Never Lose Another Scarf: How to Automate Good Habits

Everyone loses things.

I lost a perfectly good acoustic guitar when I took a Greyhound bus to Minneapolis: to date, bringing that guitar along is still probably my biggest life regret (I know, I have an easy life). The guitar disappeared somewhere during our hour-and-a-half layover in Omaha from below the bus. I hope a talented homeless person is making a living thanks to it.

I think I’ve lost more scarves than any other item, other than maybe gloves. In the Midwest, you need winter gear to fight off the brittle cold, but winter gear is really lose-able because you need lots of it and then it has to be taken off inside otherwise you’ll succumb to Wicked Witch of the West syndrome and become a pool of sweat on the floor.

Because of this deadly combination, I’ve owned probably a dozen scarves and today have a total of: 1.

However, I’ve successfully kept that scarf around for 1.5 winters–which is only impressive when my churn rate is usually 3 per year–thanks to the same principle that keeps me from getting t-boned backing up my car in a parking lot, saves me time unloading silverware, and keeping me challenging myself to grow personally.

The secret is automating good habits.

Automate Your Best Self Using Good Habits

Some people are naturally gifted at thinking on their feet. They’re quicker conversationalists, faster to invent solutions, dream up with  an innovation, or think outside the box.

But even the most talented person only has a limited source of innovation at a time. No one is constantly brilliant, and everyone has a limited source of willpower and self-control.

You see this phenomenon in engaged couples who go shopping from their wedding registry. At first, when the couple’s innovation resources are at full-strength, they’ll spend tons of time examining their options on every single option–whether the items are big-ticket or not–wanting to pick the very best choice. However, as they shop longer, they will be less and less critical and spend less time on each decision, as their limited willpower is spent up. (In the psychology world this phenomenon is known as ego depletion).

We all function this way: the more conscious decisions we make, the less mental resources we’ll have for other tasks, and we slip up. The best way to combat this is to take these high-cognition decisions and automate them as good habits.

Life lesson: Never forget your scarf in case you need to hide a neck puncture wound.

Life lesson: Never forget your scarf in case you need to hide a neck puncture wound.*

For example, I was completely tired of leaving behind my less-essential winter gear whenever I left a lecture hall as a student (I usually remembered my coat). So I intentionally started doing a “double-check” for any left behind items before leaving an area I wasn’t coming back to.

At first, my “double check” was a high-cognition task, in the sense that I had to expend willpower and memory to do it. I had to incentivize it by remembering how cold I was when I left my scarf behind, or how frustrated I was when I had to ride back to campus to look for my bike helmet.

Now, I do the double check automatically, without even thinking about it.

These are the kinds of good habits that seem unremarkable but actually make a HUGE difference in your life over time.

Since it’s automatic, my double check spends exactly zero high-level brain resources and has without a doubt saved me countless hours of backtracking and hundreds of dollars of lost items.

For example, I’m sure many parents have found a double check like this invaluable and naturally incorporated it as a good parenting habit whenever they leave an area with their kids–thereby leaving behind fewer children and fewer of their children’s toys.

Of course, the reverse of these huge gains is true about BAD habits: I shudder when I think of the hours of lost life my habit of immediately opening Facebook and Gmail upon opening my browser have cost me. Definitely not worth the meager benefit of immediately seeing an email/Facebook notification.

Some Other Good Healthy Habits

Here are some other helpful habits to consider automating. Some of these are ones that I’ve already incorporated, others are ones I’m trying to adopt. Comment and guess which are which:

  1. Checking for wallet and phone when walking out of the front door. Result = Never forget wallet/phone.
  2. Automate putting money into savings accounts/investing through online banking = Never have to decide to save. Don’t notice the money’s even gone. Willpower saved.
  3. Checking fly when walking out of men’s room = Never again experiencing the sinking gut feeling after realizing my mistake 3 hours later.
  4. Having a weekly leftovers night Saturday evening = Never have to throw away spoiled food, don’t have to remember to eat old food.
  5. Checking teeth for food bits after every meal = Self-evident benefits (plus also saving acquaintances from the dilemma of whether you’ll be more mortified by someone pointing food bits out or by realizing three hours later no one said anything).
  6. Always backing out of a parking spot way more slowly than you need to = more chances for someone to see you and stop. Always worth the trade off of inching out.
  7. Seperating silverware types into compartments when you put them in the dishwasher = Saves 2 minutes separating them when unloading.
  8. Look both ways before crossing street: Live longer.
  9. When you think of/say something clever, reflexively tweet it = Active twitter account.
  10. Say out loud “I’m putting my wedding ring down [place you’re putting it]” = be less likely to lose wedding ring when taking it off. This works for your phone, too.

    [Image source: buffyaddict]



  1. Michael

    The auto-check is a vital habit to acquire. Every time I leave the house I always do a “wallet, phone, keys” check. I’ve also become accustomed to a “coffee” check, or at least I was during college. There were numerous times I remembered my coffee, yet I forgot the correct book or notebook for a certain class – priorties right? I’ve found that it is useful (for me anyway) to plan ahead to ensure I don’t forget stuff whether it be to set aside the next days books for class or setting the coffee pot to auto-brew so I don’t forget to grab a cup. I enjoyed your list of things to remember. I can imagine their utility is worthwhile…my regards to your guitar, Marc. I can’t imagine how that must have felt. Maybe someday you’ll be rewarded with a guitar deal or an equally as awesome freebie…somehow, some way you’ll get it back.
    Good read, my friend.

  2. Brittany

    great article! but… don’t put all the same types of silverware in the same compartments. they end up sticking together much easier and don’t get as clean. 🙂

    • Marc Koenig

      Interesting – in our 7+ times compartmentalizing we’ve never had any stickiness problems or visible loss of cleanliness. Just saved the time sorting them out later!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s