How to change habits

posted in: Health, How to human | 0

How to effectively change habits is one of life’s big and permanent questions. There are a bunch of “hacks” on the internet. But to qualify as a real life hack, a tip must be so effective it feels like a cheat code. Such things are by definition rare, and most “life hacks” are banal.

But there are tips that work, some of them impressively – and on a recent trip to Iceland, I think I found a big one.

For a week, I locked myself in an isolated cabin at the end of the world. This naturally meant a break from routine, and a new daily regime. There was quite a lot more exercise, more writing and reading, and less food than usual. Better sleep, too.

When I returned from my “hermitage”, I was surprised to find it was easy to keep up the new habits – I hit the ground running, and all I had to do was keep it up. I found that super easy, as inertia was already on my side.

It makes sense.

Habits aren’t self-contained software in your head – they’re tied into external cues, of which there are roughly two kinds: environmental, and previous links in the habit chain (for example, you may make yourself coffee every morning after feeding the dog).

The thing with inertia and routine is it resists change, but once a trend develops, it protects it. That’s why it’s so hard to change anything in “normal life”, which is held together by routines.

Therefore, and this is as simple as it is profound, it’s much easier to change your habits when you change your environment.


Your brain “reads” your environment and actions as a script, and in your normal environment with your normal actions, you run your normal script.

In a new environment with new actions, there is no script. So you get to write any script you want. It gives you admin rights.

When I presented the finding to a friend, he said: “You could have asked my old mom, she’s been saying this for decades”. Possibly. There’s a good chance that if previous generations of old ladies had the internet, and the time or inclination to write, there would be precious little life-changing advice for the likes of me to impart on fawning, awe-struck audiences of millions.

Humans do a lot on autopilot. That’s both a blessing and a curse. It does most of living for you – allowing you to get through days without much thinking and effort. But it can also lock you in barely conscious drifting, carried about on routine as a passive passenger and spectator of your own life, and that’s bad. In fact, it’s catastrophic. As usual, xkcd nails it.

Now, routines are not bad things. They simply conserve what you put in them. But since most routines are more products of accident than design, most have a lot of space for improvement.

When you have a good routine, automation is a good thing. Think of it like a powered exoskeleton that makes lifting easier, but restricts your range of motion.

It means less effort to keep up your routine, but more effort to change it.

“Oh, it’s morning, this is my bedroom where every morning read the newspapers, do twenty pushups and water the plants. This is my bathroom, now is when I shave and brush my teeth. This is my kitchen, time to have one of my three usual breakfast meals. This is my office desk, where I waste my precious time on this Earth.”

You get the idea.

Now, changing your environment means stripping the exoskeleton, like a lobster shedding its shell to grow a new one.

I halved my food intake in Iceland, because the nearest grocery store was a two hour round trip, and a loaf of bread cost as much as a controlling stake in a large bakery back home.

I’ve since started skipping almost all dinners, which I understand people on the internet call “intermittent fasting”, with 16-hour daily windows without significant calorie intake (I’m not giving up my goodnight whisky). It started with necessity in an unfamiliar environment, and ended up being a new, useful habit, that I would have struggled to start in my normal surroundings.

With literally no extra effort, I’ve since shed 6 kilograms, started working out twice as hard, and eating half as much.

Here’s the basic idea:

  1. Continuing a habit is easier than changing it.
  2. Changing habits is easier in new environments.
  3. Therefore an easier way to change habits is to acquire them outside your habitual environment.

You make the change in a new environment and stay there long enough to pick up momentum, so it is automatised and inertia is on the side of continuing, and then come back to your normal life, and stick to it, which is much easier than making the same change within your normal life.

When you get home, you hit the ground running, and inertia is on your side. It works!

Pretty neat.

It’s not foolproof or wholly effortless, but it’s much easier than the alternative, which is brute-forcing and will-powering change into being amid vast habitual forces working against you.

Think of it as a running start.

Obviously, the longer the run-up you give yourself, the better – but a week is, apparently, enough.

This way, you can both pick up good habits and drop bad ones more easily.

It disentangles you from conditioned routines and gives you the freedom and opportunity to act consciously.

Depending on what you can afford to do, either go on dedicated self-maintenance sabbaticals (once, twice a year), or use vacations and work trips to smuggle in work on improving your habits. Whenever you’re travelling for any reason, that’s an ideal opportunity.

When you’re abroad, live every day like the person you want to be.

Then return home and continue living like this.

It’s a good habit to buy me coffee.