Make harmful habits harder to do

I tend to eat when I’m anxious, sad, or overwhelmed. My brain wants those substance hits (usually sugar-related) and, if it’s easy, I’ll eat all day long.

If it’s easy; that’s the key.

One of the best ways to break or replace bad habits is to make them harder to do, or even to hide them away completely.

With overeating, I did the following:

  1. I threw away all the junk food and expired items.
  2. I deleted every food delivery app and phone number from my cell phone.
  3. I bought a big stock of sardines, jerky, salami, eggs, nuts, and other healthy foods that I can eat without preparation (or without much preparation, at least).

With that, whenever I want to eat something I won’t have sugary treats: I’ll only have foods that are “heavier,” and that makes it harder to overeat.

If I really want to eat a pizza or Chinese food I can still order it, but just the fact that I need to Google a place and make a phone call is enough to make me reconsider. Reconsidering – that pause between having an impulse and acting on it – is usually enough to make me stop on my tracks. That’s not always the case, but it certainly helps.

This can be true for every other habit as well. Do you play too many video games? Delete them all and re-download them Friday night to play on the weekend. Do you use your phone too much in bed, which prevents you from falling asleep faster? Put your charger in another room.

We are creatures of habit. Make something hard to do – or even just less convenient – and you might see a significant change.

The floor is lava!

Sometimes I get into a rut. In most cases, simply writing about a task and breaking it down to micro-steps is more than enough to get me going, but there are situations that I just don’t want to do something.

First of all, I try to confirm the assumption that I really need to do it. If it’s really needed, one thing that helps me is to try to make it fun and exciting by adding some crazy rules to it.

You have to do it in half the time it would usually take. Go!

You have to do it five times faster than usual. Go!

You have to do it with your eyes closed. Go!

You have to do it while also documenting it, so you never have to do it again. Go!

You have to do it while also automating it, so you never have to do it again. Go!

It all boils down to the following core question: since I really have to do this, what can I do to make it more fun, exciting, or challenging?

Is there any task you’ve been procrastinating for a long time? Can you just drop it? Otherwise, what can you do to make it interesting?

Help me help you

In my career, the best way to ensure I’ll get a positive response when I ask someone a favour is to do the work and help them help me.

Take this:

“Hey Sally, I need to develop a module that does XYZ. How do you think I should approach that?”

And compare with this:

“Hey Sally, I need to develop a module that does XYZ. I’ve checked a couple of past projects in which you did that, developed some proof of concepts, and pared down my options to the following ones:

1) Do it like ABC.
2) Do it like DEF.

What option would you go for? Any help or feedback would be appreciated!”

In the second option, I’m making it easier for Sally to respond. She knows what I’ve tried, she has more context about what I want to do (since I’m providing examples), and if she’s short on time she can simply answer “#1” or “#2”. If she has time, she can then provide me with additional feedback about it.

This is especially important in remote working because people might respond later, so they won’t have time to do back-and-forth communication.

Before asking someone for a favour or opinion, do the best you can to make it extremely easy and convenient for them to help you. This will increase your odds of being helped and will send a very positive message to everyone.

Unblock yourself

I’ve been working remotely for over ten years now, and one of the most important traits I’ve found in successful, productive people in a remote setting is the ability to unblock themselves and get to the next step.

Whenever you’re working on, you’ll always find obstacles and setbacks. When that happens, it might feel more comfortable to say “oh hey, I tried this but I need permission from John before I fix this” or “sorry boss, I need Sally to do XYZ before I do ABC”; all of that might be true. You might need permission from John before proceeding… but is that really blocking every single thing you can do to make progress on this project or task?

Really? I find that hard to believe. You can always improve something, document it, test it, get feedback on it, and much more. Also, you can actually try to find different ways of getting that permission or avoid needing that permission in the first place.

Whatever it is, try the best to unblock yourself and make progress on whatever it is you’re trying to do. Doing that as a habit will turn you into a more resourceful, productive, and generally autonomous person – which is valuable in business and life.

What can you do to unblock yourself today?

Planning is more important than having plans

I enjoy planning, but I think plans are mostly useless.

Wait, what?

We can’t predict the future, and even mild predictions can be wildly wrong if you think too far ahead. The world is changing fast, and one of the best ways to deal with uncertainty is to exchange plans for options and adaptability. So, in my opinion, plans are mostly useless in the face of our dynamic, exciting world.

Planning, however, is an extremely valuable tool. It helps you think things through, consider alternatives, considers obstacles, define the lower level tasks that need to get done, and in general formalize a fuzzy idea into something more concrete.

Planning is a tool for thinking and learning, not predicting and controlling.

Do the planning but discard the plans. Learn what you can and move on, adjusting and course-correcting with the feedback you get from actually doing.

Am I having fun?

I like video games. I’ve been playing them since I was five years old and they are a somewhat constant part of my life. In the last year, though, I have started to cut back on gaming more and more – and it’s not about doing more productive things with my time.

I enjoy playing games in which you can “farm” or “grind” for experience points. I like the game loop, I like improving my characters, and I like that mechanic of getting and completing quests.

Things changed after I re-read The Four Hour Workweek; in the book, Tim Ferriss recommends “following your excitement.” I started thinking about that and wrote down what I did with my time in the last two weeks or so. I noticed that I spent quite some time (up to 2 hours per day) playing games, so I started paying more attention to my internal state when I was playing.

“Am I having fun? Am I excited about it?”

Guess what? Most of the times, I wasn’t.

While I did have fun and exciting moments in some games and sessions, in most cases I was repeating the motions and “killing time” while I could be doing something way more fun or interesting. As a result, I deleted most games, and I’m deliberately replacing the time spent on them with things I’m more excited about, and it’s been a very positive change.

This is a useful filter for any activity. If you’re doing something, try to check your internal state and consider the alternatives. At work, can you do something more engaging? Outside work, can you do something more fun and exciting?

Missed a day? Don’t overreact.

I’ve failed at creating habits in the past. I’ve failed a lot, I should say.

My most common trigger to fail a dietary habit would be overestimating my mistakes. I’ll explain.

A few years ago I decided to try removing sugar from my diet: my goal was to not eat refined sugar at all for 30 days. I wanted to see the health benefits that some people praised so much, and the key there (in my mind) was to do it 30 consecutive days.

Things were going relatively fine, but at day 3 or 4 (during the famous “keto flu”), I ended up eating a piece of chocolate cake at a party. At that time, my immediate reaction to cases like this would be one of these two:

  1. “Damn, I failed! 30 days is too much anyway. Screw this!”
  2. “Damn, I failed! Since I already screwed up today, I might as well eat a little bit more and drink some soda. I’ll get back to the diet tomorrow.”

Neither of them is helpful. What’s the problem? Well, they are binary: if I ate chocolate cake, I failed; there’s no middle ground, it’s either failure or success.

What I do now when this happens (and it still happens most times I’m trying to create a new habit) is to intercept those reactions and immediately think the following:

“It’s OK, but it doesn’t mean I have to make it worse by doing more of it. What can I do to decrease the odds of this happening again?”

Try to notice those reactions and try to replace them with something more rational and less absolute, less “all or nothing.” This is not about success or failure, it’s about learning and improving – even if it’s just a little bit.

What if I’m wrong?

I used to curse a lot while driving. “Why is this idiot driving so slow? Can’t they move to the other lane?”, I’d complain.

On the other hand, there were occasions in which I’d be showing someone around town, and someone would scream or use their horns at me, and I’d think “Wow, what a douche! If you’re in a hurry just drive past me.”

I’m ashamed to say it took me quite a while to realize the irony there.

We are in a period of presidential elections here in Brazil, and this election has been extremely polarizing, much more than any other I’ve ever seen. This has triggered some extreme and visceral emotional reactions from me, and it is quite surprising the sheer amount of effort I have to take to respond rationally.

When I see something or talk to someone about it, I’m trying to intercept this automatic anger response and ask myself: “What if I’m wrong?”

I get angry because all these people can’t see what this candidate represents: the violence, the fascism, the prejudice! “Why can’t they see? Why can’t they understand?”

But what if I’m wrong?

What if this is not as bad as it seems? There are smart people making the opposite choice, so what’s their perspective? Since I’ve caught myself in this emotional cycle, I’ve been trying to follow and talk to people with the opposite opinion, and it can be quite enlightening.

If you feel very strongly about something, it helps to stop, breathe, and try to think from the opposite perspective. Whether or not you change your mind, you will at least learn something about yourself, and learn more about the idea you’re defending.

What’s the next step?

When we want to achieve something, it’s easy to get so focused on the end goal that sometimes we get paralyzed.

“I want to lose 30 kg and exercise 3 times per week!”

Well, that’s great! What are you doing about it?

“Oh, uhhh… next week I’ll sign up for a gym.”

And then life happens, and we forget. Or we remember, but we leave it for later because we still have to find a good gym anyway, or maybe because next week there’s that work trip we have to take… In the end, we make no progress and get demoralized again.

Here’s an alternative. Instead of focusing on the end goal and finding a perfect solution, ask yourself: what’s the smallest step I can take right now? Not tomorrow, not next week: right now.

If you want to lose weight, maybe start by going through your house and throwing (or giving) away from all the junk food you have.

If you want to write a book, maybe start by writing 100 words right now, even if you don’t know where to start.

What about you? What’s the next step you can take right now to get closer to what you want?

Minimalism and games

In the ongoing quest to simplify my life, I have been thinking about what other “hidden to-do lists” I have. I trimmed down books, apps, and even my goals and plans, but I still felt some “open threads” running in background in my head. Then I remembered games!

Ever since I broke up with Skyrim I bought more games and even went back to some of the older ones. That’s fine: the point is not to avoid adding anything, but to constantly curate (more on that on a later post).

The problem is that I filled my Nintendo 3DS and Nintendo Switch with games again: games that were there as constant reminders of things that I “should” play (after all, I spent all that money!) I decided to try a different approach: I deleted all games from both consoles (I only own digital titles), put them in their boxes and stored them in my closet.

The purpose of this experiment was to find out:

  1. If I missed playing video games at all.
  2. If I did miss it, which games I actually wanted to play (as opposed to games I felt like playing to avoid sunk costs or whatnot).

In the first few days I instinctively looked at the place where my Switch used to be every time I went to the living room, but told myself it was OK: I could just do something else. I replaced the time playing games with walks, fiction books, and writing, and felt great about it.

Even though all my games were digital, and I didn’t kept tons of boxes or physical stuff, removing them and hiding the consoles made me feel free.

It’s been over a month, and although I do miss playing video games a little bit, I don’t feel excited to play any particular game right now; I know that if I unbox the consoles, I will play something, so for now I’m keeping them hidden from sight.

I have no idea how long this will last. I read somewhere that Diablo 3 will be released for Switch, so I’ll probably buy that and play it, but until then I think I’ll keep things this way.

Video games are not bad, and I’m not doing this to be “productive” or to do “better” things with my time: the point here is to ensure that I’m not doing things just out of habit. I want to do what I actually enjoy doing, and to achieve that yes, I might give up on a few things.

If you’re happy playing those games, keep at it! If you think you might be going through a similar situation with dopamine-hungry habits, just try this experiment and store your console away; you might be surprised with the results.