Making your habits zero-friction is a massive productivity hack

Thu Jan 28 2021

TL;DR; I have found that aggressively minimising the friction of my tasks has allowed me to easily build and maintain desirable habits.


Introduction

We want to build and maintain habits because they allow us to convert our motivation (a finite and transient resource) into a more permanent routine. But I often find myself not sticking to the habits I've tried to build.

How can you stick to your habits? I have found that aggressively minimising task friction has been the most effective, and that even tiny decreases in friction (from almost-zero to zero) can make a huge difference in adherence.

In this post, I'll explain why habits are useful, define what it means to "aggressively minimise" the friction of a task, and give several examples of how aggressive minimisation helped me.

Aggressively minimising friction is a highly effective way to maintain one's habits

Define the static friction of a task as the time/effort/displeasure incurred to start doing the task, and the dynamic friction of a task as the effort required to actually perform it.

Scott Young writes that reducing static friction is by far more significant:

For a lot of tasks, the second cost reduction is far greater than the first. Flossing, for instance, hasn’t gotten any easier the hundredth time I’ve done it, but I have stopped thinking about whether I should do it.

He suggests starting a habit as a way to reduce the static friction:

If you read your fifty pages at lunch, every day, for three months, the next lunch break you’ll automatically start reading without having to decide whether to do it.

The idea is that if you succesfully maintain a habit you will decrease the task's static friction because that action will become habitual. This begs the question, however: how do I maintain the habits that I've started? I've found that aggressively minimising friction is by far the most effective method to do so.

Here are some examples:

  • I started working out much more often once I switched to a bodyweight fitness routine that didn't require me to travel to the gym, allowing me to maintain my daily workout habit.
  • I started vacuuming the floor of my room daily once we bought a cordless vacuum cleaner, because I no longer had to lug the heavy thing around and plug it into an outlet.
  • Simply leaving the guitar out of its case makes me practice 10x more often, because I could just pick it up whenever I got bored.

How do we aggressively minimise friction? I think there's not that much to it: Think about a habit that you're trying (and failing) to adhere to. Next, think about what you dread about/ what's difficult about starting the task. See if you can reduce or eliminate whatever that is.

There are no diminishing returns to decreasing friction

I have observed no diminishing returns to decreasing friction. Even a tiny bit of friction can spell the difference between a successful habit and an abandoned one.

Here are some examples of how small frictions make a difference:

  • Even on the very low-friction bodyweight routine, I am much more consistent in doing my "push" workout compared to my "pull" workout because the "pull" workout requires me to make the 2-minute walk to the fitness corner outside. I therefore bought gym equipment and put it in my room.
  • Putting Pleco (a dictionary app) on the first page of my home screen made me much more likely to look words up. The same was true for Anki, even though it literally takes one swipe to go from the first screen to the second.

Corollary: to break a bad habit, deliberately try to increase friction

Again, even a tiny bit of added friction can make a big difference!

Here are some examples:

  • I stopped playing as much computer games once I switched from Windows to Linux dual boot because it was a hassle to reboot the computer.
  • I wasted much less time on Facebook/LinkedIn/YouTube once I added a LeechBlock delay of just a few seconds to every link. The delay is only a few seconds long, but this is enough for me to close the tab immediately most of the time.

Conclusion

Reducing friction aggressively has outsized effects on habit adherence with little to no diminishing returns.