If there’s one thing I’ve learnt in the past few years, it is the power of routine.

Life is busy.  Brain space is limited. We need to make things easy for ourselves.

If you want to get technical about it, read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow.  I use this theory a lot in my work (which centres around understanding human behaviour).  In a nutshell, Kahneman talks about the brain operating at two levels:

System 1: Fast, Unconcious, Automatic, Everyday Decisions

System 2: Slow, Conscious, Effortful, Complex Decisions

Wherever possible, the brain will run at System 1 operating speed.  Like the time you got home from work and can’t remember the drive – System 1. Or typing your pin in at an ATM – System 1.

System 2 is like the very smart, but lazy overlord of the brain.  It only kicks into action if it has to.  If something is out of order, is challenging, is non-standard.

System 2 is what needs to kick in when we need to make decisions.  System 2 gets tired easily.  This is why many important people try to limit the number of decisions they need to make in a day so that System 2 is rested when it comes to make the more important decisions.

When you are trying to create a habit – you are trying to get System 1 to pick it up as part of standard routine. Something that will just happen, without conscious thought. You don’t want to get System 2 involved in a habit because she’s generally an impatient style overlord.  She’ll figure this new thing is just too much effort – so the behaviour will get lost.

One way of slipping in under System 2’s radar  is creating routines through habit stacking.

Habit stacking is a clever little tool to train yourself to do something new and keeping it up.  Basically, you pick a habit / routine that you already do every day / regularly and add the new behaviour to that routine.  You need to make a deal with System 2 that she’ll give this new behaviour a try for about 30 days.  But after that, she can get back to resting and generally being an overlord, and System 1 will get the job done without you really thinking about it.

Let me give you an example. I was very bad at remembering to take my asthma medication.  So I ‘stacked’ asthma puffer on to my existing tooth brushing routine. I placed my asthma puffers, spacer and water bottle next to my tooth brush and then consciously made an effort to take the puffer every morning and night when I brushed my teeth. Brushing my teeth triggers the behaviour of taking my Asthma medication.  It took a while for it to become part of the routine, but now my asthma routine is pretty ingrained. I’ve even added taking a vitamin to the ritual.

In my Year of Living Dangerously, one habit that I want to cultivate is meditation.  I downloaded the Calm app for my phone and have done exactly two meditations in the space of 2 weeks.  Hardly a daily meditation habit!

My challenge is to pick the habit to ‘stack’ meditation onto.  I’d prefer it to be morning, but my mornings are getting pretty full.  I thought about trying to add it to my lunch break – but I actually rarely take one (so very bad.  need to change that habit also!)

I think I’m going to have to wake up earlier to do this.  I’ll set my alarm 10 minutes earlier tomorrow and see how I go!

So my top tips for cultivating a new habit are:

  1. Find an existing routine, ritual or behaviour that you can use as your trigger
  2. Actively work to tie the new behaviour with the existing trigger behaviour (e.g. put the equipment in the way of you doing the other activity – so you can’t do one without being reminded of the other)
  3. Promise yourself that you’ll do this for a period of at least 30 days.  That should be long enough to shift from something you have to think about, to something you just do.

A Note on the Concept of Motivation

Michelle Bridges (who is an Australian fitness guru) says she doesn’t believe in Motivation – and  have to say I agree with her. She says Just F’ing Do It  (JFDI).

Motivation is System 2 – and System 2 is lazy and gets bored easily. Routine is System 1 – System 1 doesn’t think about things, it just does them.

Routine will get you places that motivation will never go.  Motivation ebbs and flows, where routine just exists.  Rely on routine and you will do what you set out to do.



A couple of other books on Habit which are good reads are:

The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg

Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives by Gretchen Rubin


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