From Tiny Habits to Big Habits – My Five

On my journey to learning some of the neuroscience and behavior science research behind these things we call “habits”, I decided to put the theory to a test and see if I could turn what I considered to be a big, hard to achieve behavior – going to the gym every day – into a habit. Along the way, I found it helpful to distill what I was learning into a few key mantras that would be easy to remember and keep in mind. So here they are, the 5 key principles I used to turn exercise into a habit – I call them “My Five” (warning, I’m an engineer, not a poet!).

1. Not a Freak, Predictably Unique

It all starts with the realization that there is a high probability that my brain is extraordinarily average and that most of this research I was learning about is actually applicable to me too. Leverage the science, don’t fight it.

2. No Pain, All Gain


Do not make the behavior you want to turn into a habit a willpower challenge – which I define as a task that is painful today but will pay off in the future. Instead, completely forget about any future goals or rewards and find a way to make it immediately rewarding on it’s own.

3. Crave The Wave

wave01Consciously cultivate a craving for the behavior. Take time every day to pause and look forward to the next chance to do it again.



4. Get It Done With The Sun


Do it in the morning, before the day gets “started”. The first hours of the morning are the only truly predictable part of the entire day, so leverage that time to create new big, hard habits.


5. Lose the Virtue, It Will Hurt You


It’s just a habit – avoid the dangers of what psychologists call “moral licensing” and don’t brag about it or give yourself any extra credit for getting it done every day.  Just do it and get on with your day.



Those are my five guiding principles for creating big, hard habits. (I warned you… I’m not a poet, but the rhyming thing makes these very easy for me to remember and keep in mind on a daily basis.) Either stop reading now, or get comfortable, because I’ve got a whole bunch more to say on the topic.

 Getting Started With Habits

Before I get into the details of each of My Five, some background on how I got here:

I started  down this behavior science path with BJ Fogg’s Tiny Habits program. It was a perspective shifting experience  that introduced me to 2 fundamental concepts: First, motivation, the one thing that I thought I needed more of, is actually an unreliable and unhelpful partner in creating long lasting behavior change. And second, the trick is to start with small, easy to accomplish behaviors and turn them into habits and then build on that success.

flossing_01By following the Tiny Habits protocol, I easily turned flossing my teeth into a daily habit. An unexpected and welcome outcome from this experience however was that with the new flossing habit, a shift in my identity also emerged. I became a guy who takes care of his teeth, not just someone who remembers to floss every day. As a result, today, almost 2 years later, I can’t even imagine not flossing and somewhere along the way I also started brushing my teeth more than once a day. It just came with this shift in my identity.

This emergence of a new identity is a critical concept to wrap your head around. It is the real goal, not the new habit, not the lost pounds, not the bigger muscles. In the words of Senaca from the book Letters from a Stoic: “You have to persevere and fortify your pertinacity until the will to good becomes a disposition to good.”

Your habits define who you are, not the other way around. So get your pertinacity in gear and create some new habits.

Guilt free trips to the dentist are nice, but flossing is indeed a tiny habit. gym_01Exercising for an hour – that’s a big habit. And while the advice to start small when trying to create a new habit is sound, the reality is that I already had a 1-hour routine at the gym and I wasn’t interested in turning that into a 5-minute workout in order to make it a habit.

Could I turn my 1-hour routine at the gym into a habit?

I consider a habit to be a daily ritual that takes absolutely no motivation, Something I do with the consistency and ho-hum-ness of say… taking a shower. But exercise takes an hour of pain and suffering, right? So an exercise ‘habit’ seemed to me to be almost an unnatural concept. This, I figured would be a true test of the theory I was studying.

It’s been more than a year now and the results are in. It took the entire year, but I did it – I exercise every morning, usually 7 days a week.  I look forward to it, I don’t have to talk myself into it, I don’t talk about it, I don’t brag about it, I just do it. And just like with the flossing, my exercise habit has expanded into healthy eating, no longer drinking coffee, and much more. From a health and wellness standpoint, I am an entirely different person today and it all started with establishing my exercise habit, the rest just fell into place.

My story is about creating an exercise habit, but everything here applies to any habit you want to create, any new identity you want to acquire.

Before you can really leverage these 5 principles however, I believe you have to come to the party with a fundamental understanding and belief in the role and power of habits in your life, and you have to really want to leverage that power by creating new “on-purpose” habits. To understand these fundamental concepts better, I highly recommend reading Charles Duhigg’s very engaging book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. Bad habits seem to just show up without any real work, but good habits don’t just appear because you do the same thing for x number of days in a row, they require intention and an almost mechanical approach to helping your brain convert your behavior into a habit.

With that said, let’s get into the details of My Five.

1. Not a Freak, Predictably Unique.


Earlier in my career, I had picked up the nick name “Freak” because I had a knack for being able to quickly find and fix bugs in software that others couldn’t easily see, especially when under the pressure of a mission-critical computer system outage. I was proud of that, and I quietly hung on to that Freak moniker as I moved on to other jobs.

I don’t think I’m alone in this regard. In our culture, we are raised to be fiercely independent and to develop a strong sense of a unique self with a keen awareness for the qualities that distinguish us from the pack. I think at some level we all strive for some level of freak-dom.

But after taking a behavior economics class taught by psychology and behavior economics professor Dan Ariely and reading his books, including Predictably Irrational, I slowly came to the conclusion that whether or not I liked it, my brain is probably pretty damn average. Most of the findings drawn from neuroscience and behavior science research probably apply to me too.

A turning point for me came when I was taking a pre-course quiz for a social psychology MOOC taught by social psychologist Scott Plous. I had previously learned about studies that over and over demonstrated something called the “bystander effect”. Essentially it refers to the tendency people have to not stop to help someone in need if others are around and not helping either.  In the pre-course quiz I was posed the question: If someone was having a seizure and you were one of 5 people in the area and none of the other 4 were helping, how likely is it that you would you stop and help? I knew the answer. The probability that anyone would help was very low, something like 80% of the population would just keep walking. So I took a deep breadth and answered – “Not likely” – and in doing so admitted to myself that I didn’t have any reason to justify why I would be one of the few that stopped. Good people fall into this behavior trap, this was not a moral judgement, just a reality of being human.

That was really hard to admit, but it has stuck with me. The good news is that coming to terms with this allowed me to accept that most of this brain science very likely applies to me too and that has left me very open to leveraging it to my advantage.

All 5 of these ideas are backed by research in behavior science and neuroscience – and this science very likely applies to you too. So If you find yourself thinking thoughts like “That won’t work for me, I’m not like that” or “I’m just not a morning person”, then  as hard as this may be to accept, it is essential that you suspend disbelief and come to the conclusion that you are probably not a freak either!  Use the research to your advantage when you can, and also learn to recognize when you might be stuck in a destructive predictable pattern so that you can be the one in the crowd who does stop and help when everyone else is paralyzed by the bystander effect.

2. No Pain, All Gain


The neuroscientists tell us that in order for a behavior to emerge as a habit it has to move from the higher ‘thinking’ part of your brain down to the more primitive basal ganglia where internal or environmental triggers will cause it to be invoked without the higher brain getting involved. For this to happen, there needs to be both a reliable trigger and a reward associated with the behavior. A reward is something that lights up the reward system in your brain. The reward has to be there. Whether you are overtly conscious of those happy bells going off in your head or not, they gotta be dinging if you are going to pull this off.

Clearly I had to stop thinking about exercise as an hour of pain that required extraordinary motivation and willpower to endure on a daily basis. A habit is the exact opposite of a willpower challenge, so in order to turn exercise into a habit I had to find a way to make it rewarding, not painful.

In addition, behavior economists, psychologists and neuroscientists have for decades been studying how we navigate behaviors that generate immediate pleasure in comparison to those whose payoff is in the more distant future.  “Temporal discounting” and “hyperbolic discounting” are just 2 of many fancy terms used in behavior economics to describe how and why we assign more value to immediate pleasure while discounting future rewards when logically the longer term goal would seem to be the preferred option.

Future rewards are behavior quicksand. As I learned more about these concepts I quickly came to the conclusion that my best bet would be to just avoid this quicksand completely instead of trying to navigate over it. My strategy was simple, just completely forget about the future benefits of exercise and instead find a way to do it for today. I had to find a way to turn getting to the gym every morning into an immediately rewarding experience in and of itself.

To pull that off, Dan Ariely suggests “reward substitution” .  An example of  reward substitution in this case might be having some chocolate or other forbidden fruit every time I finish a workout with the intent of  giving my brain something to be happy about right now, instead of 2 years from now. But I don’t think this technique works for very long. You can only keep fooling yourself for so long, eventually the hard work will become more salient than the chocolate. The permanent answer is to stop thinking of the work as “hard”.

I’m suggesting that you go out of your way to make the behavior itself rewarding and desirable, and that you consciously pause during and after to reflect on and reinforce that internal joy. Have some chocolate if you like, but find a way to look forward to the exercise in addition to the chocolate!

Here’s how I do this with my exercise habit.

First, when I get to the gym, I pause,  and quietly reflect on a deep sense of internal gratitude for this moment. My gym is in the heart of downtown, on a corner and has floor to ceiling windows that look out on the streets. It’s first thing in the morning, the sun is not up yet, the town has not yet started to come alive for the day – it really does feel good to be here right now, taking advantage of this precious time in my day. I stop and soak it all in and tell myself to remember how good this moment feels. Then, if i’m between sets and feeling a bit unmotivated to keep going, I no longer try to power through by convincing myself that I need to suck it up and deal with the the pain in order to meet some future goal. Instead, I pause and reflect again on how good it feels to be here right now. I put a huge smile on my face and do that fist-pump thing to reinforce it. That usually works to get me feeling good and moving. But if not, I have permission to end the workout right there and head for the coffee shop across the street – because my goal is to turn this into a habit and forcing myself to suffer through it works directly against that goal.

Second, I go out of my way to create socially rewarding moments while I’m at the gym. I learned in Matthew Lieberman’s book, Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect , that the brain essentially can’t tell the difference between a social reward and eating a piece of chocolate. Social rewards come from engaging with people. Getting a smile or compliment or helping someone out without expecting anything in return. These are all examples of social rewards and they all light up the brain’s reward system which is exactly what we need in order to carve a behavior into a habit. The brain has to associate the behavior with a reward.

I’ve always considered myself somewhat of a social introvert, so this doesn’t come super easy for me, but I figured that if this is the way the brain works, I would use it to my advantage. I started going out of my way to stop and say “Hi” to the familiar faces, to offer a hand if someone needs a spot or to start a quick conversation about last night’s Giants game. I’m one of the regulars, we are all here doing this together and it really does feel good to belong. I consciously pause and pay attention to the jolt of feel-good I get from these interactions – unless of course I happened upon a Dodger fan.

I know, it all sounds a bit theoretical and maybe even a bit ridiculous – all this just to lift some freakin weights in the morning?

 3. Crave the Wave


Yea, it seems silly, but here’s the thing, while I’m sitting here writing this, I’m remembering that high I get from being in the gym first thing in the morning, and I’m actually looking forward to getting back there and working out again tomorrow. Ive been struggling to regularly go to the gym for more than 10 years and now I’m looking forward to it?

I’m not a surfer but I’ve been surfing once or twice, and it runs in my family, so I have a bit of experience here.  Surfers who go out in just about anything other than Waikiki conditions know all about hard work, rewards, and craving.  It goes something like this: you get out of bed a few hours before work, drive to the beach, put on a damp wetsuit, get in the cold water, paddle out through waves breaking in your face, sit and wait with a few-to-too-many others for a wave, and then find yourself in the wrong position for the best set of the morning. It’s hard work, not what is best described as fun. But then you catch a wave, all it takes is one, and it’s pure bliss. And then off to work –  but by mid-afternoon, when the day is falling apart, you find yourself remembering that wave, and you smile knowing that the swell is supposed to last for another few days.

That’s where you have to get to with your habit. You have to get to the point where you crave the chance to do it again.

Earlier I mentioned Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit Duhigg dedicates an entire chapter to the role of “craving”. He describes research by neuroscientists that shows that initially the brain’s pleasure response is triggered by the reward – the wave. But over time, the brain shifts that response to the anticipation of the reward. The anticipation actually becomes more rewarding than the actual reward. And this is especially true if the reward is intermittent and not entirely predictable, like a wave (or a conversation at the gym with a baseball fan).

If you don’t naturally find yourself craving the next opportunity to take a spin through your habit loop then you have to explicitly work on cultivating that craving. For my exercise habit, I literally set the alarm on my phone for 3pm to remind myself to stop and ‘crave the wave’. I take a couple of minutes and mentally put myself back in the gym and remember how good it felt to be there with the rest of the regulars… and I smile. in Duhigg’s words: “This is how new habits are created: by putting together a cue, a routine, and a reward, and then cultivating a craving that drives the loop”.

 4. Get It Done With The Sun.


Now that we’ve got the reward and craving for our new habit figured out, all we need to do is link it to a cue or trigger.

I’ve actually been going to the gym for the last 10 years or so. My goal had always been to get there 4 times a week, but I had no fixed schedule. I’d go whenever I could fit it into my day, and usually that meant it waited until the evenings of the last days of the week. Needless to say, I rarely met my goal and it never became a habit. BJ Fogg’s Tiny Habit program taught me that the way to end this daily battle was to simply find a recurring trigger in my day and link the behavior to it. When x happens, do y – simple as that. No need for motivation, no debate, no internal dialog. So I chose my trigger – walk in the door after work, and the behavior – change into my workout gear and fill my water bottle. As it turned out, once I had gotten that far, I found myself heading off to the gym. It worked perfectly for a few days. But I worked for a start-up, some days I’d get home at 7, some days at 9, some days I’d have to jump on a call with the team in India, etc, etc. It seemed like a good trigger, it happens every day, but my days were not predictable enough and my habit didn’t stick.

Picking a trigger for a new habit can be hard and it is critical that you get it right. Triggers have to be reliable and consistent and ideally, the trigger is actually a ‘stack’ of other habits that you already have baked into your life. When you first get out of bed in the morning, before the day really gets started, is without a doubt the single best time of day to find the trigger to attach a hard habit to.

Today, for me, it goes like this: alarm clock goes off, I get up, make some tea, fry an egg, make a smoothie, eat the egg, put on my workout gear, grab the smoothie and drink it in the car on the way to the gym. I’ve got a routine, a series of small habits, one leads to the next. Nothing that may come up in the day can get in the way of that. If I have less time on a particular day, I’ll go for a quick run instead of taking an hour at the gym, but regardless, I exercise.

I could easily squeeze a tiny habit like flossing into just about any part of my day, regardless of what else happened that day, but it didn’t work as easily with a big habit that took 30-60 minutes.

In addition to it being consistent and reliable, the morning has an additional and very important benefit: The day has not worn you down yet so you have fresh reserves of willpower. Willpower? Isn’t the entire point of creating a habit to make a behavior automatic so that it doesn’t require willpower? Yes, but the paradox is that you need willpower to create the habit so that you don’t need willpower to keep doing it. Remember, it took me a year before exercising became a habit.

Roy Baumeister is the willpower guy. Back in the 60’s he used radishes and chocolate chip cookies and geometry puzzles to discover that willpower is like a muscle in that it becomes worn out with use.

Willpower has been one of the most intensely studied topics in behavior science since then. And in Baumeister’s words from his book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength: “The experiments consistently demonstrated two lessons: 1. You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it. 2. You use the same stock of willpower for all manner of tasks. “

Deciding which jeans to wear, choosing to eat a banana instead of a Crispy Creme donut, arguing with your boss, dealing with unexpected traffic… they all deplete your willpower reserves. And when your willpower is drained, your self-control suffers and you give in to temptation. Hard habits don’t form in 30 days, mine took a year, that takes reliable willpower.

The good news is that research has also shown that along with building muscle, regular exercise can actually strengthen your willpower. So if you exercise in the morning, passing up that donut won’t be as hard and you’ll have enough energy left for two fights with your boss instead of 1 – yea!

 5. Lose the Virtue, It Will Hurt You




Think about some of the habits in your life, the ones that you would characterize as good (or at least not bad) habits. Drinking that first cup of coffee in the morning, making sure your kids eat breakfast and get to the bus stop on time, taking a shower before leaving the house for the day. Are these habits the right thing to do and good for you and your family? Of course they are. But do you think of them that way and maybe give yourself a pat on the back for getting them done? Do you ever find yourself bragging a bit to your co-workers when you get to work: “Sorry I’m a bit late this morning but I took a shower and fed my kids today – 3rd time this week. Hi Five!!”

Well, that was me when it came to working out. If I got it done before work, I felt damn good about it and proud of myself and usually found a way to bring it up when I got to work to let at least one other person in on my little success.

And then I learned about some more behavior quicksand, a concept called moral licensing. By attaching virtue to getting to the gym and exercising, I was giving myself license to give in to temptation in other areas of my life, such as being late to work, and, paradoxically, not going to the gym again tomorrow.

From Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal’s book: The Willpower Instinct: How Self Control Works, Why it Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It. : “Anything you moralize becomes fair game for the effect of moral licensing. If you tell yourself that you’re “good” when you exercise and “bad” when you don’t, then you are more likely to skip the gym tomorrow if you work out today”. And: “Simply put: Whenever we have conflicting desires, being good gives us permission to be a little bad”

The licensing effect helps to explain why attaching virtue to my habit was self-destructive. But I knew in my gut that if I wanted to turn going to the gym every day into a habit, I would have to drop feeling so good about myself for having done it. It would have to become an every day event that had no more special significance than taking a shower. This was actually quite hard for me to come to terms with and it was an explicit, conscious choice I had to make. Perhaps I would have gotten there eventually, after working out emerged as a habit – but I’m not sure it would have ever emerged as a habit if I had not consciously chosen to drop the virtue as a first step towards that goal.

Attaching virtue to your habit exposes you to another psychological effect known as the what-the-hell effect. It goes something like this: “I wasn’t able to get to the gym Monday or Tuesday, so I might as well just blow it off for the rest of the week and get back on my routine next week.” If it’s not good when you do it then it isn’t that bad when you skip it – and paradoxically, you are more likely to do it after having missed a day or 2.

So, now I’m saying don’t feel good about it, but above I was saying make it rewarding in and of itself. That sounds like conflicting advice, but not really. Standing under that hot shower on a cold morning feels good and is rewarding, but it doesn’t really make you a better person. You can have one without the other.

It may feel like you’re just fooling yourself by trying to drop the virtue of a behavior like exercising – because it really is quite virtuous, right? Estimates are that more than half of the US population doesn’t get the recommended amount of exercise and more than 80% of all healthcare dollars are spent on preventable chronic disease. As a society, we could arguably exercise (and eat) our way out of our healthcare problems, that’s pretty damn virtuous.

OK, but forget about it! It’s quicksand. If everybody exercised daily, then it would be just what you do, nothing to brag about, no virtue – and that is where you need to be in order to make it a habit.

 Wrapping It Up – finally!

And there you have it:

  • Not a Freak, Predictably Unique
  • No Pain All Gain
  • Crave the Wave
  • Get It Done With the Sun
  • Lose the Virtue, It Will Hurt You

The five principles I used to help me turn exercise into a habit. Habits are a powerful tool that can either work for you or against you. My Five help me to create habits that work in my favor.


About Mark Feinholz

Software developer, architect, technical product manager. Inspired by technology to help us live happier and healthier lives.
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