I live for ideas. A new one is like a fresh teenage crush, like a lucky gold coin in my pocket. But like crushes or lucky coins, ideas don’t necessarily change much. We idea fanatics, insight junkies, and professional idea-people need to be aware of a vocational and avocational hazard: a tendency to think ideas are more potent than they really are.

Ideas can act as shunts and alter the flow of huge energy currents, but only under special circumstances. Respecting the impotence of ideas is the key to maximizing their potency.

Ideas alone don’t get us far because above all, we’re creatures of habit. To get the most from our ideas and insights we need to understand how they convert into habits, which means understanding the mechanisms by which habits operate.

Mind Readers Dictionary: The Podfast : Play in Popup

Mind Readers Dictionary : Play in Popup


Habits are really addictions. You know how addictions work—the more you do something the more you’re compelled to do it. If it weren’t that we think of addictions as bad and habits as either good or bad we would notice that habits operate by the same mechanism. The mechanism is a feedback loop in which our output causes inputs that stimulate more output.

Habits are mindless, or more specifically idea-less—distinguishable precisely by the way they don’t depend on ideas or inspiration. The question is therefore how to convert an idea’s thimbleful of power into a habit’s sustained and powerful current.

Habit-formation has both a demand side and a supply side. The demand-side question is, What will motivate you over and over to want your fix? What recurring incentives and disincentives will sustain your idea’s priority in the face of so many competing ideas for what to do? Peer pressure is good. Being around people you care about who delight in your habit’s progress and scorn your habit’s dissipation keeps the pressure on. Deadlines are good, even fictitious deadlines if you’re skillfully gullible enough to believe in them. And of course pleasure in your progress, and discomfort in your lack of progress is good—fire in the belly both warming and burning can motivate, especially if it’s meted out in doses appropriate to your own motivational make-up. You want to wire up enough pleasure that it keeps you motivated, rather than demotivating you because you’re satiated. You want to wire up enough displeasure that it keeps you motivated, rather than demotivating you because you’re discouraged.

Likewise, when you get a notion to do something new—write a book, exercise, change careers, take up knitting, read more—a lot depends on the supply-side questions. Habits are constrained by available time and resources. A junkie without access to drugs can’t maintain the habit. A rich junkie with lots of free time is in more trouble than a busy, poor one. Your 24-hour day is already filled, so where are you going to get a supply of time to follow up on your new idea? What aren’t you going to do so you can wedge a new habit into your already full schedule? Or alternatively where are you going to co-process to make time for it? Will you knit while watching TV? Will you read while exercising? Between savings and current expenses your resources may also be well accounted for, so where are you going to get the resources to do your next new thing? Sometimes what it takes to turn a new inspiration into a new habit is to remove resources from an old habit. Want to lose weight? Don’t count on staying inspired. Stand clear of fattening foods. Get a restraining order that keeps ice cream 100 yards from your refrigerator.

When an idea strikes most of us want to cling to it, to keep the inspiration alive. We act as though resolve alone is enough. Paradoxically, we’re usually better off turning instead to the cool and dismal art of economics and asking ourselves how we can wire up our incentives and disincentives, our time and resources, so that realistically we’ll put our idea into action.