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Build Environments That Produce Habits

Published 10/24/2022

Habits aren't built on their own. They are the result of environments.


Reduce friction and create a positive reinforcement loop, and the habits will follow.

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Transcript (Generated by OpenAI Whisper)
Take a moment and think about a couple of habits that you've been able to establish. Often when we think about habits, many of us have frustration, maybe even a little bit of guilt that we've built up, but you probably have some habits that you would be proud to put on display. Think about those, keep them in your mind. We're talking about everything that surrounds the habit in today's episode. My name is Jonathan Cutrell, you're listening to Developer Tea. My goal on the show is to help driven developers like you find clarity, perspective, and purpose in their careers. Your habits will make or break your career. Everything you do over and over. The things that you do on a regular basis are drastically more important than the things that you do on a one-off basis. The things that you invest in consistently are the things that are going to give you the most consistent returns. This is not novel information. You probably already know this. You probably already know it because you probably already want to build good habits and break bad ones. And this isn't novel advice for this podcast. This is something that you've probably heard many times over elsewhere. But I want to give you a piece of food for thought about habits today. Very often we do think about habits as sole individual behaviors, things that we want to do. But the truth is habits are much more than that. In fact, I want to shift your thinking. I want you to reframe habits. Think about habits as the resulting action. The resulting action. What does that mean? It means that yes, of course they are a behavior, but they don't stand alone. The vast majority of habits do not stand alone. They are not simply an atomic action that you take. That is a underselling of the importance of all of the things that surround the habit. Those of you who are sharp listeners, you might think that I'm trying to go against what James Clears says in the atomic habits. I'm absolutely not. Instead, he supports this idea about habits. Specifically, the idea that your habits are the results. They are the result, not the thing that you need to change. They are not the thing that you need to change. You care the most about the result, but the things that you need to change typically surround the habit. Let's talk about the ways that you can change in a way that will develop or help develop the habit. Once you have considered the habits that you have that you would like to put on display, think about those, take one of them, and think about all of the reasons why that habit is so strong. A simple habit that we have at my home is we make coffee every morning. Now, there's a lot that we've done to set ourselves up for success in making coffee. We always have good coffee beans. They're always ready. We have good coffee gear. We have mugs to hold our coffee in. Now, it does help, of course, that we get some kind of positive reward. Caffeine is, after all, a drug, but not everyone takes the time to make good coffee every day. They make it their caffeine from some other source. The habit that we've built is set up well. That's the first part. The front half of this discussion is how are you setting yourself up to make this habit possible? It may mean investing in the right kind of setup. It might mean preparing when you have the energy to prepare. A good example of this is making sure that you've chosen your workout clothes for tomorrow's early morning workout and you've laid them out so that you have the least possible friction to the actual habit that you care about. Think about it like this. We're not trying to build a habit of choosing what gym clothes to wear in the morning. So the lower friction you have, the more likely you are to follow through on the habit. Going back to the coffee example, we always pre-fill our kettle the night before and I spent the time figuring out how to get the kettle to turn itself on in the morning. All of this setup should be pointed at getting you to do the smallest possible version or the very first steps in the sequence of the habit that you're trying to develop. This is the thesis of atomic habits. You're trying to get that first step. Maybe your habit is to, you're trying to develop a workout habit, but the first habit is to get up and do any kind of exercise at all. This might be a good example of an atomic habit. So we'll leave that part to all of the many resources that you've already found on building the habit itself. I want to talk to you about the backside, the second half of today's discussion. You might hear a train in the background. It's a rare occurrence around here. The second half of this discussion is the reinforcement. The reinforcement. This is, once you've actually done the habit, what kind of response or what kind of situation or environmental feedback are you going to get? If you get no environmental feedback, it's harder to reinforce that behavior. This is why having some kind of accountability group or even if it's just workout partners that you send a message to, let them know that you worked out today. Then you get some kind of congratulatory feedback. Well this is some kind of reinforcement loop. The important thing is not necessarily that you have to have some social reinforcement, but instead to think about what happens after you've done the habit. How do you reinforce that you've just done something that you want to do again? So I want you to reframe your thinking. Reframed your thinking about habits as the result of a good setup and the result of a positive feedback loop. The result of a good setup, the result of positive feedback loop. So there's two things that you need to do. When reduce the friction in your setup, find a way to reduce the friction necessary, the effort necessary to complete that habit or to get that habit started, right? That friction at the very beginning, whatever those first few actions are, whatever you can do to reduce that friction, it's going to help. And then on the back half, create a sustainable reinforcement loop, what does sustainable mean? Why did I call this out? Well, it's easy to say, well, every time I work out, I'm going to give myself a treat. I'm going to start eating a candy bar every time I work out. This is not a sustainable reinforcement loop. Eventually you're either going to adapt to that. So you're going to start expecting the candy bar, even if you don't work out. Or the reward itself is going to have detrimental effects on your actual intended outcomes. Candy is not going to help you achieve whatever goals you're trying to achieve by working out in the first place. So focus on creating those sustainable reinforcement loops. Social accountability is a good example of this. It is a sustainable reinforcement loop. We can talk more about well researched sustainable reinforcement loops and future episodes of the show. What the important thing here is to reduce the friction and find a way to sustainably, positively reinforce the actions that you care about taking. Thanks so much for listening to today's episode of Developer Tea. I hope this will help you think about habits a little bit differently. They are the result of a good setup and a good reinforcement. We mentioned the book already on the episode, but I highly encourage you to go and check out atomic habits. If you haven't yet, talk about a lot of these concepts in there, certainly gives you a lot of practical advice on how to implement this stuff. Thanks so much for listening to today's episode. I mean, enjoy this discussion. And you'd like to continue talking about these kinds of things with other engineers. Go and join the Developer Tea Discord community. Head over to developertea.com slash discord to join totally free today. Thanks so much for listening. And until next time, enjoy your tea.