The 4 Best Books on How to Build New Habits
Coaching is a simple cycle. Insight, about yourself or about others, leads to behaviour change. In other words, insight allows you to think differently, which leads to positive impact, which leads to new insight. And hopefully that virtuous circle feeds into itself.
Then the question is, how do you now commit to doing things differently? And that gets trickier because we all love our grooves.
In this video, I share four of the best books and my insights from them on:
- Habit loops and triggers
- The mechanics of habits so you can build these new behaviours
- How a deeper connection can have a powerful influence on adopting new behaviours
So when I talk about coaching, as I do a lot, and people go, “Well, what do you mean by ‘coaching’?” I say, “Look, there are many good definitions of coaching out there but here’s how we understand it at Box of Crayons. Coaching is a simple cycle. Insight, about yourself or about others, leads to behaviour change. In other words, you do something differently, leads to positive impact. And hopefully that feeds into itself.” So insight leads to behaviour change, leads to impact, leads to new insight, and so the virtuous circle goes. And what’s tricky about this is often not so much about generating insight, because once you’ve mastered some really strong powerful questions, they tend to generate the new insight for people. So that’s cool.
Then the question is, all right, so how do you now commit to doing things differently? And that gets trickier because we are all in a comfortable groove. We love our grooves. You know, we’re just like—we spend a lifetime doing the same thing. And there’s a saying in the world of neuroscience: What fires together wires together. So if you’re trying to imagine what’s happening in your brain as you build new habits or at least you build your old habits, what happens is the first time you do it, the neuropathways form between this and that, and then the second time it happens, zip, it happens again, and then the third time you do it, zip, it happens again. And this goes back and forth and it continues to strengthen, until you have, you know, almost like literally a groove in your own brain, a neuropathway that is strongly connected.
So when something happens and that part of the brain is—that little connection is triggered, we just go down that path because it’s so familiar. And I say all of that to say, “That’s why changing your behaviour is so difficult. If you’ve ever had that moment on January the 21st—some call January the 21st the most depressing day of the year because that’s when you suddenly realize that all of your new year’s resolutions have failed utterly, plus your credit card is due. So it’s a kind of downer of a day.
And if you’re ever thinking to yourself, “Well, why? Why this time? Why again did my new year’s resolutions fail?” it’s because we’ve got these old habits that are so hard to shake.
Now the good news is, there’s actually lots of good new information out in the world about how to build new habits. So I want to go through some of those quickly because I’ve done a lot of reading recently and I think I’ve got the four best books I can share with you around how to build new habits, how to understand the mechanics of habits so you can build these new behaviours.
The first one is by Charles Duhigg. It’s kind of got the ball rolling with this whole habit thing. It’s called The Power of Habit, and I think it was kind of the first out of the gate, but it’s actually a really terrific book. Charles Duhigg, fantastic writer. He’s actually a New York Times journalist, so he writes beautifully. And you’ll laugh and you’ll cry, and there’s lots of good signs and lots of good stories in this book. And I’m going to reduce it down to a key insight that’s been really powerful (indiscernible). A habit is not a single behaviour. That’s too simplistic. Actually, a habit has three parts to it. What Duhigg calls “the habit loop”.
The first part is the trigger. That’s the situation that sets you off down that path, the way of behaving. The second part is the behaviour itself. And then the third part is the reward. It’s that thing in your brain that says, “Whoa, that was good. Do it again next time.” So, if you’re thinking, like, as a context, perhaps email. When you’re gadget goes “ping,” that’s the trigger. The behaviour is you always check your gadget when it goes “ping”. And then the reward is that little rush of dopamine your brain gets that goes, “Ah, somebody loves me. They sent me an email. Oh, that’s nice.” And so it goes, and so we get into this habit of obsessively tracking our gadgets.
And the thing that I’d encourage you to take away from the Duhigg thing is this: You’ve got to figure the trigger. If you don’t understand what sets you off, if you don’t understand the context, it’s almost impossible to start a new behaviour or change an old behaviour. So that’s the key thing that I love from this book, but, really, it’s just a great read. In a world where business books are often terrible, this is a good one.
The second book I want to talk about is Making Habits, Breaking Habits. Why We Do Things, Why We Don’t and How to Make Any Change Stick. It’s by Jeremy Dean, and Jeremy is a psychologist and creator of PsyBlog. I think that’s the way to say it. P-S-Y-B-L-O-G. So this is a really great blog. It’s basically findings from popular psychology and behavioural economics translated into very useful, insightful articles.
And, actually, if you’ve ever heard that story about habits, the if you do something for 21 days, then suddenly you’ll have a habit? And if you ever thought to yourself or it’s finally occurred to you, “That has got to be wrong,” it is wrong. Somebody just made it up and now it haunts the internet and it won’t die. But I always wondered, “Well, who made that up?” Well, actually, I found out the answer in this book. Apparently it was back in the 20s, I think, a plastic surgeon noticed that it took about 21 days, that when people got a nose job, then they kind of got used to their new nose. And somehow 21 days getting used to your nose job turned into “it takes 21 days to build a habit.” So ignore 21 days to build a habit. But I think there’s some very useful and insightful stuff in this book. It’s very well researched; really grounded in the science.
One of the key things I got from this, it’s a subtlety, it’s about the dangers of imagining a successful outcome. And of course, if you’re in the world of life coaching or coaching in general, you might have been told about this, the power of visualization. “Visualize the outcome that you want. Fantasize how good that’s going to be.” And what the science has actually found out, that if you fantasize about your outcome, it actually diminishes your incentive to pursue it because actually your body goes, “Oh, I can see it. I can feel it. Oh, I’ve kind of got it,” and you lose some of your motivation to pursue the goal. So, what we read about in this book is two things. One is don’t think of it as a fantasy; set it up as an expectation. “I’m not dreaming of some fantasy. I expect to get this piece.”
And the second thing to take from this is focus on the steps that get you to the goal that you want. That’s where you should be really putting your future focus, on each of those steps rather than to that fantastical outcome, which actually, ironically, drains you of motivation. So, great book there.
The third book I want to talk to you is by my friend Leo Babauta. He runs Zen Habits, which is probably one of the most popular blogs in the world. Certainly one of the most popular self-help blogs. He’s such a nice man, and this is a beautiful book. It’s really the accumulation of a lot of his writing over the last five to ten years. And, really, Leo has a lot to say about this and he’s been a great role model for turning his life around from being an overweight, smoking, unhappy man to being lean, running ultra-marathons, making money doing the writing and the blogging that he loves. So he’s really lived this experience.
And I think the two things that I took from this book—well, I took more than two, but two I’d share with you: The first is, as you build a new habit, make a vow, is what Leo calls it. And what he really means is getting connected to the deeper why of why you would change this behaviour, and the more powerful and the more connected to service of others you can do it, the more you’re going to have a powerful force pulling you forward to complete the habit that you want.
He talks about wanting to lose weight, or maybe it was giving up smoking, and actually it was the vow to, “I don’t want my children to see me as a smoker” that pulled him through and made such a powerful change.
The other tactic I took from Leo’s book is this: If you’re building a new habit, never miss two days in a row. And what I love about that is it gives you permission to fail. Everybody misses a day. Nobody has a perfect slate of “I’ve never missed a day of building this habit,” but if you miss one day, don’t default to the, “What the hell, I’ve missed a day, I may as well give up.” Say to yourself, “I never miss two days in a row,” so on that second day get back to the habit that you’d once started. Zen Habits by Leo Babauta.
And the fourth and final book I want to share with you about habit building: Atul Gawande. He’s a surgeon. He writes for The New Yorker. Beautiful writer. His latest book is called On Mortality and it’s fantastic. It’s really about how to think about death and dying, and how do you do that in a way that is—allows you and those—your family around you to do that with integrity. It’s not really what this conversation’s about but I love that book. I’d recommend it as a sneaky side recommendation. This is about the power of a checklist to drive a new behaviour. And the story he tells is of the—you remember the miracle on the Hudson where the plane engines failed and it somehow landed on the Hudson River and the pilot was hailed as a hero? And his point is really powerful. It’s like, “I didn’t really do anything other than I followed the checklist, the processes that were in place that allowed me to respond to the situation.” And his real point in this is if you have a checklist, you don’t engage your brain, your willpower, in terms of how to deal with the situation. You just follow the checklist. And by following the checklist, you make it much more likely that you’ll accomplish the things that you want to do.
So don’t—let’s say you’re trying to go for a run. Don’t go, “I hope my willpower will get me out the door.” Set up a checklist of steps you need to go through to get you out of bed, into running clothes, through the front door and running the first few steps. And that’s going to make all the difference.
If you want to change your behaviour, the way to do it is to be thinking about “How do I build a new habit?” There’s a lot of old rubbish out there about habits. There’s a lot of great stuff about habits. Those four books I’ve told you there will allow you to create the formula to build your own specific habits, so you get to shift your behaviour, step up your game and hopefully do less good work and more great work.