By Leo Babauta
One of the key adjustments you can make to any habit that you’re having trouble with is to figure out what the habit’s feedback loops are, and tweak them to work in your favor.
What are feedback loops? Imagine that every time you did the habit, you got a treat (like Pavlov’s dog). You’d be more likely to do the habit. But what if every time you did the habit, you got a shock? You’d probably not stick with the habit for long.
There are two types of feedback:
- Positive or negative feedback when you do the habit.
- Positive or negative feedback when you don’t do the habit.
Consider the case of junk food: you get positive feedback (flavor!) when you do the activity (eat the food), and negative feedback when you refrain from doing it, because you feel like you’re suffering when you don’t get to eat the tasty food in front of you.
The feedback loops, then, are set up so that you’re much more likely to eat the food than to avoid it. Every time you do it, you get a reward, and every time you refrain, it feels like you’re sacrificing something, craving something you can’t have (and maybe you’re hungry too). You’re probably going to eat the food.
The same goes for other addicting habits, like Internet distractions: you get pleasure from doing the habit, and when you don’t do the habit (and try to focus on work, for example), you get discomfort.
Now consider the case of exercise: if you don’t like doing it, then you feel discomfort when you exericise, and comfort when you skip the exercise. The feedback is the opposite of what you want to create the habit!
So what are we to do? We’re going to adjust the feedback. We’re going to re-engineer those loops.
Re-engineer the Feedback Loops
If you’re not sticking to the habit, it’s probably because your feedback loops are set up so that you’re not likely to stick with it for long. You’re getting negative feedback for doing the habit, and positive feedback when you don’t.
What we want to do is make adjustments to reverse those loops.
Some ways to add positive feedback for doing your habit:
- Have accountability, so that when you do your habit, you get to report success to your group.
- Mindfully do the habit, which allows you to enjoy the activity as a form of meditation, and to appreciate the good things about doing the habit as you do them.
- Play some nice music as you do the habit, to make it more enjoyable.
- Create a nice environment for doing the habit, and slow down to enjoy the habit, to make it a treat.
- Do the habit with someone else (walking with your spouse, working out with a friend) to make it enjoyable.
- Pay attention to the progress you’re making, as you’re doing the habit, to give yourself a sense of accomplishment.
- Disconnect from electronic devices as you do the habit, to make this time a nice way to find quiet and solitude.
- Pay attention to how you’re building trust in yourself, as you’re doing the habit, to give yourself a great feeling about yourself.
- Make the habit easier or shorter, so that there’s less discomfort and you’re more likely to start. Remove any obstacles to starting.
In short, make the habit social, savor the habit mindfully, feel good about yourself as you do the habit, and make it a treat.
I’ve found that positive feedback is the most important aspect of habit creation, but it’s good to give yourself some boundaries with negative feedback so that you’re more likely to stay on the path you’ve chosen.
Some ways to add negative feedback for not doing your habit:
- Have accountability, so that you’re aware that if you skip the habit, you will have to report failure to your group.
- Create an embarrassing (but fun) consequence for missing two straight days, so that you think about this negative consequence before putting the habit off.
- Do the habit with someone else, so that if you don’t show up, you’ll feel bad about missing the workout or meeting.
- If you start to skip the habit, remind yourself of how bad you feel after missing a habit, and this will cause you to reconsider.
- If you have temptations, like junk food snacks or Internet distractions, make it harder to get to them. Remove junk food from your home or work environment whenever possible, for example. Use an Internet site blocker or unplug your router and give it to someone else, so that you can’t use the Internet until after you’ve done your habit. However you can, make it harder to give in to the temptations.
With a combination of adjusting the positive and negative feedback loops, you can greatly increase your odds of sticking to the habit.
So if you’re struggling with a habit, try different ways of adjusting your habit’s feedback loops until you find a combination that works for you.
Today, I’d like you to take a couple steps:
- Consider what your habit’s feedback loops are. What makes it enjoyable or difficult? What makes not doing it enjoyable or difficult?
- If you’ve missed some days, implement two or more of the adjustments above, or others you can think of. Add them to your plan, and implement them immediately.