Habit reduces choice — and that’s a good thing

Today’s world is one of snowballing choice. We can choose from hundreds of restaurants each with tens of menu items, delivered to our doorstep. We can select from many lifetime’s worth of TV shows and movies and watch them on our laptops, our phones, and our smart TVs. Even a quick trip to the corner convenience store to buy toothpaste requires you to choose among a shelf of brands. Then to choose your payment method. Credit or cash? Apple pay? Do you have a loyalty card? Do you want to open one now? How about a store credit card?

Don’t even get me started on the choice porn that is Starbucks.

We know that choice is generally a good thing. It means freedom and opportunity and hope. The more education we receive, the more developed our society, the more relationships we have, the more choice we’re given.

But we also know each decision comes with a cost, a kind of psychic debit card. That cost has many names: Information overload. Decision paralysis. The paradox of choice. Willpower depletion.

So how do we balance this ballooning universe of choices with a decision making process that is both efficient yet effective, disciplined yet open minded?

After we make a decision, how do we stay committed through the inevitable waves of doubt and second-guessing as we’re presented with yet more related decisions, and as we see the outcomes of people who made different decisions?

Habits are the answer.

Habits are one of our oldest and most reliable technologies. Human brains are literally wired to act out of habit.

Let habits decide for you.

If your habit is to wake up before 7am every day, then your body won’t let you stay out late, night after night.

If you’ve been a vegetarian for years, you actively avoid fast food restaurants. The burgers aren’t appealing.

If your habit is to spend time with your kids when they return from school, then those afternoon hours become sacred to you. You don’t think about working during them.

Habit reduces choice. In fact that may be its primary job.

When your habit is to eat a piece of fruit and a yogurt each morning, you don’t spend time and willpower to think about breakfast. You know what you’ll eat when you wake up, and you eat it, and you don’t second guess your meal when it’s done.

When you wear the same type of outfit every day, say a black turtleneck and slim blue jeans, you don’t spend willpower points and arouse anxiety when choosing your clothes. Maybe the clothes have been laid out the night before. You go straight to the pants and shirts you’ll wear and you put them on without hesitation.

When you head to spin class every Tuesday and Thursday at 7pm, you know what you’ll be doing at that hour. Your schedule clears itself, and you don’t hem and haw as the hour approaches. Your mind expects it. Your body craves it.

Of course you still need to choose and then forge the right habits. That is hard or very hard, depending on the particular habit. It requires patience and persistence and pain. Every step forward can start to feel smaller and smaller until you hardly feel like you’re moving at all. But you are. You’re just making progress on a different level, a less conscious one, but a more permanent one.

After enough repetition, one day you will perform your habit – whether it’s reading a literary novel at night, or kissing your wife before she heads to work, or going for a long walk after dinner – without thinking about it. You’ll finish the task and only then will you realize what you were doing. And it will feel great.

That daily walk after dinner, for example, removes ten decisions you’d otherwise need to make. Without it, you’ll find yourself asking: What do I do after dinner? Watch TV on the couch? Read a book? Or maybe I should exercise. But what type of exercise? Go to the gym? Head to krav maga class? I’m tired though. It’s been a long day. Should I do it anyway? Ugh.

Choice is like the stuffing inside a burrito. It’s the filling. It’s the flavor. Without it a burrito would be tasteless.

Habit, meanwhile, is the tortilla wrap that keeps the whole thing together. Habit gives us shape and structure. The stronger and sturdier the wrap, the more meat and rice and beans you can add into the burrito, and the easier it is to eat.

So build good habits now. Construct them slowly and steadily over months and years. Let them grow into reliable pillars, to stand you up and hold you firm. Let them make good choices for you.

Hi! I write about habits and spirituality and random whatevers. Click here to see the daily habits that I track. Find me on Twitter @kgao.

Daily Habits Checklist (November 28 – December 11)

One good week (80%) and one ok week (70%).

Right now I’m naturally waking up around 7:30am. My eventual goal is 6am. In an attempt to push myself to get there, I’ll sometimes schedule calls at 7am or 6:30am. But I’ve found that this has consequences, a drop in energy and focus after a day or two of these early morning calls. It’s taken years of steady effort to shift my waking time to 7:30am, and it’s probably best to allow it to slowly reduce further…

Singing is hard for me. Sometimes it’s as if I take two steps back for every step forward, feeling like I sound worse with each lesson or recording session. When I first began to sing, I was more willing to share and publish. Ignorance really is bliss. The more I learn about what makes a good voice and how to sing well, the more hesitant I am to share. But hopefully I can return to releasing songs soon. I guess it works this way with most skills…you have to keep practicing and improving and grit your way through the sometimes long trough.

Thanks for reading. Here’s an explanation of how and why I track my daily habits. And here’s a starter template if you’d like to create your own. You can download it in Excel, PDF, etc.

What habits do you monitor? Which habits would you like to develop? Email me anytime.

Hi! I write about habits and spirituality and random whatevers. Click here to see the daily habits that I track. Find me on Twitter @kgao.

The superhuman habits of John D. Rockefeller, the wealthiest man in American history

Do you know of John D. Rockefeller? The richest guy in American history. Founder of the University of Chicago and Rockefeller University. Adjusted for inflation, his net worth today would surpass $300B. That’s equal to the combined net worth of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett…times two.

Rockefeller led a remarkable habit driven life. The below excerpt describes Rockefeller’s daily schedule. Keep in mind – this is the schedule Rockefeller followed after he retired!

Rising at 6AM, he read the newspaper for an hour, then strolled through house and garden from 7 to 8, giving a dime to each new employee and a nickel to each veteran. He then breakfasted at 8, followed at 8:45 by a game of numerica (a puzzle game), which gave him time to digest his food properly (he was strict about relaxing after eating to let his food digest). From 9:15 to 10:15 he worked on his correspondence, mostly devoted to his philanthropy and investments. (As many as 2,000 letters arrived daily at his home, most of them solicitations for money.) From 10:15 to 12 he golfed, from 12:15 to 1PM he bathed and then rested. Then came lunch and another round of numerica from 1 to 2:30. From 2:30 to 3 he reclined on the sofa and had mail read to him; from 3:15 to 5:15 he motored, from 5:30 to 6:30 he again rested, while 7 to 9 was given over to a formal dinner, followed by more rounds of numerica. From 9 to 10 he listened to music and chatted with guests, then slept from 10:30 PM to 6 AM -and then the whole merry-go-round started up again. He did not deviate from this routine by one iota, regardless of the weather. One friend who observed this rhythm at close range found “something bordering on the superhuman, perhaps the inhuman – in this unbroken, mathematically perfect schedule. It was uncanny.” – Dane Maxwell

Hi! I write about habits and spirituality and random whatevers. Click here to see the daily habits that I track. Find me on Twitter @kgao.

Daily Habits Checklist (November 7 – 27): Travel is the opposite of habit


Writing of the Habit Driven Life continues. I have no idea what I’ll do with the finished draft. Just want to prove (to myself) that I can write 200 more-or-less related pages. It’s almost entirely a mental battle.

Writing at Ueshima Coffee

Didn’t reach my personal goal of 80% in any week. Traveled a lot. But travel is almost the exact opposite of habit. Maybe that’s the point?

Oh, and if I want to do something hard, I must do it in the morning. Meditation and running are two prominent examples. If I don’t meditate or run before noon, the chance of them being done drops by 50% or more. The afternoon and evening can be productive, but I don’t have the same discipline / grit / willpower. Which makes waking up early even more important. Am I just getting tired as the day unfolds? Or is something else going on?

Thanks for reading! Here’s an explanation of how and why I track my daily habits. And here’s a starter template if you’d like to create your own. You can download it in Excel, PDF, etc.

What habits do you monitor? Which habits would you like to develop? Email me anytime.

Hi! I write about habits and spirituality and random whatevers. Click here to see the daily habits that I track. Find me on Twitter @kgao.

Passion is a reboot of the happiness myth

Our generation-spanning experiment with passion-centric career planning can be deemed a failure: The more we focused on loving what we do, the less we ended up loving it. […] There’s little evidence that most people have pre-existing passions waiting to be discovered, and believing that there’s a magical right job lurking out there can often lead to chronic unhappiness and confusion.. – Cal Newport

Are you obsessed with identifying your passion? Are you worried you might not have one? Are you frustrated because each time you find a passion, it seems to slip away?

Passion is to your career as happiness is to your personal life. Chasing happiness feels good in the short term, but it can derail your life plans. Pursuing a passion in your career can do the same to your professional development.

Passion is like a reboot of the happiness myth. If happiness is original Coke, then passion is New Coke. And like New Coke, it tastes kinda crappy and will end in failure.

Like happiness, passion is an emotion. And an emotion works a lot like a drug.

Like happiness, passion is capricious. It comes and goes as IT pleases, not as YOU please.

Like happiness, passion is never fulfilled. The more you indulge in it, the stronger your craving, the higher your expectation.

Have you watched the Fast and Furious movies? In particular the first one (the best one).

Remember nos? Pronounced like the first syllable in “nozzle”. Nos is like a turbo button for a race car. It is a chemical that gives a quick surge of acceleration. But you have only a limited amount for use in each race. Use it at the right moment, and you’ll zoom past your opponent and win. Use nos at the wrong moment, or use too much of it at one time, and you’ll not only lose the race, but you might lose control of your car and crash. At least, this is what I learned watching Fast and Furious :)

Well, happiness and passion are like nos. They’re powerful, sexy, and tempting. They give you a brief but exhilarating boost.

But they’re temporary. You wish you could use them all the time, but they only come in limited supply. They’re hard to control. And costly. Like nos, you can’t rely on them to drive you to your destination, your dream.

You must rely on fuel instead. Fuel is stable, reliable, and consistent. Fuel gets you where you want to go.

And – here’s the punchline – if happiness and passion are nos, then HABITS are fuel.

A habit driven person employs emotion like Dom Toretto uses nos: only when absolutely necessary, and only to win.

You can still use nos. Passion and happiness are powerful. Passion can get you so excited to write a song that you’ll literally race to your desk and begin composing a melody on staff paper. But tomorrow you’ll wake up, groggy and irritable, and you’ll ignore that staff paper. You’ll think, I was so passionate about writing yesterday, I’ll wait for the feeling to come back. But she won’t return. Those notes will collect dust.

Rely on habit instead. Habit is emotion’s nemesis. Habit beats emotion nine times out of ten because he always shows up. He chugs along. He makes progress day after day, rep after rep.

Habit is the unsexy turtle. It will always outrun the fickle hare.

The person chasing happiness and passion will WANT to make yoga class in the evening. Really. But if her daily habit is to return home after work, plop down on the oversized leather couch, and eat fig newtons while watching reality TV…it’s just not gonna happen. Doesn’t matter how passionate she is about yoga. Her habit will take over. There’s another class tomorrow…work will be lighter tomorrow, she’ll tell herself.

The habit driven person also returns home after a long day, tired and stressed. But she’s gone to the gym every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for a month. She knows the regulars. The trainers nod and wink. With the pain and sweat and hours she’s invested, she’s lost ten pounds. You can see definition in her arms. Her gym shoes and workout bag are by the door, ready to go.

Guess what she’s gonna do?

PS. I’m writing on the habit driven life. Thanks for reading!

Hi! I write about habits and spirituality and random whatevers. Click here to see the daily habits that I track. Find me on Twitter @kgao.