What’s different the second time around?

The second time someone takes a “new” action, what’s different?  Why is it so hard for us to sustain a new behavior, like exercising, eating well, or going to sleep on time?[1]


It’s only a matter of time…. Image from irongym.com

A while back, I set up an Iron Gym in my house.  It’s home exercise at its finest – cheap, good exercise, and quickly forgotten about.

When I first got my Iron Gym, I set it up, fast.  It had been a good long time since I’d exercised properly, and was feeling a bit flabby.  I invited my buddy Mike over, and we both tried it out. Soon my sleepy biceps started to burn.    Next day, I tried it again. It was already setup, no work needed.  I hit it hard.   Next week, tried it again. No mystery there. I knew what to do. It was there waiting for me.

A few weeks later, I noticed it was blocking a door as I tried to close it.  It was still there waiting for me, but I’d ceased to care. What happened?

Trying out a new product – like the Iron Gym – is a small perturbation in our daily routines. We have a limited window of time before we settle back into normalcy.  The path from perturbation to normalcy determines whether or not using that product becomes part of our routines, or whether it’s shut out.

What happens along that path?

First, our relationship with the product changes:

  • We learn whether or not we like it. The newness wears off, but we also can find things we like.  We learn to expect a reward (or not). If the product sucks, we won’t want to continue.  That’s obvious.
  • We learn how to use the product.  Almost always, this makes us more likely to continue using it.  Lower mental friction to using it, comforting familiarity, etc.
  • We may improve the value of the product with our own actions –customizing it to our needs, or building up connections and data (think Facebook or Evernote). Almost always, this makes us more likely to continue.  Nir Eyal talks about this in the Investment step of his Desire Engine.

Second, we change ourselves:

  • We gain or lose confidence in ourselves.  No one wants to fail.  If we’re successful the first time, we know we won’t look like an idiot and flub it the second time. If we’re unsuccessful the first time, it takes a lot of pushing to get us to try  again.
  • Sometimes, we  change how we think of ourselves. I could have started thinking of myself as an exercise buff.   If I did, that would have helped me continue: since using  the product would be a natural expression of who I am.  (Unfortunately, it instead reinforced my self-narrative as a guy with too much unused crap in his house).

Third, we change our local environment:

  • We can setup or break triggers to use the product in the future.  I had an unambiguous trigger to use the Iron Gym when I set it up – the sight of it.  But, I ignored it a few times.  That made it ambiguous – should I use it now, or not?  If you have to think, the trigger has lost its power.
  • We can change social expectations.  I brought over my buddy, we both used it. That action set up an expectation – he expected me to use it in the future. That’s powerful.  But I spoke with him later, and found that he wasn’t exercising either.  Opps!

So, with the Iron Gym, I learned how to use it (good). But, I also learned that the reward was small and my social expectation was low. I weakened the power of it to remind me to exercise, and it never became a “natural” thing for me to use.  By the time the newness wore off, it hadn’t earned a place in my normal routines.  And so it’s gone.

By the way – I did learn from that episode. Now I have a simple weight bench in our attic. It’s next to the room where I write.  When I first got it, I setup a more narrowly focused and effective trigger: when I can’t concentrate while writing, I walk over and do a few reps.  The reward is immediate – it clears my mind and I can get back to writing, which I love.  Finally, I told my wife about what I’m doing – which setup a strong social expectation.  There are bumps along the road, when I get out of the groove.  But, exercising while writing is part of my normal now.

How about you? How do the products you’re building or using handle the path from newness to normalcy?





[1] This is inspired by Nir Eyal’s Investment Step in his Desire Engine. It’s something very unusual I haven’t seen in other models of habit formation – people increasing the value of the product themselves, making it more likely they will form a habit.  If you haven’t seen his video on Hooked from the IxDA 13 conference, you should.


Examples, Theory