Last time, I talked about the idea of encouraging big life changes by making small changes to your environment:
- become a writer → keep a journal nearby at all times
- take charge of your health → put the cookies at the back of the cupboard
- organize your household → dedicate a spot for give-away things to live until you get rid of them
This isn’t the only way of making a life change, but “soaking the nut” by consistently taking small actions in the direction of a new lifestyle is remarkable for how little energy it takes in the long run.
In Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit, small changes that provide a structure for adding more habits later are called “keystone habits.” Their essential feature is that their small steps encourage “small wins,” building momentum and setting the stage for more success. Often these beneficial side-effects are unplanned: Duhigg tells the story of a weight-loss trial in which the participants were merely asked to keep a log of everything they ate, but many of the subjects started unbidden to use the data from their logs to make food plans they approved of and could stick to.
But sometimes small wins don’t set you up for more small wins; sometimes they seem to discourage them.
When Clara and I arrived in the Netherlands, we put a lot of effort into finding an affordable gym in the area. We finally found one, braved the signup procedure, and then never went. Well, we went a few times in the beginning, but eventually that petered out, and it was months without using the service before we canceled it. I had always inwardly laughed at those people who purchase gym memberships they don’t use, and then I became one of them! Why didn’t the small win of signing up encourage more small wins of going?
Or consider the money- and environment-saving advice to unplug your phone charger when you’re not using it. Randall Munroe of xkcd.com notes:
“If an unused charger isn’t warm to the touch, it’s using less than a penny of electricity a day. For a small smartphone charger, if it’s not warm to the touch, it’s using less than a penny a year.”
Not exactly a big return on your investment of time and thought. And on the environmental front, David MacKay laments in his book Sustainable Energy—Without the Hot Air that the way the BBC phrased their advice in 2005, they give the impression that switching off chargers is how to do your part to save the planet. Every little bit helps! But the fraction of our energy consumption that goes to charging our small devices is so tiny (about a hundredth of one percent) that we can’t afford to stop our efforts there. We need to either dramatically reduce bigger components of our energy usage, like the gas we use to drive our cars, or adopt radically large-scale sources of renewable energy (like covering a Greenland-sized portion of the Sahara in solar panels or dedicating a Belgium-sized portion of the ocean to harvesting uranium). MacKay worries that many people unplug their chargers and feel satisfied, instead of doing so and saying “That solved a tiny bit of the problem—what can we do next?”
I call this kind of action a “token action,” along the lines of a token female committee member or a token gesture of appreciation: like soaking dishes overnight so they’ll be someone else’s job tomorrow, it’s enough of an effort to say you’re doing something, but not any more.
So what distinguishes a token action from a keystone habit, soaking-as-procrastination from soaking-as-instrument of change? Not a whole lot. Carrying around a journal and never writing in it can easily look like a token nod to wanting to be a writer—”Look, I have this cool journal of my interestingness”—but it did eventually turn into more. On the other hand, getting a gym membership never turned us into gym-goers. On reflection, I think there are two main differences between a token action and a keystone habit:
Token actions tend to be one-time events that prompt feelings of done-ness, whereas keystone habits are performed regularly and are never finished. Buying a journal is a token action; taking it with you everywhere is a keystone habit. Signing up for a gym membership is a token action; going on a short walk every day is a keystone habit. To turn a token action into a keystone habit, then, you must make it something that you can do repeatedly.
Acceptance without satisfaction
The other component to the difference is one of mindset. For a habit to encourage further change, it has to be something small enough that you won’t have too much trouble adopting it; the “small win” will prove to yourself that you can keep on succeeding. But that also means not changing very much at first, and you have to be okay with that. When I started carrying my journal around, I had to accept that that was all I was capable of committing to for the time being, even though I wasn’t satisfied with that state of affairs. And right now, my exercise regimen consists of doing at least one pushup every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. I often do more, but right now that is all I can manage regularly. When the time is right and I want to build on that foundation, it’ll be there.
This combination, acceptance without satisfaction, is the opposite of the mindset attached to a token action, which is meant to prove you have already succeeded. A token is intended to satisfy you, even if it means your not accepting the truth of how far the situation still is from ideal.
In summary, here’s how to turn a token action—say, having one healthy meal and feeling you now deserve to indulge for the rest of the week—into a keystone habit:
- Make it small and regular. Perhaps commit to merely eating one vegetable per day. Or just start keeping the junk food somewhere a little harder to get to.
- Accept without being satisfied. Be patient and let the tiny health habit solidify as part of your lifestyle. As you start thinking of yourself as someone who can make healthy diet choices, you’ll eventually be able to make bigger changes without working too hard at it, because it’ll be part of your identity.
It’s only on this second point that the BBC’s message about unplugging unused appliances fell down. If the tagline for the campaign were “It’s a start,” instead of “Every little bit helps,” then perhaps we would see more people looking for bigger ways to contribute. Fortunately, it looks like the BBC agrees.
Thanks for reading! Here are my questions for you:
- What are some token actions people do? I might be doing them myself, and I want to know about it.
- Have you ever had the experience of a big part of your life grow out of something small? Looking back, what made that possible? There are probably more components to what makes a keystone habit than I am aware of, and it would be useful to identify them.
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