Developer Tea

3 Rules for Designing Lasting Habits

Episode Summary

In today's episode, we're talking about three rules or practices to live by when building healthy and sustainable habits.

Episode Notes

In today's episode, we're talking about three rules or practices to live by when building healthy and sustainable habits.

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Episode Transcription

We talked in the last episode about exit points. These are times when you might veer off of the road of productivity and procrastinate or otherwise do something that you don't necessarily want to do with your time. And these can be really frustrating moments, especially in hindsight. When we look back at our previous days, actions, or our previous week, or even month or year, we may feel like we wasted time where we otherwise didn't accomplish what we wanted to accomplish. Of course, we ended the last episode by reminding you that sometimes procrastination and a lack of productivity are just a part of being human. We can't expect ourselves to be perfectly efficient all the time. And it's important to allow yourself the space and the opportunity to be human, to have those moments that are not perfect. Because the truth is, those are essentially unavoidable. And you can either be frustrated or you can accept that reality that you're going to have an off moment. You're going to have a difficult day. This can be used as an excuse, but I encourage you to view this as a reality to manage rather than as kind of a dooming excuse. You shouldn't be using it for that. But in today's episode, I want to dive a little bit into some practical kind of rules when you're designing your habits. We aren't going to talk about building incentives or punishments because you've probably heard that information elsewhere before. I encourage you to go and do a little bit of research into incentives and punishments and things like accountability, social accountability, win designing your habits. But those are not the things we're talking about in today's episode. We're going to talk about designing your habits in today's episode, designing your habits in a way that will encourage you to stick to them. My name is Jonathan Cutrell and you're listening to Developer Tea. My goal on this show is to drive developers like you connect to your career purpose and do better work so you can have a positive influence on the people around you. And hopefully this is helping you do that. When you establish a set of habits, you're building a system. You're building a repeated system. This is something that is so much more effective on your life than any one single event. We do have these moments in our lives, these events, these kind of important, pinnacle moments that seem to be, you know, milestones. The truth is, those pinnacle moments are almost always the result of a cascade of effects, a cascade of action over time, a continuous and committed march, a step by step march. And this is especially true for programmers. And if you're a beginner, you know this all too well that it takes every single day. You taking the time to grapple with things you don't understand. It takes every single day of you working with people that you don't necessarily see eye to eye with. It takes every single day of you choosing to take care of the things that you do, take care of the people you come in contact with and take care of yourself. And this is no secret. This isn't a special, you know, undercover secret that you don't already know the reality of. You've never tried to lose weight on a diet, for example, that you've heard that a diet is not a diet. It's a lifestyle, right? These are things that we can do to attach to our identity. These are ways of being that are kind of our default ways of behaving. This is why we did an episode on useful defaults. A long time ago on this show, useful defaults are incredibly important concept. The way that you behave given no exceptional circumstances, the way you're going to behave on any given day, right? It's important to think about that behavior, perhaps more than any other kind of behavior, your default behavior. And that's another kind of lens, another way of looking at habits. Habits are effectively the things you do automatically. The things you do on a repeated basis, the things that you don't really, you know, cognitively choose to go out of your way to do. They're just kind of in your way. They are your way. They're your behavior. And building habits should be about thinking how to integrate these new behaviors as normal, as a new way of operating. This isn't something that is always going to feel special, for example, right? Your default behavior doesn't feel special because from your brain's perspective, your default behavior is not exceptional. It's the thing that happens the most often. These are the ways that we operate on a regular basis. So I want to talk about ways to design habit change. And again, we're pulling a lot of this information from a variety of sources, most especially Charles DuHig's book, The Power of Habit, as well as James Clearsbury's new book, Atomic Habits. These are both excellent resources on understanding the science of habit change, how it happens, how we can, you know, best use our kind of cognitive psychology, our emotions, and the things that we know have worked or not worked in the past. And so that's why I mentioned in the beginning of the episode, the idea of incentives and punishments or rewards and punishments and things like social accountability. These are things that can help you be more likely to stick to your habits. But I want to talk about ways to design the actual habit itself, the very first step. When you're pulling out a piece of paper and you've decided the change that you want your life to reflect, the difference between your default today and what you want your default to be, the person that you kind of envision yourself being or the behaviors that you envision partaking in on a regular basis, these are things that, you know, that have to be built as default. And I want to talk to you about that very first moment when you're trying to decide how can I make this change happen, how can I make this a reality? And sticking to it, of course, is very important. So again, I encourage you to go and do some research in those other areas, but write it at very beginning. What is the first, the kind of zero to one initial movement moment? What are you going to do to start down the path towards building this habit? So before we go any further into deciding what we're going to do to establish these habits, perhaps it's important for you to take a couple of minutes and think about what that person is in your mind. What those new activities are, that new behavior, perhaps it is kind of the rejection or the inversion of an evident existing behavior. And it's important that if you are trying to stop doing something that you replace it with a new thing, but I want you to take a few minutes and think about maybe three years, five years into the future, maybe even 10 or 15 or 20 years into the future. And imagine the reality around you. These things are true about your life. And it's easy to get caught in thinking about one specific metric or one specific area of your life, but it's important to look at all of the areas of your life because chasing one metric could cause other very important things, things that you really care about to suffer. So I want you to think about all of the areas of your life. Start with your closest relationships in yourself, your own health, your own mental state, maybe the design of your day, what are you doing in a given day? Are you writing code? Are you doing something else? Are you retired early, for example, that's certainly an okay thing to imagine. Or just anything is okay in your imagination right now, anything that you imagine in some ideal future, it's totally yours to imagine. So don't let anybody kind of shoehorn you into thinking that you must climb the managerial ladder or that you must have a long career or that you have to jump into a new company. Perhaps you're very happy doing what you're doing today and you just like to continue doing that. Consider those relationships, those family relationships or friend relationships, the friendships that you have and consider your coworker relationships. Consider what your lifestyle looks like, maybe where you live, what your hobbies are, perhaps your income level or maybe the amount that you are able to give to other people. Is there any kind of accolade, anything that you want to have accomplished? Are you wanting to get a degree, for example, or maybe you have your site set on some kind of physical accomplishment like running an Iron Man or really virtually any accomplishment can fit into this category. Imagine the skills that you've developed. Maybe you have a different set of skills beyond just programming that you've developed or maybe you have a new domain that you're working in that requires a certain skill level. Finally, I want you to think about the effect that you have on the people that you come in contact with. This is by no means the least important thing on this list, but it's a good way of kind of bringing it all together. How do people know you? What do they think about you? What do they say about you? What is your reputation when you leave the room? This isn't to say that what other people think about you is your identity, but instead this kind of brings some focus and clarity and some context to the other things on this list. If you examine this list, then really you're essentially setting these longer term goals and your habits are how you're going to get there. If you look at the list, if you look at your current trajectory in various areas, perhaps you can identify places where habits can change, places where you could shift your direction to better align with your longer term goals. Now I don't want to belabor the middle points here from where you are today to these very long term goals. How do you get there? We're not going to be able to cover that in one episode, but I do want to talk about how you get started, how you start down the path towards establishing these new behaviors that you want to adopt. We're going to talk about that right after we talk about today's awesome sponsor, Manifold. Managed Cloud Services save Developer Time and effort. It wouldn't really make sense for you to build your own logging platform or your own content management system or auth service yourself when a managed tool or an API can solve the problem for you. But how do you find the right services to integrate with? How do you learn to stitch them together and how do you manage access and credentials between multiple projects and teams? Creating these details alone is essentially a full-time job. Manifold makes your life easier by providing a single workflow to organize your services, connect your integrations, and share with your team. Discover the best services for your projects in the Manifold Marketplace or bring your own custom integrations and manage them all in one dashboard. With services covering authentication, messaging, monitoring, content management, and more, Manifold will keep you on the cutting edge so you can focus on building your project rather than focusing on problems that have already been solved. Once you have the services you need, you can deliver your configuration to any environment and deploy on any cloud. While Manifold is completely free to use, if you head over to slash devt, that's slash devt, you'll get a coupon code for $10, which you can use to try out any service on the Manifold Marketplace. Go and check it out. $10 worth of credit, head over to slash devt to get started today. Thank you again to Manifold for sponsoring today's episode of Developer Tea. So we're talking about three practical rules when you're building your good habits. This is at the very beginning of your habit design process. And this really is a lifelong thing. You're always going to be adjusting your behaviors and hopefully you can establish good ones early on and those will cascade. And we're going to talk about that cascading effect in just a minute. But first, let's jump into this first rule. Number one, focus your habits on triggers. Not on outcomes. The habit shouldn't be your goal. Think about this for a second. The habit itself shouldn't be your goal. Now why is this? Well, if you have good goals in mind, then the habit being the goal is way too big. This is much too large to kind of bring into the scope of a habit. Think about a habit as a simple, small action. This is kind of the spirit of James Clears book, Atomic Habits. The idea that your habits are the smallest single action that you can take. Now imagine trying to say that losing 30 pounds is a habit. Well, losing 30 pounds is not a single small action. This is not even close. It's a cascade of many actions and many decisions over a long period of time. When you try to articulate a goal as a habit, what ends up happening is that the details of how to achieve that goal are left up to the momentary decisions that you make. In other words, let's say that your goal is, I want to lose 30 pounds. So your habit is to lose weight. Unfortunately, losing weight is not really an actionable thing. So when it comes down to whether or not you eat that cookie in the afternoon, it's easy to say, well, I can still lose weight and eat this cookie. If I do something else, right? If I run a little bit further at the gym or if I choose not to eat the cookie tomorrow, then I'll be okay. And so in the moment, when you're actually making the important decisions, if you haven't articulated a clear and simple habit, you're very likely to fail. You're very likely to make decisions that don't actually achieve those goals, that don't actually achieve that behavior change that you're targeting, having a habit of wanting to go to the gym or wanting to test your code more often. These are lofty goals, but they aren't new goals. It's very unlikely that you said to yourself before that you were testing your code enough. You knew all along that you should be testing your code more. You knew all along that you should go to the gym or often. These goals are not new and having willpower and resolve is not going to be enough to change your every single day behavior in most cases. The truth is, when you have motivation, it's going to get you up and out of your seat for the first few times. But the gravity of what you've done so many times in the past, the well-worn paths that you followed and the things that are your default behavior, once your motivation dies down, your default behavior will take over again. So in order to short-circuit this kind of mental pattern, I want to encourage you to adopt habits that don't have a direct effect on your goals. They don't have a direct effect on the actual thing that you're measuring, the actual behavior change that you're trying to make. Instead, your habits are very simple actions that act as triggers towards the behavior change that you want to make. Think of this as one of the ways that you can cascade your behaviors. For example, if you want to eat healthy food more often, make your habit. When you get home from work, immediately pull out that container of organic greens out of the fridge and put it on the counter. That's the habit. The habit doesn't have to be that you're going to eat that salad every single night. Instead, you're going to pull out the container every single night. You're going to get into the habit of pulling out the container of greens every single night. As a bonus lesson here, it's important that you make those greens visible and accessible and that you make it easy to get them out and on the counter. Have a very straightforward process for making that salad. Here's one that I'm working on. If you want a habit of getting started on your work first thing in the morning, then instead of making that your habit, make your habit. You open your terminal window in your task management, whatever task manager thing that you use or wherever your tasks are documented. Open those two things before you open anything else in the morning. That's the habit. Maybe you can automate that. Maybe you can write a script or use one of the many apps out there that allows you to launch multiple apps in a given context. Whatever you have to do, make that very simple action the habit. If you want to figure out these trigger habits, but you're not really sure what they are, then I encourage you to perform the thing that you're trying to do once. Then watch every action that you take leading up to that action. The earliest actions are usually the trigger actions that you need to take. Think of these as kind of mode changes. If you can trigger the mode change, the situational mode change that you need to follow through on that habit, then the mode change needs to be the habit itself. Think of this like the first little push to get the ball rolling down the hill. Once the ball has started rolling, it's very unlikely that it's going to stop. If you get the greens container out of the fridge, then you'd have to kind of cognitively decide not to eat healthy that day if you want to reverse the behavior change. We could do a whole episode on this one concept, but I want to keep on moving. I want to go on to the second rule, and that is start with softballs. Start with softballs. Give yourself a tiered ramp up for the actual behavior you're trying to change. If your ultimate goal is going to the gym three times a week, then set a trigger habit to get you to the gym once a week for the first week, twice a week for the next week, and then three times a week, the following week, make your habit easy to follow. Even easier than you expected should be in the beginning. Make your habit easy to follow. James Claire says make it sustainable. It's very important that you focus on the sustainability early, because if you fall off early, you're much more likely to just scrap it all together. If you're successful early and you continue to be successful as you ramp up into this, then you're much more likely to continue. That rule is very important. You need to start small, start smaller than you expect. Even when you feel like you've got it nailed down, try to start even smaller than that. Imagine that you want 80% test coverage on your project or whatever other metric that you're trying to optimize for. Make the habit running your tests once a day. That's the beginning of that habit. As the very first action that you should take, the very smallest version of this action. Run your tests once a day. I'm probably going to get some pushback against this that obviously running your tests once a day is such a small thing. If you're not running your tests at all, then technically running your tests once a day is infinitely better. If you just add that tiny little bit of improvement and you continue to add that tiny little bit of improvement until you get to that behavior changed that you want, then it doesn't really matter where you were on day one. What matters is what eventually happen as a result of that. Allow yourself the freedom to have a softball that you can just launch out of the field. The whole goal is to have home runs as many times as possible. If you make the field smaller, if you give yourself an easy softball, you're much more likely to get that home run. The truth is no one is going to judge you on how hard your habit is to keep. In fact, you should judge yourself on if you are keeping a hard habit. Instead, focus on consistency. Remember, our entire goal here is not to become a superhero. It's to change our default behavior, and that happens very, very slowly. My third and final rule or guideline as you're building your habits, designing your habits, is to focus on compound and stacking returns. Focus on compound and stacking returns. These are the cascading returns that we've been talking about a few times on the episode. When you're determining what behaviors are most useful, you want to focus on the habits that stack with your other habits as well. These sometimes are not even necessarily habits. Sometimes there are one-time actions, one-time kind of processes, maybe even purchases that you make or investments that you make with your time. A good example of this for me personally has been my editor. I spent the time to learn them, and the time that I spent learning them has paid me back many times over because it has totally changed how I work. I don't believe that there are magic tools that make a developer drastically better. I do believe that if you stack your habits, you stack your actions, that every bit of effort that you put in after that, you have that additional gain. It's kind of a compound interest effect. For example, in our previous goal of increasing our test coverage, instead of having to run your tests manually, maybe you adopt an automated test runner, something that watches changes in your code and runs tests against those changes. This could be a little bit of work to implement. It could be a little bit of work to understand how it works, but that's going to pay you back time and time again. Consider habits that check multiple boxes. For example, there are many cognitive benefits to exercise. If you exercise, you're not just going to reap physical benefits, but you're also going to reap cognitive benefits. This is checking boxes across multiple goals for me, for example. The idea here is to think about prerequisite actions or prerequisite habits that you can develop that will make future habits, future actions, even that much more valuable. So a quick recap of these three rules. Number one, focus your habits on triggers, not on their outcomes. These are the very earliest actions that you take that get the ball rolling down the hill. Number two, start yourself off with soft balls. You want to be able to hit home runs with your habit forming actions. So make the field smaller. Give yourself soft balls. Give yourself a tiered ramp up for the actual behavior you are looking at. Don't try to go all out right out of the gate. Number three, focus on compound and stacking returns. The idea here is to start with habits. Start with good habits that pay you indivitants in the future, but also make your future habits more valuable than they would have been on their own. Thank you so much for listening to today's episode. Thank you again to Manifold for sponsoring today's episode. Head over to slash devt for your $10 on any service that you want to use on Manifold. Thank you so much for listening. If you enjoyed today's episode, I encourage you to subscribe in whatever pie casting app you use. This is the best way to make sure you don't miss out on future episodes of Developer Tea. Until next time, enjoy your tea.