Advice For Entrepreneurs on Building Good Habits
“Which exact form your habits crystallize into is going to matter less than the overall chemistry of that process.”
Written By Noah Cohen: Published Jan 19th, 2020 | Updated Jan 19th, 2020.
Noah Cohen is the driving force behind Humanic.Tech, a habit tracking app and life dashboard designed to help people reach their most ambitious goals. 🚀
18 Minute Read
“Conditioning a habit is the primary mechanism for installing it.”
First of all, thanks for joining us today to chat with our quantified-self blog readers about your involvement in the self-improvement space. On your blog you talk about a lot of different topics relating to self-betterment, but today I want to just focus on two of your main focal points as they relate to entrepreneurship. I want to talk to you about habits, specifically as those habits relate to entrepreneurial goals. You’ve been involved in this space for over 10 years now. Can you begin by telling us a little bit more about why and how you got started in this space?
I got started as a teenager. I was reading topics related to self-improvement, habits and psychology and experimenting with a lot of things personally. At the same time, I didn’t have a lot of people around me I could discuss those topics with, so the blog kinda grew out of that desire. At the same time, I was also interested in eventually building some kind of business online. Blogging was a vehicle for that as well, so it was a fusion of personal interests and the desire for a different kind of career.
Now as an entrepreneur yourself you get a lot of opportunities to use yourself and your company as a sort of guinea pig to test out different ideas. On your blog you mention that “conditioning a habit is the primary mechanism for installing it.” Now in terms of your own entrepreneurial journey, what conditioning work have you done that has played the biggest role in helping you move the growth / sales needle?
Writing consistently has probably had the biggest benefit of any habit I’ve had. At the same time, it’s probably not correct to view it as a single habit, but as many different habits built up over time. For instance, in the early days, I wrote quick posts 5+ times per week. That shifted over to twice-per-week posting, and later, once-per-week posting, with different lengths, styles and content.
I see habits as being important, but there’s a balance between building up habits and routines and breaking those down to improve your process.
I think success in a lot of domains reflects this balance between habits, deliberate growth and the inevitable decay from the environment and shifting goals.
Again, from a business perspective, have you ever engaged in any conditioning activity that had no impact on your bottom line?
I’ve experimented with tons of habits, so a lot either had no net benefit or were of ambiguous benefit. For instance, once I had a habit of waking up at 5am to read books. As it turns out, reading is a pretty soporific activity so this habit was really effortful and didn’t really make much impact. Similarly, I’ve had different business habits for different kinds of content/posts/features that didn’t turn out.
However, I don’t think it’s useful to look at this at the outcomes of winners and losers. When things do work or don’t work, it’s often for idiosyncratic reasons, so just copying someone else’s habits doesn’t always help as much. I, for instance, really like writing articles in the 1000-2000 word range, but many authors do better with mega-posts that are like small books, or snippets that are more like long tweets.
What makes sense to copy, in my mind, is the higher-level concern with experimentation and output. Which exact form your habits crystallize into is going to matter less than the overall chemistry of that process.
How do you personally deal with the unknown or “time lag” as an entrepreneur? For example, with health goals, most of us have enough insight where we are able to properly define causation between healthy eating habits and exercise, with the goal of hitting or maintaining our ideal body weight. However, with entrepreneurship we often have less experience with those casualties. For example, if we’ve never generated content before we wouldn’t have experience with the positive impact it can have on our company. To complicate matters further, there is often a time lag between cause and effect making figuring out causation difficult for entrepreneurs engaging in an activity for the first time. How do you know to create a habit of something if you don’t have experience with it and its immediate benefit isn’t obvious? How do you personally go about creating habits around activities that you’re just approaching for the first time?
Determining causality is really, really, really hard. If the replication crisis is any indication, many suitably complex domains fail to demonstrate causality even with millions of dollars and many PhDs whose only job is to think about this question. Therefore, getting it wrong and falling victim to superstitious rituals that don’t actually create performance is really common.
Frankly, I think we need to distinguish the kind of rigor that makes sense in science and the pragmatism of our own lives. The truth is we don’t need to have an absolute measure of causality to make improvements. We can do things, see if they work, and stick with them when they do. At the same time, we can be humble knowing that sometimes we’ll be wrong, so not to hold onto our beliefs too tightly and be open to change.
My own life has felt like such a process. Try things with a tentative idea of how things might work, but adjust those opinions when you learn more.
Leverage is a big issue when it comes to properly forming habits for entrepreneurs. A lot of work we need to do as entrepreneurs is in-the-trenches grunt work. How have you seen entrepreneurs approach using leverage to complete these often less than desirable tasks?
Leverage is the process of giving yourself further incentive to complete a task than you might be willing to do otherwise. This can work to amplify your motivation. I’ve found it can help with some tasks—the person who declares publicly that they’re going to stick to a big hard-to-stick-to project often is more likely to complete it. But I think it can also be overused. Raw motivation isn’t a substitute for a well-designed project.
We’re a big fan of using metrics to quantify improvement in entrepreneurial growth. You’re a fan of using metrics as a form of “internal review”. Can you explain to our audience what an internal review system is and how have you’ve personally used metrics to optimize your own company? What are the 3 biggest lessons you’ve learnt along the way with regards to business metrics and their impact on growth?
Metrics are important, and I think compared to the status-quo where most people operate entirely qualitatively and nothing this measured, the message for most people ought to be “measure more”. At the same time, I think metrics themselves can backfire since some things are way easier to measure than others, and this can lead to the situation of the drunk looking for his keys under the spotlight because it’s too dark to look anywhere else. In writing for instance, the kind of content that is favored by easy-to-measure metrics looks a lot like clickbait. However, make all of your essays clickbait and you tend not to be seen as a valid authority on much and thus turning your writing into a business that operates on anything other than merely ads will be harder.
So my solution tends to be to track more metrics and also leave conscious room for qualitative considerations, with the understanding of how they weigh in importance.
Some metrics for my own business include things like traffic, opt-ins, open rates, sales, refund rates, completion rates, share rates, comments and more. Each of these gives a partial glimpse into the health of the underlying business. For some things qualitative considerations always trump quantitative. I have some friends, for instance, that prefer to have highly restrictive refund policies for their products, presumably, because they’ve done tests and it improves profit, but I prefer to make that kind of decision from what kind of relationship I want to have with prospective customers and so I don’t quibble over it. In other cases, the numbers overwhelming point in one direction so I’m willing to compromise a little on aesthetic considerations—I use to be resistant to having a more intrusive “opt-in” box for subscribers, since they can sometimes be annoying—until I ran the test and it converted at 10x the rate that my previous one did. Then, the issue is mostly how do you avoid the worst aspects of that compromise.
The fact that the world (and business) is messy and not always reducible to numbers complicates things, but I think if we accept this messiness we can still use metrics to make decisions.
On your blog you mention that “any action requires two kinds of effort in order to get done”. Can you explain more about what you mean by this as it relates to the most common problems you see entrepreneurs face?
There’s an initial effort corresponding to making the decision to act. It’s easy to recognize that these initial costs are often the majority of our issues in our work and lives. We don’t have a problem *being* at the gym, but *going* to the gym. Similarly, we often don’t have a problem working, but starting work. This is the kind of cost that can be reduced through clever conditioning and habits.
On the other hand, many tasks have ongoing effort to continue them. For these, just getting started isn’t the main problem and so rituals and habits have more limited effectiveness. This isn’t to say you can’t do these activities either, but it’s to recognize that absent of some extra control, they tend to decay. A habit of watching television every day is far more sustainable than one of running 10km.
In your experience, how have you seen the concept of metastability throw off entrepreneurs from achieving their goals? What can entrepreneurs do to better understand metastability and protect themselves from its downsides?
I think the idea that you’ll make a one-time investment into a habit and have it persist forever is an oversimplification.
For one, it’s probably the case that you can only reduce, not eliminate the ongoing costs, so many habits have a half-life of months or years, but not decades.
Second, it’s probably not even desirable for most habits that they be constant throughout your entire life. Priorities and projects shift, and so should your behavior.
Part of the problem, I think, is in reducing success down to a set of daily routines that, if you repeat them endlessly, will get you to the destination. It’s clearly true that habits matter, but it’s also important to recognize how much change, shifting, growth and adjustment are required too. Therefore, I like the notion of meta-stable habits because it suggests they’re an effort into making your behavior more long-term, but not suggesting that you’re trying to reach a mythical state of behavioral perfection.
You talk about the difference between “consistent” and “progressive” growth on your blog. You talked a little bit about how you approached growth with regards to health and exercise. However, can you tell us more about what approach you take when it comes to running your company? Have you focused more on consistent growth or progressive growth?
I think there’s an attitude that we ought to be always improving every area of our lives. This is probably not realistic for most people at most times. It sounds easy to get a little better every day in all things, but in practice, we can probably only get better at a minority of the things we care about.
Thus, consistency is a worthwhile goal, since maintaining the things you’ve worked hard to achieve is often much of the battle. Losing weight is easy, keeping it off is what’s hard.
Entrepreneurship tends to have a greater “grow or die” dynamic, but consistency is probably still important for many subsets of your operations, given the paucity of resources we have to improve.
Lastly, with 10 years experience and self testing under your belt, I’m sure you’ve seen your share of successes and failures. If you could know what you know now and go back in time to give a younger version of yourself three pieces of advice regarding self improvement, what would those three pieces of advice be?
It’s funny because I often get asked these kinds of questions and I rarely have good answers. The problem, I guess, is that for many people they imagine going back with the knowledge and skills they have now, and so obviously the road to success would be much faster. If I had to go back ten years from now, I’d be doing things much more closely to how I’m doing them now, as opposed to how I did them then.
But, that’s also a bit like saying if you were a famous scientist and had to go back to your infancy, what you would do differently is think of your Nobel-winning idea from the first day! That eliminates the very thing that made becoming famous hard, namely the intellectual work of learning and growing. Just as we can’t go back in time and give ourselves winning lottery numbers, it’s often not as helpful to talk about what we’d change if we went back.
I’m not sure there’s anything I could neatly summarize in a sentence or two to give my younger self as advice. But I do think there’s a huge accumulation of things I’ve learned that have made it easier for me to deal with the kinds of challenges I had then.
Thank you greatly for taking the time to chat with quantified self blog readers today Scott. We truly appreciate it. There are many actionable insights in the interview above and I know you’ll have inspired many people who will have read this article. To our readers, if you’d like to learn more about Scott and the work he does I suggest you follow him on Twitter or bookmark his site over at scotthyoung.com
Compete with yesterday’s version of yourself.
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