Habit Pairs & Poka-Yokes

There’s a fair amount of effort required to instigate change in our lives, and maintaining change over time often requires additional mental effort.

Some behavioral changes stick because there are no alternatives, or because they’re latently enjoyable, but many adjustments of this kind require conscious, deliberative motivation, and that motivation is psychologically costly.

Research has demonstrated that what’s often called “pairing” or “stacking” can help us stick to new habits after their novelty has worn off, as it reduces the overall cognitive cost of both remembering to integrate these behaviors into our lives, and actually performing them.

What pairing means in practice is attaching a new habit to an existing habit: I’ll take the medicine I was prescribed when I eat lunch each day, or I’ll read fiction for twenty minutes every night right before I go to sleep.

Existing habits are already pinned to particular moments in our lives, so tying these new habits to those extant milestones saves us the energy we would typically expend just trying to integrate them into everything else we do each day.

This can also help reduce potential frictions that are associated with some habits for some people.

I personally find that having the space and necessary equipment to work out at home means I work out every single day, whereas if I have to get myself to another location to do the same, I more often skip days.

The opposite may be true for you. Whatever the specifics, though, the idea is to figure out what’s allowing your brain to justify away sustained maintenance of positive habits, and to get rid of those excuse-triggers whenever possible.

This type of friction-reduction is an example of what you might call a “forcing function,” “behavior-shaping constraint,” or “poka-yoke”—the latter of which is a Japanese term that means, roughly, “mistake-proofing.”

Poka-yoke was popularized for its success in Toyota’s vehicle production lines.

The idea was that they would proactively make adjustments, even if just small ones, to their machinery and systems to correct for potential human errors before they could become persistent problems.

If there was a small chance—let’s say 1 in 10,000—that the human operator of a machine would hit the wrong button at some point during their work day, poka-yoke might prescribe a change to the layout of the buttons, better labeling on the button in question, or swapping in a switch instead of a button for that particular purpose.

In essence, this is a recognition that even though we humans can learn and get better at things, it makes sense to provide us with rails to run on, at times, so that we don’t flub important decisions or tasks.

Fool-proofing our habit-building systems, then, may mean investing in a few small pieces of workout gear so that the journey to the gym doesn’t serve as an excuse to miss our daily workout. It may also mean not keeping unhealthy snacks at home, if we know that we’ll eat them if they’re available, despite our best intentions to eat more healthily.

I’ve use a lot of health-related examples here, because statistically, they’re some of the most difficult habits to introduce and stick with over time. But this applies to any kind of habit, from reading more books to learning a new language, from writing every day to being more outwardly appreciative of the people in your life.

Something I’ve noticed, too, is that these sorts of efforts tend to compound over time.

Successfully integrating new habits is a muscle that can be developed, and the process of rooting out frictions, identifying existing habits to which we might attach new ones, and tweaking our environments to make those habits work better, becomes second-nature after doing so a few times.

That doesn’t mean all new habits will stick immediately, and it doesn’t mean those habits will necessarily take us where we hope to go.

But who we become is in many ways a consequence of all the small things we do each day.

Having a better sense of how those small things fit together, what makes them sustainable, and awareness of our ability to swap them in and out if we choose to do so grants us more control over our eventual outcomes.

If you found some value in this essay, and if you’re in the financial position to do so, consider buying me a coffee.

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