Habits: Automation for Humans

Habits for Personal Automation

I often talk a lot about how we can use software an automation.  Today, I’d like to take a few minutes to talk about automation for ourselves in the form of habits.  A habit is something that is so routine for us that we execute it with very little thought.  Think about riding a bicycle, driving a car, or brushing our teeth.  We don’t put much thought into it – it just happens once we start the “process”.  We can use habits in our daily lives to drive good behavior and promote good – or bad – quality in our lives, just like we can promote good or bad software quality with our automation.

For software, we use a computing device for our automation.  As a human, we use our body as the computing device.  The thing we want to automate in software – such as automatically running unit tests when a change gets committed – is the equivalent of a habit.  So from a software perspective, think of your body as the computer and a habit as the software that does the automation!

Mouse with Person on Top

The Power of Habit

If you want to read more about habits, I strongly encourage buying The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg.  The following is a few key insights from his book (full disclosure: the following picture is an affiliate link to the book).

The Power of Habit

The Power of Habit describes just how powerful habits are.  For example, a guy with Alzheimer’s still walks the same route he used to several times before the disease affected his mental state.  Loved ones thought he was lost somewhere, but he still walked the same route that he used to years before the disease hit.

The point is that once a habit is ingrained, it requires very little mental effort to execute that habit.  Even for those that are mentally altered.  We can use habits in our own lives to make something that may be difficult very manageable.  We might do this to do things that are good for ourselves (or bad for ourselves if we don’t manage our habits).

Forming or Breaking a Habit

The Cue, Routine, and Reward

Habits consist of a couple of steps.  A cue is the signal that tells one to start the habit.  The routine is the actual action that is done.  Finally, the reward is the result of performing that habit.

For example, smoking might look like the following:

3:00 PM (cue) -> smoke a cigarette (routine) -> don’t feel nicotine craving (reward)

Smoking

Other rewards might be that you get to talk to friends as you smoke.  Or perhaps it prevents you from getting jittery.  Or it might make you feel good.

Another example that comes from my own life:

5:15 or 5:30 AM alarm (cue) -> wake up and workout (routine) -> feel good about myself/see myself look good in the mirror (reward)

There are tons of different habits you can map out this way.  Having that framework, let’s talk about a few ways we can make or break a habit.

Making or Breaking the Habit

  1. Determine the routine: what is the habit you want to start or break?
  2. Try different rewards: perhaps eat a piece of chocolate.  Or do something fun once you do the routine.
  3. Find the cue

Smoking Example

If you want to break a habit, it is critical that you find the cue that starts the habit.  Knowing the cue, you can determine something different to do for the routine and experiment with rewards.  Perhaps the reward for smoking is chatting with friends.  If that is the case, you may be able to chat with other friends that don’t smoke.  Or you could chat with your friends during a separate time when they don’t smoke.

If the reward is a nicotine craving that is satisfied, you may could experiment with alternatives to smoking, like nicotine gum.

Working Out Example

For a different example, suppose you want to start a workout routine in the morning.  The cue would probably be something like an alarm clock going off at some time.  If you are not an early riser, this might be extremely challenging.  I might start with waking up consistently at some time and then doing an activity you really enjoy.  Perhaps you enjoy reading or playing a video game.  Wake up 30 minutes early and rather than working out, do the different activity.  The reward comes from whatever reward that routine (reading or playing a game) provides.

Once you have the habit of waking up early, you can attempt to replace the routine with working out.  Start with something extremely simple.  For example, perhaps you walk for 5 minutes then play 25 minutes of a video game.  Or better yet, play 10 minutes of a game, walk for 5 minutes, then play 15 more minutes of the game.  (This is assuming you are still waking up early to do these activities.)

Game Controller

You still have the same reward, you just very slightly change the routine for a while.  Over time, you can change the exercise activity to consume more of that 30 minutes.  In addition, at least for me, exercise eventually becomes its own reward.  That ‘feel good’ feeling you get or just the sense of accomplishment of starting of your day on the right foot can be enough to reinforce the routine.

Once you do the routine enough (about 30 days), it will start getting a lot easier to do the task.

Conclusion

The Power of Habit has been a big eye-opener for me in how I view habits.  It really is very similar to how we use automation for software.  Once we have the automation in place, it takes little effort to kick off.  And hopefully, if managed well, it makes our lives that much better.

If you want to explore more about habit creation and exactly how they work, I encourage you to look at this book (click the below picture, which – full disclosure – is an affiliate link).

The Power of Habit

I hope an understanding of habits can help you use them as a form of automation to improve your life.  I know at least working has been a big part of my life and affects how I view habits.

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