Create habits and automate decisions to save time and energy. Every decision we make throughout the day requires attention and carries an opportunity cost; thus, creating decision-making systems can make you more productive and less frazzled. Once you build a habit, you make fewer decisions.
“We don’t rise to the level of our goals. We fall to the level of our systems.”
—James Clear, author of Atomic Habits
Habits are actions we repeat until they become automatic. Life would be unproductive and unnecessarily stressful without habits. According to a study by Duke University researchers, habits account for 40% of our decisions.
Do you remember the first few times you drove a car? How much attention did you pay to every movement and decision? Yet after years of driving, many of us text, listen to the radio, eat, and talk on the phone without thinking much about the actions it takes to actually drive the car. I’m not recommending distracted driving, by the way, but lots of people successfully do lots of things every day while they are driving. That’s because the steps needed to drive become habits, freeing up energy and attention to focus on additional actions.
Create habits to think less. Habits reduce cognitive load and save time by reducing stress and providing structure. Do you really want to spend several minutes every week examining the calendar of everyone on your team to determine the best time for your weekly meeting? No, you don’t. That’s why you set up a recurring calendar invite at the same meeting time. You may be surprised by the number of ways you can apply this strategy to reduce friction and cut the number of decisions you need to make.
I recommend the book Atomic Habits to learn how to build good habits and break bad ones. In his book, author James Clear explains how all habits proceed through four stages.
- Cue: triggers your brain to initiate a behavior based on information that predicts a reward (e.g., money, status, food, sex, praise, approval, sense of satisfaction)
- Craving: links to a desire to change your internal state
- Response: transforms your action into a habit
- Reward: satisfies your craving and desire, which is the ultimate goal of the habit
When you understand how the habit loop operates, you have a better chance to design good habits through experimentation and repetition. Design good habits by removing impediments to a desired behavior. Break bad habits by adding friction to a negative behavior. Follow these six steps to create good habits.
Step 1: Make the new habit part of your identity. The most important step in creating a new habit is to embrace the identity of who you want to become. Identity is shaped by our beliefs, behavior, and worldview. Self-development requires continually learning and upgrading your identity. For example, I’m almost always on time for meetings. I’ve internalized the value of respecting other people’s time so punctuality has become a part of my identity.
Step 2: Use “inversion” to identify and remove obstacles. Inversion is a thinking tool that allows you to flip a problem around and think backward. Inversion looks at the problem in reverse and involves identifying all the things to avoid. Inversion doesn’t always solve the problem, but it helps you think more clearly about removing unnecessary obstacles. For example, you want to be more productive and notice that you are more likely to get tired in the afternoon if you eat a heavy lunch. But when you eat a salad or something light, you are less tired and more productive, so you begin to eat a lighter lunch, removing the impediment to your productivity. Inversion removes obstacles.
Step 3: Start with baby steps. The best way to start a new habit is to make it easy to follow. Motivation and willpower are useful for getting started, but they are unreliable. Don’t make the mistake of setting goals and expectations too high. Build habits from the ground up and don’t impose big challenges. You are building new neural pathways in your brain, and you want to eliminate all friction and resistance. Repetition and consistency are more important than pushing yourself to do more. If you want to write more, start by writing one sentence every day. If you want to meditate, start by meditating for one minute every day. For reading, start with one page a day. This may seem too easy, but resist the temptation to do more in the beginning.
Step 4: Make very small improvements every day. Start small and make tiny improvements each day. If you started by reading one page per day, advance to two pages the next day and to three pages the day after that. Continue increasing daily, and you will be up to 30 pages a day in a month. But make sure that you’re not pushing yourself too hard too quickly. As you increase the number of pages read, you’ll need to find the right amount so you can accomplish your goal without failure.
Maximum motivation occurs when we face a challenge that is not too difficult to manage but not so easy that it bores us. The point is not to see how many pages you can read in a day, but rather to develop a habit of daily reading that you can follow for the rest of your life.
Step 5: Be consistent. The key to creating a new habit is doing it every day. Repetition and consistency are critical. The amount of time you invest is less important than repeated, deliberate, daily practice. Never miss two days in a row. Missing one day every once in a while will not have a big impact, but missing two days in a row will have a negative effect. This principle applies to any new habit.
Step 6: Focus on long-term benefits. Focus on small, incremental improvements over time. When I consider incorporating a new habit into my life, I ask myself the following question: Can I do this every day for the next three-plus years? Unless your new habit becomes part of your identity and lifestyle, it will not stick. This is why most people fail at dieting. They may lose weight in the short term, but they will most likely regain it because they cannot sustain the diet across time.
Start by inventorying your day
Look for where can you eliminate friction and add habits that will save you time and energy, thus helping you make better decisions? Little decisions may seem trivial, but when you automate dozens of small decisions, they have a big impact on your productivity. What habits can you build to automate decisions and be more productive? Once you build a habit, you make fewer decisions.
 Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones, by James Clear, Penguin Publishing Group, 2018.