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Rashi Goel

What Makes Habits Durable?

Reading Time: 8 minutes
Stop No GIF by Loof and Timmy
I stopped writing this newsletter cold turkey

After a consistent habit of writing this newsletter for the last 2 years, I stopped. It’s not that I stopped writing. In fact, I read and I wrote every single day. Just not anything for Performonks.

As you know, I moved to Amazon a year ago. There, we communicate ideas and strategies, even financials, through word documents and not power point. So that’s what I have been reading and writing each day – Amazon work stuff. And in all of this, my nightly writing ritual took a backseat.

SundaySketchingCollective mobile cartoon instagram artist GIF
I became a social media addict

The real reason my writing habit took a back seat was because a bad habit took its place. I replaced the soft glow of satisfaction I got after 30+ hours of researching, connecting the dots, and editing each newsletter, with blue light hued dopamine highs, fired every 15 seconds with each effortless thumb swipe of Instagram Reels.

In my attempt to crawl my way back into my old writing rituals, I thought I would explore what makes good habits durable.

I was curious to learn if we can measure durability.

Apparently, it can.

Lindy effect measures and predicts durability

Lindy effect is a heuristic that predicts longevity of non perishables like ideas, books, jokes, songs, or inventions. It means that if something has been around for long, it is durable and therefore, is likely to be around in future as well. In fact, its future life span will be at least as long as the past life.

ModelThinkers - The Lindy Effect
If something has been around for long, it will be around for similar time span in future also. Source:modelthinkers.com

For Example, we have been singing “Happy Birthday to You” since the 19th Century, so it is very likely that we will continue to do so for at least two more centuries.

“If a book has been in print for forty years, I can expect it to be in print for another forty years. But,[…], if it survives another decade, then it will be expected to be in print another fifty years.”

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, in his book, Antifragile

The Lindy Effect that shows the older something is the longer its likely to  be around in the future 7388886 Vector Art at Vecteezy
Source: Vecteezy

The most common application of Lindy effect is to help us sieve the chaff of information from the wheat of knowledge – we are better off picking a nutritious diet of timeless books and articles, over the junk food of daily news.

Lindy uses the rear view mirror to forecast longevity. But how do we make sure what we build new today also endures in the future? Is there a formula we can apply to make our good habits durable?

I attempt to uncover what makes good habits durable.

  1. How do we know when a habit sticks?
  2. Why do bad habits keep coming back?
  3. Tiny habits hack to get back on track

Sticky habits work on autopilot

Black And White Cartoon GIF
we know a habit is embedded into our day when we do it on auto pilot

A habit is truly hard wired into our life when our body and brain execute it on auto-pilot. It’s like when we take the same route to work every morning, without even being conscious of it. Or when we brush our teeth or reach for that morning cup of tea without even having to think about it.

When our muscle memory and unconscious brain takes over, it’s good because then we don’t get a chance to get lazy or reassess what we are doing.

The minute we start consciously thinking about whether to do something or not, we invariably ‘decide’ against it. We tell ourselves it’s too cold, we don’t have enough time, or we will ‘do it tomorrow’. I remember when I started missing my 7AM workouts, my trainer used to tell me to “just get to the gym, without thinking about it.”

If I allowed my brain even a nanosecond to ‘think’ about getting out of bed on a chilly Delhi winter morning, I never made it to the gym.

Bad habits keep coming back

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Bad habits keep coming back

Bad habits keep coming back because of three reasons.

1. They fulfill underlying needs

Genesis GIF by Project XIV
we are wired to feed our needs… anyway we can

We can abandon habits, but not our needs. Bad habits are just mechanisms we adopt to fulfill our needs. For example, if we crave deep friendships, we may fill the boredom with junk food or binge watching TV. Tony Robbins talks about 6 fundamental human needs. Each of these are easier to fulfill with bad habits:

  1. Certainty — The need to be safe, secure and stable. If we are not feeling stable and secure, we won’t care about healthy long-term habits. If I knew I would die next week, I would not touch a morsel of healthy food!
  2. Variety — The need for change and excitement. To some extent social media and Netflix addiction helps.
  3. Significance — The need for achievement and importance. We want to feel like we matter. Trolling folks on twitter makes us feel important and superior.
  4. Connection & Love — The need for human affection and friendship. We choose social media likes, shares, and followers instead of forging deep meaningful friendships that take time to build.
  5. Growth — The need to become better, faster, stronger, more intelligent. We may think we are growing and learning if we are doing better than our colleagues, when in fact, the only good habit we need to nurture, is to compete against how good we were the day before.
  6. Spirituality — The need to feel like our life has purpose and meaning. We obsessively chase promotions and pats on the back at work.

Oftentimes we replace a bad habit with yet another. A chain smoker might be able to give up smoking, but might start binge eating instead. A better idea is to substitute a bad habit with a good one that meets the same underlying need. A smoker could replace the chemical high from smoking with the adrenaline rush of three quick burpees.

2. We fail to manage our environment

Our environment contributes to our habits. Our environment contributes to our habits. We can set it up to enable good or bad habits, that fulfill our underlying needs.

cleaning up the good place GIF by NBC
our environment provides fertile soil for good or bad habits

The famous rat park experiment is a great example of this. A population of rats was split into two groups. Rats in the first group were isolated in individual cages, with zero social contact and no toys. The second group was in a “Disneyland for rats”. Lots of food, toys, and other rats to socialize with.

Both groups had two water dispensers – one with pure water and one with heroin laced water.

Basic needs of the isolated rats were not met, so they quickly got addicted to the heroin water. The rats in the ‘Disney park’ preferred the pure water!

The experiment did not end here. When some of the isolated rats were moved to the ‘Disney park’, after a period of time, they started preferring the pure water too.

3. We fall victim to restraint bias

We have an inflated sense of self control. So we expose ourselves to junky bad habits, but fail to control our addictions.

nicksplat GIF
we think we have greater self control than we actually do

This experiment proved it. Northwestern University psychologists asked a group of smokers to take a ‘pretend’ self-control test. Randomly, half the group was told they tested high on self-control, and the other half was told they have low self-control. Participants were then challenged to watch a 95-minute film Coffee and Cigarettes, without smoking. They were asked to choose out of four temptation levels- they could (i) keep a cigarette unlit in their mouths (highest cash reward), (ii) unlit in their hand, (iii) on a nearby desk or (iv) in another room (lowest cash reward).

Smokers who were told they had high self-control picked the highest temptation level, thinking they would be able to resist. Of course they failed, and lit up a cigarette on average three times more than the other group.

Tiny habit hacks

We are all aware of Atomic Habits by James Clear and B.J.Foggs’ work on Tiny Habits. Their advice can be distilled into 4 practical hacks. What I like about these hacks are that they manage for underlying needs, environment, and take away the self restraint bias.

  1. Make each habit super-tiny: to get started, scale down a habit until it’s super-tiny. If I want to write a ~1,400 work newsletter, I could start by writing a 280 character tweet. Or even one sentence. The point is to make the start as effortless and painless as possible. Once we start, we end up doing more each time. One sentence can become one paragraph and so on. When I know I need to get back into regular workouts, all I do is wear my workout clothes first thing in the morning. This effortless action makes me ‘feel’ fitter and gets me into the workout mind state.
  2. Stack habits into day-to-day routine: we all have daily routines that we follow on auto-pilot. A very easy hack is to schedule the new habit right after an already sticky habit in our existing routine. This helps me understand why I fell off the wagon. My writing habit followed my nightly post dinner routine. But that was disrupted due to night work calls.
  3. Replace, don’t stop a bad habit: stopping something is tougher than replacing it with something better. If we are used to eating something sweet after every meal, we are better off replacing that piece of cake with a piece of Mejdool Date. It is a healthier way to satisfy a sweet craving. My social media screen replaced the laptop screen each night. Maybe one way I can start writing again is to just replace the social media app with substack on the phone itself!
  4. Fake enjoyment till we feel it: when we reward ourselves after completing a new habit, we start craving the reward, and therefore, we start looking forward to the habit itself. Much like Pavlov’s dog. The reward could be very simple. For me, it is the guilt free breakfast after a good workout. While I was writing, the environment I created was a reward in itself. Soft light from the lamp, same playlist on loop, green tea and a little table on which I balanced my laptop. But as I changed cities, I was unable to recreate that same rewarding feeling and I feel into the social media rabbit hole.

How will I start writing again? By just starting. Because I know that the only thing worse than stopping, is never starting again.

See you in the next edition!