Habits Need to Fit into Muscle Memory

We know what we should do. We sit down to think about it and no, we should not open the fridge door 20 times a day. Then the time comes, and we find ourselves doing it anyway. Why? My guess is that it has something to do with memory.

Memory is layered. On the top layer, we have a large amount of cheap, long-term storage. The bulk of what we call our “knowledge” is here. It takes effort to retrieve this information, it’s not instantaneous. But that’s the tradeoff for the sheer quantity of stuff you can store.

Down a couple of layers, we have our short-term memory. I am using it to type this very sentence, so that I don’t forget how I started it. You’re using it too to parse these paragraphs. This memory pool is small, but access to is is fast.

At the bare bones, we have what some call “muscle memory,” or “instincts.” I’ll call it Layer 0. This is where your operating system resides. Retrieving from this layer takes no effort at all, in fact, you don’t need to “retrieve” anything from it, the information is just “there.”

Layer 0 is what people refer to as “you”. Your actions, reactions, behaviours. When you say you “turn off your brain,” this is the layer you are using. Here, it’s not even fair to call it “memory”, it’s more like the “code” that runs you.

Whenever you see something, you have an instinctive reaction. That’s Layer 0. Your upper layers then kick into gear and form an idea about it, then store it. But you always start from 0. We love layer 0, because it doesn’t take any effort to use it.

The reason why what we do is different from what we think we should do is because these two pieces of information reside in different layers of memory.

What we “should” do is in layer 3 or 4, while what we actually do is always down to layer 0. Retrieving info from the top layers is expensive, so if there is a suitable alternative closer to the core, we do it.

When we are solving a complex problem, there is no layer 0 alternative. We are forced to wire stuff down from the top. But when we need to choose what to do after getting up from the chair, the choice is easy: your “reaction” to walk up to the fridge in layer 0 versus your “knowledge” of restraining yourself on layer 3.

And it’s not just that retrieving “knowledge” is expensive, it’s that Layer 0 is extremely small. If our upper layers are the surface of the Earth, our Layer 0 is the size of a stamp. This is why we rely heavily on abstractions to make sense of the world around us. We just can’t process and store it all at once. This is also why many habit gurus on the Internet recommend you start small.

You’re successful at creating a habit when you can bring it down to layer 0. Real estate in this layer is at a premium, but once something is there, it’s there for good. Because a habit is just that: something that feels natural to you. Something effortless.

Everything I have ever said so far about habits, such as making them small, treating them like meetings, shaping your environment, and others can all boil to this same one thing: making habits a part of ourselves. A part of Layer 0.

How to Stick with Resolutions (according to the Internet)

There’s something irresistible about arbitrary deadlines. We know we could start writing our book today, but our brain loves the idea of starting in the new year. So, we do resolutions.

Me? I am notoriously bad at sticking to things, even small ones. I get passionate about something, I do it until I get tired (1-2 months,) then I quit it completely. Then I find something new again, rinse and repeat. So I know I wouldn’t stick to something for a whole year.

I’ve been living with this “condition” for a long time. So I wanted to see what would happen if I asked the Internet for tips on sticking to things like resolutions, projects, hobbies, etc. The response was great. Tens of people replied to my post on Hacker News with insights I had never even thought about. In this post, I’ll summarize them for you, so that you can be armed to stick to your resolutions and projects throughout the new year and more.

Trust your old self

Three months in, you’ll want to drop your thing. You’re sick and tired of writing, or going to the gym, or learning game development. It’s at this point where you need to stop what you are doing and start trusting your old self.

Your old self got into the resolution for a reason. Your old self did some research and thought it’d be worth to stick to X for a while. Why don’t you trust yourself? Give your old self the benefit of the doubt.

Be aware of the horizon

When you start something new, you can only see up until the horizon. You see the road to get there, and you know you can get to the horizon relatively easily. It’s what’s beyond the horizon that you must be prepared for.

Before the horizon is the land of high dopamine, high motivation, and endless curiosity. After the horizon is the land of the unknowns, the obstacles, and low motivation. Before, you didn’t need discipline: you were motivated to do things on your own. After, you need to just commit to doing it regularly, no matter your level of satisfaction with it.

You want to stop doing X not because you fell out of love with it, but because you crossed the horizon. When starting, be fully aware that what you see before you is but 1% of the whole thing, and the rest is beyond your current knowledge and motivation level. You will be unmotivated, and there will be obstacles.

Involve people

How on Earth was I able to stick to trms for half a year now, when normally I context-switch every 30 minutes? It’s because I know you are reading, and about a hundred people are half-expecting a new post and email every Friday.

A surefire way to stick with something is to make it embarrassing to fail.

Accumulate Wins

One of the reasons why we quit is that we stop winning. Our “goals” look like they are moving further away, and we haven’t hit a significant milestone in ages. Not winning is demoralizing. So start winning again.

If you’re creating a game, set yourself the goal of working on that bug for at least 3 hours this weekend. If you’re writing a book, tell yourself you’ll write 1000 words by Sunday. All doable stuff. Then crunch it and win. Once you got this first win, you’ll want to get another one. And another one, and before you know it, it’s an avalanche.

Know what you want to get out of your projects

Why are you starting the new project? What do you want to get out of it? If you are in it just to explore, it’s ok to drop it quickly. If, instead, you are looking for something bigger, prepare yourself to weather through some storms. Don’t feel guilty for dropping something quickly if that was the intention from the start.

Know what you want, period

Are you doing these things because you’re genuinely interested, or because you think that you should be interested in them?

I’m still fuming at this commenter, because they hit an open nerve on their first try. Are you actually interested in these projects, or are you projecting a version of yourself that should be interested in them?

It’s worth spending a good chunk of time looking at yourself and thinking about what you actually like to do. It’s not as obvious as it seems. Figuring it out will save you a good amount of time later on. If you have trouble sticking to things, it might be because you don’t actually like them, and you didn’t even realize it.

Bonus: Reading Recommendations from Commenters

The Dip will outline this idea of keeping at it as things don’t really pick up right away.

Atomic Habits gives some great ideas on structuring things to make them habits. Setting your environment up to make it easier to get started etc.

Reading Finish by Acuff RN (was recommended in an earlier post). Absolutely recommended.

Earlier this year, a newer version of Driven to Distraction was published, ADHD 2.0, written by the very same authors and featuring a lot promising new strategies backed by recent research. Definitely a recommended read.

I think you might benefit from reading this series of short articles: https://mindingourway.com/guilt/ (note that you have to read them in order).

I still feel pretty bad about this and have a lot of guilt by not pursuing my projects, however I recently finished reading “Refuse To Choose” by Barbara Sher and it was a game changer, I still feel bad about it but I see now a different perspective and it has given me hope and made me realize that perhaps I’m not as broken as I thought I was.

Read all the comments here.

Treat Your Habits Like Meetings

The biggest problem with habits is that it’s hard to stick to them. After a while, we just stop showing up. How do we trick our brain into helping us? I have a method.

In The Value of Doing a Little I suggested only doing the bare minimum so that you’re more likely to stick with things. That works well, but often, it’s not enough. Knowing that you’ll do the bare minimum helps you get through your habit, but it’s still hard to get up from the chair and actually start. It doesn’t kick you in the butt.

Now, love them or hate them, you show up to work meetings. True, most could have been a Slack message if only communication between you was better, but you show up to them nonetheless. The meeting gets onto your calendar, you prepare for it, check the time, and show up exactly when and where you need to.

Without a valid reason, you wouldn’t be late to a meeting. You wouldn’t delay it at the last minute. And even more so, you wouldn’t just completely miss it.

That’s the power of meetings. I have a daily meeting at work every morning and I’ve never once missed it. It’s perhaps one of the most regular things in my life. By contrast, during the same period, I started about 3 different exercise regimes and many more “daily” habits that went nowhere.

What if we could harness the “showing-up” power of meetings and bring that to our habits? I’ve been trying for a while and, so far, I like the results.

I now put my “major” daily habits onto my calendar. From 8 to 8:45 AM, it’s exercise time. That’s my meeting with exercising. I know it, and my partner knows it. At 8 AM, I need to show up. If I don’t, I need a really good reason. Just like I wouldn’t skip a work meeting, I wouldn’t skip this one.

My partner studies Italian from 11 AM to 12. She puts her devices on do not disturb and at 11 AM she’s in front of her computer and shows up to her meeting with Italian.

It’s so good that, to me, it almost feels like a superpower. My brain made a strong connection between the concept of “meeting” and “showing up consistently”, so this trick effectively hijacks this connection for my own good.

Want steps to do? It’s simple:

  1. Add your habit to your calendar. Don’t forget to set a reminder a couple of minutes before the habit starts.
  2. When the time comes, you’ll get a notification. It’s time to show up for your habit. That’s it.


  • If you live with someone, tell them you have this meeting at X time on Y day, so they can nudge you and make adjustments accordingly.
  • This is a real meeting. You’re busy. Don’t schedule something else during this time. Don’t accept other invitations. Don’t have a meal during your meeting.

It worked for me. Let me know how it works for you.

Willpower Won’t Get You There

You want to have a habit. Exercising, flossing, practicing. You keep it up for a while. Then, like clockwork, a couple of days later, you stop. You blame yourself, cursing your willpower for not being strong enough.

Except, willpower doesn’t work for anyone. Willpower won’t get you where you want to go. There’s a better alternative.

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You Need a Journal

I’ve been writing a daily journal for the best part of the last six years.

I’ve come to the conclusion that journaling is the best thing you can do with five minutes of your time, and one of the habits with the best return on investment.

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Energy Doesn’t Work That Way

For a while, I considered myself a productivity guru. I knew all the methods, all the tips, and all the tricks. I had read Allen’s GTD book back-to-back. My to-do app was open 24 hours a day. Friends would ask me for productivity advice. Except, it was a farce. The amount of things I was getting done was about the same as before. That is, until I finally understood how energy worked.

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