Building Minimalist Habits

minimalist habits

“Change might not be fast and it isn’t always easy. But with time and effort, almost any habit can be reshaped.”

– Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit

Becoming minimalists requires us to replace our old habits of spending too much time, money and energy on unimportant things with new minimalist habits.

For most of us, building and breaking habits is hard. Luckily, scientists study this sort of thing, and they’ve discovered some ways to make it easier.

“A nail is driven out by another nail; habit is overcome by habit.”

– Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus

Charles Duhigg writes about “a simple neurological loop at the core of every habit.” This loop consists of a cue, a routine and a reward. To substitute a new habit for an old one, you first describe the loop.

The routine is what most of us would call the bad habit, and it’s easy to name. It could be eating junk food, mindlessly watching TV or shopping when you don’t need anything.

“If the only way you could read an email was to run a mile first, the urge would quickly die. Human beings constantly do subconscious effort/reward calculations.”

– Andrew Weil

In most cases, it’s harder to figure out the reward. You’ll usually need to spend some time researching this, making your own life into a science experiment.

Let’s take shopping when you don’t need anything as an example. You’ll conduct your experiment by doing something different each time you feel like going shopping.

That is, you’ll change your routine, each time trying something new (one of the minimalist habits you’d like to have). You might go for a walk, read a book, visit a library, meet a friend for coffee or sit in the park.

There are patterns which emerge in one’s life, circling and returning anew, an endless variation of a theme.”

― Jacqueline Carey

If you’re like me, you might think this is silly and try to skip this step. Despite being pretty good at following rules, I’m always tempted to skip steps.

The problem is that we often think our reward is one thing, but it’s really something completely different. Only by testing out different reward scenarios can we find the common themes in the routines that satisfy our cravings.

Duhigg suggests that, 15 minutes after each experiment, you ask yourself if you still feel like going shopping. Tip: set a timer so you don’t forget.

If you just needed a change of scenery, you probably lost the urge to shop with almost every alternative. Or, maybe what you needed was some exercise, and the walk satisfied your craving to shop.

If your reward is social time, meeting a friend for coffee should have worked. Maybe you just needed other people around you, but didn’t want to really interact. If that’s the case, your visit to the library or park will have worked.

If you’ve tried an alternate routine and still feel like shopping, you haven’t found the reward yet. Keep experimenting.

“If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.”

– Lao Tzu

Once you’ve identified the routine and the reward, you need to figure out the cue.

Experiments show that almost all cues fall into one of these categories: place, time, emotional state, other people or an immediately preceding action.

Because of this, Duhigg suggests that each time you have the urge to engage in the habit you’re trying to break, you jot down a few notes:

  • Where are you?
  • What time is it?
  • What’s your emotional state?
  • Is anyone else around? Who?
  • What happened just before you got the urge?

Over time, you’ll be able to pinpoint the cue.

You might find that you feel like shopping when you’re sad or bored, or maybe you just go to the mall every Friday during your lunch break.

Substituting a new minimalist habit

The last step in this process is substituting a new minimalist routine for your old routine. That new routine needs to offer the same reward as the old routine, given the same cues.

For example, if you find out your cue for unnecessary shopping is feeling lonely, talk to a friend or hang out in the break room for a while. If you find your cue is having tight muscles, stretch or take a walk.

By taking these steps to find a new minimalist habit that meets the same needs as your old habit, you’ll make it a lot more likely the new habit sticks.

“There is nothing like the smell of a bookstore.”

― Kathryn Fitzmaurice

Books. I used to love buying books. Every time I got upset, I’d drive to a bookstore. I thought I was looking for a book to help me solve whatever my problem was.
Turns out, though, the reward was twofold – and neither element related to buying – or even reading – a book. First, it allowed me to get out of the house or office. A change of scenery always helps when I’m miserable.

The second part of the reward is being around a bunch of books. I find their smell – heck, their mere existence – comforting. So I didn’t need to buy a book or anything else. I just needed to visit a bookstore or library.

“Sometimes the greatest thing to come out of all your hard work isn’t what you get for it, but what you become for it.”

 – Steve Maraboli

Obviously, following this process is a lot of work. Unless you have bucket-loads of free time, save the experiments for habits you’ve had trouble breaking on your own.

Regardless of how bored you are, limit it to one or two changes at a time. Otherwise, you’re not likely to succeed at changing any of your habits.

“But I will find new habits, new thoughts, new rules. I will become something else.”

– Veronica Roth

Paying attention to the five types of cues will also help you build completely new habits, since it’s a lot easier to remember to do something when you associate it with something else you already do.

Make sure you choose something that you do at the same intervals as you want to do the new habit. For instance, if I want to remember to take a pill three times a day, meals are a perfect correlation.

But I if want to remember to clean the refrigerator once a week, and I cook seven nights a week, matching the refrigerator-cleaning habit with my cooking routine is unlikely to work.

What new minimalist habits do you want to learn?

Please share in the comments. If you don’t have any ideas yet, check out some from Joshua Becker, Leo BabautaMohamed TohamiHenrik Edberg, and Geoffrey James.

Also, see how Raymund Tamayo changed a habit, cutting back from 3 cups of coffee a day to 1.