Why I Make My Bed

More on Keystone Habits

In my discussion of the Tesla Technique, I talked about the importance of your environment in shaping your behavior. Right now I’m re-reading a business book called Switch: how to change when change is hard and that’s figuring strongly in my thinking. The authors, Dan and Chip Heath, describe three components of human behavioral change: the Elephant, the Rider, and the Path. The Elephant is your emotional side: powerful but not very good at planning ahead. The Rider is your cognitive side: weaker than the Elephant, better at planning, but with a tendency to overthink things. The Path is the environment. If you clear the Path it’s easier for the Rider to guide the Elephant to his destination. So which are you? Are you the Rider or the Elephant? Or are you, in some weird way, the Path?

The answer to all of these is “yes”. You can be the person who wants to lose weight (the Rider) as well as the person eating a cookie (the Elephant). You can even be the person who baked those cookies and brought them into the office (the Path-maker). So how do you become a Path-Maker?

One way is to use Keystone Habits, an idea that Charles Duhigg explores in The Power of Habit. I’ve talked a little bit about Keystone Habits before, especially in the context of food journalling. But Duhigg also uses the example of making your bed as another Keystone Habit. Why is it so powerful? What does it do?

As Duhigg explains:

Making your bed every morning is correlated with better productivity, a greater sense of well-being, and stronger skills at sticking with a budget. It’s not that… a tidy bed causes better grades or less frivolous spending. But somehow those initial shifts start chain reactions that help other good habits take hold.

But why does this work?

  1. It’s easy to perform. Making your bed only takes a few minutes.
  2. It covers a large area of your bedroom. This makes remaining mess “stand out”.
  3. It is done early in the morning, triggering your ‘consistency’ bias. When it comes time to tidy your desk or do the dishes, you are much more likely to actually do these things when you have started your day with a ‘cleaning task’. 
  4. It gives you a sensation of a small win. Starting the day with a small win can lift your spirits and give you a push, even if it’s unconscious.

If you are looking for ways to sharpen your Path-Making (environment shaping) skills, making your bed is a great place to start. 

Another example of a Keystone Habit might be going to the gym. A lot of people start off strong, vowing to go to the gym 5 days a week to workout for an hour. This lasts about three days. The crucial bit is setting up the habit to be in the gym: what you do once you’re there is much less important at the beginning.

Terry Crews (obviously no stranger to the gym) explains in an AMA this way: 

TREAT THE GYM LIKE A SPA.

Yes. It has to feel good. I tell people this a lot – go to the gym, and just sit there, and read a magazine, and then go home. And do this every day.

Go to the gym, don’t even work out. Just GO. Because the habit of going to the gym is more important than the work out. Because it doesn’t matter what you do. You can have fun – but as long as you’re having fun, you continue to do it.

But what happens is you get a trainer, your whole body is sore, you can’t feel your legs, and you’re not coming back the next day – you might not come back for a year!

This is the kind of change that you should be on the lookout for as you try to shape your behavior. Something small that gives you “hooks” into a bigger behavior. A Keystone habit.

Read more:

Other people, like Navy Admiral Bill McRaven ,  former monk Dandapani, Tim Ferriss in his book Tools of Titans, and Rachel Hoffman, author of Unf*ck Your Habitat: You’re Better Than Your Mess (she literally posts a “Make Your Bed” reminder on her tumblog every day) have pointed out the power of making your bed every day. For another example of building the gym habit, check out Scott Adams’ post here.

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