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016 // The Everything Skill — Habit Design

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There are two things between us and any of our big goals: the learning and the work. To tackle a big goal, we need to learn new things and do a mountain of work at the edge of our abilities. We can use willpower to smash through these obstacles, but that’s messy and often ineffective. There’s an approach that’s better than using our head as a battering ram. There’s one skill that helps us flow past these roadblocks like water: habit design.

Habit Design

A habit is something we do automatically in response to a cue or trigger.
Formula: when this signal occurs, human takes that action and gets some reward.


    • When human gets out of bed (signal), human drinks a glass of water and starts the day with more energy (reward).
    • On Sunday afternoon after lunch (signal), human plans their calendar for the week (action), and enjoys the rest of the day without worrying about Monday (reward).
    • As someone human loves leaves the house (signal), human stops what they are doing (action) to send them out with love (reward).

If we look at what we do every day, we notice habits everywhere. We all need habits to function so we’re not constantly deliberating over every little decision. The trick is that our habits can be our friends (broccoli), enemies (three-layer chocolate cake), or frenemies (watching one episode sometimes becoming binge watching an entire season).

Habits can help us learn and do the things that add up to achieving our big goals, but we have to choose our habits instead of letting them happen to us – we have to design our habits.

What does it mean to design habits?

It means working backward from the world where we have achieved a big goal so we can see what we must have learned and done along the way. While peeking into that future, list the actions that must have happened regularly.

This list is complete for a big goal when we can see the learning and the action. The learning is what we must have learned along the way to reach the goal. The action is everything, large and small, we must have done to reach the goal. We play with our assumptions, experience, and beliefs until we see a high probability that the learning and the action will accomplish the big goal.

Next, the fun starts. We look for opportunities to make progress toward the goal more automatic by attaching habits to the action list. The first step is thinking about the frequency of each action. Try to assign a daily, weekly or monthly habit to each action. Other frequencies work too, but these three buckets make your habits easier to manage. Once we attach a frequency to everything on our action list, we’re ready to define habits.

Active Habits: Some of the actions on the list may already be things you do regularly. These are your active habits. Mark those with an A for Active Habit.

Habits to Change: Scan Active Habits for any that might need to change and mark them with a C for Habit to Change.

New Habits: For the actions on the list that need to become active habits, we mark them with an N for New Habit.

Future Habits: We mark the remaining actions with an F for Future Habit. Future habits are habits you know you’ll need later as you progress toward your goal.

When we’re done, everything on our action list will be marked A, C, N or F. Before we can use a marked action list, we need to add the habits that are in the way. We all do things that get in the way of our goals. If someone regularly binge watches bad shows when they’d rather be doing something they value more, that’s a habit to break.

Habits to Bend: We add these to our list and mark them with B for Habits to Bend. Bending old habits toward productive goals is easier than trying to break them.

With our marked action list, we can dive into crafting habits. There are only two kinds of work to be done: creating new habits and changing existing habits. Both rely on the same formula — when this signal occurs, I take this action and get this reward. The action flows naturally from our goals.

Choosing signals is where you’ll spend more time tinkering. Signals are things that tell us it’s time to act out a habit. Choose signals that happen when you’re capable of doing the action. An exercise action with a getting in bed signal is unlikely to result in regular exercise. There are many kinds of signals:

    • Life: Getting out of bed. Making morning coffee. Brushing teeth. Walking the dog. Eating breakfast. These daily life events are all potential signals for new habits.
    • Clock: A time of day can be a signal. You may want to use an alarm for these. You can also use time periods as signals (every X minutes).
    • Task: You can use starting or finishing a task as a signal.
    • Schedule: You can use a meeting or appointment on your calendar as a signal. For example, finishing a meeting might be a signal for going for a 5-minute walk.
    • Robot: Yeah, an app for that. To-do software is a great way to manage multiple habits. You can use it to show you signals as to-dos you can check off (I’m a fan of this approach.)
    • Caboose: You can make completing one habit the signal for another habit. If you are thinking of creating a habit chain, consider creating a checklist and a signal for working through it.
    • Bodily: Thirst, joy, hunger, anxiety — anything you feel can be a signal.

Bending Habits

To bend a habit, we can hide the signal (move the TV out of the bedroom), make it harder to do the action (obnoxiously long phone password), make it easier to do a beneficial action (healthy breakfast waiting in the fridge).

Actions are easier to set up than signals are to identify, but make sure you’ve broken them down. Starting this habit, “On Monday mornings right after getting out of bed, I will write one article,” will be harder to adhere to than, “On Monday mornings right after getting out of bed, I will write at least 1000 words.” The second action is small enough to accomplish easily, provides an objective criteria for judging completion, and leaves room for more of the action that supports your goal.

Now you’re ready to rock the simple habit design formula:

when [signal], I will [action], and get [reward].


Here are a few tips on adding new habits:

    1. Be kind. Work on one new habit at a time so you’re not trying to change too many behaviors at once. Be kind to yourself.
    2. Clockwork. Connect the habit to something you do regularly (e.g., When I get out of bed, I will drink one glass of water.).
    3. Clarity. Distinguish desired outcomes from habits (e.g., I will drink more water, is not the same as, Drink a glass of water before each meal.)
    4. Be ruthless. If you aren’t doing the habit, look at why and try another experiment. Find a way to track your habits.
    5. Test your habits. Here’s the test. Ask yourself, “If I do these daily, weekly and monthly habits, will they help me achieve [GOAL]?” Test your habits against each of your values and other goals. Where our habits and values or goals don’t match up, you should consider changing your habits, your goals, or both. (I won’t suggest you change your values. When has that ever worked out well?)

Being able to spin up new habits at will is one of the keys to designing peak individual performance. If you want to go deep on creating and bending habits, here are a few resources:

Ask Like a Designer 004 // Your Good-Life OS: Designing a System for Living Well and Peak Performance

Clear, James. Atomic Habits: Tiny Changes, Remarkable Results: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones. New York: Avery, an imprint of Penguin Random House, 2018.
Duhigg, Charles. Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. Random House Trade Paperback Edition. New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2014. (Start with the appendix.)
Fogg, B. J. Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019.

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