Skepticism is Lazy

Why “Believing Everything You Hear” is the More Open-Minded and Valuable Approach

It’s been trendy for a long time to praise skepticism.

In politics, every side now accuses the other of (a) making up facts to support their positions, as well as (b) various forms of bias or even corruption.

One solution that is frequently proposed (typically as a way for the “other” side to become enlightened) is for people to be more skeptical. You’re encouraged to question what you read, hear, and see – to not take what you’re told for granted.

And this is also common outside of politics. Vegetarians and meat-eaters do the same, accusing each other of blindly accepting the misinformation they’re supposedly being fed by media, industry, government, or just convention. On questions of ethics, popular thought-leaders like Sam Harris commonly espouse the benefits of being more skeptical.

Despite all the praise, though, skepticism is likely the worst approach for (i) resolving differences, (ii) learning more, or (iii) expanding our thinking.

The Dark Ages and The Enlightenment (or Why Skepticism Might Have Once Been a Good Idea)

A thousand years ago, life was different in more ways than we can really imagine. But there’s one difference that is particularly relevant when thinking about why skepticism is lauded and why it’s no longer ideal as a general approach to thought.

During the “Dark Ages”, almost every human still clustered around a small group of other humans. Travel was reserved for a tiny fraction of humanity, and even then, it was fairly rare. Because of that, communication outside of small groups (villages, tribes, etc.) was also extremely limited.

If you had lived at that time, then you likely would have interacted with the same 100-1,000 people for your entire life, give or take a few strangers – which also means that you would only ever hear what your parents, family, friends, and other villagers told you. And those people ALSO heard nothing other than what their family, friends, and fellow villagers told them. The printing press wasn’t even invented until a little more than 500 years ago.

All of this means that – for your entire life – you were exposed to VERY LITTLE new information and VERY FEW perspectives.

The people around you agreed on 99% of things about life, politics, ethics, and the universe.

At that time (or in cases like that), being skeptical might be a good thing – or at least might have more positive qualities than it does now.

As a base, let’s assume that we generally want to (i) learn and make progress, (ii) expand our thinking, and (iii) resolve differences without resorting to violence. (Going deeper into the ethics of these goals would simply be beyond the scope of this article.)

Assuming that those are our goals, the broad question is whether or not skepticism is a generally positive intellectual approach.

Given that people of that time were exposed to relatively little new information or perspectives, it’s possible that skepticism would lead someone to question his or her own beliefs, even despite a general human tendency to attach to our own worldview.

In other words, a thousand years ago, questioning the very limited perspectives and information you were exposed to might allow you to arrive at new information or perspectives. (Even then, it’s a bit of a toss-up, since it’s ridiculously hard to think up new stuff on your own.) And if you could arrive at new information/perspectives, then that gets you most of the way toward (i) learning/progressing and (ii) expanding your thinking. As for resolving differences, it’s arguable whether skepticism was ever a great approach, since you’re much more likely to be skeptical of new information/perspectives, rather than your own.

The Enlightenment (or just generally the time that led from the “dark” ages to what we might call modernity) was all about being skeptical. And it worked out, because a few privileged men were finally able to (a) have the free time to think about stuff and (b) be in relatively close proximity to and start communicating with other people like themselves, who were also thinking and questioning more.

That confluence of circumstances meant that they could question things that were accepted by the overwhelming majority of humans. So they learned, made progress, and expanded their thinking. However…

We No Longer Live in the Dark Ages

In case you hadn’t noticed, things are MUCH different now. Actually, things were much different even 200 years ago. But since the dawn of the digital age, the context we live in has changed more than ever before.

In particular, you and I are exposed to ENORMOUS amounts of information and also RELATIVELY ENORMOUS numbers of different perspectives.

That change, alone, changes the entire calculus. Rather than getting us closer to (i) learning/progress, (ii) expanding our thinking, and (iii) resolving differences without violence, skepticism is now generally lazy and counterproductive.

When you’re exposed to only one viewpoint and little information, the easy/lazy thing to do is to accept what you’re told. Your brain grasps onto that information and perspective and builds a worldview around it. So long as you don’t question what you’re told, your brain doesn’t need to do much work, because nearly everything you encounter fits into your worldview. This was the case a thousand years ago.

By the way, I’m referring to “a thousand years ago” simply as an intellectual crutch. Any situation where people are still exposed to sparse information and perspective would be similar. Those examples are just much harder to find these days (perhaps in parts of North Korea, but even that is questionable).

On the other hand, when you’re exposed to vast amounts of information and perspectives, the easy/lazy thing to do is to reject most of the new information and perspectives, since so much of that information and those perspectives will not fit your worldview or beliefs.

We clearly live in the second scenario. (Filter bubbles move us backward a little bit along that spectrum, but even so, we’re still getting massively more information and more perspectives than even 10 years ago – let alone 1,000.)

For you, the hard (un-lazy) thing to do is to thing sympathetically – to try to believe and inhabit several different perspectives.

To think sympathetically requires you to embrace new ideas, perspectives, and facts that are outside of your worldview. Your brain must understand and reconcile divergent positions. It may even require that you sometimes hold contradictory beliefs.

One quick note: thinking sympathetically is NOT the same as simply being “tolerant.” Tolerance is a simple willingness to permit beliefs at odds with your own. Sympathetic thinking requires you to actually embrace those divergent beliefs.

Rejecting Skepticism is Vital for Learning & Reconciliation

The counter-productivity of skepticism is that you reject or disregard new information and perspectives. You never fully comprehend or inhabit alternative beliefs.

This might sound like the platitude of ‘walking a mile in someone else’s shoes,’ but it’s not about that. The point is not to empathize with where someone else is coming from or to psychologize their beliefs. Those things may or may not be valuable to do.

Rejecting skepticism is about sympathetical embracing and inhabiting new ideas, beliefs, and perspectives (not individual psyches).

That rejection is now the primary way you learn more, absorb and process new information, and think laterally from a variety of different perspectives.

When you generally approach thought and life skeptically, that approach changes what you see and experience (as do all approaches). In this case, it causes you to see and hear new information through a critical lens of questioning. And like anybody, your brain generally has a ready-made set of questions to apply.

For example, if you are an engineer or scientist, your first questions will typically beg for certain types of proof or certain authority of sources. That might seem innocuous – you might imagine that the biggest downside is that you don’t adopt certain beliefs as early as you could – waiting for proper proof. But those questions do more than that. They prevent you from thinking laterally about why/how new information might be true, which in turn keeps you from developing perspectives that might allow you to create new solutions in other areas.

It’s not that nothing can break through this framework, but the framework still shapes your experience.

On the other hand, if you think sympathetically, you approach each bit of new information or each new perspective in a way that is more curious. It’s likely not possible to approach anything with no bias or perspective. But you attempt to inhabit new ideas and beliefs, seeking to gain from them all that you can.

Thinking sympathetically does not require that you hold onto beliefs for any length of time. That’s a process that is organic and hard to quantify. What it does require is that you are able to hold a belief first, though.

Why Sympathetic Thinking Makes More Sense…

In a world where information and perspectives are abundant, you have 2 choices.

  1. You can choose to think skeptically. In this case, whenever you’re presented with new information or a new perspective, you’ll start from a premise of disbelief. This is a comfortable position, and people might even admire you for your “principles.” But because of your starting point, you’ll be necessarily less curious and unable to accumulate nearly as much new information or as many new perspectives.
  2. You can choose to think sympathetically. In this case, whenever you’re presented with new information or a new perspective, you’ll start from a premise of belief. This is an uncomfortable position, and people might judge you for “flip-flopping” and not sticking to your guns. But because of your starting point, you’ll be necessarily more curious and able to change and grow your thinking more. You’ll also be able to understand and reconcile more easily with others.

Without a doubt, skepticism is the easier choice. Our brains are not evolved to deal with so much new information and so many new perspectives. The easy thing to do is to stick mostly to what we know and judge the rest of it.

But if you’re willing to take the tougher route, sympathetic thinking is the far more fun and illuminating perspective.

2 Big Notes

When we’re discussing skepticism – we must necessarily discuss it as a GENERAL intellectual approach. And the reason for doing so is not simply academic. Our brains evolved to be efficient, partially to conserve energy, but also to be able to make potentially life-saving judgments without needing to start from “ground zero” each time. This is the reason we have emotions and various biases (confirmation, ingroup/outgroup thinking, etc.).

Because our brains are built this way, adopting an intellectual approach pretty much always means that we apply that approach somewhat indiscriminately. And I’m pointing this out because there are certainly times/situations where being skeptical still makes sense. For example, if someone tries to sell you a car stereo out of the back of an unmarked van, then being skeptical is likely a good approach for thinking about the legality/safety of that situation and transaction. And we probably want our kids to still be skeptical of taking candy from a stranger in a van on the street.

But even though there are situations where skepticism makes sense as an approach, that doesn’t mean it’s a good general way to approach thought and life. It’s the same type of question that we would ask about being combative or racist as general approaches to life.

Common Objection: Most people who praise skepticism will note that they’re encouraging people to question their own beliefs. And as such, they’ll argue that questioning one’s own beliefs allows a person to be more open to and curious about new information and perspectives.

That’s not wrong. But it misses two points. First of all, thinking sympathetically FORCES you to automatically question your own beliefs. If you’re constantly accepting and believing new perspectives and beliefs, then at least some will contradict your current worldview and beliefs. And as such, you’ll be forced to question your own beliefs to find a way to reconcile with new information. Secondly, as a practical matter, people are FAR more likely to question new beliefs rather than their own. So encouraging skepticism does little to practically help people question their beliefs.

4 Dominant Trends in Marketing, Messaging, and Copywriting…

“Trends, like horses, are easier to ride in the direction they are going.” ~ John Naisbitt

Caveat Emptor…

This article isn’t based on a series of case studies. Although statistics and case studies would likely make the content of this article more persuasive, it would also mean that I’d need to oversimplify to fit the statistics and therefore lose a bit of nuance.

At some point in the future, marketing/messaging will fully become a science. That will likely happen when machine learning gets good enough to account for a certain percentage of human psychological and cultural variables. It’s probably inevitable, but we’re not there yet.

Until that happens, your best bet is (a) to learn certain marketing fundamentals and (b) to pay attention to what’s different right now.

This article is solely about (b) what’s different right now…

Shifting Cultural Discourses…

Intuitively, we all know that cultural discourses change.

You don’t believe the same things as your parents or grandparents. But more importantly, you don’t live by the same stories/myths, and you don’t relate to other people in the same ways.

Your grandparents might have been instilled with strict social etiquette, like referring to their elders as “sir” or “ma’am”. Your parents might have tried to “fit in” in ways that you find silly or dumb.

It’s obvious that you think differently from “generations” before you.

It’s also clear that the stories you live by and the ways that you relate to other people ALSO control (or at least influence) how you act as a consumer. What’s required for you to trust someone? Do you need to know them personally like your great-grandparents likely did? Do you value loyalty in the same way your parents might have?

Business is simply a particular way of humans relating to each other. And because of that, the stories we tell about ourselves, others, and our relationships are paramount to how business relationships get formed, maintained, strengthened, and broken.

However, very few companies or marketers keep up with the changes they should be on top of.

The Last 30 Years…

Cultural narratives are always changing, and from what historical and anthropological evidence we have, it’s likely that cultural narratives have always shifted.

But over the past 30 or so years, they’ve started shifting incredibly fast. The most obvious reason is because digital technology can rapidly reach almost everybody in the world in an instant.

When you combine that with the fact that humans are a species that herd, it means that humans can be quickly influenced to shift from one narrative to another.

That’s not the only reason, of course. There are socio-economic forces at play, as well as any number of other factors.

But technological change isn’t slowing down, and it’s having a huge impact on how you need to interact with potential (or current) customers.

Trend #1: The Individual

Individualism has long been a hallmark of culture in the US. And particularly in the 80s and 90s, individualism was the guiding philosophy in how we tried to raise kids and even structure many of our laws.

But more than (maybe) ever, all of your marketing and copywriting MUST be focused on the individual…

There are 3 big reasons this is the case:

  1. Kids raised in the individualism of the 80s and 90s have now grown up to be individualistic consumers.
  2. Technology makes is more possible than ever to actually start delivering individual solutions.
  3. A series of factors (corporatization, increased movement away from families, big governments, globalization, the internet, etc.) have made people feel less “important” than ever.

#3 above is particularly important. A slew of technological advances over the past 150 years have removed most people from “traditional”’ settings like villages and communities. Over the past 30 years, those changes have accelerated. Most of our daily interactions are with relative strangers, and we increasingly interact with people only in their role as an “employee” or representative of an amorphous entity, like an airline, bank, or government.

The result is that people don’t feel like they know or trust the person with whom they’re interacting. And they also don’t feel important.

For your marketing, this means that you must focus on 2 things:

  1. You must do everything possible to make your customer feel like you’re providing them with individual solutions. This might mean a customized product or it might just mean more personalized customer service.
  2. You must personalize yourself. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the owner(s) has to be personalized, but various aspects of your company (employees, past customers, etc.) must have individual faces, names, and stories.

Can you get by without these sorts of “individualization”?

You can, but we don’t live in a time where Coca Cola or Ford are entities that we implicitly trust. In fact, overall trust in institutions is going to stay low for a while longer, although it’ll eventually come back as it always has.

Much of this is mirrored by a populist movement in politics. From Trump to Brexit to numerous other countries around the world, citizens are attempting in various ways to tear down institutions.

How this plays out in your business and your marketing will vary a lot. In all likelihood, you need one or more people to be the face of your company/marketing. You could argue that this has always been a better way of marketing, but even if that were true (it’s not), having that individual is more important than it’s been in a long time.

Trend #2: Relaxed Conversation

People feel very “manipulated” right now. We could attribute this to a lot of things, although in some ways, it’s technically true. We all have tons of information, ads, and messages overwhelming us every day.

And our un-evolved brains are relatively defenseless against the slew of algorithms that have been designed to engage us in games, social media, television, and other tech wonders.

More than that, though, people are tired. They’re physically fatigued and emotionally drained. Again, there are many reasons for this, but most of them relate to a modern lifestyle (diet, sitting, weak social connections, etc.) that aren’t aligned with our biology.

The result of all of this is that you can’t have the same type of conversation with your customers that you could have 30 years ago (or even 10 years ago, really). In particular, the conversation must feel more genuine, authentic, and conversational (meant only with a bit of irony).

We all have a mental picture of a “used-car salesman” style of selling that is pushy and overt. In general, that was never a good way to sell.

The difference now, though, is that even very positive emotions like excitement and anticipation are not emotions that you can typically lead with.

If you want to see evidence of this, scroll through all of the most popular netflix shows. 9 out of 10 shows are driven by an underlying melancholy. Even superheroes like Batman and Superman – which from the 50s through 80s were playful – are now complicated and conflicted.

Your company’s messaging certainly doesn’t need to be melancholy or morose. However, it does need to be increasingly understated and “conversational”. You’ve got to engage your audience where they’re at, and that means also engaging them at the same energy level, which is relatively low right now.

It also means being more relaxed. Along with Trend #1 – a bigger focus on the individual – your messaging must feel like a 1-to-1 conversation that they’d have with their friend or family member. This applies to emails, texts, sales copy, ads, and of course, conversations.

Some companies are terrible at this. Airlines like United come to mind, where responses to PR crises continually sound like they were drafted by lawyers from 1,000 miles away. On the other hand, AirBNB – despite various criticisms – has built a customer service experience that routinely delivers conversations and interactions that make its customers feel valued and relaxed.

Trend #3: Nostalgia and Fear

Change is always a little bit scary to humans. But the speed of change in the early 20th century is absolutely daunting.

Shawn Coyne – a well-known editor – has noted that this is the reason that fiction books based around hard science are no longer popular. In the 80s and 90s, books like Jurassic Park were exciting and adventurous. But today, books based around “hard science” are simply too much for people who are already overwhelmed at the change occurring right now in their lives.

What’s much more popular are books based around fear and nostalgia. Some examples are fantastical (like The Walking Dead), but others seem closer to home (like the dystopian world of Ready Player One).

And nostalgia is a simple extension of this fear – a wish for a return to a safer and “better” world. Trump’s slogan of Make America Great Again is a particularly powerful example.

You can use this trend in a variety of ways. Personally, I don’t love stoking fear – just my own ethical preference. However, you also shouldn’t ignore the fear and uncertainty that your customers are feeling. At the very least, you must acknowledge that fear, show them that you understand it, and then promise that you can make it a little bit better in some way.

You MUST reassure your audience more than you needed to even 10 or 20 years ago.

Facebook is an example of a company that has not yet caught onto this trend. Breach of privacy is currently a huge fear for large segments of the population, and although Facebook has made conciliatory gestures, it has yet to display an understanding of the depth of this fear. On the other hand, right-wing media outlets like Breitbart or Big League Politics routinely display mastery of relating to the fears and nostalgia of their readers.

Trend #4: Quest for Meaning

To be fair, humans have probably always sought out meaning – both in their lives and in their circumstances.

But over the past 150 or so years, technologies from transportation to communication have thrown us far outside of our “traditional” lives. And it’s not that this is a “bad” thing, per se. However, it is unnerving to individuals who are evolved to rely on group myths and stories to tell them what the meaning of their lives should be.

Joseph Campbell discussed this topic at length when discussing the loss of cultural myths to guide individuals. But it’s gone way beyond what he could have imagined.

Today, most people are searching – either knowingly or unwittingly – for someone or something to give them meaning.

From a marketing and messaging perspective, that’s now your job. And it’s not an easy task.

Traditionally, meaning would come from a few places, but primarily (a) how an individual fit into and contributed to the group/community and (b) the stories/myths that were passed down through the community. Individuals would use those stories/myths for perspective on their lives, and they would relate to the community through those myths.

From a marketing/messaging perspective, you must now create or re-create meaning for your customers. That can be done through existing stories and communities, such as vegan communities and crusades for animal welfare. Or you can do it through new communities and myths. Kylie Jenner is a decent (if controversial) example of the latter, having built her community around relatively new visions of beauty and self.

This last trend is tough, and very few companies have been able to take full advantage, but the opportunity is growing in this respect.

A Partial Glimpse

Like the proverbial tip of the iceberg, there is much to see below the surface of these trends. In particular, all 4 trends are really driven by an evolutionary mismatch between the pace of change in our lives and our brains.

More than that, there are secondary trends, some of which are already well-known. For instance, it’s no secret that audio and video are virtually indispensable as marketing channels. What’s overlooked are the reasons why – because of the individuality and conversations that those mediums engender.

These trends also affect much more than your marketing, copywriting, and messaging. They affect the ways we relate to each other socially and politically. And in some instances, they present enormous challenges. However, that uncertainty is also the source of great opportunity if you get ahead of these trends.

Judgment, Why You Don’t Have More Customers or Users, and Why It’s Only Going to Get Worse…

What’s Obvious…

“The most powerful wind is users. They can either catch you and loft you up into the sky, as they did with Google, or leave you flat on the pavement, as they do with most startups. Users are a fickle wind, but more powerful than any other. If they take you up, no competitor can keep you down.” Paul Graham

It doesn’t matter whether you just closed a funding round for your startup or you’re growing an established company. Either way, what’s obvious about customers and users is that you almost always want more of them.

Customers validate your product or service, and they fuel the growth and ultimate profitability of your company.

Attracting customers, though, is not an easy proposition. In a world where attention is suddenly the rarest and most valuable asset, you’re competing directly with Facebook, Netflix, and in-person social interaction.

And getting the attention of customers will only get harder as technology demands ever more of our attention.

The Problem With Getting More Users/Customers

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Here are 3 Fundamental Reasons Why Your Company’s Messaging (and Sales) are No Longer Good Enough

In January earlier this year, my business launched a new product that sold extremely well.

You might not care about the product itself (a bundle of cookbooks), but you should care about the reasons why that launch sold so well and our next couple did not.

And these lessons are not a re-hash of old truisms. These are the unspoken rules of how marketing has evolved in the past 5-10 years, and these are the reasons why most companies are falling behind…

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The Importance of Play (LALYL #003)

Depression, decreased emotional regulation, diminished impulse control, shallow relationships, higher likelihood of violent crime.

Those are just a few of the things that are made more likely by playing too little.

In this episode of Live a Life You Love, I discuss why play is so critical for every aspect of your life, from your relationships to your business/career to your health.  I also talk about 4 of the easiest ways to add more play into your life.

This is particularly important to me, not only because I love play (and games in particular), but also because play has helped me overcome both burnout and minor bouts of depression.

And I have many friends for whom play has also played a big role in the improvement of their mental and emotional well-being.

All animals play, and humans – you – are no exception.  If you want to live a thriving life, then play is absolutely necessary.  Here are just a few of the benefits:

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How to Transform Your Life: Change versus Transcendence (LALYL #001)

If you like the article below, I also recorded a podcast episode on this topic. You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes or Stitcher, or you can listen to the episode below (at the end of the article).

If you want to live a life you love, you have three options you can choose from.

Option #1 is to try to change the world around you.

Most people in your life take this approach.  They believe that if they make more money, they’ll be happy.  Or if they find the right husband or wife, everything will be great.  And they often blame the people in their life – or sometimes even companies and the government – for things that go wrong.

But don’t fool yourself.  You also take this approach in many ways.  You want to change your partner’s bad habits like running late or not showering enough, so you try to subtly (or not so subtly) push them to change.  And if you have kids, you might never have been subtle at all – you just tell them how they need to change.  If we’re being honest, we all take this approach sometimes.

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Not Giving a F**k: A 2-Step Approach to Stop Worrying What Others Think Of You

If you can let go of your identity, then all fear disappears.

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I am not the perfect person to write this article. I don’t know if there is a perfect person, but there are still many times when I care what people think about me.

And by “many times”, I mean many times per day.

However, those times are many fewer than they were a couple years ago, and when they happen, I now notice quickly and move on, usually not letting it affect me or my life very much.

So yeah, I’m not the perfect person to write this article. But you should read on anyway, because it’s important enough.

First, a quick story…

My Friend, Who Cared Too Much

In high school, my friend John was the most popular guy in my little social circle. He was unpredictable, funny, and would do/say things that the rest of us would be way too embarrassed to do. John would say whatever came to mind, he’d play pranks on everybody (including adults in positions of authority), and he was completely oblivious to both the consequences and also what other people thought about him.

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7 Sad Ways that Small Businesses Waste a LOT of Money on Digital Marketing 

Sometimes I get sad when I look at how entrepreneurs and small businesses are spending money on digital marketing and advertising.

As an entrepreneur and small business owner myself, I know both how exciting it can be to run a successful campaign, but I also know very well how painful it can be to see that you’ve spent money that is never coming back. And if you’re an entrepreneur or small business owner, then you likely don’t have the almost-infinite marketing budgets of Coca Cola or Apple.

So it blows me away to see just how much money is wasted on digital marketing on a daily basis by small businesses.

And yet…

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The Number 1 Key To Building A Successful New Habit

The Number 1 Key To Building A successful habit

Can you name the best basketball player or golfer in the world? How about the best actor or musician? The best president or business person?

Even if it’s your opinion, you can probably name somebody in most of those categories.

Now…name a person who is the best at 2 of those things.

You can’t do it.

Someone can be very good at many things, and a select few people may even be able to be the “absolute best” at more than 1 thing. But it almost never happens.

This article explains why building habits is very similar to becoming the best in the world at something. In addition, I’ll show you how focus will revolutionize the way you approach weight loss, your health, and your life. Continue reading

How To Form Habits – An In-Depth Explanation

You have already formed thousands of habits in your lifetime, whether or not you realize it. Unfortunately, most of those habits were formed unconsciously, and you probably wish you hadn’t formed many of those habits.

In this article, I’ll show you how to consciously form habits that you want, so that you can learn to do them automatically and without even thinking about it.

(To find out what is a habit and why habits can improve your health, read this article first.)


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How To Form Habits In 5 Easy Steps Infographics

STEP 1 – Pick a General Topic or Goal

step 1 of how to form habits

As with anything worth accomplishing, you’ve got to focus on one thing at a time.

As we now know, multi-tasking is a myth, so don’t target 10 things all at once!

If you want to lose weight, then choose losing weight as your topic or goal. If you want to build muscle, then choose building muscle. Maybe getting more sleep is your priority (or perhaps de-stressing). It doesn’t matter which broad topic it is, just pick one.

If you have trouble picking just one topic or thinking of topics, then trying answering the following questions quickly – just take the first answer that comes to mind (don’t mull it over).

What do you worry about just before you go to sleep?
If there’s one thing you could change about yourself, what would it be?

STEP 2 – Narrow Down To One Small Habit

step 2 of how to form habits

Ok, now that you have one general topic/goal, the next step is to narrow down your goal to a really small habit.

First, let me tell you the mistake I see most people make so that you can avoid it. Here’s an example of what NOT to do…

Louise’s cousin is desperate to lose weight, so for her, STEP 1 was easy. She immediately decided that her topic/goal was to lose weight. But when I asked her what habit she might like to put in place, her response was “I’m going to exercise more and eat better.”

I hope you can already see some of the problem with this “habit” that she chose – it’s not really a habit at al. It’s way too broad and unspecific. Our brains simply cannot translate that statement into a concrete action.

So, if your goal is to lose weight (like Louise’s cousin), then here’s what to do…

Pick one thing – are you going to work on your eating habits or work on your exercise habits?

Let’s say you pick eating habits. Then you’ve got to narrow it further.

What does eating better mean? It could mean, eating a non-sugary breakfast, or it could mean eliminating that afternoon snack you get from Starbucks, or it could mean ensuring you don’t eat out for dinner.

Keep drilling down until you come to a very small and specific habit that you want to create. Here are some examples to help you come up with ideas:

Eat protein instead of carbs for breakfast.
Run daily.
Build more arm or leg muscle.
Take supplements daily.
Drinking tea instead of coffee.
Writing down each night what you plan to eat for dinner the next day.

The difference is that these are all very specific actions, and they’re all easy to do. You can do them quickly and easily, and they take place in a relatively short amount of time.

STEP 3 – Choose a Cue

step 3 of how to form habits

A Cue is an essential component of a habit. It’s what triggers you to do the thing you want to do.

A Cue could be literally anything, but there are 2 huge tips for picking a “better” Cue:

1. Pick Something Specific

For example, if I want to drink a green smoothie every morning, then I could pick the cue, “when I walk into the kitchen.” This Cue is OK, but it’s not hugely specific (especially if you have an open kitchen). It’s not clear specifically when you enter the kitchen, and it probably doesn’t occur to you every morning that “I just entered the kitchen.”

A better cue would be something like “when I switch on the coffee maker in the morning” (assuming that you make coffee every single morning). In this case, it’s very clear and specific exactly when you switch on the coffee maker.

2. Pick Something You Already Do Every Single Day

When you first start building habits, you’ll want to use a Cue that you already do daily. This makes it incredibly easierthan forming a new cue.

Great examples of cues include:

  • Brushing your teeth
  • Getting into your car
  • Changing clothes for bed
  • Switching on the coffee maker in the morning
  • Eating a certain meal
  • Hearing an alarm on your phone at a certain time of day

If you’re confused about what Cues are and how to pick one, then read this article on Cues, where I explain everything in more detail.

STEP 4 – Create a Practice/Routine

step 4 of how to form habits

The second component of a habit is the Practice/Routine. This is the action you want to do, and the point of the habit is to make this action automatic for you.

You can read more about how to automate the practice/routine here, but my top 2 tips are these:

1. Your Practice Must Be ULTRA-SPECIFIC

I probably sound like a broken record after emphasizing this so much for cues, but it’s the same for the Practice. If your Practice isn’t an ultra-specific action, then your brain won’t internalize it as an automatic action.

For instance, if you want to run every day, then what does that actually mean? Run 1 minute, run 5 minutes, run 10 miles? How fast is the run? Do you run a specific route or on the treadmill – what counts as running for you?

“Running every day” is not a specific practice. Running for 2 minutes every morning around the neighborhood is a specific practice.

2. Your Practice Must Be EASY

If you’re not currently very athletic and you want to start running, then you’re setting yourself up for failure if you decide to try running for 1 hour per day.

It’s much better to start with a practice that you know you can definitely stick to because it’s super easy. Like a 2-minute jog around the block, or 3 pushups on your bedroom floor.

The reason this works so much better is because there are going to be days when you won’t have the time or energy to do more. However, consistency is critical, so you still need to perform your habit on those days. If your Practice is super-easy, then you’ll still be able to complete it.

That doesn’t mean you can’t run 30 minutes one day when you have more energy or do 20 pushups one day. But it does mean that you condition your brain to recognize that a 2-minute jog means you completed that day’s practice.

Celebrate small wins and they will add up to huge successes.

STEP 5 – Determine the Payoff/Reward

step 5 of how to form habits

This is always my favorite step – it’s what holds the habit in place and makes you crave it.

The payoff (or reward) is the benefit you get for completing the Practice (Step 4 above).

A common payoff example is the sugar-rush from eating a tub of ice-cream/a donut/a cookie when you’re stressed. And when you hear people say they love running or exercising, then it usually means that they enjoy the endorphin rush from exercising.

Since this is the enjoyable part of the habit and the part that makes your brain want to complete the habit, you want to MAKE SURE YOU DON’T SKIP THIS STEP!

2 Tips for creating an ideal payoff:

1. Use An Existing Payoff

This makes it easy to assimilate your payoff into your daily life. If you currently enjoy some things that perhaps aren’t all that healthy (like a donut for breakfast, or TV in the evening, or the Facebook/Twitter surfing, video game playing etc.), then why not forgive yourself for doing those things and instead turn them around as the payoff for a healthy habit?

I’m not encouraging you to eat donuts or watch a lot of TV. However, you already know whether or not you do these things on a daily basis. If you do, then use them to your advantage.

The bigger point, though, is to choose something that already exists in your day. It could be an outdoor walk that you take every day or time playing with your puppy.

2. Time The Payoff To Start Right After The Practice Ends

In order to get your brain to associate the Payoff with the Practice/Habit, you need make sure that they Payoff occurs immediately after the Practice. So, if your payoff is playing with your dog, then make sure that happens right after your practice of drinking a green smoothie.


step 6 of how to form habits

In some ways, creating habits is super simple, but it’s also not easy, because there are many things that could trip you up.

We get carried away with how easy creating habits seems, and we often try to skip a step or create too many habits all at once. And then a day comes when everything seems to go wrong – it’s raining, there’s traffic, you wake up late, someone annoying calls you, someone spills a drink on you, your date stands you up…you get my drift. And suddenly, those great habits you’ve been building go out the window.

It’s not knowledge that you’re lacking – you know how to be healthy, but putting those into practice in real life situations requires more than just knowledge!