23 January 2019


by Lyndon Purcell 0

With the arrival of the new year, habits and resolutions are at the forefront of everyone’s mind.

While there are many methods of varying effectiveness for approaching habit formation (do it everyday for 30 days etc), in general, you will often find greater success when adopting a principles based approach, rather than relying on any particular method

With the arrival of the new year, habits and resolutions are at the forefront of everyone’s mind.

While there are many methods of varying effectiveness for approaching habit formation (do it everyday for 30 days etc), in general, you will often find greater success when adopting a principles based approach, rather than relying on any particular method.

There are many levels of analysis that we can look to for principles to guide our approach, and it can certainly get more technical than this, however I thought I would share some generalities in regards to understanding habit formation. From an evolutionary perspective, humans gain pleasure from things that increased their chance of long-term survival.  As homo-sapiens evolved, the crafty process of evolution found ways to incentivise activities and circumstances that increased the probability of our genes making it into the next generation. This is fundamentally why eating a bunch of calories makes you feel good, why sex is pleasurable, or why having friends and people we can rely on is something we are innately wired to desire… All these things, and many more, prolonged the survival of our genetic code and thus they were programmed to feel good (by our genetics) in order for us to seek them out more often.

While this doesn’t necessarily give us something that we can instantly action in regards to forming habits, it can at least help us understand our biological drives to a greater degree, which is paramount if we wish to achieve goals that are counter to theirs. We must attempt to understand our own human nature, or we will continuously fall victim to it.


Constraints limit what we can do. They may be financial, geographical, biological or a combination of those and others. However, we fundamentally cannot pick an option (an action/behaviour) that is outside of those that we are constrained to.

Within the behaviours we can select, we will gravitate towards the ones with the highest incentives. Incentives are going to be determined by things such as what we value, or believe to be achievable (again, among other things). Through the conscious application of effort and self control, we can select actions that are not the most highly incentivised (such as choosing to stay in and get an early night, as opposed to going out partying), however, if we do not somehow adjust our values hierarchy, we will inevitably revert back to prior behaviours.

Anecdotally, I have found that expanding one’s views on the positive repercussions of a desired behaviour, tends to help elevate it in regards to its value. For example, many people place a high, but myopic importance on being in shape for the purpose of being attractive. While this is an understandable justification (and shouldn’t necessarily be just considered as “vain”, because it is biologically incentivised, as discussed in point 1), it is typically not enough to adequately incentivise many people.

Let’s use an example of someone who places a high priority on their career, but is wanting to improve their health and fitness also.

The strong incentives provided by career outcomes are likely the key to helping this person incentivise desired behaviour change. So rather than highlighting the benefits of appearing more attractive for “reproduction” purposes, an area of their life in which they may already be adequately satisfied, you might be better served by highlighting to them the benefits of being in better shape for career reasons.

Whether we like it or not, we subconsciously evaluate people every day. And the same thing happens back to us in return. People in better physical shape will likely get promotions ahead of people in lesser shape, all other things being equal. Being healthier also gives you a greater ability to tolerate stress and increases general measures of cognitive output and productivity. All these things are going to be minor, but potentially meaningful factors that influence one’s career over longer time spans. Highlighting these sorts of things to the career-driven client may provide sufficient motivation to adopt the new behaviour, without any drastic interventions, you simply connected some dots to previously established incentives and drew their attention to a broader range of benefits.


One of the theories about why the arts and other exhibitions of creativity are so widely appreciated, is that they induce and then relive tension.

You know when you look at a painting, and don’t understand it, then it all clicks into place and you have that “A-ha!” moment… That’s the sort of thing that I’m talking about. However it’s more widespread than that.

People often criticise Hollywood for pumping out movies that follow a similar structure, but that’s because it’s essentially a winning formula. A good movie usually slowly builds towards some kind of climax, there is a twist and peak tension is created, then there’s a resolution and a (typically) happy-ending. This creates a profound physiological response, and results in pleasurable chemicals being released.

A little closer to my own interest, the same thing can be observed. As a preface, I’m a trash human-being with a bad taste in music. Few things in life I enjoy more than some heavy techno/trance/rave music. In this style of music, there is typically something referred to as a “build up” and then a “drop”. This stimulates the building of tension and release, respectively, which subsequently induces feelings of elation.

As a side note; to all you older individuals out there that can’t believe the  younger generations taste in music (or other cultural activities), understand that the same music you enjoy, follows the exact same pattern. It is not the instrument that makes the music, it is the pattern it follows and the ability of the musician to tap into innate human desires in imaginative and novel ways.

When looking to initiate some kind of new and desired behaviour, don’t forget to give yourself some relief along the way. As we established above, relief from “unpleasant” stimuli can be rewarding in itself.

So don’t try to exercise and diet 7 days a week until you see results. You will burn out and give up before you get anywhere close to being happy with what you see. Doing less initially will get you a hell of closer to where you want to be, that doing “everything you can” and giving up almost instantly. Remember, if this isn’t an established behaviour already, yet you want it to be, there’s obviously something that is preventing you from doing it consistently. Don’t undervalue that and act arrogantly or mindlessly in your approach.

Give yourself some relief and reprieve along the way, then the results will come.

Main Takeaways: 

– Things that make us feel good, were typically things that increased rates as survival during evolution. Things we desire as modern humans, aren’t always what feels immediately rewarding to us. By bringing awareness to a particular behaviour and the influence of our biological drives, we can attempt to understand why they arise. When we understand something, we are in a greater position of power to influence it in whichever way we choose.

– When attempting to undertake a new habit, you must ensure it falls within your constraints. Once you’ve established it is a viable behaviour, incentivising it will lead to it being undertaken more times on average. The same approach can be taken for behaviours you want to reduce; if possible, make it impossible to undertake. If that is not possible, find reasons that disincentivises the behaviour.

– Tension and relief are powerful tools when used in conjunction. Don’t attempt a complete behaviour overhaul, you need to implement the new behaviour in consistent, but not constant manner. Establishing the appropriate ratio of effort-to-relaxation for you and your desired behaviour will yield the most sustainable approach, leading to the best outcomes.

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