There are probably a million habits you would like to have that you have not set up yet. Be it the usual ones like eating healthy, exercising, or meditating, or more unusual ones, like remembering to look for disconfirming evidence, labeling emotions, or doing spaced repetition for things you'd like to memorize.
Here I’ll explain an acronym that condenses down a lot of the best steps you can take to make sure you actually establish the new habit you want. S.E.E.P stands for Systems, Easy, Enjoyment, and Passive. A way to remember the acronym itself is to remember that you want habits to seep into your day-to-day life.
What system are you going to use to set up this habit? Put that into motion right now. Don’t wait until you’re back home from work and assume you’ll remember. The systems I use and recommend are:
Make it something you enjoy. You are far more likely to implement a habit if you like doing it. Usually people think of the default and try that, even if they hate it. The most common example is exercise. When people think they want to be more active, what are the two things everybody always thinks of first? Going to the gym or taking up jogging. Why those things? Most humans hate the gym and find jogging boring. Some people appear to enjoy it, but for the rest of us, there are options that are so much more enjoyable.
Ways to get exercise that are enjoyable
This is just a small list and can be applied to practically anything. Say you want to meditate more. How do you make that more enjoyable? You can do the meditations that more reliably make you happy, like loving-kindness or mindful eating. You can pick a meditation object that is beautiful, like a sunset or view of the mountains.
You get the picture. Try to figure out ways to make the habit something so enjoyable that you’ll want to keep coming back instead of having to force yourself to.
If you want to make something a habit, it helps to make it easy. Some general principles for making it easy:
Take for example exercise again. How do you make it easy? Dancing is kinda hard. You have to go to a different building, find dancing opportunities, pay for them, etc. Instead, you could dance at your house. Just roll out of bed, put on some wireless headphones, and dance.
Let's look at sports as another example. Sports can be hard. You have to have enough people close by and willing to play a regular game with you, and then you have to organize everything. Easier is to join a local community center, find some teams that are fun, and if other friends come, great. Alternatively you can find a sport that you like that is solo or only requires one partner, such as hiking or tennis.
I write about passiveness and how it applies to happiness here. At this point in the acronym you try a different tact to establishing habits - you set up the behavior or outcome to happen with little to no maintenance effort after an initial upfront investment. For example, I live in a house that is within biking distance of everywhere. It takes ~5-15 minutes to get anywhere. It’s just a bit too far to walk anywhere, and too short to be worth bussing. The easiest option for me is to bike. The choice of the house initially took a bunch of work, but now, without any continuing effort on my part, I bike about 20 minutes a day without even thinking about it.
One of the best ways to make something passive is to:
Put positive temptations in your environment
Put things in your physical environment that tempt you to do good things. For example, put the books you want to read right next to your desk and your couch, wherever you sit the most during the day, both at home and work. These can be self-improvement books, books that develop a skill, classics you've always wanted to read, etc. Another great place to put positive temptations are on shelves that are in eyesight of where you do the desired behavior. For instance, if you store your books in your bedroom but do most of your reading in the living room, they’ll go unread.
Fill your digital environment, such as your computer and phone, with positive temptations. For example, populate your bookmark bar in your browser with things you want to do more of. Maybe an online course for a hobby you want to pursue or more life satisfaction-inducing alternatives to social media. Set your desktop wallpaper to rotate through things that might tempt you to do the behavior you want. For example, pictures of books you’d like to read, lectures you’d like to listen to, or healthy meals you love the taste of.
Remove negative temptations from your environment
Remove negative temptations from your physical environment, such as your house or office. See if you can completely get rid of a temptation from your environment, and if you cannot or don’t want to for whatever reason, hide it. For example, don’t have junk food in your house. If you live with people who do not want to do that, put the junk food at the back of a high shelf behind some healthy alternatives, like dried fruit or salted nuts.
Remove negative temptations from your digital environment, such as your phone and computer. For example, unbookmark things if you don’t want to do them as much. Use programs to automatically stop you. For example, there’s this Chrome extension that replaces your Facebook feed with a quote about procrastination or productivity. Or this one that you can customize with time limits and completely block sites for periods of time, say during work hours. You can even get more heavy duty ones that can block certain apps, which is particularly useful if you’re trying to cut back on something like gaming.
List of examples you might find useful
Weight and health
What you eat
If you’re ever feeling sad, anxious, or overwhelmed, try what I call the “old wise woman exercise”. The way it works is to visualize an older, wiser version of yourself. The person you hope to become*. Then imagine she or he comes to you and gives you advice, informed by her years of experience and learning. You’ll find you often know what she would say. Then, as you hear her say these things you know to be true, like how you will hardly remember this situation a year from now, or that you’ll figure it out, switch to her perspective. Visualize that you are sitting or standing next to your current self and you are the wise woman. Feel how you would feel towards your younger self. Perhaps you’ll feel compassion, a little humor maybe, patience, or maybe just a feeling of love and warmth.
This wise woman or man exercise can often help you snap out of a destructive spiral and make you enact the things you know to be true and helpful but have just forgotten in the moment. Let me know in the comments how you find it and why it worked or didn’t, so I can help modify it to make it more applicable to others.
* I personally aspire to become a female, EA version of Dumbledore, but your tastes may vary.
How to set up your life to make you happy and high impact with little long term effort - passive happiness.
An idea that is very transformative is the idea of a passive benefit. It’s usually applied to income, but it can apply to any goals you have. The basic idea is that you can invest some initial effort, then the benefit will keep going with little to no additional effort on your part. In income, this is usually done either through capital (e.g., buying a house or apartment building, then renting it out) or through creating a business that you then step back from (think Silicon Valley serial entrepreneurs).
The thing is that you can apply this to happiness and impact too. You can think about things that, after you put in the initial effort, require little maintenance and still produce emotional well being or less suffering in the world. For example, with happiness, where you live and who your spouse is requires some up front investment, but then it continues to provide happiness for years to decades afterwards with little maintenance. Likewise, with impact, if you start or fund a new charity then step back, that charity can keep producing impact long after you’re gone.
Some general principles of creating passive happiness include:
Change your environment
If the idea of passive impact or happiness appeals to you, I recommend taking a moment right now to think about how it might apply to your life, then come up with a plan on how to implement it.
Sometimes when you’re feeling down on yourself it’s easy to forget all of the things you are good at, so prepare in advance. Write a “confidence resume”, where you make a list of all of the things you are proud of. It doesn’t have to just be professional accomplishments or things that are generally considered impressive. Make it about the things that you feel good about. It’s helpful to break it down into categories. I break it down into accomplishments, personality traits, and genuine compliments people have paid me in the past.
An important next step is to add looking at it to the reminder system of your choice, either on your calendar, boomerang, bulletin board, or other reminder system. This will only be useful if you remember to look at it periodically and remember all the ways you’re awesome.
I don’t know about you, but it can sometimes be hard to just sit and read, or just cook, clean, or eat. It feels like it’s not enough to fully engage my attention and I get fidgety or bored. A hack I have discovered for this is to pair a physical task with an intellectual one. Good candidates for this are physical activities that are (relatively) mindless, like cooking, cleaning, walking, running on a treadmill, cycling, or knitting. Then pair it with something that is mentally engaging but not so much that it requires your full attention, like watching a TV show, listening to a podcast or audiobook, or, with certain pairings, reading. The most common example is listening to a podcast while working out, but other examples include:
Depending on your mindset and personality, this might cause you stress. If that is the case, definitely don’t do this. This is for the sort of people or the sorts of tasks where it makes the activity more enjoyable, either because you feel fully engaged instead of partially, or because you get the benefits of feeling more satisfied at the end of it. For example, generally speaking if I watch a trash TV show I feel a little gross and dissatisfied at the end of it. However, if I watch a trash TV show while cooking up a storm, I enjoy the process and the end result is a delicious healthy meal, so I get the moment-to-moment joy and the life satisfaction all combined in one.
Of course, if you’re not into knitting, by all means, don’t knit. Just think about the general pattern and think about what physical activities take little of your mental energy and pair it with a mental activity that doesn’t require your full attention. Therein lies awesomeness.
*If you want to have an audiobook of virtually any book you want, I recommend Balabolka, a free word to audio converter that is very simple to use.
Vacations are an interesting phenomenon. Why do we have them? At first glance, it’s to make us happier. We enjoy them while we’re on them. It’s something to look forward to. However, have you ever stopped to ask yourself whether they’re net positive on your life? Remember that a lot of happiness is relative. If you think of yourself as unsuccessful at work because you have a 9 to 5 cubicle job for a corporation when you know people who’ve started their own nonprofit or make a living doing art, you might feel bad. However, you can have the same job and feel like a success because you’re comparing yourself to the people who struggle to hold down any job or whose job is to scuba dive through sewage.
Likewise, vacations have the potential for long term negative effects, because you might always be comparing your day-to-day to a vacation in Hawaii, and it can just never compare. This can create unnecessary dissatisfaction in your life.
There are a few possible reactions to this. One is to re-evaluate your day-to-day and change it so that you do like it. This is generally a good recommendation for people. But what if your job is actually quite good or you have other reasons to stay in it (ethical ones, for example). What should you do then? Anti-vacations are an option.
An anti-vacation is doing something on purpose that is less good than your day-to-day which will then make you appreciate it more. Now, this doesn't have to be as masochistic as it sounds. A good general strategy for this is to organize holidays that maximize life satisfaction to the detriment of moment-to-moment happiness. Take for example hiking trips. Let’s be honest - hiking can often be miserable. There are endless bugs, your whole body is sore, you haven’t had a hot shower in days and neither has your tent-mate. Yet there are some peak moments during the hike, like the feeling of reaching a glorious view or reaching your campsite for the night and talking around the campfire. Yet every hiker can attest to the glory of arriving back in civilization and having that first shower. You (hopefully) shower daily, but you never appreciate it as much as after a hiking trip. This is the power of an anti-vacation. It makes you appreciate the mundane while still improving your life as whole, creating feelings of accomplishment and garnering social approval. Other good examples of anti-vacations are visiting a very poor country or doing physical challenges like marathons or going on a fast. Try it out. You might be surprised at the power of changing the psychology of a holiday.
Motivation isn’t something you can do once and take it as a given. It requires regular upkeep, like hygiene or nutrition. One easy way to boost your motivation is to set up motivational pictures around you. However, they have the problem of slowly losing their potency as you get used to them and eventually stop noticing them at all. Fortunately there’s a solution. All you have to do is find a bunch of inspirational photos online, put them in a folder on your computer, then set your wallpaper to rotate through them, going through one a day. Then every new day there will be a new motivational photo, keeping the inspiration fresh.
You can even set themes. For example, I have health, happiness, and compassion as themes. One week each day there will be a different photo relating to health, and the next it’ll be images that remind me of the suffering I am preventing. This reminds you about why you’re putting in all the effort you are, and it’s hard to get cheaper than free.
Almost everybody has one or two things that they find hard to get in their diet. If you’re vegan it might be B12 or iron. If you live in the North it might be vitamin D. If you're a denizen of the Western world, omega 3 is a likely candidate. Whatever it is, it can be hard remember to take it daily. Fortunately, there’s an easy way to remember them: put them in a pillbox with a different compartment for each day of the week. It lowers the barrier of getting vitamins, especially if you take more than one per day, and it makes you feel more psychologically motivated by seeing yourself work through the week instead of an endless bottle.
If you want to really make it motivating, add a jelly bean or a vitamin you like the taste of (vitamin C and calcium often taste good). As always, if you want to make something a habit, try to make it intrinsically enjoyable.
I'm an effective altruist who co-founded Charity Science Health and Charity Entrepreneurship.