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The Two Sides of Habit Formation

The first Wednesday post for 2015 is a simple way of breaking down habit formation. You may have just started on your New Year's Resolutions or are contemplating how to start. One way to look at it is through the lens of conditioning. First, you have to understand that a habit is the culmination of a series of repeated actions, reinforced either postively or negatively. This is the key: a habit is shaped by incentives and punishments (postive and negative reinforcement, respectively).

Tony Robbins makes the critical distinction that every action you take in life is to avoid pain and seek pleasure. The way we will apply this mindset is to reward yourself for positive action and impose some sort of tax on yourself for bad behaviour.

To start, you have to set a concrete goal and break it down into tangible tasks or deliverables. Let's use the habit of going to the gym daily as your goal.

Incentives: Buy yourself a new pair of shoes after 3 weeks of going to the gym. If you need more short term incentive, you can gift yourself weekly for showing up at the gym.

Two important things to note:

1. Don't reward yourself for the same achievement week to week or month to month. You must rewire yourself to only reward progress.

2. Little steps over a long time will more likely become habit forming, rather than periodic big leaps.

Punishments: We are often told not to be so hard on ourselves, that life is hard and we should give ourselves a break. However, in the end, you are the only person that can truly push yourself. I've often heard of writers who pay their friends a certain amount of money and only get it back if they have written a set amount of pages in a certain amount of time. If you haven't met your short term goal, come down on yourself and then move forward.

We are an emotional creature. If you've worked hard and achieved a goal, reward yourself and feel happy. If you've been complacent, make yourself pay and you will be less likely to do it again. This approach works well for setting up habits. Once you've established some good habits, you won't need the reinforcers.

For more on Habits, see Charles Duhigg's TEDx video below:

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