Habit Hacks

Unconsciously Improve Your Life

This note is adpted from a talk I gave at the 2017 BarCamp GR unconference. You should check out BarCampGR next August.

This note will follow this outline:

  • Habits Exhibited
  • Habits Discussed
  • Habits Questioned

I learned these things from smarter people than me whose books I’ll point you to at the end of this post.

Habits Exhibited

Let’s start by inventorying some of the behaviors we mean when we say habits. Grab a sheet of paper and jot down what comes to mind. What are some examples of…

  • Good Habits
    • Exercize
    • Organizing
    • Budgeting
  • Bad Habits
    • Drinkin’
    • Smokin’
    • Chewin’
    • Runnin’ with Fast Wimmin

(Maybe that last one isn’t all that bad.)

Seriously, you should take a moment to jot down some of your own good and bad habits.

Habits Discussed

The meat of this note is in these points

  • The Habit Triad
  • The Unconscious Nature of Habit
  • The Formation of Habits Intentionally
  • The Defeat of Bad Habits
  • The Application of Keystone Habits in Life Change

The Habit Triad

Every habit is formed when three elements are present:

  • A Trigger
  • An Action
  • A Reward

It’s a Pavlovian process: 1) The bell rings. 2) The pigeon pecks a key. 3) The food drops into the bowl.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

The Unconscious Nature of Habit

This cycle of trigger/action/reward is operant conditioning. It works below the level of conscious thought. Thus no amount of will-power will break a bad habit. The trigger happens and we act before thinking. Our brain catches up and we’ve already lit the cigarette. Years later, after beating a bad habit, the trigger may occur and we’ve relapsed.

The Formation of Habits Intentionally

Knowing the elements of habit formation, we can design new habits. For instance, replace your alarm clock. Go to bed earlier. When the (new, unfamiliar) alarm sounds, immediately awake, put on your shoes, and start exercizinging before your brain realizes.

I did this and afterwards I would look at my Fitbit dashboard. It had silly animations rewarding my step-count, calories burned, minutes exercized, and flights of stairs climbed. I thought, that was silly, but it was a reward nonetheless.

Over time I have been additionally rewarded by losing 100 pounds and being in the best health of my life.

Create a trigger. Do an activity. Receive a reward. You choose these things to hack the habit-formation mechanism and thereby gain the power to change your life.

Scott Adams (the Dilbert guy) says we should ignore Goals and focus on Processes. I think that he means we should use this kind of habit formation. It is a system we can leverage to take us where in the direction of our goals.

The Defeat of Bad Habits

Once you know how to form good habits, you can identify the triggers of bad habits and avoid the triggers. Or better, you create new habits that have the same trigger. Just reinforce the replacement habit more strongly than the old bad habit by more strongly rewarding the replacemnt habit.

The old habit remains, but it’s been crowded out by the new one.

The Application of Keystone Habits in Life Change

One thing leads to another. If you build one good habit, you can tweak it to trigger another good habit. In this way the first habit serves as a keystone for other habits. We’ve heard of vicious cycles. You can devise a virtuous cycle. For me it was Alarm => Exercise. Morning Routine => Greater Productivity. All manner of health benefits derived from this and these served as reward-fuel for other beneficial habit changes.

Marie Kondo wrote a book, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.” In it she describes how folks who have taken up the habit of tidying enjoy additional benefits of better health, promotions at work, and better fortune. I think the reason for this isn’t so much that tidying is magic, but that serves as a keystone habit that in turn stimulates the formation of other good habits.


You may have some questions about this process, and if so, I’d like to hear them.

Does Will-Power Ever Work?

Yes, and like a muscle will-power will strengthen with use.

Does Will-Power Ever Fail?

Invariably. It is all too easy for a trigger to bypass will-power. Our Savior says lead us not into temptation, which makes me think it’s a good idea to avoid triggers.

Where Can I Learn More?

I stole the meat of this note from Charles Duhig’s book, The Power of Habit.

I also recommend Marie Kondo’s book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, and if you have a shorter attention span The Life-Changing Manga of Tidying Up

Steve Poling

Masters degrees in math and computer science. Poet in several computer languages. I write stories about Sherlock Holmes' brother Mycroft, steampunk, and SF.

Grand Rapids, Michigan http://www.catfoodretirement.com