Thursday, January 2, 2020

How to Build New Habits by Taking Advantage of Old Ones

In 2007, researchers at Oxford University started peering into the brains of newborn babies. What they found was surprising.

After comparing the newborn brains to the normal adult human, the researchers realized that the average adult had 41 percent fewer neurons than the average newborn. 
At first glance, this discovery didn't make sense. If babies have more neurons, then why are adults smarter and more skilled?
Let's talk about what is going on here, why this is important, and what it has to do with building better habits and mastering your mental and physical performance.

The Power of Synaptic Pruning

There is a phenomenon that happens as we age called synaptic pruning. Synapses are connections between the neurons in your brain. The basic idea is that your brain prunes away connections between neurons that don't get used and builds up connections that get used more frequently.
For example, if you practice playing the piano for 10 years, then your brain will strengthen the connections between those musical neurons. The more you play, the stronger the connections become. Not only that, the connections become faster and more efficient each time you practice. As your brain builds stronger and faster connections between neurons, you can express your skills with more ease and expertise. It is a biological change that leads to skill development.
Meanwhile, someone else who has never played the piano is not strengthening those connections in their brain. As a result, the brain prunes away those unused connections and allocates energy toward building connections for other life skills.
This explains the difference between newborn brains and adult brains. Babies are born with brains that are like a blank canvas. Everything is a possibility, but they don't have strong connections anywhere. The adults, however, have pruned away a good deal of their neurons, but they have very strong connections that support certain skills.
Now for the fun part. Let's talk about how synaptic pruning plays an important role in building new habits.

Habit Stacking

Synaptic pruning occurs with every habit you build. As we've covered, your brain builds a strong network of neurons to support your current behaviors. The more you do something, the stronger and more efficient the connection becomes.
You probably have very strong habits and connections that you take for granted each day. For example, your brain is probably very efficient at remembering to take a shower each morning or to brew your morning cup of coffee or to open the blinds when the sun rises … or thousands of other daily habits. You can take advantage of these strong connections to build new habits.
When it comes to building new habits, you can use the connectedness of behavior to your advantage. One of the best ways to build a new habit is to identify a current habit you already do each day and then stack your new behavior on top. This is called habit stacking.
Habit stacking is a special form of an implementation intention. Rather than pairing your new habit with a particular time and location, you pair it with a current habit. This method, which was created by BJ Fogg as part of his Tiny Habits program, can be used to design an obvious cue for nearly any habit.

Habit Stacking Examples

The habit stacking formula is:
After/Before [CURRENT HABIT], I will [NEW HABIT].
For example:
  • After I pour my cup of coffee each morning, I will meditate for one minute.
  • After I take off my work shoes, I will immediately change into my workout clothes.
  • After I sit down to dinner, I will say one thing I’m grateful for that happened today.
  • After I get into bed at night, I will give my partner a kiss.
  • After I put on my running shoes, I will text a friend or family member where I am running and how long it will take.
Again, the reason habit stacking works so well is that your current habits are already built into your brain. You have patterns and behaviors that have been strengthened over years. By linking your new habits to a cycle that is already built into your brain, you make it more likely that you'll stick to the new behavior.
Once you have mastered this basic structure, you can begin to create larger stacks by chaining small habits together. This allows you to take advantage of the natural momentum that comes from one behavior leading into the next.
Habit stacking increases the likelihood that you’ll stick with a habit by stacking your new behavior on top of an old one. This process can be repeated to chain numerous habits together, each one acting as the cue for the next.
Your morning routine habit stack might look like this:
  1. After I pour my morning cup of coffee, I will meditate for sixty seconds.
  2. After I meditate for sixty seconds, I will write my to-do list for the day.
  3. After I write my to-do list for the day, I will immediately begin my first task.
Or, consider this habit stack in the evening:
  1. After I finish eating dinner, I will put my plate directly into the dishwasher.
  2. After I put my dishes away, I will immediately wipe down the counter.
  3. After I wipe down the counter, I will set out my coffee mug for tomorrow morning.
You can also insert new behaviors into the middle of your current routines. For example, you may already have a morning routine that looks like this: Wake up > Make my bed > Take a shower. Let’s say you want to develop the habit of reading more each night. You can expand your habit stack and try something like: Wake up > Make my bed > Place a book on my pillow > Take a shower. Now, when you climb into bed each night, a book will be sitting there waiting for you to enjoy.
Overall, habit stacking allows you to create a set of simple rules that guide your future behavior. It’s like you always have a game plan for which action should come next. Once you get comfortable with this approach, you can develop general habit stacks to guide you whenever the situation is appropriate:
  • When I see a set of stairs, I will take them instead of using the elevator.
  • Social skills. When I walk into a party, I will introduce myself to anyone I don’t know yet.
  • When I want to buy something over $100, I will wait 24 hours before purchasing.
  • Healthy eating. When I serve myself a meal, I will always put veggies on my plate first.
  • When I buy a new item, I will give something away. (“One in, one out.”)
  • When the phone rings, I will take one deep breath and smile before answering.
  • When I leave a public place, I will check the table and chairs to make sure I don’t leave anything behind.
No matter how you use this strategy, the secret to creating a successful habit stack is selecting the right cue to kick things off. Unlike an implementation intention, which specifically states the time and location for a given behavior, habit stacking implicitly has the time and location built into it. When and where you choose to insert a habit into your daily routine can make a big difference. If you’re trying to add meditation into your morning routine but mornings are chaotic and your kids keep running into the room, then that may be the wrong place and time. Consider when you are most likely to be successful. Don’t ask yourself to do a habit when you’re likely to be occupied with something else.
Your cue should also have the same frequency as your desired habit. If you want to do a habit every day, but you stack it on top of a habit that only happens on Mondays, that’s not a good choice.

Finding the Right Trigger

One way to find the right trigger for your habit stack is by brainstorming a list of your current habits. You can use your Habits Scorecard as a starting point. Alternatively, you can create a list with two columns. In the first column, write down the habits you do each day without fail.
For example:
  • Get out of bed.
  • Take a shower.
  • Brush your teeth.
  • Get dressed.
  • Brew a cup of coffee.
  • Eat breakfast.
  • Take the kids to school.
  • Start the work day.
  • Eat lunch.
  • End the work day.
  • Change out of work clothes.
  • Sit down for dinner.
  • Turn off the lights.
  • Get into bed.
Your list can be much longer, but you get the idea. In the second column, write down all of the things that happen to you each day without fail. For example:
  • The sun rises.
  • You get a text message.
  • The song you are listening to ends.
  • The sun sets.
Armed with these two lists, you can begin searching for the best place to layer your new habit into your lifestyle.

The Next Step

Habit stacking works best when the cue is highly specific and immediately actionable. Many people select cues that are too vague. I made this mistake myself. When I wanted to start a push-up habit, my habit stack was, “When I take a break for lunch, I will do ten push-ups.” At first glance, this sounded reasonable. But soon, I realized the trigger was unclear. Would I do my push-ups before I ate lunch? After I ate lunch? Where would I do them? After a few inconsistent days, I changed my habit stack to: “When I close my laptop for lunch, I will do ten push-ups next to my desk.” Ambiguity gone.
Habits like “read more” or “eat better” are worthy causes but far too vague. These goals do not provide instruction on how and when to act. Be specific and clear: After I close the door. After I brush my teeth. After I sit down at the table. The specificity is important. The more tightly bound your new habit is to a specific cue, the better the odds are that you will notice when the time comes to act.
Happy habit stacking!

A Restaurant With No Leftovers

Garbage is inevitable in the restaurant and bar business. Kitchen employees toss onion skins and meat fat into the wastebasket almost instinctively. Once-used plastic wrap and slips guarding the linens find their way into black bags for trash-day pickup. Plastic bags are ordered by the bundle and then often discarded after customers use them to take leftovers home.
At the Brooklyn natural wine bar and restaurant Rhodora, however, taking out the trash works a little differently.
The new eatery is one of a handful of establishments in various cities that have begun to operate under a zero-waste ethos, meaning they do not send any trash or food waste that enters their business to a landfill. There is not even a traditional trash can on the premises.
The aim is to lessen the restaurants’ environmental impact while running a profitable venture — with a possible added benefit of solidifying their eco-conscious bona fides among discerning clientele. Such radical idealism comes with challenges, including finding producers and distributors who can accommodate requests like compostable packaging and figuring out how to recycle broken appliances.
Continue reading the main story
“We’re in the business of serving people,” said Henry Rich, a co-owner of Rhodora. “And it feels incongruent to take care of somebody for an evening and try to show them a great time, and then externalize the waste and carbon footprint of that evening onto people.”
Credit...Winnie Au for The New York Times
A recent report from ReFED, a nonprofit organization focused on food waste reduction, found that restaurants in the United States generate about 11.4 million tons of food waste annually, or $25.1 billion in costs. The Environmental Protection Agency has reported that food waste and packaging account for nearly 45 percent of the materials sent to landfills in the United States.
The reason zero-waste “is not a mainstream concept, that you don’t see it in gastronomy or hospitality in mainstream ways, is because we’re just waking up to it,” said the chef Douglas McMaster, who runs the waste-free London restaurant Silo and advised the owners of Rhodora. “We’re just seeing the reality of wasting as much as we do.”
Mr. Rich and Halley Chambers, the deputy director of his Oberon restaurant group and co-owner of Rhodora, spent almost 10 months and $50,000 researching and transforming their Fort Greene space into a neighborhood joint that could operate without any trash pickup.
Continue reading the main story
Out went many of their regular vendors who wrapped deliveries in single-use plastic. In came tools to aid their waste-reduction efforts: a cardboard shredder to turn wine boxes into composting material, a dishwashing setup that converts salt into soap, beeswax wrap in lieu of plastic wrap.
“It’s not arcane secret knowledge,” Mr. Rich said. “It’s just a couple things that are very specific, and you need to kind of re-engineer how you think about” operating a restaurant or bar.
Credit...Winnie Au for The New York Times
Much of the planning time was spent searching for distributors and producers who could adhere to Rhodora’s mission. One cheesemaker offered to remove the plastic wrapping before delivery — and then throw it in the garbage.
Credit...Winnie Au for The New York Times
Credit...Winnie Au for The New York Times
A handful of companies were able to accommodate the unorthodox restrictions, including She Wolf Bakery and its sister butcher shop, Marlow & Daughters, which deliver reusable plastic bins full of fresh-baked breads and jars of pickled vegetables and eggs via Cargo Bike Collective riders. Another company, A Priori Distribution, switched to using compostable packaging and paper tape when dropping off aluminum tins of fish.
Continue reading the main story
“It certainly is unique, and that is new for us,” said Caroline Fidanza, culinary director of the Marlow Collective, which includes She Wolf and Marlow & Daughters. “There’s a certain amount of that that’s very doable. It’s harder to package things than to not package them on some level.”
Credit...Winnie Au for The New York Times
Alongside limiting the amount of spoilable inventory Rhodora orders, Mr. Rich said, the bar eliminated any sort of chef position, partly to avoid creating “a top-down kind of vibe, where there were things being considered other than being zero waste.”
Credit...Winnie Au for The New York Times
Credit...Winnie Au for The New York Times
Rhodora’s staff members, who rotate duties like waiting on customers and popping sardine tins to plate food orders, congregate weekly to generate simple menu ideas based on what’s available from the bar’s dozen or so approved vendors. Cheese boards and mushroom broth are staples.
“Having a small staff playing a central role, we can be more nimble than a normal restaurant,” Ms. Chambers said.
Credit...Winnie Au for The New York Times
The paper menus, which feature a mini-essay on the restaurant’s green mission, are fed to the compost pile when they become outdated or tattered. Anything left on customers’ plates is dumped into collection bins in the kitchen, which are fed into the commercial-grade composter tucked inside hutches adjacent to the bar. (Rhodora does not serve meat, which is more difficult to compost, although its composter does process any fish that is left over.)
Continue reading the main story
Natural wine bottles and most other non-compostable containers are removed for recycling via Royal Waste Services, which the restaurant said also accepted broken glass. Corks are donated to ReCork, a recycling program that repurposes the material for shoe soles and yoga blocks.
Credit...Winnie Au for The New York Times
There are financial incentives for restaurants to invest in these zero-waste practices, with one study finding that restaurants save on average $7 for every $1 invested in kitchen food waste-reduction practices. The National Restaurant Association found that around half of diners say they are beginning to consider establishments’ efforts to recycle and reduce food waste when choosing where to eat.
But many establishments operate on slim profit margins, and it’s not always immediately obvious how programs to reduce food waste can translate into financial gains, said Angel Veza, director of the Hospitality Advisory at First Principle Group, a global advisory firm. Many chefs and restaurant owners see little incentive in pursuing more environmentally friendly ways to order ingredients, much less pay an extra $800 as Rhodora does for a bin from TerraCycle. The company turns hard-to-recycle trash left behind by customers, like gum or plastic wrapping, into new goods. (Rhodora has a second bin placed in the bathroom for used hygiene products.)
“If they’re thriving, making money, they don’t have a reason to change,” said Ms. Veza. “Restaurants close all the time, too, so the last thing they’re going to think about is, ‘Am I going to use single-use plastic?’”
Credit...Winnie Au for The New York Times
Credit...Winnie Au for The New York Times
Though Rhodora is striving to ensure its space is zero waste, the system isn’t perfect. It hasn’t been determined, for example, what the landfill-eschewing answer is to disposing of a dishwasher beyond repair.
Continue reading the main story
“I don’t want to pretend we have everything figured out,” Mr. Rich said.
Credit...Winnie Au for The New York Times
The first batch of compost will be used to fertilize its mini-gardens on top of hutches outside the wine bar, and possibly the Brooklyn Grange’s rooftop farm at the Navy Yard. A Rhodora spokeswoman also said that compared with Mr. Rich’s previous Brooklyn restaurant venture Mettā, the business had saved an average of $300 a month in part by eliminating its trash pickup. (Ms. Chambers estimated that Mettā, which promoted itself as being a carbon-neutral and low-waste restaurant, produced 7,000 pounds of trash per month.)
“We’re at one pivot point,” Mr. Rich said. “The hope is that maybe we can influence and inspire some people above and below to learn what zero waste is, because it’s so beautifully simple not having a trash and not sending it to the landfill.”

How to Build New Habits by Taking Advantage of Old Ones

In 2007, researchers at Oxford University started peering into the brains of newborn babies. What they found was surprising. After comp...