Notes on Superhuman by Habit

Superhuman by Habit by Tynan was an excellent book. You should read it — it's not expensive and not that long and does not have any fluff — but even so here's my summary. Seriously, read it though.

Why habits (and this book) are important

In the long run, habits are "free" behaviors. You can do them automatically or with very minimal effort.

Replacing just a few key negative habits with a few positive habits can easily be the difference between being mostly unhappy and being happy almost all of the time.

And so...

If you want to improve yourself permanently, you must develop more old habits, which is done by creating new habits and sticking with them until they mature into old habits.

This pretty much sums up the idea of the book.

There's also a section for neurotic people worried about turning into robots or that this is too good to be true, but the bottom line is everyone has habits, good and bad, and having good habits is a good thing. Don't need to overthink it.

Building habits

Building habits is hard and takes willpower. But it's short-term hard. Tynan talks about how he wasn't happy with his work habits and went about improving them (emphasis added):

I'd love to tell you that it was [easy], but it wasn't. I battled with myself and spent the better part of six months destroying my old habit of sloth and replacing it with the habit of industry. This process was hard and it burned up almost all of my daily willpower, especially at first.

Now that I've built a habit of being highly productive, though, it's extremely easy to maintain. I don't even think of it as a difficult thing to work seven days a week, often for twelve hours or more. It's at least as enjoyable as the activities I used to engage in to procrastinate.

The cost of this habit was six months of straining willpower and mental discomfort. It's a challenging habit to build, and is “priced” accordingly. But is it worth it? Well, for six months of focused effort I now get fifty years or so of loving to work and the enjoyment of the dividends it pays.

For me it was unequivocally worth it, but of course as you build your own habits, you'll need to weigh the costs and benefits.

The key to successfully building habits is mostly a matter of consistently doing them. Tynan says you need to do this for 1-12 months.

This sounds simple, and it is. But there are important implications:

  • trying and failing with new habits is bad, and makes it harder to create future habits, so —
  • make your habits really easy to start, then build up
  • skipping should not be treated lightly

In most areas of life, it's better to try and to fail than to not try at all. In establishing habits, it's far better to succeed at an easier habit and then build up from there.

Building new habits isn't easy. It takes willpower. That's fine, but willpower isn't an unlimited resource. This means you can only add a certain number of new habits at a time. Tynan doesn't provide much guidance on how many this is, but it's something I plan on experimenting with.

Start small

Say you're trying to improve your work habits. Don't start out with, "I'm going to work 10 straight hours every day before checking social media or email." You're setting yourself up for failure.

Instead you can say, "I'm going to work for an hour first thing in the morning before frying my brain with news, email or social media. Then I'll take a break."

Make absolutely sure you do it every day. Then add more time once it gets easier. Building up habits is a process that takes months or years, but again, that's fine because the long-term perspective is what's important.

He went through an example I thought illustrated some of the scale and scope well. If you're trying to eat healthy... might start by cutting out sugar on weekdays, then on weekends, then cut out white flour on the same schedule, then low-quality meat, then unhealthy oils. Maybe that takes a full year.

You then stay on your complete abstinence diet for a year or two, until you truly prefer that way of eating. At that point you switch... [still eating] mostly healthy meals, but allow... exceptions for special occasions.

That is, some habits might take years to build.

I found this refreshing. It's not a quick fix, but it's a realistic path to lasting change.

And because habits are cumulative, eventually this can add up to a lot of change. This is where I think the "superhuman" part of the title comes in. You want to eat healthy, work out regularly, be very productive and make regular time for hobbies, family and friends? It's doable, it might just take years of building the right habits.

With this schedule of a small start with regular increases, you won't be reaching your full goal for a long time, maybe several months or even a year. If you're thinking short-term, you may discard this idea. If you think long-term, though, you realize that just having the habit is the most important part, and that the cumulative benefits of even a reduced intensity ... habit will be far greater than those from an aborted, intense habit that lasts only a couple weeks.

Loading vs maintaining

The healthy eating quote above gets at another aspect of habits — loading vs maintaining.

When building a new habit or significantly changing your routine or behaviors (e.g. you have a poor diet and want to eat healthy, or go from couch potato to super fit), you'll want to "load" your habit — working your way up to something very strict to start, then sticking with it a while to really establish it.

The purpose of the loading habit is to completely remove all associations with your old [bad] habit. You start small, build up to your loading habit, keep at it until you believe that your new behavior is fixed in place, and then switch to maintenance.

When you've done that you can switch to a "maintenance" habit, which may involve more discretion. Here's how Tynan describes his diet loading vs maintenance habits:

For three years, I ate no white flour, sugar, poorly raised meat, or bad oils. Even as I traveled around the world, I would spend inordinate amounts of time sourcing good restaurants and grocery stores. If I couldn't find good food, I would go hungry. ...

I knew that this wasn't sustainable in the long term, but I also knew that it was the only way I could really recalibrate my brain to prefer healthy foods. This was my loading habit.

Now I'm more flexible. When I travel, I eat a fair amount of unhealthy food. When I'm at home, I eat a strict diet except for one meal on Sundays with friends. This is my maintenance habit, and it's sustainable forever as far as I'm concerned.

What to pick

To decide what habit to implement, it's best to be brutally honest and clear-headed with yourself and your problems. Spend some time thinking about what bad habit is holding you back (or which good habit would make the most difference) then attack it.

It's easier to build habits when they can be done daily and/or you can start with low intensity and work your way up. It's also easier to work with triggers (e.g. every day after I make coffee I'll do X).

Whatever you do, pick it carefully and start small, because quitting is not good — not only does it thwart whatever habit you're trying to build, but it makes building habits harder in the future too.

Tynan recommends starting with a health type related goal (e.g. eating better or working out) then when you're happy with that moving onto something more fun (writing every day or learning an instrument or something).

When to quit

If a habit is no longer serving you well and you want to stop it, you can, but only after you no longer feel like quitting.

A week into my habit of lifting weights three times a week, I wanted to quit. My morale was low, I'd seen no results (as expected, of course), and I was cognizant of how much time I was devoting to the workouts and accompanying preparations.

The only reason I didn't quit was that I realized I was in the worst possible position to make the decision. The greatest benefits of quitting were short-term, which is a sure sign of a mistake. I had emotional firsthand experience with the downsides of working out, but hadn't waited long enough to enjoy the benefits. I was also in the very beginning of the habit where it takes the most willpower, and is therefore the most mentally challenging.

Pausing habits

If you need to pause a habit — e.g. because you're on vacation or something — make a plan for exactly when you'll pause it, resume it, and what if anything you'll do instead.