🛠 Meta-Habits 🛠
When it comes to game-changing skills, I’m not sure if there’s anything that outperforms BJ Fogg’s Tiny Habits method. I’ve trained directly with him, worked with him, and learned a lot from him personally. That’s why I’m so excited to build off of it. One idea I’ve developed is the concept of meta-habits. Meta-habits are the closest thing to compound interest in personal change.
Meta-habits tend to have at least some of the following key traits:
Finding an elemental skill that transfers to every other skill is the most meta of the meta. With meta-habits, you’re working on something that will amplify your success in every other area of your life. Some of the most impactful examples here apply to emotion regulation. That’s because we are most able to learn and tolerate change when we feel safe and calm.
To invert this idea, think about someone—maybe yourself—having their identity and values attacked. And now imagine trying to change their mind through nuanced ideas and detailed facts. If you’re curious about what this looks like when multiplied by 400 million, it’s called Twitter.
What makes a practice more flexible? When you can apply it in the places where you spend most of your time. At work. At home. At your third place. There is specificity here in terms of practice.
Your most universal opportunities are when habits are quick to practice—and are internal. Here, you gain the freedom to apply them in any environment—and at any time. Breathing. Gratitude. Awareness. You can practice these waiting in line, between calls, and even when someone is honking at you in traffic. These are in contrast to, say, axe juggling—which requires special equipment—and is frowned upon at most shareholder meetings.
High personal value
Motivation itself can’t be gamed in the long-term but that doesn’t mean that some forms of motivation aren’t more reliable than others. Instead of relying on social pressures and incentives, intrinsic motivation tends to bubble up when things have a high personal significance. This is when they reflect your deepest values or affirm the best parts of your own identity.
In fitness, for example, trends around specific looks or body parts come and go. However, energy, strength, and freedom of physical expression are evergreen. They’re what old-timey fitness folk referred to as vitality.
High frequency prompts
If you are meditating, every breath can be a prompt for a type of reflection or attention. If you are exercising, every rep can prompt a technical adjustment or focal point. If you live in a busy city, every honk, siren, or shout can do the same. Prompts don’t need to be enjoyable—or even desirable—to be useful. Chronic irritants and stresses can be absolutely transformative if leveraged correctly. There’s an established term for these, via Linda Fogg-Phillips: Pearl Habits.
If we imagine meta-habits as building blocks, we can begin to assemble them into larger behaviours that have similar compounding effects. Health behaviours are some of our greatest opportunities for this kind of internal world-building and meta-work.
It’s important to see the following categories as assemblies of many smaller habits. So, physical health, for example, isn’t a binary. Healthy eating isn’t a yes or no. Empathy isn’t a one-trick pony. All of these things are built out of perhaps dozens of smaller habits. With health behaviours, going from messy to merely ok can be profound.
Think about this all in the context of learning, growth, and skill acquisition. Imagine someone taking their sleep from five hours a night to eight. And then from being totally sedentary to daily walks and exercise. Now put that person in situations that require poise, creativity, and cognitive flexibility. It’s going to be big. Or at least have the potential to be.
How do we get there?
Let’s talk about increasing quality/quantity of sleep. Think about the dozens of habits required to make those changes. Meta-habits do the heavy lifting here.
Checking in with physical sensations, for example, becomes habitual. Your skills grow. Now, it’s easier to take note of your body’s signals of alertness and fatigue. Closing loops and setting boundaries gives you space and time for rest and integration. It all adds up. And for good reason; if you want to push harder or go higher, you also have to factor in higher recovery needs. The old stuff won’t get you the new stuff.
The skills behind behaviour design have had a major impact on my happiness and effectiveness. Dad Strength is designed—in part—to showcase how exercise and other self-care practices can be used to calibrate and elevate your quality of life. It begins with habits.