And Another One: The Art and Science of Double-Loop Incentives

At the beginning of 2018 I told myself that I wanted to improve my health, read more and improve my technical skills. I had sort of done that in 2017 but this time I wanted to be more consistent. I wanted to build better habits. My friends I am sure that you’ve tried to build your own habits and I don’t know about you but in my opinion it’s something really hard to do. I actually felt frustrated in many occasions because I would start a routine or habit only to fall of the track after 10 days or so. To me this was worst than not even trying because at some point I started thinking that I wasn’t going to build the habits that would allow me to be happier and healthier.

Some people believe that it only takes 21 days to build a habit. However, recent studies suggests that it can take way longer than that (between 18 to 254 days!) to train your brain your brain to stop doing something that it has done its whole life.

The Inflection Point

In January 2018 I decided that I would tackle 1 habit out of the 5 or so that I wanted to build so that I could increase my chances of succeeding. I settled for reading 1 book per month. This was the same goal that I had for 2017 but I fell short by 8 books! 🤦‍♂️ I figured this was a simple habit because I could break it down into daily actions that would eventually compound over time.

Read 10 pages per day → Read 300 pages per month = Read 1 Book per month

The Baby Steps

The approach worked. It just did. The bar was so low (read 10 pages per day) that if I couldn’t accomplish that I should just give up on life 😂. I am kidding I am kidding. But you get my point. It was easy enough that it was ok if I missed a day or two because I could easily recover and stay on track. I could also measure and perhaps more importantly see my progress.

Disclaimer: I don’t think that the number of pages you read or the amount of books that you read is a categorical metric to measure your progress. However, it helped me a lot during the first months that I was building my habit.

The Insight

By the end of July my little experiment was working. I had read a total of 15 books, which is 3 more than I had originally planned for the whole year! With my new found success I started to wonder if I could translate my approach into other areas like writing, exercising and programming. And that’s when it hit me. What if I use my current habit to form other habits? It sounded brilliant to me. I could tell myself that I could keep reading that awesome book that I just started IF AND ONLY IF I wrote exercised 3 times that week or if I wrote 500 words every day. That’s why I call this approach “Double-Loop Incentives” because by building one habit I reinforce another one.

The Results

So far the results have been extraordinary and I think that it is because it has been 6 months since I started my first habit so it is strong enough that I don’t want to stop doing it. I am playing with around with other possible combinations and incentive structures and will try to update this post with any new findings.

This is only the beginning of this journey but so far it’s working great for me and maybe it will for you too. Hence, why I am writing this post. If you feel that this might be useful to someone you know or to your network in general please be sure to share.

Also, if I can help with anything feel free to reach out – hi@xavierpladevall.com