Engineer Life: Set Up Habit Changes So It’s Hard to Fail

Post written by Leo Babauta.

In his excellent ebook about changing habits, blogging friend Scott Young described the process of forming habits as walking home through fresh snow. The first person to go through the snow has to forge a path through the snow, and it’s difficult … but others will follow in that path and it gets easier and easier.

Forming a habit is a matter of forging that initial path until it’s harder not to take the path. Who wants to forge a new path through the snow?

But let’s take that concept a little further: what if you engineered it so that even the initial person forging through the snow would rather take that path than another, because it would be harder not to take the path.

Engineer your habit change so that it’s harder not to form the habit.

Why habit changes fail
I think I can safely say that all of us have attempted and failed at creating a new habit or changing an old habit at a few points in our lives. It can be hard to change old ways and create new ones.

The problem is that creating a new habit can be difficult. The reason: negative feedback.

Negative feedback is when we do something, and it is painful, or difficult, or we get criticized, or in some other way get a bad feeling rather than a good one. Difficult exercise, for example, contains inherent negative feedback, as it is more difficult than sitting on the couch. Quitting smoking contains negative feedback, because you suffer withdrawal pains and urges.

Positive feedback, on the other hand, is when you get compliments from friends and family that you look thinner or healthier, or the satisfaction from the number on the scale dropping. It’s the encouraging comments I get on this blog. It’s the great feeling when finishing a good run or a 5K.

But when the negative feedback makes the habit change difficult, especially in the first few weeks, habit changes often fail. That’s because it’s easier to quit the habit change than to keep doing the new habit, because of the negative feedback. It’s easier to take a puff from a cigarette than to suffer withdrawal pains. It’s easier to sit on the couch eating potato chips than to go out for that run.

Habit changes fail because the negative feedback from doing the new habit outweigh the positive feedback, and it becomes easier not to do the habit.

Engineer the habit change
So how do we overcome this problem? Think of it from an engineer’s point of view:

  1. When negative feedback outweighs positive feedback, habit change fails.
  2. To make the habit change successful, positive feedback has to outweigh negative feedback.
  3. The solution: increase positive feedback and/or decrease negative feedback until the ratio favors the habit change.

Think of it this way: if you want to take a certain path in the snow, put obstacles along all other paths so that it’s difficult to go anywhere but the path you want to take … and have the path you want to take shoveled, so that it’s easy to take that path.

You can engineer your habit change so that it’s harder to quit than to do the habit.

How to do it
You have four options in your custom engineering solution. In each, I’ll give some ideas, but you’ll have to come up with ideas of your own to fit whatever habit you’re trying to change.

1. Increase positive feedback for the habit. Some habits have instant positive feedback, but often the positive feedback is delayed. It takes awhile to lose weight. It takes awhile before your blog starts getting encouraging comments. This delay in positive feedback is what causes many people to fail, because in the crucial first few weeks they are getting mostly positive feedback.

Instead, find ways to have instant positive feedback. The more, the better. Add as many of these (and others you can think of) as possible to increase chances of success. Some examples:

2. Decrease negative feedback for the habit. First you have to list the negative feedback for your habit. For quitting smoking, there are urges and withdrawal pains. For exercise, it can be an exertion, which takes effort and energy. Analyze the negative feedback for your habit, all of them, and see how to decrease them. Some ideas:

3. Increase negative feedback for not doing the habit. You want to make it hard not to do the habit. As hard as humanly possible. So to do that, you need to put all kinds of negative feedback on yourself for not doing the habit. Some ideas:

4. Decrease positive feedback for not doing the habit. What tempts you not to do your habit today? Give this some thought, and then decrease those positive things. Some ideas:

Final word: In the end, be sure that you’ve engineered it so that it’s harder not to do the habit. If you fail, just add more of any or all of the above four options and try again. Don’t give up!