Use Disruptive Moments in Life to Pick Up New Habits

I recently moved from the San Francisco Bay Area (“Silicon Valley”) to Seattle, Washington, for both professional and personal reasons. So far, I’m very happy about this decision. The fact that a rare snowfall is turning downtown Seattle into a winter wonderland and covering it in a white blanket as I write this is certainly reinforcing my excitement. Maybe I’ll ski to work tomorrow. As a matter of fact, this is the fifth time I move to a different city in the last three and a half years. After Munich, London, Boston and the Bay Area, Seattle is destination #5. You could almost say that Facebook’s “Move Fast” mentality is a good fit for me.

Relocating is always a slightly stressful endeavour. It generates a ton of administrative labor, and it also takes some time to settle in and recover your comfort and order in life. Nevertheless, there is one aspect of it that I like very much. I’ve found moving to a new environment to be very fertile ground for successfully picking up new habits that I’d previously conjectured to improve my happiness, health or efficiency, but thus far had failed or not taken the time to integrate into my life. The underlying reason is that a move is disruptive to your life and causes a natural interruption to your daily routine. The movie you replay every single day as part of your habitual schedule is paused; the movie set is moved to a new location, the script that guided you through the story is left behind and you’re given a blank notebook to write a new movie. Most of that blank script gets filled in pretty quickly with an adjusted version of your old life. However, it’s much easier to make an edit here and there than it was before, when your script was already written and rehearsed a thousand times as you followed your old habits on a day to day basis. In less ornate words: after your routines are naturally interrupted for a significant period of time – at least a few days – it takes your brain some time to get back on track. You can use this time to “slip in” a new habit much more easily than trying to alter your habits from one random day to the next, when your “habit maintenance” engine is in steady motion.

To understand this better, it’s important to realize that the brain is incredibly, masterfully adept at maintaining habits once they are solidified. Humans are creatures of habit, as the popular mantra goes, and for a good reason: habits save us time and energy. Take breakfast routines as an example. Most people eat the same breakfast every day. For me, it’s the same old oatmeal with the same old cranberries and the same old yoghurt. Imagine you’d wake up every morning having forgotten what you usually eat for breakfast and had to re-evaluate what breakfast best fits your taste, time and health requirements. Way too much effort. An interesting read on the subject of habits is The Power of Habits by Charles Duhigg. It discusses the science behind habits in great detail, including how hard it is to break out of existing ones. His most important takeaway – at least for me – is that our brains execute our routines in three steps. First, we encounter a cue in our environment that pokes the neurons in our brain responsible for a particular activity. Second, we act on our habit. Third, our brain receives some reward. Take snacking in the middle of the night as an example. The cue would be a feeling of hunger. The habit is to eat chocolate. The reward is the feeling of fullness. Duhigg’s advice is to keep the cue and the reward, but swap out the habit for something that still leads from the former to the latter, but replaces the undesirable action with a better one. For the midnight snacking, this might mean snacking celery instead of chocolate. The cue of feeling hungry at night is still there, the reward of feeling full is still there, but the habit is a lot healthier.

Now, while Duhigg’s method is certainly viable, it relies to a great extent on the exertion of willpower to induce the change. My argument is that while willpower will always be necessary to some extent when trying to pick up a new habit or update an existing one, it is easier to do so when your routine is already interrupted by an environmental factor. This leads me back to my observation that natural interruptions like moving to a new city makes it easier to learn a new habit. Such natural interruptions to your routines can come in smaller doses than moving to a new city, of course. A perfect example is a vacation. Most people don’t move very often, but certainly everyone except Elon Musk takes a vacation once in a while. In essence, a vacation is a shorter, time-restricted version of moving to a new city or country. It thus provides similar benefits for altering your habits. Let’s take a practical example of wanting to introduce the habit of waking up earlier – 7 AM instead of 9 AM. Trying to change your wake time from one random day to the next, with no external stimulus, requires immense willpower and is very hard. Instead, wait for a vacation. Your sleep schedule will probably be different from your typical work week – maybe there’s even a time difference – and thus your routine will be naturally interrupted. When you get back from vacation, it’ll take some time to re-adjust to your habitual schedule. It is precisely in this – short – re-adjustment period that your “habit muscle” is weak and amenable to change.

An interesting corollary from my argument is that New Year’s resolutions are a bad idea. Apart from a spike in your champagne consumption, December 31st really isn’t all that different from January 1st and any difference in your disposition is likely to be superficial. While it’s certainly a good idea to spend some time thinking about your goals for the next year, there is no significant interruption to your routines during that period of time to accelerate your adoption of new routines. As such, you should maybe consider combining your next New Year’s celebration with a vacation to Thailand.

Now, having preached this idea of mine, do I actually have personal examples to show for it? I do. Since life recently handed me a brand new notebook for a new movie set here in Seattle, and being convinced there’s some truth to this theory of mine, I’m trying my best to make use of this natural interruption to my life. I’ve long wanted to engage in some more high intensity exercise than standard weightlifting and cardio in the gym. I tried Kickboxing back in the bay – but didn’t stick with it because my other routines and my schedule got in the way with it. After my move, I don’t even really have a schedule yet, apart from the approximate hours I’m usually in the office. I’ve used this opportunity to sign up for Krav Maga (an Israeli martial art) and am sticking to it (so far). Was it hard? Not at all. Again, it’s about just slipping it into your routine during times of natural disruption to your habits.

I hope this is useful food for thought and something you keep in mind the next time you go on vacation, or even move to a different city.