As I’ve studied habits over the years, I’ve found that every trick, tactic, or app is just a tweak of the same behavioral components. Some habit advice is logistical such as scheduling everything into your calendar. Other bits of advice are more emotional like tying the habit with who you are as a person. In any case we are changing the same variables over and over again. I call these variables dimensions.
Here are the 7 dimensions of a Habit.
Environment & Convenience
Now just knowing what they are doesn’t help you much so let’s dig a little deeper into each.
There are two types of Self-Knowledge when it comes to habits. There are your likes and dislikes, you’re most likely pretty clear about these. You know whether you prefer running or lifting, chicken or tofu.
But there’s another aspect – how you respond to certain incentives and strategies. For that we turn to Gretchen Rubin, author of three New York Times bestsellers including her latest novel Better Than Before, which in part talks about using your Self-Knowledge to create habits that work for you.
More specifically, she explains how everyone falls into a framework of one of four different Habit Tendencies: Upholder, Questioner, Obliger, or Rebel.
Knowing your tendencies will tell you whether you would do well with an accountability partner, a new phone app, or that you should abandon trying to make habits work all together.
Rubin has an assessment online that will give you a report on your framework, take the habits quiz here.
Being clear and honest about what your tendencies and desires are will determine how effective all the other dimensions will affect you.
Planning is useful because it decreases the cognitive load of taking action. By writing out the time, place, and materials of your habit, you need less willpower to follow through with the behavior. For people who are internally accountable, having this sort of clarity is great.
When trying to control bad behavior we need a different type of planning called Implementation Intentions. These are creating “If _____, then _____” scenarios for handling potential failure points.
“If I get the urge to eat a cookie, then I will eat a banana and wait 20 minutes before making a decision.”
“If I find myself surfing online, then I will save the page I was on for later, and then block that website (and similar ones) for the rest of the day.”
As a general rule, the aim should be to simplify the planning as much as possible. A simple but not easy system that you can say in a sentence or two will be more useful than a long program that must be followed with precise detail.
People in tune with others around them, often extroverts, do well with having other people keep them in check. For these folks, setting a money bet with a friend might be the only tactic they need for changing their habits. For other people, joining groups and attending meetings can be an annoying waste of time.
There is a wrong way to use external accountability. You can hear the explanation from popular TED Speaker Derek Sivers here.
The gist is that you shouldn’t tell anyone and everyone about your personal goals because there’s a dumb part of our brain that’ll mistake talking about your plans for actually making progress. So when you scream from the roof tops, or from your Facebook page, that you’re going to do a Marathon, you may be less likely to run today.
Environment & Convenience
We underestimate how our behaviors can be decided by simple convenience. We’ll miss the gym because making the 10 minute drive is a hassle, we’ll eat the sweets because they’re right in front of us, and we’ll stay up late because it’s easier to stay online than to shutoff and get ready for bed.
Say you want to eat healthier and you know that even a few small changes can have a dramatic effect over time. Instead of relying on sheer will to change your behavior, simply act on the following question.
“How can I make it twice as easy to eat ____________, ___________, and _____________ while making it twice as hard to eat, ___________, ____________, and _____________?”
Taking the necessary steps to surround yourself with good foods instead of bad ones almost guarantees you’ll eat better.
If you ever find yourself saying “I need to [insert good habit] more” but never actually doing anything about it, you may have a meaning problem. Often times, we have trouble moving forward with a habit because we aren’t clear about what we expect to get out of it. Or we don’t really want to do it at all.
This is the difference between the vague “I work out because it’s good for me” and “I do strength training so that I can have better energy throughout the workday, weigh ten pounds less in six months, and be able to run around with my future kids.”
When your motivation begins to fall after the initial habit ‘honeymoon’ period, having a deep, meaningful ‘why’ will help keep you moving.
“I run because that’s who I am.”
While Identity is one of the most powerful dimensions, it’s difficult to use.
The best way to make a habit part of your identity is to make them Value-Based Habits. Meaning you identify a core value of yours that is related to the habit and you learn to adapt your habit based off that value.
Momentum connects with us on both an emotional and neurological level as our brain builds the skill of performing this habit again and again. Combining both the emotional and the pragmatic makes Momentum a very powerful dimension to use. This is the reason daily habits are easier to create than non-daily or weekly ones.
For some Rebels (see Gretchen Rubin’s test from earlier), a daily schedule may make them feel trapped by having this obligation ahead of them everyday. However, Rebels are rare and you’re probably not one of them.
Insights on Dimensions
There is no strongest dimension. While you could make a case for Self-Knowledge or Identity, it truly depends on the person. As we touched on earlier, some dimensions may not resonate with you at all while you may have one or two dimensions that could pull all the weight.
Only use 2 or 3 per habit. This may seem like you’re missing on an opportunity for a super strong habit, but that’s not true. Using 5 or 6 dimensions will only make your habit worse as it becomes more difficult to follow and track. Also realize that most of us only halfheartedly use one dimension (planning) with our vague intentions. Keep it simple.
No Carrots. It’s been found that giving yourself a reward after a good habit does not help you stick with it. The only exception is if the reward is given infrequently and is meant to further the habit it’s rewarding, such as buying new running shoes after running 100 miles this month. In terms of punishments, the social embarrassment from not following through with a group (see external accountability) is the main healthy ‘stick’ you can use.
Think about the last habit you’ve successfully made a part of your life, which dimension was it based off of? Try to use that one again while working on your new habits.
This Post is written by Alex Romero, he teaches the fundamentals of building stronger, easier habits on his blog: Uhabit