Guest Blog Post: Controlling Your Habits

This is a guest blog post from a frequent commenter under the user name “recent graduate” he may change his name in the future and has noted he will answer questions on his post.

There is a reason why motivation won’t turn a regular person into a winner. Or why a regular person won’t suddenly turn into a winner. The reason is habits. Habits are what your body automatically does without much thinking.

Habits occur in our “lizard brain”. It is not until relatively recently in our existence as human beings did we develop the ability to think and reason. The thinking part of the brain – called the Neocortex – is a separate part of the brain where our habits lie – the Basal ganglia.

This means that you can’t entirely control your habits by logical thinking. Habits, negative and positive, are actions performed automatically by your lizard brain.

Habits are started by triggers – objects or feelings that remind our lizard brain how to act. Since the habit performing part of the brain is not the same as the thinking part of the brain, often times we will perform a certain action without much thinking. For example, when we get bored – we check our phone automatically, without much deliberation.

Therefore, the best solution to controlling negative habits isn’t simple willpower or logic. Rather, it is simply blocking their triggers.

Use block lists for short term negative habits

A block list consists of triggers that activate your negative habits. Every time you catch yourself in the middle of a negative habit, write down the trigger that started it so that you are aware of that particular trigger next time around. Here are a few practical examples:

1) Web browsing

To curb mindless web browsing, I installed a program that blocks any websites that distract me from doing work. It’s called “FocalFilter” and it’s free (no affiliation). Every time I go to a useless website when I’m suppose to be doing work, I’d add that website’s url to the block list on FocalFilter. This way, I can’t access the websites that will make me browse mindlessly. I even block Google.com sometimes.

2) Excuses

Whenever you try to do new things, you’ll probably come up with excuses for why you shouldn’t start. Making excuses is a negative habit that you don’t even think about most of the time. For example, you want to start a new website, but then every time you sit down to start, you make excuses, such as, “I don’t have time”, “I don’t feel like it”, “I’ll do it tomorrow”, “It’s not as important as xyz, blah blah blah.”

Excuses block list: get a Post-It note to write down your excuses. Write out the excuse every time you make one, and force yourself to never use the same excuse twice. Pretty soon you’ll run out of excuses and you’ll have to use your thinking brain to come up with an excuse. Once you activate your thinking brain, you’ll realize that believing in your stupid excuses is a negative habit, and you’re more likely start.

Another example of excuse block list: In trying to be more confident, you are trying to approach girls. You see a girl walking by and you didn’t do anything. Excuse #1: “She’s out of my league.” Okay. You see another girl and you choked. Excuse #2: “She seems busy.” Okay. You see another girl and you froze. Excuse #3: “She’s too tall”. Okay. Now you see a girl and this time, you looked over your excuse block list and saw how stupid excuses have been. Well, you just activated your logical brain and now you’re more likely to approach her. Keep writing down excuses in your excuse block list until you realize you can’t think of a new excuse and then start.

3) Location

Sometimes your surrounding is your negative habit trigger.

This one is especially true for me for waking up early and getting ready to do work. Back then, I’d wake up half asleep, read on the iPad or blog post that I don’t need to read, then get out of bed after lying there for 1 or 2 hrs after realizing it’s time to go. I realize that the bedroom itself triggers “bedroom” behavior, i.e., I would be in sleep and relaxation mode.

Solution: I now have two alarm clocks – one close to the door and one outside the bedroom, half way to the bathroom. The alarm that’s outside my bedroom is set 1 minute past the one inside my bedroom. This way, when I wake up to turn off alarm 1, alarm 2 rings outside my bedroom and I’d have to open the door to close alarm 2. Thus, I’d be outside my bedroom already so I’d just walk a few steps to the bathroom where I’d brush my teeth to wake up completely – saving myself an hour or two everyday.

The main idea is that the bedroom is a symbol for sleep and relaxation. The location itself is a trigger.

Do you have a location that is counter productive for you? Sometimes it isn’t yourself to blame but your location. Maybe you’re more productive in one location than another. Find out what’s wrong with the particular location and get rid of triggers or move away.

Summary: The main idea is to add resistance to your negative habits by blocking its trigger and activating your thinking brain. Your thinking brain will then be able to decide logically and rationally and stop yourself from deliberately pursing your negative habits.

Long-term Habits

Say a 10 yr old has a choice between playing video games and learning a skill. He tries both but at the end, he plays video games. His brain enjoys playing video games because there’s very little resistance to the reward that video games give – pure fun. But when the boy is learning a skill, he doesn’t always have fun so it is a much harder habit to stick for him.

Our brain is very adaptive and always try to go with the most efficient way of getting a certain reward.

To tackle this problem logically, you simply increase resistance to negative habits while decreasing resistance to positive habits. The first part of the post talks about ways to increase resistance to negative habits, mainly, by removing negative habit triggers. But that will only take you so far because the time you gained from not performing these negative habits needs to be filled up with a positive habit – or else your body will find another negative habit to stick to.

How to Decrease Resistance to Positive Habits.

Our brain’s efficient nature means it prefers instant gratification. If you were trying to exercise to lose 10 lbs, but exercising isn’t your habit, chances are it is very hard to start an exercising habit in this particular context. Your brain wants it now and if exercise doesn’t show immediate results, your brain isn’t going to remember it.

Therefore if you want to lose 10 lbs, for example, it’s best not the care about the 10 lbs, but to care about the journey to losing it – that is, how to enjoy exercising and/or how to make exercising instantly gratifying.

The Two Type of Positive Habits

So you are committed to performing positive habits to improve your life. However, you may have realized that some habits stick but some don’t. You can blame your willpower and discipline all you want, but taking a closer look at these habits and you’ll realize that there are two different types of habits: vitamins and painkiller habits.

Vitamin habits are those where the reward isn’t felt immediately. Painkiller habits are those where the reward is felt immediately.

If your habit is a vitamin, chances are, it isn’t going to stick very long. If your habit is a painkiller, chances are, your brain will remember the good feelings and you will stick to it.

The problem is that most positive habits are vitamin habits and thus, you will forget and give up easily.

If you want a vitamin habit to turn into a painkiller habit, there are a two ways:

1) adding the vitamin habit into an existing habit routine
2) changing the way you think about the vitamin habit

Since vitamin habits don’t offer instant gratification, the best way to make them stick is to add these vitamin habits into a routine of an existing habit.

Take for example, juicing. (Hat-tip Mike Cernovich)

Juicing is the ultimate vitamin habit (pun intended) – you know it’s really good for you but it takes a lot of time to juice and clean up plus after you drink it you often don’t feel a huge different (vs. a cup of coffee for example). You can set up a calendar, force yourself to juice 4x a week or whatever, but you’ll probably abandon the pursuit after a few weeks, since it doesn’t offer an instantly gratifying reward.

To turn juicing into a painkiller habit, simply pair juicing with another habit routine with the result being that juicing will enhance the routine. The best one is exercise. Whenever you exercise, try to think about your heart pumping immense amounts of blood throughout your body. Then tell yourself this: “There is no better time to drink juice than now because when your heart rate is up, blood is pumped more efficiently and your body can benefit the most from the nutrients in the juice. You don’t want to waste this opportunity, do you?”

What happens when you think like that is that you just added a pain point (not wanting to waste the best opportunity to nourish your body), effectively turning the vitamin habits into a painkiller habit.

Another great example is exercise itself – a vitamin habit until you find a pain point.

There are many ways to pair exercise with a current routine. For me, I pair exercise with morning work sessions. Before I started exercising regularly, I often find myself easily distracted and my mind unable to focus on the work I’m trying to accomplish. After realizing that exercise increases the heart and breathing rate which increases the amount of oxygen and nutrients to the brain, I exercise hard enough to get my heart rate up before I sit down and work. Immediately, I would notice a difference. My focus is sharp and intense plus I’m now able to get more work done for a longer period of time.

The other way to turn a vitamin habit into a painkiller habit is to change the way you think of the vitamin habit, specifically, change enough of your thinking until the vitamin habit turns into a painkiller habit. Usually the most effective way to change your thinking is to find alarming facts about something that can be cured with the vitamin habit. Here are two quick examples:

1. Sunscreen is a vitamin habit – until you learn the truth. You probably know that UV rays from the sun causes skin damage. Did you know that 90% of our wrinkles are caused by UV rays? Whether or not that statement is correct is not important. What’s important is whether or not you want to implement the sunscreen habit. If you do, then never try to disprove that statement – just every time you see the sun, wear sunscreen out of fear that the sun will give you irreversible wrinkles.

2. Maybe eating healthy is the vitamin habit that you’re trying to turn into a painkiller habit. Find facts that will change the way you think about eating healthy. Did you know that acne is caused by a diet high in processed carbohydrates? If you want to stick to eating healthy, don’t try to disprove that statement and simply eat healthy out of the feat that you’ll get acne if you don’t eat healthy.

Summary

1) Habits and thinking do not come from the same part of the brain so use your logical thinking brain to control the triggers that start the habit, not the habit itself.

2) You don’t need extreme determination and motivation to stop a negative habit. For short term, simply intentionally add resistance to stop negative habits by blocking or removing its trigger. For long term, you have to replace negative habits with a positive habit.

3) For positive habits, there are two types of habits: pain killer and vitamin habits. Be honest if the positive habit you want to implement is a vitamin or painkiller habit. Vitamin habits are hard to stick because the rewards are not immediately felt. Painkiller habits are easy to stick to because the reward is immediate.

4) To be consistent with vitamin habits, integrate them into common habit routines or change the way you feel about vitamin habits. Fear or insecurity is an excellent trigger to turn vitamin habits into painkiller habits.

Thanks for reading! Hope this helps. Since this is my first article ever, clarifying questions are ok and comments are absolutely welcomed.

Comments

  1. Ari says

    Good post!
    I prefer reporting instead of blocking when it comes to browsing. Not being able to visit a page is one thing, seeing that you wasted 500 hours of your time on some useless website is another. (Currently using “Mind the Time” for Firefox)

    • Recent graduate says

      Thank you Ari!

      Clever idea in reporting wasted time. Will try it out for a bit.

      The idea behind blocking is that when you subconsciously type the url and then press “enter” you land on an error page which will activate your thinking brain – sort of like “What am I doing with the this junk site? Back to work!!”

  2. Miller Time says

    What’s up R.G.,

    Glad to see you posting.

    Since we’re all on here focused on $$$, how have you seen this translate directly to higher income?

    Personally, I saw a same-month correlation (possibly causation) between killing my worry habit and increase of actionable money makong ideas.

    Would enjoy seeing how this may be true for you & others as well.

    Peace!

    • Recent graduate says

      Thanks for the comment Mr. Miller “Money” Time

      Definitely began thinking more clearly after blocking useless habits and have been able to focus intently on important tasks lately.

      Not just day to day, but this also correlates to business products. A good product is one that is ingrained in your habits. I now evaluate all products through the habit lense – how to make product addictive, what is the reward of my product, why do people buy this product, etc? This is especially important for making money because you may be able to convince people once because of superior sales/persuasion skill, but the second sale is all about benefits and usefulness of product.

  3. says

    Perfect timing with this post.

    Just finished reading “The power of habit” by Charles Duhigg last night. (Highly recommended)

    The main takeaway is that your habits are the pillars of your reality (water to your fish). They can also be seen as your “bass rhythm”.

    Habits are ultimately driven by cravings. By experimenting with different rewards, you can find what you’re actually craving and then re-design your habits.

    • Recent graduate says

      I read that book and it’s where the main science of this post is from.

      However, he recommends replacing triggers with another habit, which i find very hard and impractical. I think just blocking it out all together is better, and replacing your time with a new habit. Just personal experience – yours may be different.

      Try reading “Hooked” by Nir Eyal. It’s about how to design products while keeping habits of people in mind. I think you’ll like it!

  4. TS says

    Glad to know that I”m not the only one to do that alarm clock method. One alarm clock near my bed and another one half way across outside my bedroom (near the bathroom) so I can go to the bathroom in few walks (face wash) to wake me up.

    Overall great posts. Keep ’em coming.

  5. Young Manhattan says

    Nice post.

    “Therefore if you want to lose 10 lbs, for example, it’s best not the care about the 10 lbs, but to care about the journey to losing it – that is, how to enjoy exercising and/or how to make exercising instantly gratifying.”

    Reminds me of “Systems over goals” from Scott Adams in his book “How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big”.

    • Recent graduate says

      Thanks Young Manhattan.

      The journey is the destination – that is how I see it. Sometimes people ask me where do I see myself in 5 yrs, and I say “I don’t care ………..that’s the fun part.” All I know is what’s coming ahead in a few weeks and whatever happens, I’ll adapt, do my best and just figure things out along the way.

      And Scott Adams’ book is next on the reading list. Really smart guy.

    • Recent graduate says

      Thanks JJ.

      Not an original idea however, it’s a common lingo in the venture capital community. They always evaluate whether a product is painkiller or vitamin.

      But I adapted it for personal use and I find it as a very useful way to look at personal habits to see if a certain habit will stick or not and/or to figure out how to make a desire able habit stick.

      You should try seeing other things this way as well.

  6. ExecutiveGuy says

    Hey RG,

    Just wanted to drop you a quick line from Portugal to say nice job.

    I found the post both interesting as well as insightful. Developing the right habits is key to long term success, be it sunscreen or work ethic.

    • Recent Graduate says

      Thank you ExecutiveGuy!

      Speaking of long term success, here is a habit I just realize I didn’t put into the post: fight vs. flight response to stress.

      A lot of times, when we see stress, we escape it by doing something that’s not very productive and the dangerous part is that we’re not aware of this decision because it’s ingrained in our habits.

      It’s important to be aware of stress and learn how to fight instead of flight because problems don’t go away and there will always be more problems.

      • ExecutiveGuy says

        Yep. Good point. That’s why I only check email at specific times during the day, otherwise you are working on other people’s agendas not yours!

  7. Anon1 says

    I like the vitamin habit versus painkiller habit concept RG.

    I have this problem in regards to spending.

    I don’t spend money much at all, like 90% of the time i’ll think about the purchase and leave it.

    This is a good skill to have when you are allocating from a small resource pool.

    But i have ‘painkiller habits’, certain specific purchases that i’ll make when i’m tired or whatever that are based on instant gratification and i’ll make them. Though rare its nearly always when i’m somehow effected emotionally or my willpower is not strong so i’ll make the purchase.

    My vitamin habits are in regards to spending on myself things that will contribute towards long term improvement. For example I hesitated for the longest time on setting up a website because i didn’t like the idea of a residual annual fee. This is patently absurd because those costs are a necessary part of running anything online. But the feeling of that ‘spending’ is tied towards a familial conditioned behaviour of spendthriftness i take long to make these kinds of vitamin habit purchases.

    What i learned from it is this. Your customers are people who want the pain pill. Most are going to act on something only if it moves them some way emotionally or provides a quick and dirty fix. Only a very limited amount of people (i estimate 10-18 percent) can make their choices be primarily on ‘vitamin’ goods (that which contributes to long term improvement) as opposed to pain pill products.

    So what i’ve taken away from this is, if i want to pick up vitamin habits on the regular i’m going to have to use shock and awe rather than some inspirational bullcrap. [Fear of loss is a great motivator after all]

    So for a thought experiment a rather drastic solution would be the following:

    1) You’re too tight to spend on things that can improve your long term success, be that courses, programming skills, whatever.

    2) You spend money only when your willpower is weak during the day and the want satisfied is emotional and gratified immediately.

    3) The money you need to spend on yourself to improve yourself just simply have yourself or a trusted confidant hold onto the money. If you spend it on your project you’ve made progress [skin in the game]. If you don’t spend it on yourself, your friend burns it. Yes i mean burns it. None of this give to a charity you hate crap, it has to be something that is insane and visual and ridiculous to get you off your arse to use it wisely.

    Thats what i’m thinking i’ll apply a milder variation of.

    Your thoughts/feedback?

  8. Recent Graduate says

    You can certainly try that method but I’d think that is a rather short term solution to a long term problem and it can work for a while but you’ll never learn how to logically control your weakness.

    The easier solution should be to realize your weakness and figure out how to overcome it.

    From your post, I gather your weakness is the following: occasional impulsive spending, reluctance of committing to beneficial long term improvements.

    To fix impulsive spending in the long run – you simply have to recognize the sales “traps”. Read these two WSPB recommended books – Ca$hvertising and Zig Ziglar’s Secrets of Closing the Sale. There are many sales technique to lure you into purchasing things, so it’s useful to recognize these traps. Doing so will activate your logical thinking brain when you come upon the traps and you’ll be able to logically say no to these sales.

    To fix reluctance of committing to beneficial long term improvements – first you have to know that most people are in the same position as you are and if you overcome this – you’ll be on the other side of the fence.

    Short term solution:

    It is a simple problem of recognizing your lizard brain. When you’re faced with a problem or a stressful situation you’ll have 2 choices: fight or flight. Therefore, 1) Realize and accept that flight response are automatically generated by your lizard brain and you can’t control it. 2) Logically decide whether or not it is a useful challenge to overcome 3) If so, “block” your flight response and just fight.

    Ex. you wanna learn programming but you know it’ll take years. Well, 1) ignore everything negative by realizing negativity comes from your lizard brain’s eagerness to avoid conflict 2) logically decide whether or not it’ll be useful in your life – will it make you more money? Will it enable you to do something useful? Etc. 3) On a piece of post it, write in big letters : “BLOCK LIST 1) Running away from programming course”. Stick it on somewhere visible and realize that you’ll only have one option left: fight – that is face it, accept that it’s not easy, and keep working at it step by step. 4) if you encounter difficulties during the course, you repeat this process: recognize the automatically generated flight response by your lizard brain, write it out to activate your thinking brain, then you just fight and get it over with cuz you blocked the other choice

    Long term solution:

    Will sound stupid to most people but once you start winning in life, you’ll be the most optimistic person ever and you’ll think everything is easy and achievable and you’ll have this mindset of “If he can do it, why can’t I?”. So once you win, you’ll have momentum and it gets easier to win. You’ll be automatically eager to try new things that can make you more money cuz you can’t see anything negative anymore.

    Let me know if you can understand what I’m trying to say.

    • Anon1 says

      Thanks for your advice man really appreciate it. I’m going to take some time and really digest properly what you said because i think its very valuable and i dont want to ask anything basic that i can find out by a google.

      >Will sound stupid to most people but once you start winning in life, you’ll be the most optimistic person ever and you’ll think everything is easy and achievable and you’ll have this mindset of “If he can do it, why can’t I?”. So once you win, you’ll have momentum and it gets easier to win. You’ll be automatically eager to try new things that can make you more money cuz you can’t see anything negative anymore.

      Yes a huge part is rolling momentum from wins rather which creates a more positive view of risk and is natural, rather than ‘artifically created.

      Reminds me of Mike cernovich’s momentum and leverage series: http://www.dangerandplay.com/2014/04/10/finding-force-leverage-momentum/

      I will concentrate on doing what you suggest with a view to long term fixing, but will implement some of the short term suggestions to start the ball rolling.

      Thanks again

      Really very much appreciated!

      • champ-in-the-making says

        Thank you for this post. These 2 techniques have been very useful to me in terms of building good habits.
        1) Excuses book
        2) Lion vs Vulture (Mike Cernovich had talked in his friend-zone podcast about being a lion and taking what you want vs. being a vulture and waiting for the lions to finish. And obviously, everyone on this blog is/wants to be a lion; only possible with good habits)

        Good everyday habits + clear priorities (health>study/money>friends/family>sex) = improvement

        Gold mine for a 20 year old college student.

      • champ-in-the-making says

        Excuses book.
        Instead of post-its as mentioned in (2), I have a booklet on my iPad. Easier to categories

  9. SM says

    Great stuff… Very helpful and easy to apply. In fact I jut downloaded Focal Point. Poor habits are something Ive struggled with since I was a kid. Despite that Ive achieved quite a bit because Im a risk taker who despite numerous setbacks will not ever give up. Im also a very hard work – not afraid of 14 hr days.
    On another note…certainly can vouch for eliminating acne via removal of carbs. Removed most sugar and all wheat from my diet four years ago and haven’t seen more than a dozen zits on my body since

  10. says

    Thanks for the article, this is always one to come back to when I haven’t been sticking to my habits. Delayed gratification is probably the hardest step, but it’s better than doing something that won’t add value to your life.

  11. says

    Very interesting article on controlling habits. I’ve always been fascinated by how our brains work and how our “programming” can make certain things trigger us to behave and act a certain way. I specifically liked what you said about adding resistance in order to block the trigger. Great post!

    -Alexander Writer

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.