The Stoics believed that in an unpredictable world, order is a prerequisite of excellence and good habits are a safe haven of certainty. They were all about systems, routines, and repetition. It wasn’t just about knowing what the right thing was, it was about doing it daily. Fueling the habit bonfire, they said. It was about creating muscle memory. They would have agreed with Aristotle—that we are what we repeatedly do. We become what we repeatedly study and focus on.
Before Stephen Guise authored four bestselling books (translated into 18 languages) delivering highly actionable, world-class behavior change strategies, he was “the guy who took only 9 credit hours in college so that he could play Halo 3 all day (seriously).” Wanting to change but struggling to break free of his bad habits, Guise set out to learn and understand what leads to real and lasting behavior change. And for more than a decade now, his researching and writing has helped hundreds of thousands of people transform their lives. What are the keys to behavior change? How do you cultivate good habits and kick bad habits? What do we misunderstand about making change last? Guise answers those questions and more in our interview below. Please enjoy!
I’m going to answer these in reverse order.
You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength. ~ Marcus Aurelius
The quote above is worthy of being a life motto if you could only choose one. Marcus Aurelius is my favorite Stoic philosopher because of Meditations.
I love what I’ve learned about the philosophy so far. I’ve read Meditations and some books by Ryan Holiday (The Obstacle is the Way, Stillness is the Key, and I’ve recently purchased his book with your namesake, The Daily Stoic). I’ve come across many amazing quotes from other Stoics that make me want to read the source material. In fact, I’m just about to release a habit tracking calendar that includes inspirational quotes, and several are from Stoic philosophers: Marcus Aurelius, Heraclitus, Aristotle, and Epictetus.
When I was first exposed to stoicism, it resonated with me immediately. There are so many ideas out there about how to become great, but the Stoic way stands apart as a philosophy for staying strong even if the world around you falls apart. That idea connects strongly to what I believe in and write about—raising and supporting your floor instead of your ceiling.
You’ve spent decades studying and researching behavior change. Before we go into the nitty-gritty, why did you get into this line of work? What piqued your interest?
I think interest is developed in one of two main ways—push or pull. Most people think about pull. That’s when you’re exposed to something, and its allure pulls you in. But the other side, push, is just as common, though rarely discussed or thought about.
Why do people start charities for specific diseases? More often than not, they do it in honor of loved ones who died from that disease. They weren’t pulled into an interest in diabetes, or AIDs, or ALS. That disease caused them pain, and pushed them to do what they could to solve the problem. Once a person is pushed towards something, then the “pull” aspect of interest can take over, but I think it’s interesting to differentiate the initial cause.
My interest in behavior change began with a “push.” Up until high school, I developed all kinds of bad habits, mostly of the “lazy” variety. School came easy for me. I was very good at deducing correct answers on tests even when I hadn’t studied the material. Because of this, I got away with slacking. Like all bad habits, it was fun until it suddenly wasn’t.
After I graduated high school, I pretty suddenly became interested in being a useful person, but I really struggled to do that, because real behavior change isn’t sudden. I wanted to be this different person, but I had all of these bad habits holding me in place. That caused me frustration and pain, and it “pushed” me to search for answers.
I started to read self-help books and wrote my thoughts to explore the problem. I was always a math person and disliked English/Grammar classes in school. But through this issue, I developed a love for exploring and writing about self-improvement.
Early on, what were some things about behavior change that you were surprised to learn? Anything you think most people still don’t understand about behavior change?
I didn’t realize it at the time, but the most popular articles tend to be wrong. In the Venn diagram of what “sells” and what works, the overlapping area is tiny and difficult to hit. Many writers learn this soon enough and just write what people want to read. I hate to name names, but Buzzfeed exemplifies this too perfectly. You’re not going to change your life because of a Buzzfeed article, but you will probably click it anyway because they understand human psychology. It’s not unethical or anything, but it can be frustrating to try to find good information in a cloud of clickbait vapor.
I still don’t think people understand the power of habits and consistency. As long as 10-day smoothie cleanses, 30-day whatevers, and “take massive action” dominate the internet and bookshelves, it means most people still don’t understand the power of consistency. Or else they do, and still can’t escape the allure of those shinier ideas.
I’m easily triggered by 30-day ______. There is no reason to do something for 30 days as opposed to 22 days or 47. Everyone has just latched onto it as if it’s correct. I’m all for experimenting, so 30-day experiments are fine I guess, but the obsession with this number drives me crazy because it’s completely arbitrary and unscientific. That goes back to the issue of what’s popular and what’s correct, something I constantly wrestle with as a writer.
The Stoics of course were big on habits and routine. Fuel the habit bonfire, they said—we become what we repeatedly do. Can you first tell us about some of your essential habits? Walk us through the key activities of your day.
Exercise, reading, and writing. Those are my big three habits and I do them every day. I don’t, however, do them at the same time each day. I’ve adopted a flexible structure, and as such, my good habits strongly resemble the structure of bad habits. Smokers, for example, have multiple triggers that lead to smoking a cigarette. I, too, have multiple triggers to read, write, and exercise. It’s great!
As someone who writes about habits, many people would be surprised to learn my lifestyle is extremely spontaneous. To give you an idea, at 10 PM one night when I lived in Jacksonville (FL), I decided to visit Portland (OR) for a week. I flew there just a few hours later the next morning. And I moved there, across the country, one month later!
I love habits, but the idea of routine repulses me to some degree because variety and change make life more interesting. You can have habits without routine, and I think recognizing this fact is what makes me a little bit different than most writers in this field. And again, bad habits are a great example of how habits can exist without predefined routines. All routines are habits, but not all habits are predetermined routines.
So my days vary quite a bit. I leave ample freedom for spontaneity. But I always get my big three habits done to varying degrees. My habits keep me grounded, and variety keeps me engaged.
Your first book Mini Habits was a massive bestseller. What habits or ideas from the book do you see readers find the most benefit from and rave about?
The most beneficial and common habit I’ve heard people develop with mini habits is exercise. That’s the one I started with, and it’s the most commonly pursued habit in the world for good reason. It improves almost every facet of your life, directly or indirectly.
As for ideas in the book, Mini Habits is the only habit strategy I know of that doesn’t adhere to the cue-behavior-reward philosophy. While that is indeed the sequence of events that leads to habit, the idea that you must choose a specific cue is rooted in tradition, not necessity. As I and now tens of thousands of others have shown, you can form habits with a simple daily deadline (complete the habit anytime before you go to bed).
And of course, the core Mini Habits idea is that all progress is worth celebrating. These “Go big or go home” ideas cause serious damage by discouraging small steps forward. Sometimes, a small step is all you can take. Sometimes, a small step is the spark you need to make the larger leap. By only accepting larger victories, you decrease the size and quantity of victories available to you.
One of the more satisfying and surprising things I’ve noticed is the number of emails I’ve received from seniors changing their behavior for the first time in their lives (or very many years). On the same day you sent me these questions, I received this email from a reader:
“Oh, and thanks to you (Mini Habits), you have gotten this 75 year old sedentary woman to — wait for it —- exercise! No more dread of being expected to do too much too soon by both my own standards, and those on exercise videos! It’s about time, huh!”
We are all capable of change, even at advanced ages. We just need a strategy that works for us and with us instead of one that judges us and berates us for not doing enough. The thing about behavior change is that it’s voluntary. If you don’t like the process, you won’t do it for long.
And you have a new book Elastic Habits. Can you tell us more about it?
Elastic Habits is the culmination of everything I’ve worked on in the last 15 years. A recent reviewer called it “Mini Habits On Steroids,” which made me laugh. A mini habit is small and easy to ensure consistency (1 push-up a day). An elastic habit is small, medium, or large on any day, and with multiple applications (1, 15, or 50 push-ups a day, or alternate exercises).
When you give a habit flexibility within a specific structure of win conditions, it becomes nearly invincible to life’s challenges. And when I say challenges, I don’t only mean negative events or being too busy. One of the challenges people have is wanting to do great things but understanding that a great effort in one day might not be sustainable. Elastic habits allow us to get those inspiring big wins and those needed small wins to keep ourselves moving forward.
I’m not just an author, I’m a devoted practitioner of the methods I teach, and the Elastic Habits strategy changed my life significantly more than even Mini Habits did (which is saying a lot). To really test the strategy fairly and not rely too much on the foundation I had already built with Mini Habits, I purposefully “slumped” for 45 days to make sure I was at rock bottom when I started. That story is in the introduction of the book, so you can read it with the “Look Inside!” Feature on Amazon.
I’ll include a picture of the trackers for my first several months of elastic habits. The different colors stand for differently-sized wins. Green is Mini (easy), Blue is Plus (moderate), Red is Elite (hard). The variety of colors you see mimics the unpredictable nature of life; it’s why we need flexible habits!
The discipline for habit formation can be a real struggle for a lot of people. Marcus Aurelius even writes of his struggling with discipline in Meditations. We are curious what you recommend to make a habit change last? How can we make the kind of behaviors you recommend stick?
The biggest mistake people make is thinking that it’s all on them. When we fail to form habits and be disciplined, it’s not our fault. I say that as one of the most “naturally lazy” people I know. I tell you that because I used to think it was my fault. I have a below average work ethic and somewhat lazy natural disposition. But my strategies for behavior change are so effective, that in the last 6 years, I’ve written four bestselling books (translated into 18 languages), created two video courses (with 17k+ students), and invented several products last year.
To some people, that’s impressive. To others, it’s not. I have friends who have written more than 100 books, which blows my mind. But for me, for the guy who took only 9 credit hours in college so that he could play Halo 3 all day (seriously), the change has been stunning. And I’m still the same guy! It wasn’t me who failed all those years I wanted to change and couldn’t, it was the methods I used.
If anyone (including Marcus Aurelius) struggles to change their behavior, it’s not a personal failure as much as it is a strategic failure. I use elastic habits because the system doesn’t fail me. I don’t miss days because there are so many failsafes to ensure my momentum and consistency. And I don’t feel like I’m wasting my potential because I have the big win option whenever I desire it.
To answer your last question, the key to making a habit change last is to intend for it to last forever from the start. Many people “try” with the aforementioned 30-day plans. But you can see the problem within the plan’s name—it’s temporary. I understand the intention of “kickstarting” with that, but what if you used a strategy that didn’t require kickstarting? What if you adopted a strategy that you fully enjoyed from day one?
To make a habit last, you have to like the entire process of developing and maintaining it. It’s that simple. You’re free to quit at any time, meaning a strategy that you dislike has no chance from the start. This is why people fall into yo-yo dieting. They force it for as long as they can, but since they never wanted to do it in the first place, it’s a nonstarter. The desire for results alone can’t usually sustain a habit.
I’ve recently been studying bad habits and addiction. A quote that struck me from a book I’m reading called The Compass of Pleasure said “addiction is learning.” Interesting. Along with this, it cited a study that said 35% of people who use heroin the first time get addicted. That’s high, right? But get this… 80% of people who smoke for the first time get addicted. 80 percent! That’s shocking, especially considering the much stronger pleasure effect of heroin than nicotine. But it makes sense when you consider two things—frequency and environment.
Heroin users administer a large dose of the drug only once or twice a day through injections. Smokers administer a tiny dose of their drug (nicotine) through each individual puff, a couple hundred times a day. That repetition drives the addiction. It’s a smaller reward, but it’s repeated so often that the brain learns it faster.
The second factor is environment. You can walk into a store and buy cigarettes. You can’t do that for heroin. Ease of use (environment) and frequency of repetition power bad habits (and addictions).
The absolute first step to quitting a bad habit is changing your environment. Why? That’s the easiest and most impactful thing you can do. Repetition is a self-sustaining circle, so that’s a willpower battle most of us will lose. But if eating candy is your bad habit, and you don’t have candy in your pantry, how can you eat it? Even beyond obvious environment changes like removing the offending habit (or trigger of the habit), you can take subtler but meaningful steps like putting candy in harder to access places, in opaque containers, and so on.
Finally, I think that Allen Carr is on to something with his unique approach to bad habits and addictions. He uses a combination of “healthy brainwashing” and pointed logic to remove the reader’s desire for the bad habit. I say healthy brainwashing because his books are the most repetitive that I’ve ever read. But as I just said, repetition is a powerful tool when it comes to habits.
I said in Mini Habits that “repetition is the language of the subconscious mind.” It almost seems that Carr tries to bypass the conscious reader and speak directly to the subconscious.
The Daily Stoic community is always eager about reading recommendations. Can you offer some suggestions? What books and writers have had the biggest influence on your thinking and how you live your life?
The first self-help book I ever read was Getting Things Done by David Allen. While in the end, the system was too maintenance-intensive for me to follow, I learned so much from it and think it’s genius.
The first book I read that introduced me to the workings of the brain was Your Brain At Work by David Rock. That really helped me understand why this “stupid” mini habits strategy (that I accidentally discovered) was changing my life; it helped me connect the dots. If you’re looking for an introductory neuroscience book to explain the basics of how our brains handle day-to-day operations, I recommend it.
I love The Compound Effect by Darren Hardy. It’s a great companion to all of my books as it explains how behaviors compound. When you understand compounding, it changes your perspective in a very useful way.
The Art of War by Sun Tzu is a masterpiece of strategy. It is written from the perspective of war, but the concepts translate very powerfully into personal development.
Finally, I must recommend Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography. I believe it’s free on Kindle and I find it equally fascinating and useful for wisdom.
My favorite fiction book is Treasure Island by Stevenson.
Thanks so much for this! These questions were very engaging.