Slow Habits: How to burst through the “one habit at a time” barrier.

Most of the habit gurus agree, when it comes to habits, the only way to succeed is to do one at a time. We have limited willpower and need all of it to invoke a habit change. I think they all got it wrong.

Ever since I started reflecting daily I’ve been experimenting with the idea of “slow habits” and I think it’s a far more natural way to form habits than the current paradigm. I’ve been an order of magnitude more successful with it that I have been with the normal methods.


So what’s the different?

Current wisdom:

Pick a habit then invest between 28-60 days concentrating on making sure you apply that habit.

Apply a variety of different techniques (triggers, rewards, starting small etc) to make sure it sticks.

After a certain amount of time (1-2 months) and willpower application,  your habit is effortlessly set for life (yeah right).

Slow habits:

Pick as many habits as you want.

Track how often you perform each one.

Watch as you slowly start to do them more and more often naturally.


The reason I think that the slow (not relying on every day) technique is a more natural way of doing things is that it’s the way most of our current habits have formed. Hit the snooze button 3 times EVERY morning? Regularly eating food that is killing you even though you know you should not? Procrastinating work by checking Facebook, Twitter etc daily? None of these habits are things that you spent 30 days developing triggers and rewards for, or applying all your willpower to. They just happen to you.

The idea with a slow habit is to have that same natural process happen to you, but for good habits.


How to form slow habits:Lift Checked habits

Step 1: Get Lift (or a spreadsheet).

You can do it without Lift, but this is what the Lift app seems to be designed for. It lets you track your habits, keeps track of streaks and provides your with frequency graphs for the habits. If you don’t have an iPhone you can do this with a spreadsheet (I did before I switched to iPhone) or an Android clone (Lift will be on Android and the web some day soon as well), but it’s much less fun.

Step 2: Form the tracking habit – Learn to use Lift every day.

This is the one and only time we need traditional habit theory to form a habit. It is the step that so many of my friends who have tried to use Lift have missed. People use it for a few weeks then forget about it. This tracking habit step is critical for success.

All the traditional habit theory applies here, so it’s up to you how you want to form this habit. The way I did it was to pick an easy habit that I was committed to doing every day. I used meditation, but flossing, “drink water” (don’t even worry about 8 glasses part) and “use Lift” are all viable candidates. Then pick a time (I use my reflection time before bed) and log that habit. Do this EVERY day for 30 days (if you break the streak, start over).

Step 3: Line up your slow habits.

Now that you’re using Lift daily start to add other habits to it. You should be doing this during the first 30 days. Add anything that you would possibly like to have as a habit. As you go through your day notice anything you would like to( or not) do and add it (I’ve added three while writing this post). Don’t stress about ticking them off, just have them there in case you accidentally happen to do them. Have a good mix of easy and hard habits. If you do perform one of these habits, be sure to tick them off at the same time as your first habit.

Step 4: Keep going, enjoy your streaks.

After the 30 days just keep your habit of using Lift (it’s a habit, you can’t stop). By now  you should have enough little habits that there will be something to log every day. There is no work left to do. You will naturally start to do your habits more as you anticipate the reward of ticking them off in Lift. If you start to develop big streaks you will perform the habit in order to stop losing the streak.


How well does this work?

Since January 15th when I started seriously applying step 1 in lift (less than 3 months ago) here are my stats:

I have 16 real habits in lift (not including the 3 I just added).

Over the last 8 days I’ve ticked off an average of 12 things a day.

I have 7 habits with streaks of over 2 weeks (not all of my habits are ones that I want to do every day anyway).


As you can see, this is way better than the theoretical maximum of 3 habits that I should have been able to form. And I am someone who has often struggled with and failed at the traditional methods of habit development despite working really hard at it. I’ve also used the traditional method to form many habits that I lost later on. This way you never lose your habits as breaking the streak after a large number of days would be heartbreaking!


Bonus, because the lovely Paulina asked, here are my “slow habits” in Lift and why I do them:

  • Mediate: My only new year’s resolution was to meditate every day. Willpower, happiness, presence, energy, health, emotional intelligence… I have a list of about 20 things that I think mediation could possibly help with. Worth it if it helps with even a fraction of them.Lift Frequencies
  • Inbox 0: Using my inbox as a to do list sucks and stresses me out.
  • Set priorities for the day: Take time to decide what the most important  things to spend time on the next day is.
  • Daily reflection: Okay, I’ve had this one for months, but there were periods where it would stutter and fizzle and I would prioritize going to bed or forget. This is a habit that would have died like others. The Lift streak feature makes sure that doesn’t happen.
  • Taekwondo training: It’s too easy to get busy and only go twice a week. Having it in Lift lets me pull my average up from around 3 to 4 times a week (any more and I would be overtraining my joints).
  • Don’t oversleep: Being polyphasic I have to really protect myself from falling back into my 26 year old monophasic sleep habit.
  • Dream Journal: I spend 1.5-2 hours a day dreaming. These are real experiences (you experience strong emotions) and a 10 minute dream can feel like it’s lasted hours. Journaling helps you form the habit of remembering your dreams and reclaiming those lost bits of your life. Remembering dreams can also help you make future dreams lucid… which is just awesome.
  • Eat mindfully: I used to eat every meal that I didn’t spend with someone else (and many that I did) in front of a screen. Now I try and just eat while doing nothing else. This habit helps you actually appreciate and enjoy your food. It also helps you notice and react to when you’ve put something poisonous into your body (a McDonalds burger for instance).
  • Wash your bowl: Instead of leaving dishes in the sink to stress me out from afar, I now try and wash my bowl as soon as I finish eating.
  • Floss: The easiest habit that so few of us do. Should save me lots in dentist bills in the future.
  • Stop biting fingernails: I’ve noticed a lot of programers have this habit. I still haven’t come up with a really good strategy for stopping, but it’s in the list so I know I will kick it one day!
  • Study Korean: I’m going to be competing at the World Taekwondo festival in Korea at the beginning of July and would like to have a decent grasp of the language before I go.
  • Stretch in the mornings: This habit will help me to kick people in the head at the aforementioned tournament.
  • 10 minutes of mobility work: Modern life breaks your body and leads to pain (for instance I couldn’t run more than a mile a couple of months ago because of  knee pain). Using Mobility WOD exercises helps fix this.
  • Cold showers: Willpower training (the best way to increase willpower is to train it like a muscle… and jumping into a cold shower is like lifting iron for willpower) along with numerous other health benefits.
  • Use standing desk: Kevin and I built a standing desk at work, but both of us started to slowly drift back toward our normal desks. Sitting kills so I want to use the desk much more.


Hopefully that provides a good start. At the moment, this works in a lab of one, so I can say that I’ve disproved the “one habit theory” by way of counter-example, but there is obviously a long way to go before knowing if this will work for the majority of people. I have a strong hunch that it does though and I’m sure the great team at Lift will back me up with numbers soon enough.




Daily reflection – The best keystone habit.

I’ve always really thought that habits were important and have spent much of the past few years reading about and working on changing habits.

I’ve even given a few presentations where the central theme was that if you create good learning habits, then you will learn well. The only issue is that despite all of this, I’ve been terrible at actually following through and creating good habits.

Sure, I’ve had some success. For instance, one of the key learning habits that I’ve used over the past 6 months has been reading technical books on the subway to and from work. No fiction, or fun books, just books that help me be a better programmer. The habit is deeply ingrained, as soon as I get on the subway, I reach for my Kindle and start reading a technical book.

Everything changed though, when I committed to making daily reflection a habit. Not only have I been able to make reflection an incredibly strong habit (I instinctually do it before bed each night), but it’s proved to be a keystone habit.

The Power of HabitA keystone habit according to Charles Duhigg in “the Power of Habit” (a great book) is the following:

Some habits, say researchers, are more important than others because they have the power to start a chain reaction, shifting other patterns as they move through our lives. Keystone habits influence how we work, eat, play, live, spend, and communicate. Keystone habits start a process that, over time, transforms everything.

In the book, he talks about how this habit is different for everyone, but I think that the act of daily reflection is a keystone habit that by its very nature makes it a good keystone habit for many people. This is because what it does is it carves out a part of your day where you can reflect on what is most important. Once the reflection habit is in place, it will bring your goals to your attention at least once a day, thereby slowly making you more and more aware of your daily actions. This means that when you decide to change other habits, the daily reflection becomes a space in your day where you can contemplate your progress on the habit that you are changing and make adjustments in order to ensure that it works.

But how to go about starting the reflection habit? You can certainly do it wrong, as I have in the past. However, I think applying the “Seinfeld” method was the big breakthrough for me.

Simply create a table somewhere (I use Evernote) with one line for every day. I then make columns for the things that I want to note about my day. I started with just “Learning” and “Shortcuts” (as detailed here), but very soon added other stuff that I wanted to know (inspired by Andrei’s post ). I have quite a few boolean (yes/no) columns for things like “went to Taekwondo”, or “completed day’s most important task”.

With that table, the habit is “complete” if you have filled in at least something for at least 30 days in a row. You don’t have to do every column, but choose at least one column that is required (I did learning). From there it should be effortless and you can start concentrating your efforts in improving any of the columns in your table.


Reflection Reboot


In my last coding reflection post I spoke about how awesome the reflection process was and how much it was becoming a habit. Seeing as that was over 2 months ago… I guess I spoke too soon.

I did do my reflections for a week or so after that, but didn’t post them. The reasons for stopping were two-fold:

1) I was running out of “easy” reflections and had to dig deeper to get there.

2) I started Taekwondo. While Taekwondo is awesome (I’m happier and fitter than I have been in a long time) it means that instead of coding till I can’t anymore, then reflecting for a bit and going home, I now work up until practice starts (my Dojang is a block away from Red Rover HQ making it easy to work until the last possible minute). Practice then clears my head of the code (which is great… it stops the nightmares) but it also clears my head of reflective thoughts on that code.

So noting that in the time that I was reflecting my skill level went through the roof, I need to change the system so that reflection once again becomes easy.

The plan is:
ReBoot Discs

1) Instead of reflecting at the end of the day, I will do it at 5pm every day.

2) Instead of making the expectation: “think of all the things you have learnt today” I’m going to reduce the load to: “think of one thing you’ve learnt” and “create shortcut that you could have taken” (taking a cue from Yan).

3) Posts aren’t going to be numbered anymore, but themed. That way I can make each one more self-contained and coherent, while again reducing the pressure to put in too much.

4) I’m going to keep a page of “rules” that I can edit and update as I learn things, to make it easier to quickly review and scan my most importnat learning in the morning.

Current Wordle

Clint Lalonde recently wrote about using Wordle as a reflective tool in order to decide whether the blog posts that he wrote for class were on topic. I like that idea a lot.  It also reminded me of thoughts that opened09 had circling in my head. Over time, a writer’s skill and focus changes, that is a given. But how to monitor this? I think Wordle provides a visual representation that is simple and powerful. I will try and take wordle snapshots of this blog every few months and compare them, mostly out of interest, but also as a way of reflecting on my own constantly changing passions and motivations.

So here it is, 17 August 2009, the Wordle for all my content is:

my Wordle
my Wordle