when the notification goes off. Whether it’s a text, an email or someone mindlessly liking a photo you mindlessly posted on Instagram, if you reach for your phone when that notification goes off, congratulations, your phone helped you form the habit of checking it when it wants you to check it. 

Don’t worry though, you can use this for good (and you can turn off the notifications on your phone). Habit stacking is a way you can piggyback a new habit onto one that’s already formed. 

For example, I was able to make meditating a habit because I attached it to brushing my teeth in the morning. After I brushed my teeth, I would sit down quietly, close my eyes and focus on my breath for 5 minutes. I think this habit was also easy to build because I was already half-asleep in the morning anyways, so sitting with my eyes shut for 5 more minutes was welcomed. Not only did I stack the habit, I made it easy - I could commit to almost anything for 5 minutes. Which brings me to the next tip...


Start of with a small commitment

Even if I have ambitious goals, I always boil them down to simple, micro commitments. Since they’re micro-commitments, it’s nearly impossible to fail.

Look at your goal through a different lens. Look at it through the perspective of a small, daily commitment. 

Here’s an example: Instead of trying to do three big things, like committing to using a complicated budgeting app, drastically cutting your expenses and going from zero to fully funding your retirement accounts, first do one small thing. First, make the daily commitment to checking your bank account every day. If you’re having trouble remembering to do it, try attaching it to something you already do, like looking at social media: before you begin the infinite zombie scroll, check your accounts.


Location, location, location

One of biggest drivers of why I wanted to work for myself was because I hated going into a fugly office everyday. I was frustrated that when I finished my work early, I still had to stay there and figure out ways to wind the clock down. I had this idea that working from home was going to be the best thing in the world - and it is - but it took me a while to get there. I struggled at first because I already had so many habits and routines formed in my home that were not conducive to being a productive person. 

It turns out there’s a bunch of research by David Neal and Wendy Wood from Duke University that suggests it’s easier to build new habits in new locations. At home, I was struggling to be productive and create new habits because the environment I was in already had cues, routines, habits and associations. I needed to overcome all the cues my brain was already responding to. Instead of trying to undo what had been done, I tried going to new places - coffee shops, co-working spaces, hotel lobbies - and I was able to be productive AF in these new places. Going somewhere new is a kind of a tabula rasa, a chance to start fresh.

#Feels

Before I realized that technology was hijacking my brain, I would go on social media every time I felt overwhelmed with work or terrified to start a project because I was afraid of actually starting because starting meant that I could fail. And if I never started, I could never fail. I used social media to distract myself from those feelings of self doubt and insecurity. Of course, that only made it worse.

Sometimes I’ll catch myself feeling the urge to buy something when I feel like I’m not good enough. I trick myself into thinking that buying something will help me create a new identity or will suddenly make me good enough. New shoes will make me cool and and a new computer will make me a better writer. 

It’s hard to use emotions to create a new habits, but it’s important to realize when your emotions are triggering bad habits.


The power of people

I think it’s obvious that the people we surround ourselves can influence our behaviors and habits. So I always want to be the dumbest, least skilled or least ambitious person in the circles of people I roll with. The people who are smarter, more skilled and more ambitious are exemplary. I can go to them for help and they’re modeling habits I’d like to have.

The opposite is also true. Someone recently told me that all his old group of childhood friends are either in jail, have a record or are dead. When I asked him why didn’t have the same fate, without skipping a beat he said, “I stopped hanging out with those guys.” Obviously circumstances are powerful, but they don’t always have to be fate.


Keep showing up

This is the $15 million piece of advice: just keep showing up. It’s so simple, but for most people it’s not easy. 

I’ve somehow been playing in bands and making music for sixteen years. And I sucked for like - 13 of those years. Music was the most fun when I first started. In the beginning, the strides you make when you’re learning something new are huge. The rewards feel massive and it’s easy to keep showing up when progress is so obvious. It’s the middle and the plateaus that are tough. It’s hard to show up when you feel like your progress is marginal or when it feels more like maintenance. 

Throughout the years of my extreme musical hobbying, I’ve watched so many people from the community stop doing the thing they once couldn’t imagine not doing. They stopped practicing, they stopped creating, they stopped releasing music. Basically, they stopped showing up. 

Although I’m an entertaining musician to watch and my band is hardworking, we aren’t extraordinarily talented. People are shocked to hear that we don’t suck because they can’t believe we’re still dedicated to showing up. Even with full-blown careers and marriages and adult obligations, even when we don’t have shows to play, even when nobody is anticipating our new releases, we just keep showing up. 

Incredible shit happens when you just keep showing up. 

Create a new identity

Who we are is constructed. From the clothes you choose to wear, the neighborhood you choose to live in, or the reason you chose to be a vegetarian - all of these things construct the identity you want to have and the identity you want other people to see. Your social media profiles are the crudest example of how you do this. You pick the photos and you write the captions and the bio. You are choosing to present a particular identity. And you can change it.

So make a decision about who you want to be. Tell yourself the narrative about who you are. And then take small steps everyday to prove to yourself that you are the person you say you are.

For example, I if you want to be the type of person who knows what’s going on with their money, a small step could be committing half of your lunch hour to reading a book about finances. Watch who you become after reading several books. 

If you want to be the type of person who is less distracted, a small step could be to turn off all your notifications on your phone. 

If you want to be the type of person who is good at saving money, a small win is setting up an automatic transfer into your savings account for $3/day. 

When you focus on who you want to become instead of what you want to achieve, you end up becoming the type of person who is able to achieve their goals. It’s counterintuitive until you embrace that this duality is part of life. If you want to hold a bubble that’s floating in the air, reaching out and grabbing it doesn’t work because you’d pop it. You have to create the right conditions in your hands to be the type of surface where a bubble could land.