Don't Make Leonardo Da Vinci's Mistake

Leonardo Da Vinci was the quintessential "Renaissance man."

He was brilliant, excelling in most fields he explored – mathematics, engineering, invention, sculpture, architecture, cartography, botany, painting, and writing – all without any kind of formal education.

But despite his brilliance, he had a bad habit...

Da Vinci often left his work unfinished. In fact, he has unfinished paintings hanging in the Louvre in Paris ("The Virgin and Child with St. Anne"), in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence ("The Adoration of the Magi"), and in one of the Vatican Museums ("St. Jerome in the Wilderness"). All of Da Vinci's writings were published posthumously. And many of his inventions never materialized.

While most of us aren't leaving masterpieces unfinished, we're all familiar with the idea of leaving things undone and the stress it causes. Recent research confirms decision-procrastination and clutter go hand in hand, and this creates a lot of stress.

We've studied this stuff over the years, and we think there's hope for us mere mortals. Today we're going to share three simple steps to help you build good habits. Even if it's as simple as building the habit of finishing Italian chapel ceilings.

Habits are the brain's way of creating efficiency. Once we develop a habit, the mental effort it takes to carry out that specific routine – our cognitive load – decreases, and we free up more mental energy to focus on other things.

Some habits are great, like brushing your teeth in the morning. Others are not, like binge-watching Netflix way past bedtime. Luckily, breaking a bad habit can be as simple as identifying what triggers that bad habit, and inserting a new, better habit to take its place.

Pulitzer-prize winning reporter and author Charles Duhigg outlines a simple, three-step approach to building better habits in his New York Times bestselling book The Power of Habit. Duhigg puts an emphasis on identifying the triggers of a bad habit.

For example, Duhigg used to eat a chocolate chip cookie every afternoon in the cafeteria at work. But he realized it wasn't the cookie he was craving... it was the social environment in the cafeteria. Once he was able to identify socialization as his real need, Duhigg was able to tailor his habit to get that reward in a better way (sans cookie).

Duhigg's method is simple and straightforward, centered around three words that all start with "R": reminder, routine, and reward.

Step 1: Reminder

Let's say you decide that you're not getting enough exercise and want to make a habit of walking for 30 minutes after breakfast every day. Start by putting a brightly colored sticky note on the bathroom mirror as an early reminder. This will get your brain thinking about it before the breakfast table might distract you.

If you get used to seeing a reminder in one spot and begin to look past it, move it to a new place so it will jump out at you again. Or write yourself a new reminder on a different colored note.

Setting an alarm on your phone is another reminder method. Make sure to label your alarm so you remember what it's for. Pick a time for that reminder outside of the busiest part of your day, otherwise it becomes easy to ignore. If you eat breakfast at 7 every day, set your "go take a walk" alarm for 7:30 or 7:45.

Step 2: Routine

It goes without saying much... But start small if you have plans to make a habit into a lifelong healthy change.

Your 30-minute daily walk sounds like a fantastic start, but let's say you decide to challenge yourself more by working your way up to walking for 90 minutes every day.

Breaking down a desired habit into small, measurable actions will help you achieve your larger goal. Track your actions and progress by writing out a plan and use a calendar to map out your incremental goals.

So you'll map out eight weeks, and for the last six of those weeks, you'll increase your walking time by adding 10 minutes each week. Week one, you'll plan to walk for 30 minutes and week two 30 minutes, at whatever pace you desire. But then you'll add 10 minutes to week three and begin taking 40-minute walks, then 50-minute walks during week four, and so on.

Once you've created your calendar, don't look at the whole thing and overwhelm yourself. Instead, focus on one day at a time. Each day, after you've completed your task, make a bold mark on your calendar to indicate your success.

Come week eight, you'll be walking for 90 minutes a day. Again, your walking pace is irrelevant (more on this in another daily piece).

People tend to give up a routine if they don't see immediate results (or get injured for striving too hard early on), so tracking your routine is a great way to keep yourself on the right track toward meeting your new goal.

And be patient with yourself. Habits don't form overnight. Depending on the habit (and the habit maker), it could take months or even a year to make it really stick.

A favorite study of mine on habits, published in the European Journal of Psychology a decade ago, asked 96 participants to carry out a new task for 84 days. The participants were instructed to choose a healthy eating, drinking, or exercise habit to complete at a specific (self-selected) time, every day.

The researchers found that the number of days it took the participants to start doing their new behavior automatically ranged from 18 to 254 days, with an average of 66 days. This tells us that the time it takes to build a habit and automate a new behavior is going to be different for everyone.

So if you miss a day, that's ok. Don't judge or discourage yourself – you're rewiring your brain and that takes time. Simply return to your routine the following day.

Step 3: Reward

When you expect to receive a reward, your brain releases the "feel good" hormone dopamine. This dopamine release strengthens your reward-related memories. So you're basically training your brain to associate this new habit and routine with feeling good.

Exercise is one habit that tends to naturally have feel-good hormones surging right after. But you could also pair this exercise habit with a reward, like walking (habit) with a friend (reward). Looking at your calendar and seeing a week full of big green check marks can also serve as a great reward and a form of reinforcement.

Keep your reward healthy. There are lots of "self care" ways to reward yourself. For instance you could meditate, read a novel, or listen to some music.

And if you want to read more about habit building, there are lots of resources out there for you. One of my researchers really likes author James Clear's take in his book Atomic Habits.

Now that you know the "three Rs" – reminder, routine, and reward – you have everything you need to get rolling on creating new habits. We'd also love to hear about your successes in changing habits. Send us a message to [email protected].

What We're Reading...

Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,

Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
November 9, 2021