How to Effectively Build Habits | Ultimate Habit Guide
Nothing captures the essence of a good life better than a tree flourishing. A good life is one where we continuously grow, manifest our potential, and put forth our best fruit. I want you to keep this image in your mind as you watch the video: your best life is the one in which you fully bloom like a tree. And the difference between living your worst life and your best life depends on your habits. And the secret to building good habits and breaking bad ones is contained in this simple, but powerful image, in which there are two key components: the forest and the tree.
As I break down each component of the image, I’ll give you the ultimate guide to building habits. Before I show you the new way to understand and build habits, let’s take a look at the current way. Most books or videos on habits teach some variation of this loop: a cue leads to a craving leads to a response leads to a reward. Some variations use cue-routine-reward instead, And some use stimulus-response-reward.
But as far as I’m concerned, they’re practically all the same, so let’s consider the newest version: cue-craving-response-reward. A cue is an external or internal trigger that signals the potential for a reward. Your phone dings for example, which is a cue indicating that you have a notification, and this leads to the craving of a potential reward.
Craving is a feeling that motivates you to take action, and the strength of a craving depends on how you interpret the cue. For example, when your phone dings, your brain begins to predict what the ding meant. Did you receive a message from someone you like? Or did you receive a message from someone you don’t like? The prediction you make determines how strongly you crave, or don’t crave, checking your phone. Craving leads to a response, and response is the actual action or habit you use to satisfy a craving.
In our example, our response means checking the notification. And finally, the reward is the thing that actually satisfies the craving, closes the loop, and encourages us to repeat the action in the future. In our example, we see that we got some likes on our Instagram, and this makes us feel good and more likely to check our notifications again in the future. In this model, you can play with any of the four components—cue, craving, response, reward—to encourage good habits and discourage bad ones. When you want to encourage a good habit, make the cue obvious, the craving attractive, the response easy, and the reward satisfying. If you want to discourage a bad habit, make the cue invisible, the craving unattractive, the response hard, and the reward unsatisfying.
Let’s look at how the whole model works in practice. Let’s say I want to introduce the supposedly good habit of taking multivitamins each day. So I buy a container of gummy multivitamins and place them on my nightstand.
The cue is obvious: I’ll see the gummies every time I reach for my glasses in the morning. The craving is attractive because I know the gummies will make me healthier. The reward is satisfying because the gummies taste good. And finally, the response is easy because, after the initial set up cost, all I have to do each morning is walk over and eat them. So that’s an example of introducing a good habit using the current model, but how do you get rid of a bad one? Let’s say I want to stop getting distracted by my phone when I’m working, so I give my phone over to a friend before I start. This helps because the cue is invisible: I no longer see my phone vibrating and receiving notifications while I work.
The craving is unattractive because I have to embarrass myself by asking for the phone back. The response is made harder because I have to go through the trouble of negotiating to get it back. And lastly, the rewards are less satisfying due to the increase in work required to even get them. So the current model is easy to follow and implement. Just modify the cue, craving, response, and reward depending on whether the habit is good or bad. “So what’s the problem with it?” you ask.
While the current model has many good qualities, I think it has one massive flaw that makes it less useful than you might think, and that’s what I’m going to discuss next. The main problem with the current model is that it’s solipsistic. What do I mean by this? The current model encourages you to see yourself as the centre of the world. Everything surrounding you becomes a cue or a tool to leverage for your own growth. But the world is fundamentally not a place of cues surrounding you, which you can just optimize and rearrange to your liking.
Rather it’s a place of relationship. If you view life through the lens of the current model, I think you’ll have an inaccurate perception of reality which will stifle your capacity to bloom, which was, remember, why habits even mattered in the first place. The blooming of a tree is not something that it can make happen on its own. It can’t just optimize itself into a good life. The tree depends on the forest as much as the forest depends on the tree. When you were a baby, you were born, as far as we know, into a family, in a home, in a city, in a country, in a world that you did not choose, and this has probably been one of the greatest factors in determining the quality of your life.
And when you were a baby, you hardly knew a thing. You couldn’t change your clothes, feed yourself, or really self-regulate yourself that well at all. The most effective actions you could probably do were laugh and cry. You depended on your parents to survive and thrive, and a lot of your early lessons about life and the world came from them.
Now think about the technologies that have most impacted your life such as the car, the computer, the internet, and the phone. Or what about theories like Plato’s theory of forms or Einstein’s theory of relativity? What about works of art like Lord of the Rings or Dante’s Divine Comedy? All of these works were likely invented by someone other than yourself. All of these examples show how much the quality of your life depends on others, but also, how much the quality of someone else’s life can depend on you. The world is fundamentally an interdependent place of relationships, not cues. The tree depends on the forest and the forest on the tree. I believe this interdependence isn’t accurately captured in the current model, which is why I’m putting forward a new model in which the forest-tree relationship is central.
Because again, to fully bloom, you need a harmony between both. So without further ado, let’s get into it. Here’s a quick overview of the new model of habits. There are two key components: the forest, which represents the environment, and the tree, which represents the individual.
Let’s start by analyzing the forest. Every tree is born into a forest, and the forest sets limits on the potential of the tree. How much sunlight does the forest get, what are the soil conditions, how competitive or friendly is the ecosystem, how much precipitation is there, what are the atmospheric conditions like, so on and so forth. All of these factors limit how much the individual tree can thrive.
When you’re a baby, your forest is your home. But as you grow older, your forest expands, and you begin to see yourself as the citizen of a city, then a country, and then the world. The forest represents your evolving environment, and the environment limits how much you can thrive.
If, for example, you’re stuck in a city with no opportunities and lots of corruption, your growth will be limited. But if you’re open to moving to another city or if you live in one with a supportive environment and lots of opportunities, you can maximize your chances of reaching your full potential. So the forest represents the entire environment which limits what you, the tree, can become. And there are two important parts of the forest we need to consider: the soil and the relationships. Let’s start by analyzing the soil.
The soil represents all of the opportunities available to the tree in the forest. If the soil is rich with opportunity, the tree has a lot of potential for growth. But if the soil is lacking in opportunity, the tree will be limited in how much it can grow. The soil can be compared to the opportunities for growth available in a city. How safe are the neighbourhoods? How good are the schools? The grocery stores? What kind of jobs are available and how many? How good is the collected knowledge? How advanced is the technology? And how accessible are all of these opportunities? For example, a city with less job opportunities provides less or limited potential for growth when compared to a city with more job opportunities. So the soil represents the opportunity available for growth.
Now let’s move on to the next important part of a forest: the relationships between organisms. Are the relationships in the forest symbiotic or parasitic? Do the organisms help one another thrive or not? How competitive is it? These answers make up the politics of the forest. Imagine two big trees surrounding a little tree. If the two big trees take all the water and sunlight and refuse to share any with the little tree, which trees can do through their root systems, the little tree will then have to struggle much harder to survive, thrive, and achieve a fraction of the growth of the bigger trees. The relationships in our own lives function the same way: some people build us up and make it easier to thrive, while others suppress us and make it harder.
And naturally, someone who goes through life—from a home, to a school, to a business, to a marriage—making lots of symbiotic relationships is going to have an easier time blooming than someone who doesn’t. So now that we’ve looked at the two important components of a forest, the soil and the relationships, let’s move on to analyzing the tree. The tree represents the individual, and when it comes to the tree, we need to analyze two critical component: the roots and the fruits. The roots represent the actions we take to discover and capitalize on the opportunities in our environment.
And at any point in time, the tree is making one of two choices: create a new root and discover a new path, or optimize its current ones. So how does the tree decide what to do? For now, let’s make the assumption that the tree spreads its roots in such a way that it can maximize its growth. Remember that the soil contains opportunities for growth, and so the tree is trying to discover and capitalize on those opportunities with the least amount of work possible. In other words, you can say that the tree spreads its roots in a way that maximizes its rewards from the environment and minimizes the work required. Let’s put it into a formula which we can use later on.
And at any point in time, you’re making the same decision as our tree: should you discover a new action or optimize and utilize your current ones. And like the tree, you’re trying to maximize the rewards you get from the environment while minimizing the work required. Imagine two people who want to start eating healthier snacks. Let’s call them John and Jane.
Now both John and Jane have an action list which shows all of the actions they know they can do. On the left is the action, and on the right is the perceived value of that action. Let’s populate these lists and calculate the perceived value score. Remember that formula I presented earlier? Value = reward/work. We’re going to use this formula now to calculate the perceived value of an action.
So right now, John and Jane are both currently aware of two types of snacks: ice cream and broccoli. They both keep ice cream and broccoli easily accessible in their freezer or fridge. All they have to do to eat either one is pull it out. So let’s assign a flat work score of 1 to both actions. Now let’s say John doesn’t really like broccoli: he hates the taste and doesn’t really perceive the health benefits.
So he assigned a reward score of 1, and to him, this gives broccoli an overall value score of 1. On the other hand, John really loves the taste of ice cream and doesn’t perceive any negative health consequences. So he assigns it a reward score of 9, and this gives ice cream, for him, a value score of 9. Now Jane on the other hand doesn’t mind the taste of broccoli and gives it a reward score of 4, but she really loves the taste of ice cream and gives it a score of 9. And like John, health consequences don’t factor into her decision.
This gives Jane a value score of 9 for ice cream and 4 for broccoli. Because ice cream sits at the top of both of their action lists, John and Jane always end up choosing it over the broccoli when it comes time to eat a snack. But let’s introduce a small optimization for both of them: they both stop bringing ice cream homes and so whenever they want to eat it, they have to go out and buy it.
This optimization triples the work required, so now the work score for both people is 3. And remember, they both gave ice cream a reward score of 9, so this gives ice cream a value score of 3 for the both of them. Now we can see something interesting: this optimization was enough to knock ice cream below broccoli on the action list for Jane but not for John. Jane actually stops eating ice cream and switches to broccoli, while John just ends up driving to the store when he’s hungry.
Optimization works for Jane but not for John. So what should John do? John needs to discover a new action through trial and error, and he can speed this process up by imitating the actions of someone who’s already successful at what he’s trying to do. John talks to his body building friend who suggests trying a particular hummus dip.
So John gets the hummus with some carrots and ends up liking it. He gives it a reward score of 5. So if he leaves the ice cream at the store and brings the hummus home, this gives the hummus and carrot snack a value score of 5 and the ice cream a value score of 3. John has successfully replaced his ice cream snacking habit with an alternative. Because we have a limited amount of energy, there’s only so much we can do off the action list in a day, and we only do the actions starting from the top. So if you want to change what actions you do, you need to change the value score by altering the reward to work ratio.
And the two most powerful ways to alter the ratio are by obtaining knowledge and technology. But you can get creative with the formula and find other ways. Optimization has its limits though, and often what’s needed for change is a process of discovery. A new action has to be found that has a better score than all of the currently known actions.
So the roots represent the individual actions we use to discover and capitalize on the opportunities in our environment. Now let’s take a look at the final component of the model: the fruits. The fruits represent the actions we do to create opportunities for others. The tree depends on other animals to spread its seeds, keep the soil in place, to fertilize the soil, to protect it from the wind and other organisms, so on and so forth. The fruit symbolizes the way in which the tree contributes to keeping the entire forest alive. The blooming of the tree is, in many ways, inseparable from the blooming of the forest.
The fruits can be compared to all of the things we do to create opportunities for others. Our fruits are the actions we do for one another like loving, cooking, listening, entertaining, creating, holding, caring for, educating, protecting, and the thousands of other ways in which we help reduce each other’s stress and help one another thrive. We can only take so much from an environment before we take everything it has, and when the environment goes, so do we. Now let me summarize everything. We started by looking at the current model which, while useful, I believe had a major flaw.
If you adopt this model, I think you will perceive the world as a place of cues surrounding you, and you will focus too much on yourself and the small root optimizations you can do, which I don’t think will have the life-changing results you might hope for. This is because, I suggest to you, that the reason anyone wants good habits in the first place is to bloom fully. But the proper blooming of a tree doesn’t occur in isolation, it depends on the forest too. So we have to take a much wider view of the world, one where relationship is central, and that’s what I tried to construct in the new model. The goal of the new model is to give us a wider view of the world and help us bloom fully. There are 4 main components: soil, relationships, roots, and fruits.
The soil represents the opportunity available for growth. Without good soil, no forest can bloom. Relationships represent relationships. Without good symbiotic relationships, the tree must work much harder to survive and thrive while achieving fractional results. The roots represent the actions that the tree uses to discover and capitalize on opportunities in the environment.
Now let me link the roots back to the other two components: soil and relationships. If a tree is surrounded by bad soil, its roots take whatever paths are available out of necessity, paths they might not take if the tree was in better soil. If a tree is surrounded by bad relationships, such as other bigger trees blocking out the sun and taking all the water, the tree’s roots will again be forced to take whatever paths are available out of necessity. And at any point in time, the tree is making one of two decisions: discover a new root path or optimize its current ones. And lastly, the fruits represent the actions that the tree uses to create new opportunities for others.
It represents the way in which the tree gives back to and helps sustain the forest which it is apart of and has depended on. And all 4 of these components must come together to result in a full bloom. Now let’s turn the new model into a practical set of questions we can ask ourselves. The soil questions: Does the forest I’m in have enough opportunities for me to fully bloom? Can I learn, create, or discover something new here? The relationship questions: Do I have enough symbiotic relationships in this forest? Do I have people I can count on and people who can count on me? Am I surrounded by people who support my growth as much as I support theirs? Am I surrounded by people I can learn from and people who can learn from me? Do the people around me celebrate my growth? Do I celebrate theirs? Do we share our fruits with one another? Is our growth mutually beneficial and not at the expense of one another? The root questions: have I spent enough time exploring the opportunities in this forest? Can I discover new actions through trial and error? Can I imitate the actions of someone I admire to make the trial and error process faster? Is there a way I can optimize my current actions using the formula value = reward / work? Is there certain knowledge or technology I can get to reduce the work and increase the reward of actions I want to do? Can I use knowledge or technology to increase the work and decrease the reward of actions I don’t want to do? The fruits questions: have I given back to the environment? Am I creating opportunities for others? Am I helping to sustain the forest I’m in? Am I taking care of the other organisms who take care of me? And am I keeping my relationships symbiotic? That list wasn’t exhaustive, but just meant to prime the pump of your intuition. Here are some more reflective questions that I also think are important to think about.
(1) The soil question: what does opportunity look and feel like to me? (2) The relationship question: what does a symbiotic relationship look and feel like to me? (3) The roots question: what does having a good root system look and feel like to me? What does the process of building out a good root system look and feel like to me? (4) And lastly, the fruit question: what does it look and feel like to produce my best fruit? Hopefully this model gets you thinking about good habits in new ways, as things that are intrinsically tied up to the forest you are apart of, and not just something you can optimize your way into. I hope you find this model useful and more encompassing than the last one, and honestly, I hope you find something bigger and better for yourself.