Build Consistency: Automating Habits, Part 2

This post is part 2 of a three-part series on automating habits. Here are links to the introductionpart 1, and part 3.

There’s a little gremlin who lives in my car. He doesn’t mess with the wiring, and he doesn’t leave a mess; all he does is take down the reflective screen I put in my windshield to keep the car from getting too hot in the summer. I know he’s there because I always remember to put the screen up, and yet the screen is never there when I get in on a hot day. (Okay, either there’s a gremlin or I’m just not as consistent as I think I am.)

Last time, we began the process of automating a habit by defining exactly what the habit involves and when to do it: the “behavior” and the “cue.” Merely deciding on these two features of your habit is often enough to make it happen, but some habits are more stubborn and need some extra help. With my screen situation, I know what I need to do (put the screen in the windshield) and when to do it (right before I get out of the car), but somehow that’s not enough. If you’re working on a habit but struggling to follow through with your decisions, three useful tools for building consistency are records, reminders, and rewards. I’ll outline when and how to use each of these below.

Records:

The first tool for building consistency is keeping track of whether you’re being consistent at all—otherwise, you won’t know when you’ve succeeded at making your habit automatic. Here are three features of good record-keeping:

1. Good records keep track of both your successes and failures.

Of course, the goal is to accumulate success, but the failures are much more important to the automation process: each one is telling you important information about the barriers keeping you from doing what you’ve decided to. Each time the habit doesn’t happen when you intended, ask yourself honestly, “Why not?” No judgment! You’re just collecting information.

Did the cue not happen? Or was there some other reason you couldn’t do the habit? Decide whether this happens infrequently enough to ignore, and change the wording of your habit’s definition to account for the exception. (I amended my “Go to the gym every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday” habit to include the clause “unless sick.”) If you expect that the exceptions might occur more frequently than you want, try using a more reliable cue, or automating some prerequesite habit to make sure the circumstances you need will occur more regularly.

Did the cue happen, but you didn’t notice it? Try using a reminder. The cue happened but you chose to ignore it? You might need to tweak the reward you get from doing your habit. Both of these techniques are covered in more detail below.

2. Good records are accessible when you need them.

Of course, you need to be able to record the outcome of your habit before you forget it. This is easier for some habits than for others: Writing in a journal every day is its own record (if you date your entries). If you forget to make your bed, you’ll at least be confronted by its messiness later. But if you forget to take your vitamin with breakfast, you might not even realize unless you take the trouble to count what’s left in the bottle before and after, so any record-keeping will have to happen right away. This means that whatever records need updating need to be available quicker than it takes to forget what happened.

(If you enjoy the act of recording success, I’d even suggest trying to update your records as soon after the habit time as possible. Then your brain will more easily connect your happy success (or lack thereof) with the action you took (or lack thereof). This is technically a kind of reward, and we’ll look at rewards more fully below.)

3. Good records are easy to update.

Recording your habit outcomes is, paradoxically, its own habit, and all the advice about general habit building applies to it as well. In particular, start by making the act of record-keeping as small and easy as you can. Perhaps keep a pencil and post-it note where you’ll be doing the activity, so the threshold for making a new entry is as low as possible. If you’re using an app or website, it’s helpful if it’s one you already use regularly anyway, but that can be a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation if you’re just getting started with habit tracking. I’ll discuss how I get around that at the end of the post.

Reminders:

Sometimes, as with my car’s reflective screen, the single limiting factor in building a habit is just remembering to do it when you’re supposed to. Under these circumstances, it can help to give yourself a reminder, either physically (such as with a strategically placed post-it note) or electronically (by setting an alarm, for example). Either way, you have two choices:

1. Set the reminder to appear exactly when you need to do the habit.

For example, I could in principle have my phone automatically remind me to put up my reflective screen when I arrive at work. This is very effective at helping build consistency, but if you use this method you are effectively incorporating your reminder into the habit’s cue, which makes your habit dependent on continuing to use your reminder system. If that’s acceptable, great—if not, you might instead…

2. Set the reminder to appear somewhat before you need to do the habit.

For example, I could remind myself about the car’s screen when I leave the house, instead of when I arrive at work. That way, it’s more likely to be on my mind when I arrive than if I didn’t This is not as effective in the short-term, because I might still easily forget, but in the long term it is more effective as a stepping stone to remembering without the reminder.

Rewards:

Until this year, I’ve had a terrible time being consistent about cleaning my glasses every day, and not because I have trouble remembering. No, it’s because I just don’t like doing it. When the time comes to clean my glasses, I would rather ignore my commitment than suffer the chore’s mild annoyingness. In situations like this, where the consistency issue is following through on your prior decisions, it’s time to

First, assess the positive and negative consequences of doing or not doing your habit. In my glasses-cleaning example, these would break down as follows:

  1. Positive consequences of doing: With clean glasses, colors appear more vivid and I feel more professional.
  2. Negative consequences of doing: I don’t like the feeling of getting my hands soapy, and no matter how carefully I dry the glasses they make everything look distractingly streaky afterward.
  3. Positive consequences of not doing: I don’t have to think about how gross my glasses get.
  4. Negative consequences of not doing: Other people have to think about how gross my glasses get.

Presumably, effects 1 and 4 outweigh effects 2 and 3, at least in principle. (If not, you might want to re-evaluate whether to do the habit at all!) Unfortunately, the benefits of doing your habit are often delayed or spread out across several people, while the costs are often immediate and borne by you alone. So try to find a way to feel your habit’s benefits in the moment that you do it, and/or try to mitigate the costs as much as possible. In the glasses-cleaning example, I decided to wash my glasses in the evening instead of the morning, so that the streakiness is worst while I’m sleeping anyway, and to wash them while washing my hands after my last trip to the bathroom of the day, so that my hands would be wet and sudsy anyway. In addition, I chose to concentrate on how good it felt not to have to worry about how my dirty glasses would affect people in the coming day. For me, that was enough to make the difference, and now I do it automatically.

So far, I’ve only discussed intrinsic rewards, which are natural consequences of the act itself. Sometimes you might want to use extrinsic rewards as well, such as giving yourself a special treat for reaching a certain milestone or goal. The danger with extrinsic rewards is that if you end up only doing the habit to get the reward, then when you stop rewarding yourself you lose your motivation to do the habit too. One way to reward yourself without the reward becoming a substitute for intrinsic motivation is to give yourself rewards that get you more into the habit. That way, you don’t feel like you’re finished when you meet your goal. (The satisfaction of checking your habit off a list falls into this category of reward.)

Putting it all together:

Here’s how I put all of the above into practice for my own habits:

  • I use a webapp (Habitica‘s “daily” feature) to keep track of each of my habit’s “streaks”: the number of days, weeks, or other pre-determined intervals in a row I’ve kept it up. With each failure, I decide whether the habit cue or behavior needs adjusting. I also add the reason for the habit directly to the statement, so it ends up looking something like “For Clara: Leave work by 5:05pm unless there is a previously scheduled event.”
  • In order to make sure I always have enough reason to use the app, I try to be working on automating three to seven habits at a time. Fewer than that, and I’m not always motivated enough about any of them to keep using the app. On the other hand, trying to work on too many at a time can be overwhelming. Conventional wisdom suggests that you work on only one habit at a time—I’ve found that it’s fine to work on more than one as long as they don’t require your focus simultaneously. Adding one thing to your morning routine and another to your evening routine is not so difficult—trying to add two things to your evening routine at the same time is much harder.
  • Checking off each habit during the day reminds me of its intrinsic reward, and reminds me what other habits are coming up too. Habitica also has extrinsic rewards in the form of points and random extras (not to mention the satisfaction of maintaining my streaks). I find these surprisingly motivating, but since these only have value within Habitica, they just get me more into keeping track of my habits.

In the third and final post in this series, I’ll tell you what I’ve learned about gradually weaning yourself off the rewards, reminders, and record-keeping that are so helpful for getting started. In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you in the comments: what’s something you would be doing if you could only remember at the right time? Do you have any ways you’ve helpfully rewarded your own good behavior? Thanks for reading!

Continue with Part 3: Lose the Training Wheels.


3 thoughts on “Build Consistency: Automating Habits, Part 2

  1. I think I somehow must have been thinking that “Part 1” was the introduction I already read, so it was fun to catch up on double the Owen thoughts.
    We are about to need to automate more as we move into a different rhythm with the kids. Up until now, we haven’t had much of a set schedule so each day looks incredibly different. Now that we have preschool thrown into the mix, we need a sense of routine and a number of new things to be ready to go to make the mornings before school drop off run well. It was nice to read in your last post that you’ve automated a habit that may only be set three days a week (your MWF gym commitment time) and I think I’ll try your method of setting reminders for things like packing lunches before preschool days since that’s not a daily/weekly task that syncs well with my Powersheets record keeping method!

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    1. It is indeed tricky when you feel like you have a system that works great for some things (daily or weekly tasks) but not others (things that have to be done on some days but not others). For me, I’m much better about incorporating regular, once-a-whatever jobs into my routine than “habits” I want to happen at unpredictable moments, like doing stretches during free moments or choosing not to compare myself to other people.

      What I sometimes do is upgrade an intermittent job to a daily job that I can check off “for free” if it doesn’t apply—in your case, that might look like a daily task “pack lunches IF it’s the night before a preschool day.” If you encounter this job every night, it’ll be its own reminder when it applies. That’s the method I’m currently using for meal prep and dishwashing, jobs which Clara and I trade on an irregular schedule that varies from week to week.

      P.S. Also, sorry about the confusing numbering! Another case of what makes sense to me not making sense to the rest of the world…

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