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Pam: [00:06] You’re listening to Not Bad Advice where our goal is to offer perspective that helps you improve one aspect of your life at a time.
[00:12] I’m Pamela Lund…
CK: [00:19] And I’m CK Chung.
Pam: [00:21] And we hope that after listening you’ll think, “hey, that’s not bad advice.”
[00:26] We talked about habit trackers a little bit last week in our episode about achieving big goals without punishing yourself into working on them and there was so much more that we wanted to say about habit trackers. So that’s what we’re going to do today.
[00:49] And maybe you don’t think that you need to build any habits, but I know that there is something that you want to achieve. Some bigger goal that you have in your life. And getting there will require that you take steps towards achieving it every day.
[01:02] And guess what? Taking those steps every day means building new habits.
[01:09] So let’s talk about habits. A habit is anything that you do without thinking about it. The dictionary definition is “an acquired mode of behavior that has become nearly or completely involuntary.”
[01:23] And that involuntary part is really important. You need to do things without thinking about them, so they are just part of your day, rather than being something that you have to convince yourself to do regularly.
[01:36] And we’re building new habits all the time. But they’re usually things that aren’t beneficial to us.
[01:41] Maybe you have a habit of having a couple of drinks everyday after work, or grabbing fast food for lunch. You don’t think about doing it anymore. You just do it. That’s a habit.
[01:53] And building those kinds of habits is far too easy. So we have to be really conscious about building healthy habits to counteract our tendency, to build less healthy ones.
[02:05] There are multiple involuntary habits that I have built – doing things like pushups every day , writing for 30 minutes a day on side projects… These are all things that I have just been working over the last few months to build into my day – journaling in the morning, doing Oracle card readings to get my perspective for the day.
[02:27] Are there any habits that you have built into your day that are now involuntary?
CK: [02:31] Yeah, I mean, pretty much, most of what I do throughout my days have become habits and routines. That’s what I like to do. I like to create these routines or iterate and optimize on them so that they become more efficient and you create better and better routines and habits.
[02:54] So this covers everything from smiling the first thing I do when I wake up and then meditating, to my daily yoga and sun salutations habit, and more meditation and breathing exercises. And then throughout the workday, I have my routines of specific scheduling of work hours and breaks where I have a habit of movement or exercise during my breaks.
[03:26] So yeah, there’s a lot. And if we want to zoom out from there and talk about why we have habits or why we develop habits involuntarily. So a habit could be something as simple as opening a door, imagine if you had to learn how to open the door every time you encountered one, so habits is useful so that your brain doesn’t have to compute.
[03:54] All these different things that it has to do every time it encounters something. So continuing with the example of the door, after the first time you see a door, you have a better idea of what a door does and what do you have to do with it. And of course, every time thereafter, you know how to use a door, and then you don’t even think about how to use a door.
[04:14] And that’s just one example. But that’s a simple way to illustrate how habits develop.
Pam: [04:20] Sure. There’s some annoying things that I’ve developed as habits along that vein. We have two drawers in our house and one contains tinfoil and Ziploc bags. And the other one has dish towels. And every time I want a dish towel, I open the Ziploc bag drawer. And every time I want a Ziploc bag, I open the towel drawer.
[04:43] And they have been the same drawers for 11 years, but at some point, for some reason, I learned them wrong and I cannot break that habit. That’s something that my brain learned and it is now impossible for me to change that.
CK: [05:03] Yeah, that’s interesting. I’m trying to think of how you can go about changing that. Do we want to get into that now?
Pam: [05:12] Sure, why not? The only thing that I can think of is to put a post-it note on it so that I think about it before I do it. Because that’s what a habit is, it’s something that you don’t think about before you do it. So I need a pattern interruption.
[05:26] Is that what you were going to say?
CK: [05:27] Yeah, basically, if you want to break down a habit, you can break it down into three foundational parts, which are the trigger or the cue, and then the second part is the habit or the activity, the routine. And then the third part is the reward.
[05:44] So with every habit, there’s a trigger, the routine , and then the reward .
[05:50] So with your example of the drawers, the trigger is that you need something. So there’s not really anything you can change about the trigger, the cue. And then the activity or the routine is to open the drawer. And in your case, it’s the wrong drawer. And then if it’s the wrong drawer, obviously you don’t get the right reward. So then there’s some dissonance there. And I’m not sure exactly how that works and why you keep doing that.
[06:27] So I think in this case, you need to focus on the activity or the actual routine. And maybe even stepping back before that, Like you were saying with the post-it note, it might be part of the cue or trigger.
[06:45] So maybe not necessarily cause a cue or trigger is you needing whatever it is in that drawer. So there’s maybe something between that queue and the habit where you have to insert that pattern interrupt like you were saying.
[07:00] Yeah, I think maybe you already know what you need to do.
Pam: [07:04] I hadn’t really thought about it until now. It wasn’t really a big problem. It was just one of those annoying little things.
[07:09] But that’s what habits are. They’re little things that we do every day. And they’re things that we don’t think about. Maybe you do think about it, but that’s what they are. They’re things that become something that we do without thinking about it. And they take time and repetition to develop.
CK: [07:25] Right. And they could have benefits or drawbacks depending on what the habit is.
Pam: [07:30] Yeah, it can be completely neutral. Like if every time you walk into a room, you hit a light switch, even if the light is already on, that’s a habit. And it’s not beneficial or negative, it’s just annoying. And like the drawer thing, it’s just annoying.
[07:45] So there’s some that are neutral, but they can also be beneficial or detrimental.
CK: [07:49] And that’s another thing about habits is that the reason your brain starts creating these loops and awareness of these patterns is so you don’t have to think about them every time that you do the action.
[08:03] So with the door example, you don’t want to have to think about how to use the door every single time that you encounter line. So your brain starts developing these patterns and then you develop a routine and then you develop the habit.
[08:16] So when you first encounter an activity and you don’t have a habit for it yet, your brain is taking up a lot of energy to decide what to do about it. And then once you start creating those patterns, the cognition moves toward a more unconscious part of your brain – the basal ganglia, which is in your brainstem in your primitive brain area. And this is where it becomes unconscious and more habitual.
Pam: [08:44] And so the way that we develop unconscious, habitual habits that we want to develop is by creating consistency and accountability, because we have to do them over a long period of time and with repetition. And that sounds simple, and it is – it’s easy. But people think there’s no way that something that simple and easy could lead to achieving big goals.
[09:08] But we achieve big goals by consistently working on them every day. And consistently working on something every day requires a habit or else you do put too much thought into, like, oh, I need to sit down and write today… or, oh, I need to work out today.”
[09:24] You end up taking more mental energy – or even physical energy in some cases – to get yourself to do the thing that you want to do because you’re not making it automatic.
[09:37] Some examples of things that I have done by working in tiny increments every single day is that I started doing two 30-minute increments of work every day on this show, my budget coaching service that’s coming out, and some of our other creative projects. That’s just two 30-minute increments a day, but I didn’t have to think about doing them. I created the habit that every single day I’m going to do 30 minutes and it’s an incremental thing.
[10:07] And it’s very easy to think that there’s no way that you could get anything done in 30 minutes, but when it is 30- minutes every single day, that’s 15 hours in a month. And that’s huge. And that time comes out of nowhere because you do have 30 minutes a day where you’re usually looking at Twitter or whatever. And so making that habitual to a lot of work at the end of a month.
[10:35] Do you have any examples of big goals that you’ve achieved with incremental work?
CK: [10:39] Yeah. The biggest one that pops up in my head is my program that I developed with Evo Thrive and the 90-day health program, called Net 90. And I basically started off by writing each day’s content the day before or on the day of, and it took anywhere from an hour to two hours. And the thing is that I had this huge goal of creating this course, basically in 90 day course.
[11:14] And I had been thinking about it for a while years, even before I started doing it. And I could never get it started because it was a huge endeavor. But once I decided to start it and just do it and get people into the alpha program, they, first of all, created that external motivation for me. But second of all doing it daily and coming up with the content each day helped in the way that it was a small enough task, that it wasn’t paralyzing to me so that I could get it done.
[11:51] And the edit motivation of people being in the program also helped me out. But at the end of it, after 90 days, I created this whole 90 day program. And it spanned like over 45,000 words, which comes out to 150 page book or something like that.
[12:08] So, Yeah, I was just spending an hour or two a day on this and after 90 days, pretty much
Pam: [12:16] And if you had sat down and thought I’m going to do all this work and build this huge course and make yourself work for six hours a day on it, it would have been too much. It would have been overwhelming. You might not have ever started or finished it.
[12:35] And it doesn’t even have to be something huge like that. You can achieve smaller goals. Like I wanted to be able to do proper form pushups. I could only do them on my knees. So I used a habit tracker to do what I could every day with pushups.
[12:50] And so I started with 10 pushups on my knees every single day, and then worked up to being able to do a couple of proper form pushups off of my knees. And then over the course of using a habit tracker to do the bare minimum of what I could do every day for pushups, Now I can do 10.
[13:10] And it’s just incremental movement.
CK: [13:13] Right.
Pam: [13:13] Yeah. So let’s get back to the habit trackers then and how you can use one to do that little bit every day. So you come up with a few things that you want to do every day and they need to be – I like to say the bare minimum, like literally what is the least that you can do to achieve what you want to do, because you don’t want to make it too much.
[13:38] You want to start with what’s the bare minimum, and if you do more than that’s great. But only commit to doing what is the lowest bar for the day. Cause you’re going to be doing this every single day, or at least most days in the month.
[13:50] So use habit tracker and you figure out what are these bare minimum things that you want to do, and you put those on habit tracker. And then every time you complete the activity that day, you check it off on the habit tracker, and it feels really good. And that’s basically it, but there’s more psychology going on in there then that , but really just checking it off feels great. And at the end of the day, seeing that you have completed all of these things on top of your normal work or whatever is really rewarding.
[14:22] And you can use an app – there’s tons of apps out there – you can use a spreadsheet, you can use a grid on a piece of paper… It really doesn’t matter what you use, but for me, seeing it on paper is much more motivating.
[14:34] So we’ve put up a downloadable and printable Not Bad Advice habit tracker that you can find with a link in the show notes. And it’s the tracker that I use. And I use colored pens when I’m checking things off. So I use a green pen to fill in the square when I do the habit. If I don’t do the habit, I fill in the square with red. And then on the days when I actually planned not to do it, I will black it out.
[15:00] You don’t have to get this intense. You can just mark it off when you do it and leave it blank when you don’t. But I like having the color coding. It’s motivating to me.
[15:08] And speaking of motivation, let’s talk a little bit about the psychology of why these habit trackers work. So the first thing is that it gives you external motivation. And if you have read the four tendencies, you will know your motivation style.
[15:24] If you haven’t read it, I really recommend it. It was a life-changing read for me. I learned that I’m an Obliger, which means that I am externally motivated. I find it very difficult to do anything without being accountable to someone else or at least without the task being witnessed by others. So that’s my habit tracking works so well for me. It gives me external accountability and motivation, both because of the tracker itself but also, because I know that CK can see it hanging on the wall.
[15:53] I don’t think you actually pay any attention to it. Do you ever look at it?
CK: [15:56] Yeah, I look at it every once in a while.
Pam: [15:58] It’s right next to where we eat dinner, so he can’t miss it. Yeah. So honestly, just knowing that you could look at it and be like, “you haven’t done anything for three days, what are you doing?” that’s motivating to me.
[16:09] So that’s what it means for me to be Obliger. But CK, when you went through the test for The Four Tendencies, you’re a Questioner, which means that you are very internally motivated, and you don’t need external motivation. You actually question when people tell you to do things. So you’re not very externally motivated. You just achieve things on your own when you set your mind to do them.
[16:32] So what do you think would be beneficial for people like you with a habit tracker?
CK: [16:37] Yeah, the thing is, as a Questioner, I believe it describes someone who is internally motivated, like you said, but also resists external motivation. So basically, it’s right there in the name. I question everything that comes at me externally.
Pam: [16:57] Everything that I tell you to do.
CK: [17:01] So yeah, if I hear something externally or get some kind of external motivation, I have to do verify it myself internally in order to be motivated.
[17:11] So in terms of heavy trackers, I still incorporate them into some of my processes, but in different ways. So I do like using habit trackers when I start out new habits sometimes in order to give me that external reminders.
[17:29] So this even relates to what we were talking about before, in terms of the parts of how you break down a habit. And the first part being the trigger, or the cue. If you have an external motivation that you can see to help trigger or cue your action or activity for the habit or routine that you’re trying to develop, then that could be beneficial in terms of having that in place
Pam: [17:57] Sure. So for me, it’s more, I need the reminder, but it’s also the accountability. Whereas for you, it’s more, the reminder you are accountable on your own. You don’t need that portion of it. It’s more of the cue.
CK: [18:09] RIght. And oftentimes I find that once I have the habit or routine down, I can let go of the tracker pretty quickly. Like, I usually get into a habit or routine fairly quickly.
Pam: [18:27] Yeah, you’re very routine oriented. I thought I was until I met you. And I’ve learned I’m definitely not, compared to you.
[18:35] So the next part of the psychology of why habit trackers work is that you get an immediate reward for checking things off. When you’re working on something that’s longer term, you don’t see an immediate payoff from doing the work. So it’s really hard to stay motivated.
[18:51] Humans just like immediate gratification. That’s the way that we are built. But you can trick yourself into feeling gratified by rewarding yourself for each baby step. And our brains love these rewards and anything can be a reward.
[19:05] Feeling good is a reward and, believe it or not, you will feel good when you check off all your habits every day, just simply marking something off on a sheet of paper feels really good.
[19:16] And we went into this in more detail in the last episode. So check that out, if you haven’t.
[19:21] And then to expand on that, I look at my tracker at the end of the month, and that gives me a huge reward. Like, seeing all of these green squares and thinking about how much I did in tiny increments. It’s massive.
[19:34] Last month, I did a couple of hundred pushups with hardly any effort. And I spent 15 hours reading for enjoyment, by committing just reading the one chapter a day. And three months ago, I would have told you, I never had time to read.
[19:47] So you get this massive reward at the end of the month.
CK: [19:50] Yeah, it has a lot to do with present bias. Like the immediate gratification that you mentioned. Like humans, we’re not very good at seeing things long-term into the future. So that’s why a lot of people have issues with saving money and retirement plans and stuff like that.
[20:08] We are tuned to get immediate gratification. And so when you have something like a habit tracker in place, it’s really beneficial in terms of allowing you to see the trend long-term and to be able to zoom out and get more of a bird’s eye view of things to mitigate that present bias that we have as humans.
Pam: [20:31] That’s a really good point. Is there any other psychology that you can think of that goes into why habit trackers are successful? Anything that we didn’t cover?
CK: [20:40] Maybe the only other thing is again, in relation to how you break down habits in terms of the reward part. Like you were saying, again, the gratification of seeing the chain, per se – the chain of checking off your tasks every day.
[20:59] Like we mentioned in last week’s episode – the phrase don’t break the chain.
[21:04] Your brain likes seeing patterns. And if you have a pattern of checking something off every day, your brain wants to keep doing that. So that
Pam: [21:16] Yeah. It’s just like if you use a pedometer or something like that – activity tracking on your Apple watch – if you see that every day for the last 20 days, you’ve gotten your 10,000 steps or whatever… Then, if you’re sitting on the couch and don’t really feel like doing anything, you’re gonna be like, “oh man, I should go out and get some steps in… because I’ve done it every day for 20 days.”
CK: [21:37] Right. And then, once you get into developing a habit and it starts turning into a habit. You get another psychological notion of craving the activity. And this is the place that you want to get to, to be able to crave the beneficial activity, because then you’re seeking out the activity to give your brain pleasure and to get that reward.
Pam: [22:00] Yeah, the activity itself becomes the reward. Yeah.
[22:04] So let’s talk about ways that you can supercharge your habit development to make the habit stick more quickly. You could just do habits every day and check them off on your habit tracker forever. But the idea is, like we said, you want it to become involuntary. And ways that you can do that more quickly are to tie the habit to something else that you already do, so you have another cue. You have another association to the trigger.
[22:28] Instead of just saying that you want to do 10 pushups every day, you would say, “I’m going to do 10 pushups before lunch.” Or instead of saying, “I want to walk 30 minutes every day,” you say “I’m going to take a 30 minute walk after dinner.” Or instead of just saying, you want to journal every day, you say, “I want to journal while having coffee.”
[22:44] So the coffee is an associated trigger for the journaling. So then every time you have coffee, you start to think about journaling. So the habit tracker becomes less of the trigger, and the coffee starts to become the cue or the trigger for that habit.
[23:01] And there are things that I have had on my habit tracker and have been doing every day for the last two months that have still not become involuntary because I have not tied them to something specific. I just do them at some point during the day.
[23:13] Sometimes it’s after dinner, before I’m going to bed, I’m like, “ah crap, I didn’t do my pushups or whatever.” And I know that it’s fine. It’s one reason that I use the tracker because I know that I need it for that reminder. But if I were to associate them make them more specific to points during my day, I would have to think about it less. And I would develop them actually as habits more quickly.
[23:37] The other thing that you need to do is to remove obstacles that make the habits harder. So if the habit that you want to develop is writing for 30 minutes every morning, you need to also build a habit of getting out everything that you’re going to need to write the night before. So that in the morning, you don’t have to futz around with getting all of your stuff, because then there’s going to be a whole lot more excuses of why you can’t write.
[24:02] So you need to make sure that you can just get up and do your writing.
CK: [24:05] A lot of people recommend , if you want to start going to the gym, to lay out your gym clothes the night before so that you don’t have to think about it anymore.
Pam: [24:14] I’ve heard of people that even sleep in them.
CK: [24:16] Right. Right.
[24:17] And psychologists call this
Pam: [24:20] Yeah. any other supercharging habit tips that you have?
CK: [24:25] The one that pops into mind is having someone else do it with you or having someone else help you be accountable.
Pam: [24:34] That’s good, yeah. Like, a friend or even a coach?
CK: [24:37] Yeah, that just adds on to the external motivation factor and accountability factor.
Pam: [24:42] Yeah, that’s a good one. So there’s a few things that you don’t want to do when using a habit tracker. The first thing is do not mark off the thing as you’re on the way to do it. It’s really tempting . You know, like, maybe I’ll be on my way to do pushups and I’m like , “I’m going to go do them, so I’m going to mark it off.”
[25:00] But if you don’t wait until you’re done doing the thing, you don’t associate completing it with the reward. And you can even lose motivation between checking it off and actually doing the thing. You can get distracted or forget. So it’s definitely important that you do not mark it off before you actually complete it.
CK: [25:22] Yeah, I believe psychologists call this self completion theory and basically your brain thinks that you already did it. So, there’s no motivation to do it.
Pam: [25:31] Yeah. Yup. And checking off a box is actually that much of trick for your brain to think, “okay, I already did it.” “I don’t have to go actually do the pushups.”
[25:41] The other thing is: don’t wait until the end of the day and then mark everything off. You want to associate checking it off with completing it, so you get that immediate gratification. As soon as you get done doing it, go mark it off. You need that association.
CK: [25:54] Yeah,
Pam: [25:56] Yeah, immediately. As quickly as possible.
[26:00] The other thing is what CK mentioned earlier, which is: don’t break the chain. And that’s a saying that habit tracker people use to cue you to not miss a day. But the key there is sometimes you are going to miss a day. So if you miss one, don’t let it go for two.
[26:17] And you also don’t want to try and build too many habits at once. Or habits that are too hard. Or, I would say even too many of the same kind of habit. Like, you can’t go from not doing any writing to committing to working on a blog post and a novel and a script every single day. That’s just going to be way too much in general, but also way too much of the same thing. You’re not going to have that much. Creative juice to do that much writing every single day. Maybe you are, but most people are not. So you want to pick a few priorities.
[26:48] And put some fun ones in there, if you want. James clear talks about this in atomic habits, and he goes so far as to recommend that you only commit to things that can be completed in less than two minutes. CK had the five minute reading tip earlier, but James clear even says to just do two minutes of reading every single day,
[27:07] And then the last one I have is to be aware of burnout. This started to happen to me a couple of weeks ago. I was really busy with work, and even though the things that I have on my habit tracker are the bare minimum, doing these things every single day on top of other stress was starting to wear me out.
[27:26] So you can consider building in off days. If they make sense. As I mentioned, on my habit tracker, I black out specific days that I plan to not do certain habits. And it’s a conscious choice. It’s not blacking them out afterwards to pretend like I meant to skip a day when I didn’t do them. It is knowing ahead of time. Like, I have a really busy day today, or I’m not even going to be home all day today, so I can’t do these things.
[27:52] So I build in off days to mitigate any burnout. Do you have any other don’ts that you want to add in?
CK: [28:02] I would say, just try to remain mindful of your new habits or what you’re trying to do. Because oftentimes we can get into the cycle of doing something just to keep doing it because that’s what you set out to do in the first place. So keep your goal and your values in mind – the reason that you started a habit in the first place – so that you don’t develop a habit that you end up not needing or wanting in the end.
Pam: [28:32] I think that’s a really good point. Everything that you do should be intentional and. If you are trying to build a habit, that’s not in line with what you actually want or in line with your values, it’s going to be really hard to develop that habit, even if you do it every single day. And even if you put it on your tracker, and you have all the cues in place, because there’s going to be some dissonance there that you’re not doing something that you actually want to be doing.
CK: [28:58] Exactly.
Pam: [28:59] All right. That’s a good time to transition into the part of the show where I shuffle a deck of Oracle cards and pull a card to see how that card can relate to what we talked about today. And I like doing this because it gives me a visual to associate with a topic. And when I have a visual, it makes it easier to remember that perspective.
[29:41] So let’s see what the Nocturna Oracle deck from The Creeping Moon has to offer us as a visual for building habits through consistency and rewards.
[29:54] Okay. Today I pulled Datura, which is a plant. It is a nightshade. So if you know anything about nightshades, they can be poisonous. A lot of the foods that we eat are nightshades – peppers, tomatoes, things like that – and so they can be beneficial for us in small doses, but they can be poisonous in large doses.
[30:39] So this specific plant, when taken in small amounts can give you you, visions and can be beneficial for you in small doses, but when you take it in extremely large doses, it can actually kill you. Not even extremely large. I think it’s probably like a small margin of error there. Like, a little bit: good. Tiny bit more: dead. So be careful with those.
[31:02] But what perspective I want to bring with this card is what we were talking about with the habit tracker, which is that you want to start with a small amount and do the bare minimum that you can do every day to start building that positive, beneficial habit into your life and not go overboard and have death by over commitment.
[31:24] Think about those small habits – the smallest amount that will help you achieve your goals. No more, no less.
CK: [31:33] That was so relevant.
Pam: [31:35] I’m just that good.
[31:37] Don’t forget to check out the link in the show notes to grab the principle habit tracker. And if you found yourself thinking, “hey, that’s not bad advice,” while listening today, we’d love it if you shared the episode with your friends and rated it in iTunes.
[31:49] You can get in touch with us on Twitter, where I’m @Pamela_Lund and CK is @cKdisco. To find us on other platforms visit ForcesOfEqual.com/Advice. There, you can also contact us if there’s something you need advice about.
[32:04] We‘d love to hear from you.