Automating your habits: a three-part series

I have this vision for my life, where each day I move from rest to work to play to rest, able to focus all my attention on whatever one thing I’m doing because I’ve taken care of everything important before it becomes urgent. Where I wash the dishes right after I use them. Where I leave every room, every tabletop, ready for its next use. Where paperwork gets filed promptly, and emails don’t form an unofficial to-do list in my inbox. Where I exercise right and eat well without inner turmoil. Where all of life’s maintenance has found its place, and my mind and body are freed up for what’s more important.

My first attempts at making this vision come true involved making long checklists for myself to do every day: Exercise! Tidy the apartment! Practice Dutch on Duolingo! Write in my journal! et cetera. But I’d keep leaving them all till the end of the day, finally grinding through them so I could go to bed without breaking the chain of successful days. Sure, I’d get them all done, at least for a while—and the effort I spent on those activities did make a big difference in my life—but it wasn’t the blissful state of perpetual intentionality I’d imagined.

These days, though, my life looks a lot more like the picture I described. Here are several things I now do regularly that I used to have to fight myself to do:

  • Making the bed
  • Washing my glasses
  • Brushing and flossing my teeth
  • Exercising
  • Putting away clean dishes promptly
  • Putting away my clothes after I wear them
  • Planning my work days
  • Tidying my work space
  • Journaling

It is such a pleasure not to be constantly cajoling myself into doing what I believe is good for me. What has made the difference is noticing that there are two different kinds of habit at work here: the first kind is where you regularly choose to do a particular behavior (which I’ll call a decision habit), and the second kind is where you do the behavior without consciously having to choose to (an automatic habit). What I wanted was to fill my life with automatic habits, and what I used to do instead was pile on more and more decision habits.

Since this realization, I’ve developed a three-step process for turning decision habits into automatic habits, which has allowed me to make so many positive changes in my life without getting overwhelmed or burnt out. Here are the three steps:

  • Step 1: Define the habit. That means choosing exactly what the habit consists of and exactly when you’ll do it, as well as what constitutes not doing the habit.
  • Step 2: Build consistency. The three main tools for this stage are rewards, reminders, and record-keeping, but there’s a right way and a wrong way to use them.
  • Step 3: Lose the training wheels. Eventually, your goal is not to have to use external tools to maintain your habit anymore, and it can be a little tricky to transition away from them.

I’ll explain each step further in its own blog post, and add links here once they’re posted. In the meantime, let me conclude with a discussion on why you might or might not want to automate your habits in the first place.

Reasons to automate your habits:

I’ve already hinted at the two main reasons why it can be better to have an automatic habit than a decision habit. The first is that decision habits are hard to maintain long-term, because you keep having to choose action over inaction. Day after day of having to put the same item on your to-do list can make you wonder whether it’s really worth it to continue, and all it takes is one moment of weakness for you to decide the habit is not for you anymore. And even if the habit is something you can’t just give up, like washing dishes or doing the laundry, having to bring your willpower to bear on it over and over can make you feel burnt out or just overwhelmed by life.

The second reason to automate your habits is a little subtler: even if you’re maintaining a decision habit well enough, there’s an opportunity cost to spending the mental energy on it that could be used elsewhere. Here’s how taking out the trash went when it was one of my childhood chores:

  • Tuesday afternoon: One or both of my parents would remind me to take out the trash. I’d start dreading it.
  • Tuesday evening: I’d put off taking out the trash, but everything else I did would be tainted with the knowledge that I should be doing my chore instead.
  • Tuesday night: Somehow I’d forget to take out the trash anyway.
  • Wednesday morning: I’d be awoken by the sound of the trash truck coming down the street and race around the house collecting as much as I could before it arrived.

A graph of the mental energy being spent would look something like this:

Habits - 1 (1)

In contrast, automating the trash habit would lead to a picture more like this:

Habits - 1

There’s less mental energy being spent total, and it’s being done for less time and earlier. And all the mental time and effort you save by automating a habit can be put into other things you want to do instead: creative work without distraction, relaxation without guilt, time spent with friends and family, etc.

Reasons not to automate your habits:

The ideal habit to automate is one that you have to do regularly, in more or less the same way every time, and that you’ll benefit from over a long period of time. So here are some reasons you might not want to automate a certain habit:

  • The habit is only to be maintained for a short span of time, so there isn’t time to complete the automating process anyway.
  • The habit happens so infrequently or irregularly that there isn’t opportunity to build any kind of consistency.
  • The habit itself is something that requires creative or thoughtful action, and so can’t be done on autopilot.

In the last case, though, reframing the habit can often make it more amenable to automation. For example, if you want to write for three hours a day, you might instead automate the habit “Every morning at 9 am, I sit down at my desk, turn off my phone, and look to see where I left off yesterday.” It can be helpful to think of “the action I want to do” and “choosing to do the action I want to do” as separate habits, and even if the first can’t be automated the second often can.

Automating a habit also requires a certain amount of flexibility as you experiment, so other reasons you might want to wait on automating a habit include:

  • The habit is so important that you can’t afford to risk forgetting it (which can happen a lot during the automating process).
  • You have so much going on that you can’t spare the mental energy needed to think about how you can automate the habit (which, ironically, might be solved by automating more habits).
  • You’re already trying to automate a different habit at the same time.

In these cases, I’d recommend waiting until things settle down and you’re more free to try new habits.

All right, that’s all for now! This series has been a long time in the making and I hope you find it helpful. Let me know in the comments if you have an automatic habit you’re proud of, or one you think you’d like to build in the future!

Continue with Part 1: Define the Habit.


4 thoughts on “Automating your habits: a three-part series

  1. Excited to read more of your thoughts on this! I have established some similar habits to yours this pat year- making the bed, re-setting our bedroom back to “ready”, writing, and reading the Bible. I am hoping to tackle dishes/kitchen stuff next. For me exercising hasn’t become an automated habit because the way I exercise each day depends so much on what the family schedule is/whether I can make a class/ if it’s too hot to go running outside/etc. which has actually been good for me because it has kept it fresh and interesting for me, but sometimes I get a little jealous of people who have a set gym routine and know exactly when and how they are going to work out!

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    1. Congratulations on getting so many habits established this year! I love the idea of leaving each room “ready” for its next use, although right now we’re only there with a couple of our rooms. (Honestly I think we’re still reveling in even having multiple rooms now, not needing to tidy our former studio apartment anymore when people come over.) I’m currently working on my dishes/kitchen habits now too, so it might be useful to compare notes.

      Also, congrats on continuing to work out even without a routine! I do think it’s healthy not to exercise in the same way all the time, but that does make it harder to plan ahead, like you describe. Your situation with exercising sounds similar to our situation with watering the plants; not every plant needs to be watered at the same frequency, and on the days we’ve marked as “Water the plants!” days there’s not always the same stuff going on at home, so right now it doesn’t seem to make sense to try to set up an automatic watering habit. That might change in the future, though, if we get a more settled schedule or if we feel like we’re devoting too much mental energy to remembering to water the plants.

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