Lose the Training Wheels: Automating Habits, Part 3

This is the conclusion of a three-part series on automating habits. Click here for the introduction, part 1, and part 2.

Let’s review: In part 1, we talked about how to choose exactly what your new habit will consist of (the behavior) and when exactly you’ll do it (the cue). In part 2, we covered how to build consistency using record-keeping, reminders, and reward systems. But a truly automatic habit doesn’t need any of these support structures, so today we’ll talk about how to wean yourself off them.

First, how do you know you’re ready to lose the training wheels and let your habit sustain itself? Here are a couple signs your habit might be on the verge of becoming automatic:

  • You start being unable to remember whether you did it or not.

I remember clearly the first time I moved out of a dorm room with a self-locking door and into an apartment I needed to lock every time I left. At first, each door-locking experience was separately memorable, but after several weeks I found myself repeatedly unable to remember whether I’d locked the door and had to double back to check. This is because I had started locking the door on autopilot—the fact that my brain was devoting less attention to what I was doing was paradoxically a good sign.

  • After a long string of successes you fail, but your motivation the next time is unaffected.

I mentioned in part 2 that I’ve struggled many times to build a habit of washing my glasses every day. I still miss days now and then, but I know the habit is automatic now because if I miss a day, I don’t feel like I’ve fallen off the wagon. Instead, I’m right back to washing them the next day like nothing happened. The same goes for my daily journaling habit: occasionally I notice I somehow forgot to make an entry the previous day, but instead of feeling like I’ve lost my perfect streak, I just keep right on going.

So you think you might be ready to let go of the records, reminders, and rewards that got your habit going? Here’s my advice for each:

How to stop rewarding yourself: This is the easiest if you were careful what kinds of rewards you were giving yourself. Intrinsic rewards—the natural consequences of your habit—don’t need to ever stop, and the best extrinsic rewards get you more into the habit anyway. When you find it hard to think of how you could get yourself more into the habit, you can stop trying.

How to stop reminding yourself: Remember that if you don’t intend to use reminders forever, it’s best to set the reminder for a little before the cue you’ve chosen. If you gradually move that reminder farther and farther ahead of time, it will be gradually less helpful and you’ll have to rely more and more on the cue itself.

How to stop keeping records: This is the hardest, both because it becomes hard to tell whether you’re succeeding and because for many people recording successes is another kind of extrinsic reward. I suggest a two-step approach where you first lose the extrinsic reward by starting to only record your failures, not your successes. Then, if the failures remain infrequent, you can stop recording them altogether.

If, at any point, you try removing one of your habit’s support structures and find that you become much less consistent, go ahead and add it back in and give it another few weeks before trying again. This can be the longest and slowest part of habit automation, but once you finish, you can reclaim the mental energy you once spent on the habit and put it to better use elsewhere. If you reinvest that effort by continuing to automate new habits, the result is an ever-growing part of your life where you effortlessly act the way you want to. I hope this process helps you as much as it’s helped me!

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