It might seem that it's always up to us to change our habits.
And that idea might be quite incorrect. Instead, what if something around us changed and our habits changed with it? Instead of us taking the blame all the time, this series is about how to look at habits differently and achieve lasting goals.
A single bubble is always a sphere, but what happens when twelve bubbles touch each other?
At their centre, they form a completely different shape called a dodecahedron. One isolated bubble is almost always round, but as you add more bubbles, the geometry changes radically. The walls of four bubbles will make a tetrahedron.
Once you have six bubbles, you get the shape of a cube in the centre. The bubbles, it seems, are always trying to take advantage of their environment. They're still trying to make the most efficient shape. And the sphere has the smallest surface area, and at least for the bubble, is the most efficient.
This efficiency is remarkably similar to the shapes bees make in their hives
If you look inside a beehive, you'll notice row upon row of almost identical hexagons. It could be because the hexagon is a robust structure, but there's something more than just structure at play.
Wax, the substance that bees produce to create the hive, is so labour intensive, that the bees have to fly the equivalent of twelve times around the earth, to produce just one pound of wax. Bear in mind, that the hexagon isn't the only shape that's available to bees.
They could use other shapes. But circles aren't the right solution because there are gaps when you lay them alongside each other. Squares, on the other hand, work just fine, and so do equilateral triangles.
But they all need a substantial amount of wax to create a network. And it's the hexagons that provide a solid structure, and require considerably less wax. The hexagons help the bees to be just a tiny bit “lazy.”
If we look around us, nature itself is lazy.
Bubbles, bees, trees—nature itself—follows rigid rules to be economical. What nature is always doing is trying to use the least amount of energy.
And the “least amount of energy” is what we humans would call a bad habit.
All habits require energy, but bad habits seem to feel more comfortable. While the energy used in both good and bad habits might be approximately the same from a purely scientific point of view, it feels completely different from a behavioural angle.
When we do something that's “naughty” we believe it takes a lot less effort and seems to deliver a much greater reward. But at some point, we want to make a change.
This series is about the stuff you want to stop doing. And in it, we explore not just what we do, but how the world around shapes us.
Here's what we'll cover:
- How design changes habits
- The crucial link between energy and habits
- The Myth of 21-60 days to build a habit
1.How Design Changes Habits
Which of these two statements is true?
People are stupid.
People aren't stupid; life is hard.
We got the answer to this question in two hotel rooms: one in Holbox Island, Mexico and the other in Houston, Texas. When we checked into the hotel in Houston, there were two bottles of water waiting for us. The next day, we got two more. Our entire stay in the US was about ten days in all—hence 20 bottles of water.
When we got to Mexico, there were two glass bottles in the room with instructions to get any additional water from a central water dispenser, just outside the room. In Houston, we were given 20 bottles of water, whereas, in Mexico, we used only two.
But before we jump to any conclusions, let's examine another aspect of both hotels
In Mexico, the hotel changed the sheets and towels every day. In Houston in the 20-bottle hotel, they had a little sign. The sign said: If you put this sign on your door, we will not clean your room. And you'll get a $5 voucher or points to your account.
It means that housekeeping in Mexico changed 20 towels and at least ten sheets, while in Houston they potentially changed none—simply because of their intelligent, rewarding system.
In the middle of all of this waste or no waste were Renuka and me
We are fussy about waste, so much so that we put out the garbage only once every six months. In short, we're conscious of plastic, and we take a lot of effort to be as environmentally conscious as possible.
We were just pawns in this game of water bottles and bedsheets. The factor that made us increase our waste manifold, or equally elegantly reduced our waste levels to almost zero was down to design.
Design itself can bring a significant change in habits
I've been sitting at my computer for the past two hours, at least, and I haven't taken a break.
By any standards, that's a bad habit and possibly bad for the back in the long run. And it's not like I don't have a reminder on my computer, but when it starts to flash I turn it off.
No matter whether it's a pop up on the screen, or an alarm going off on the phone, I will stay resolutely in my chair, turning off all the alarms one by one. Yet, there's one alarm I can't turn off. And it's the call of nature.
When I sit down at my desk, I have a full glass of water
If I sip at the water, I could theoretically sit at my desk infinitely. But like most of us, I gulp. I take big, distracted gulps of water and in about 30 minutes, there's no option but to stand up—and in some cases—run.
Which as you can see is a design solution to the problem of not standing up and taking a walk often enough. It's a simple yet effective form of design that breaks the habit.
The Dutch take design to a country-wide level with a concept called the Dutch Reach
In many countries, cyclists are treated like vermin. Not so in the Netherlands where cycling is akin to a “national religion”. But cars exist side by side with cycles, and it's not uncommon for a car owner to flip open the car door, just as a cyclist comes along.
To avoid this problem from recurring, every car driver is taught the “Dutch Reach”. This requires the driver to reach for the door handle with the far-hand.
In doing, so, the driver swivels their head across in a natural movement which gives her a good indication of oncoming cyclists. A bad habit—which endangers oncoming cyclists is squelched when a driver is learning to drive a car, thereby dramatically reducing accidents.
The natural habit—the most efficient one—can be changed simply by design
If you notice, the natural law of efficiency would allow you to keep getting endless plastic water bottles, or have no care in the world if they changed sheets and towels every day. It would cause you to open the door of your car with the hand closest to you. And yet, the habits were changed by design.
When we think of habits, we think of willpower and persistence
Those elements of grit, willpower and perseverance play a role, but trying to create and enforce a good habit is almost like fighting our natural method of efficiency.
No one woke up in a cave, two million years ago, and decided to go for a run. Or to start a diet, for that matter. Nail biting, being a glutton, sleeping a lot, and not needing to write articles—these were all the things that kept our ancestors alive. And that's why most of our so-called bad habits are easier to revert to, simply because they're incredibly efficient.
Which is why the concept of “people are stupid” can co-exist quite well along “people aren't stupid, life is hard”.
All living creatures engage in acts of stupidity on an ongoing basis. And that's because what we call “stupidity” may well be life-threatening, but mostly it's just a shortcut, a matter of efficiency.
And we go down that road of productivity because it's hardcoded in nature itself. Life is hard; why make it harder? But given great design or even functional design, many, if not most of us, will go with the design and change our habits without the need for any persistence or willpower.
However, design can't stand alone.
It does need a partner, and a bouncy partner too. That partner is called “energy”. Which is kind of ironic when you think about it. Because the design of the beehive was energy-based, as were the soap bubbles. Energy is so easy to overlook that it's precisely what we seem to ignore. And yet, how we get our energy is mostly what causes the habit to endure.
For instance, what causes one student to say that maths is her favourite subject? And what if that same student considered maths to be the most horrible abomination dumped on humanity? How can such a paradox exist? Is it because of maths? Or do students hate maths because the energy is badly used? Let's find out.
2.The Crucial Link Between Energy And Habits
Do I like to exercise?
My wife, Renuka, does. She will happily do an hour or more of yoga. If no yoga mat is handy, she will happily go for a walk. On the other hand, I detest exercise.
I went for a whole year to yoga class and groaned through it all. If you ask me point-blank if I like to exercise, my answer would be no. I go for a walk almost every day and do well between 7-10 km a day. Yet, I don't like to walk.
But there's a nuance that's missing in this “I don't like walking” story
Because it's not that I don't like to walk. It's just that walking the same route bores me to tears. Gyms are the worst space for me, but even the incredible scenery and the beach we pass every day does nothing much for me.
It's not that I'm not grateful. I love living in Auckland, but I get little or no energy from the walk because the scenery is the same every day. Put me on a different route, and I come to life again.
Which is why I'll happily walk for hours in Tokyo, or Barcelona because everything is new and different. If we do 8 km here in Auckland, we tend to do twice as much on our trips simply because I find it all so energetic.
Sean the sloth comes alive at workshops as well
I'll run around excitedly on stage, when giving a presentation, or go back and forth at workshops. And if you put me on a badminton court or a football field, I'll probably end up with strained muscles from trying much too hard.
Which is to say that it's not that I don't like exercise. I love to exercise, but there's a nuance in place. And that nuance is energy. If the activity is new, different or less repetitive, it's exciting for me. But the sameness or routine of everyday activity causes me to want to give up quickly.
Which may also explain why kids don't like maths
Maths is not the problem and has never been the problem. Take my niece, Marsha, for instance. If you ask Marsha, which is her favourite subject, she doesn't need to think. It's maths, of course. And today she is at the top of her class.
But if you were to get into a time machine and go back to when she was nine, maths was the most hated subject. If you look back on your own life, you'll probably agree that you're pretty “grown-up” by nine. If you've hated maths for nine years, it's unlikely that hate would turn around a little, let alone become a favourite.
But if you look at it through the lens of energy, the explanation is pretty clear.
Marsha is energised by stickers. A single pack of stickers that cost $2 can keep Marsha going for months on end. When she first started learning maths on the iPad, the app would dole out some weird “fish” as a prize for solving the problem.
Marsha loved the fish, and couldn't collect enough of them. And yes, other methods are being used to make her get all excited about maths. But it's all energy-related at almost every step of the way.
At this stage, she's managed to solve 19,000 (not a typo) problems on a maths program called IXL. This is probably in addition to another 10,000 or more problems that she's done on paper. But Marsha wasn't always this keen on maths.
At one point she was being sent for classes after school, which she still recalls with horror. And in her class itself, she was struggling to the point where she was sent for extra classes. She was being drained at every stage of the way. Is it any wonder why she hated maths with a vengeance?
As you'd suspect, this kind of energy drain—or gain—doesn't just apply to kids, but adults as well.
We conduct an Article Writing Course, which takes 12 weeks. It's called the “toughest writing course in the world”. And it more or less lives up to its billing. You'd expect that clients would run a million miles in the opposite direction of the course, but that's hardly the case.
For years, we've had a waiting list, and one of the reasons for the list is that the course promises a precise result. The result is that you can “write magazine-quality articles in 45-60 minutes”.
But we all sign up for courses, and many a course gets abandoned along the way
Why would a course like this see a 90-95% result rate? It's not just completion, because completing a course is like finishing school. It's an achievement to finish, but the reason for learning to write is to put forth your thoughts in a riveting manner.
What clients seek are not just result, but energy along the way. The course creates a system of gold stars (not unlike Marsha's stickers), but also groups within the course that are specially picked, as well as other systems that are all tested to keep the energy high.
When you look at courses, all you see is information-packed from one end to the other. But that's work, work, and more work. And while people are happy to work, they also want to play. There are days when the assignment is a 10-minute assignment, and then the groups can chat with each other via the forum or through chat itself.
Bad habits are fun all of the time, which is why they're so energy-driven
Good habits are almost always hard work, willpower and persistence. Which means that to get more of the right practices, we all have to find a way to energise how we approach the habit.
When I go for a walk, which I don't care much about, I listen to podcasts and audiobooks. While my wife is busy getting energised by the rising sun, I have a blast soaking in knowledge. When I have to write an article, I jump on WhatsApp and have an hour-long chat with a client or a friend on a topic.
This entire article was a series of back and forth with a client after he brought up the point that he was reading a book on habits. Or I will meet someone at a cafe like I did today, and we'll talk for 2 ½ hours if needed.
Does all of this chatter send a shiver down your spine?
It might if you're a person who loves quiet and solitude, then that's your source of energy. It's not that you're not in the habit of writing articles. It's more likely that you've not found what gives you that energy.
And be aware that energy is slightly different from the reward. I might find the coffee rewarding after I have finished writing my article, but the energy I get from the chat, or live conversation is what propels me forward.
But while the chatting is entertaining, writing the article is a whole different action or habit. Some people sit down to write an entire article. I get my energy by writing parts of the material and getting people to comment on it, dispute points and tell me what they liked.
Once again, this may not be your method of getting energy, but a large part of habit formation and sustenance merely is energy-based.
When design and energy merge, we get a significant boost in our habits
We teach a course on how to draw cartoons and when we started the course almost ten years ago, I wasn't exactly in favour of digital art when it came to learning how to draw.
I had been using Photoshop, but Photoshop has a pretty steep learning curve. Which is why I'd recommend that clients use paper. I was so obsessed with paper, as a learning tool that I was perplexed when two clients were proudly showing me their cartoons on the iPad Pro.
It took me a while to realise how much mobile technology had progressed—and how much easier it was than Photoshop.
There's a lot of energy required in learning any new skill. It's like the brain has to theoretically turn on 300 different lights to get the task done. When you get more fluent, it possibly turns on 200, then 100, then 50.
And finally, just a few lights and you're on your way. Which is where a device like the iPad + an app like Procreate, create an astounding energy boost. The iPad allows you not just to draw, but trace and colour—three core elements to learning how to draw cartoons.
Copying is a fun, and vital part of learning any skill, and all kids, without exception copy.
So do the masters, by the way. It's just the amateurs that seem to want to draw everything from memory. You could get to the art store and buy tracing paper, but the process requires energy.
You need to get the paper, find the drawing in a book or online. If online, you have to print it out and only then can the process of copying begin. With the iPad, the entire method comprises of just one or two steps.
Download the image within minutes you're already tracing and learning. The next stage is drawing, and you need materials like pens, pencils, or whatever you intend to use while learning.
Again, this might necessitate a trip to the art store, and honestly speaking it might be fun to buy all the stuff, but also involves sharpening pencils, finding refills etc. It may start as fun, but it may also be a barrier.
And finally, if we get to colouring, I know the problems I used to have back in the days of the photocopy machine.
As a cartoonist, I had to give the clients at least a few options. I had to make several photocopies, then colour each one in. But let's say you don't make any copies and you're colouring your work.
If you goof up, you have to start all over again. On the iPad, it's just a matter of colouring on a separate layer, or even if you were to mess up the current layer, you could undo it all with a series of undo steps.
The design has taken a theoretical “300 light” process and possibly turned it into just 200. Or 220. Or 150. We don't know for sure, but the energy required to achieve the very same goal is drastically reduced. You have more energy to redo, undo or do-do-do a lot more. And that in itself creates an amazing habit to the point where the drawing is a lot more fun.
Good habits require energy and fun. When we examine the nuance of good habits, we can make them almost as enjoyable as bad ones. And in doing so, we don't have to work so very hard, because between design and energy we're pretty much on our merry way.
Even so, many of us don't get started with a new habit because we've been told that it takes a while for a habit to develop. Merely working on something for a few days isn't really going to help.
If we want it to work, we have to make it repetitive. And somehow 21 days seems to be about the right time for a habit to set. But is there any basis to the 21-day philosophy? I don't think so, and here's why.