What we learned about habits at #qs2011 Amsterdam

We had a great breakout session about “How to build habits” at the QS conference that just finished in Amsterdam.

Lots of people were excited about continuing the conversation and sharing resources and ideas so I said I would start a thread here with some notes from the breakout session and hopefully other people will post their own notes, thoughts, questions etc…

I am sorry I didn’t get everyone’s names or twitter handles so I hope you will post here.

Nancy Dougherty @nancyhd already posted a great list of resources, some of which she brought up during the session:


One of the big things that emerged was that it helps a lot to design your environment, in order to make certain habits easier.

For example:
John Amschler’s @jxa living room is set up as a gym, no TV and no couch in front of the computer.
Yosef Safi Harb @ysharb leaves his laptop charger at the office so that he doesn’t spend time on his laptop when he gets home.
Someone else mentioned telling the kids the TV is broken and that worked to get them out of the habit of watching it.
Nancy didn’t get a car so that she would ride her bike to work every day.

Another related strategy that got a lot of energy in the room is to become very snobbish about a certain thing, like coffee or certain kinds of food so that you get used to really high quality coffee or food and lose the test for junk food or develop an aversion to it and can’t go back to the mainstream.

Overall, it seems that tricking works especially when it involves something positive and the process is somewhat akin to “replacing your mom”.

This is interesting because Laurie Frick said in the her closing session that for her the Zeo is a “mechanical mom”. So it seems that a nurturing quality to our intentions around our goals and habits is very important.

Yosef developed his own system for tracking the behaviors he wants throughout the day and plans his day the evening before.
I find it really inspiring as I have been thinking of doing something very similar:

Someone mentioned a Ted talk by Benjamin Zander who managed to get people to like classical music in 30 minutes.

I have to catch my plane now so I will stop here :slight_smile:


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[quote=“Ioan_Mitrea, post:1, topic:260”]
Overall, it seems that tricking works especially when it involves something positive and the process is somewhat akin to “replacing your mom”.[/quote]

That’s intriguing, but I don’t understand. Could you explain? I’m afraid I don’t understand “tricking”, “something positive” (isn’t there something positive about anything?), and “replacing your mom”.

[quote=“Seth_Roberts, post:3, topic:260”]

Hi Seth,

Thanks for the questions. I’m sorry I was unclear, I posted in a hurry and I mixed a few things together.

There was a lot of energy in the discussion around how to get yourself to keep doing something which you decided is a good habit for you to have, or to stop doing something which you know is bad for you.

Someone mentioned recent studies that suggest that willpower is somewhat of a finite resource that gets used up during the day. (There was an article recently in the New York Times about decision fatigue). One implication of that would be that you would have an easier time following through with your commitments and habits you want to build if you restrict your environement and your options in certain ways so you have less choices to make during the day.

Yosef gave an example of how he maps out his day the evening before and does specific things like choosing his clothes for the next morning so that he doesn’t have to do it in the morning when he is just waking up and there is a time pressure and doesn’t want to deal with the frustration of finding out his shirt is dirty. I definitely have to get my 11-year old daughter to choose her clothes in the evening otherwise there is a huge drama in the morning around finding the right clothes.

I think that’s how “replacing your mom” came up. You do little things for yourself which are the kind of things your mom would have done for you, because she knows what’s best for you :slight_smile:

Nancy gave some great examples of tricking yourself into doing things that are good for you.
Like switching from chocolate as the ultimate treat to kombucha and steamed artichokes using a clever trick :slight_smile:
I was definitely inspired by her mindfulness pills as a great trick to play on yourself

Thanks, Ioan, now I understand.

Thanks Ioan for the overview of a great discussion session!

The Benjamin Zander video can be found here: http://www.ted.com/talks/benjamin_zander_on_music_and_passion.html
Another great video is this one: http://vimeo.com/18913413
It’s a lecture of John Cleese on ‘How to be creative’. He talks a lot about habits and behavior and how to change this…

I find both videos truly inspirational!

Could people here maybe also post references or links to two of the discussed examples:

The swedish(?) math teacher saying: It’s difficult and you can do it! (instead of it is easy…)
Nancy, your example?

There is psychological research showing that making “if-then” plans to be done automatically by yourself makes doing easier.

Once you make these plans decisive and automatic, they take much less psychological energy.

Look up “Implementation Intentions” a concept with quite some papers by Peter Gollowitzer, who is a very intelligent researcher

This works great for bad food habits. I have a sweet tooth, so I just don’t have (much) chocolate or cookies in the house.

Hey Ioan , (and rest of the group who were present at the productivity session in Amsterdam hosted by Ioan)

I wrote a little piece on the winning habits I have been using since September, and some of them I shared during your session in Amsterdam. If you are interested have a look at Winning Habits.


Two tricks from research

  1. mental contrasting.
    Find the single most important positive outsome of the new habit.
    Then, Find the single strongest obstacle to it. (chocolate craving, if dieting etc.)

  2. implementation Intentions.
    Forming specific plans for action.
    Like “when i go next to the canteen at noon, i buy salad” etc. specificy here is crucial. Because it creates automaticity.

Great success for two years in increasing fruit and vegetable consumption. See…


I think it is nice that individual people at QS find ways and work arounds for their habits and behavior. But isn’t this selling the community and conferences a bit short? Shouldn’t it be about us/we/society/community instead of I/me/myself?

If we look at it that way it gives opportunities to design products different. We can’t expect everybody to get rid of the TV, so how can we redesign TV’s or the TV experience for instance? I think the community could and should focus more on how it can make a difference for the crowd and not the individual…

You can no more redesign the TV or the TV experience than you can get everyone to get rid of their TVs.

All you can really control is your self. Figure out how to live a better life. When you do, share it with others who want to improve their lives, and that’s when we become a community.

[quote]Shouldn’t it be about us/we/society/community instead of I/me/myself?[/quote]It’s the quantified self. It’s about finding stuff that works for us and sharing the solution with others.

[quote]We can’t expect everybody to get rid of the TV, so how can we redesign TV’s or the TV experience for instance? [/quote]Actually we can. It’s not about designing a better TV experience but about getting people to change their habits. It’s about getting them to stop watching TV.

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You can’t change other people. You can only change yourself.