Make your habits zero-effort

If there’s one thing that obsesses self-improvement junkies, it’s actually sticking with their regimens. Life hacks abound: Tell your friends about your plan so you’ll be embarrassed if you fail! Make sure you keep an unbroken streak! Charge yourself money if you don’t stick to it! Donate the money to your least favorite charity1 Forget donations, how about electric shocks?

The escalating absurdity should tell you that this problem is unsolved. But in my opinion, that’s because everyone tries to do it wrong. Personally, I’ve found my productivity habits to be extremely long-lived when I make sure they’re literally zero maintenance. That is, when it’s habit time, it requires more willpower to break the habit than to keep going.

The delta between literally-zero-maintenance and not zero is staggeringly large, basically because nobody reliably has willpower.2 Sometimes you’ll need to execute your habit when you’re sleep-deprived, or in the middle of a really good book, or your significant other just broke up with you, or for whatever reason you just can’t be bothered to try. The only thing that can save your habit here, is if the habit is what happens when you can’t be bothered.

Zero maintenance is hard to achieve, but awesome when it works. For instance:

Each of these systems has lasted 2+ years, because at the moment of execution they require zero action from me to sustain—the default is for me to keep having the habit.

If you can’t achieve literal zero maintenance, it still makes a big difference if the maintenance effort can be batched to high-energy periods. For instance, my wake-up habit required me to prepare my coffee machine the day before, but I could do it any time that day. So instead of needing to have enough willpower when I was waking up, I just needed to have enough willpower at some point in the last 24 hours. If that had been too hard, I could have used a capsule machine and disposable cups, and batched the willpower even more, to just ordering new cups periodically.

Thanks to Alexey Guzey for the email prompting this and Eve Bigaj for reading a draft.


  1. Stickk played up the “anti-charity” angle at the beginning but seems to have dropped it on their current website; instead they default to a bunch of generic uncontroversial ones. (Plus the highly controversial2 Charity Navigator.) ↩︎

  2. Citation needed. ↩︎

  3. Eve tells me she doesn’t consider our bedtime consistent, and also that the pestering is gentle. ↩︎

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Ismael

I am interested in the waking-up stuff. What specific lights did you end up buying?

Ben

According to my Amazon history, this one, but it wasn’t awesome–if the light switch was turned off, they wouldn’t be able to turn on automatically (and maybe even lost their memory of the timer that was set, I don’t remember). Also I like more lumens. If I were doing it over again I might get a smart switch instead.

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Ismael

Also, this is really funny:

I used to have trouble going to bed at a consistent time, so I started dating someone who would pester me if I stayed up too late.

You made it seem to me as if you started dating this person specifically because you knew she would pester you if you stayed up late. That is the kind of things most people don’t know about the other person when they start dating them, so to me this advice seems very hard to apply, haha.

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Alexey

I spent the last year trying to understand this post https://www.benkuhn.net/zero and am now convinced that it actually makes sense and that the last paragraph is exactly the thing that explains everything.

Essentially, you need hooks from your low-functioning states to your high-functioning states that would pull you out of low-function e.g. from the post:

I was finally able to understand what’s going on here because I started to consciously do it a couple of months ago a lot and before that it only happened accidentally:

The reason this works is that even if I’m low-functioning and e.g. really want to watch a youtube video when I should be working, I know for sure that in the next few hours or the next day, there will be a high-functioning state of me who will retrospectively assign a punishment for that infraction, so the low-functioning state is like “well, do I really want to watch youtube right now for a chance to get one of these punishments?”

And just as the case with going to bed, this does not lose salience over time, which is the biggest problem for productivity systems, because these punishments will always be unpleasant and because I will always have a high-functioning enough state to either execute them or to review my system and adjust them to work better.

These punishments I had in place for 2 months and they have not broken once; going to bed on time has been working without fail for the last 3 months.

Ben

Yeah that’s what I was trying to get at!

On a meta level, I’ve found that when I have a consistent weekly review habit, it’s one of the best points of leverage for making sure I don’t get sloppy elsewhere—I often spend a bunch of my weekly review time figuring out how to make my habits/routines more resilient. I think it works basically the same way—offloading the hard work to the highest functioning times.

(Unfortunately the weekly review habit is itself somewhat fragile since it only works if I have a lot of energy!)

Alexey

Yes! but this is where wife/gf should come in. I do weekly review for my wife and she does a weekly review for me where we discuss what went good/bad, what are our plans, etc. and makes sure I don’t shirk on the reviews.

Actually her review is coming up in just an hour and bc it’s my responsibility we never miss it :) (and same is true in reverse)

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Alexandru

Great post! I’ve just subscribed to your blog.

How would you make brushing teeth literally zero maintenance?

It seems the most I can do is maintenance in high-energy periods: making sure that my electric toothbrush is charged and that I have toothpaste.

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