A framework for building habits from the ground up
Joining an early-stage startup was a turning point in my life. I joined SharpestMinds two years ago as a relatively ignorant PhD dropout. But, since then, I’ve gotten a crash course in startup culture and best practices and, in an effort to keep up with the growth of the company, become a bit obsessed with self-improvement and productivity hacks.
As I learned more about lean startup principles, I also started researching and experimenting with effective habit formation. I’ve noticed a lot of parallels with the advice in both areas. Below is an attempt to map some lean startup concepts to effective habit-forming strategies. Heavily inspired by The Lean Startup, Atomic Habits, and the cultures that each book are embedded in.
Minimum viable habit
Minimum viable product (MVP) is a version of a product with just enough features to satisfy early customers, and to provide feedback for future product development. When building a new product, you want to get it in the hands of users as quickly as possible so you can start learning as quickly as possible. You’re company may have a bold vision for the future of your product but, until you get something in front of real or potential customers for feedback, you are relying on untested assumptions. So the default strategy is to launch early with an MVP to avoid investing resources into something nobody wants.
Similarly, when building a new habit, you should always start with a minimum viable habit (MVH). The goal should be to launch early with the simplest version of the habit. There are likely untested assumptions you are making about your capability, motivation levels, or free time. You should try and learn your limits as quickly as possible to avoid investing personal resources in a habit you cannot sustain.
Instead of trying to engineer a perfect habit from the start, do the easy thingJames Clear, Atomic Habits
on a more consistent basis. You have to standardize before you can optimize.
A common piece of startup advice is to to understand your users. Just because you think you have an awesome product, does not mean your target customers will agree. There are likely assumptions you are making about your users which is why you should regularly talk to them to get a better picture of what they want. You’ll often learn things you never even thought of.
When building new habits, you are the user. It’s important to take the time to understand yourself. We all have ambitions about of the type of person we want to be, but these might require habits that we don’t have the capacity to sustain. Often, when we are inspired to change our behavior, there is an initial surge of confidence and will-power that makes us overestimate our future capacity to maintain it. When we eventually lose the will-power, we tend to give up on the habit entirely.
Start meditating. By practicing mindfulness, you’ll gain a better awareness of your own emotions, thought processes, and your current habits and what triggers them. This will help you make more informed decisions about how to form new habits and drop bad ones.
While talking to customers is one of the most important things to do to get feedback on a product, there is often a discrepancy between what people say they want and what they actually do. This, along with the need for feedback at scale, is why measurement and analytics are so important when building products.
This also applies to yourself. What you want to do and what you actually do are not always the same. Keep a daily journal or a habit tracker. Track of the habits you’re trying and take notes on your motivation and success rate. Eventually, you’ll learn what strategies actually work for you and which don’t.
Note: keeping a daily journal is a tough habit to form. Start with a MVH of writing down one sentence per day.
The core principle of the lean startup, in my opinion, is the build-measure-learn feedback loop. Build an MVP, measure how your user’s respond to it, learn what you can do better, repeat. Keep experimenting and iterating in search of product/market fit. This is how great companies are built from the ground up and often end up with a product much different from their original idea.
Ideas are cheap and plentiful. The original pitch idea is such a small part of a business that it’s almost negligible. The real question is how well you execute.Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, Rework
The equivalent for habit building is the try-reflect-adjust feedback loop. Try a new habit, reflect on how effective it was (through self-reflection and habit tracking), adjust the habit accordingly, repeat.
When you fail to meet your expectations, e.g. failing, repeatedly, to preform a daily habit. Do not be afraid to pivot. It’s common for early-stage startups to radically change their products when they learn they are not working. There’s no shame in this. It’s a consequence of learning, through the build-measure-learn loop, that the product cannot support a scale-able business.
When you realize, through the try-reflect-adjust loop, that you are failing to achieve a new habit, don’t give up hope entirely but pivot to something different. Scale back if you need to. Consistency is more important than scope. You’re better off reading one page a day, than failing to read a chapter every day.
The goal of startup is to find product/market fit. It is achieved when you create a product that has significant demand from a large enough market. This is a tricky thing to measure in practice, but there are many useful heuristics e.g. when it it starts taking a lot less effort to make a sale. It’s important to note that finding product/market fit does not mean the hard work is over. It means taking that MVP and building on top of it to widen the target market. Furthermore, markets can and will evolve due to complex cultural forces and the product should evolve with it.
Habit/personality fit is when you find a habit that you can consistently achieve without exerting a large amount of will power. The types of habits that work for you will be differ from the rest of the population. They will be highly specific to your personality, motivation, and schedule. These things too will evolve. As a habit becomes automatic, it will become part of your personality and you can start building on top of it. Once you are reliably reading one page a day, you are now a “person who reads” and upping that to a chapter will be a lot easier than it used to be.