The Mathematics of Embedding Habits


Habits over Goals

Success depends on ‘M.E.’

I love a good old equation! I literally just devised one to predict the chances of successfully adopting a new habit (or ditching a bad one!). I’m not sure it would pass any rigorous academic review but if it works for me then Eureka!

Probability of Success = Motivation * Ease of Adoption

Say you want to lose weight. On a scale of 1 to 10, your motivation is 9. But you have no systematic habit in place to support your goal. So your ease of adoption is 1. Your probability of success is 9 out of 100.

Most of us focus on the motivation part of the equation. But assuming we are motivated, then the key lever we control is the system we put in place to adopt the habit. There are two key things we can do to give ourselves the best chance of success. Translate goals into systems and reduce barriers to adoption.

In the example above, if you increased your ease of adoption to 9 and your overall probability of success becomes 81%.

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit. – Aristotle

Eleven Steps to Embed a Habit

Increasing the ease of adoption involves planning any changes that make it easier for you and your brain to adopt the habit and harder to break it.

One of my current goals is to publish articles to a wider audience – just like this one. These are the steps I take to embed this habit. I’ve also added a checklist to define the system that supports a goal, together with a sample for my particular goal.

1. Confirm your Motivation

Thoughts or ideas that won’t go away are typically signals that you are motivated to do something. Decide what that something is. Motivational gurus generally recommend using goals and making them measurable. Some counsel against it. Evolution has trained us to reach goals. We experience a short-term high then quickly the euphoria recedes and we set the next goal. That’s OK.

It’s important to decide what makes you happy – the goal or the system. If your goal is to run a marathon, and you complete it, what’s next? Will you be satisfied? Or is running every day what makes you happy.

Ask yourself why is it an absolute must to accomplish this goal? What great things will you experience if you achieve it? What terrible things may happen if you don’t? This will help you through any challenges. But be careful, willpower is not the way.

Goals are harmful unless they guide you to make specific behaviors easier to do. – B.J. Fogg

2. Decide your System

Typically goals are outside our control. Usain Bolt may have a goal to break the world record. Whether he succeeds depends on many factors, some outside his control. His system to maximise success is his training schedule. If your goal is to lose 10 pounds, then your system might be to eat healthily or to exercise every day. Habits are completely within our control.

Goals are signposts to direct you. Systems are your transport.

3. Start Small

Your new habit may make you unhappy if you cannot adopt it. Two things can happen. You can make it easy, succeed then raise the bar once a habit is embedded. Or you will set the bar too high, fail and give up.

For example, try 2 minutes a day guided meditation rather than saying “I am going to meditate for 30 minutes per day”. Trust me this works. I went from 6 minutes per day guided to 20 minutes twice per day in the space of months. I never thought I had 40 minutes to spare.

Dream Big! Start small. Act Now. – Robin Sharma

4. Use a Trigger

Your brain is wired to automatically perform many established rituals daily like buying coffee or brushing your teeth. Choose an established ritual as the trigger for your new habit.

Unsurprisingly I go to bed every day. I am trying to practise gratitude daily so I’ve placed a red notepad on my locker to remind me. I just jot down three things I am thankful for from that day. Bedtime is my trigger for gratitude.

Habits form because our brain actually changes in response to frequent practise – Shawn Achor

5. Make it Easy

This one is key. Shawn Achor writes about the 20 second rule and how we should reduce the activation energy required to perform a new habit.  This means we make it easy by removing the obstacles. Think of ways to make the new habit the easy or default option. If we want to give something up, make it harder.

Watch less TV? Hide the remote! Want to read more? Place a book in the TV room. Trying to plan your day better? Set up your PC to automatically launch your daily planner (I’ve done this, it works so Google it!). Exercise more? Leave your gear beside your bed the night before. Better still, sleep in your shorts!

Willpower is a finite resource.

6. Schedule it and start!

By scheduling you will commit. Putting it in your calendar explicitly forces you to evaluate your time and possibly compromise on less important items. You may realise your new habit is less important and stop. Either way you make an explicit priority decision about what is most important to you. If you need, use the One in One out principle I talked about here.

Then start.

You cannot steer a parked car.

7. Set Rules

Psychologists call these second-order decisions – you decide before you encounter the choice what your behaviour will be. Setting rules to reduce your choices really helps. For example, I will only launch Outlook twice a day. I will drink only one coffee. This reduces the drain on your willpower and makes it easier to stick with the habit.

8. Buddy Up!

It’s always easier to commit to, and enjoy something, with a friend or comrade. Choose someone to join you or, if not practical, someone who can make the same commitment or who can support and encourage you.

9. Tell People

Decide who you are going to tell. Then tell people about it. They will keep you honest.

10. Check Yourself

I want to help you to transform your ideas into action. Complete the checklist below. As an old teacher of mine would say…

Put it somewhere you always look.

Then give yourself a big tick every time you succeed. Don’t break the chain. But if you miss a day, don’t beat yourself up. Follow the Never Miss Two Days rule.

11. Reward

Choose a reward and, when you have ticked that final day, celebrate your achievement! 

Good Luck!

Some Resources to help

Checklist for Embedding a Habit

Checklist for Embedding a Habit – My example


2 thoughts on “The Mathematics of Embedding Habits

  1. Pingback: Having a Great Day: The first 5 Steps – James Parnell

  2. Pingback: Baby Steps to Big Dreams – James Parnell

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