Habits are LIFO

Well, that explains it…

Nir Eyal used the phrase in 2017, and it spoke to me the moment I saw it.

Habits are LIFO: Last In, First Out.

“HAL,” let’s call it, is a critical upgrade to “old habits die hard,” a saying that reeks of acquiescence. The stickiness of bad habits is one of humanity’s most frustrating and beguiling traits. Even the most self-aware can struggle to execute effective habit adjustments.

LIFO started off as an accounting term. In that context, it is meant to be an attractive economic choice.[i] But HAL is another matter. In the habit sphere, it may well be an evolutionary artifact.

Habits exist because they are supported by a system that includes triggers and rewards. This is a process that Nir illuminates in his book, Hooked.

I am a businessman, not a psychologist, so perhaps I most easily filter these concepts through an economic lens. As I considered the HAL concept, I was reminded of an analogy that is often used to describe Bitcoin and other blockchains.

The Bitcoin blockchain is a continuous and permanent record of every transaction executed since its formation. Each time a new set of transactions is added, every prior transaction ever recorded is effectively re-verified. As time passes, the old transactions are revalidated countless times.

Some Bitcoin thought leaders have analogized each successive validation to a fossil that accumulates incremental layers of amber over time. You can hear more on this Tim Ferriss podcast featuring Nick Szabo and Naval Ravikant. In the Bitcoin context, even though the entire record is deemed immutable, the oldest transactions are the most beyond question and consequently, the least hackable.


Is it possible that our minds and bodies work in a similar way with habits? Whether good or bad, a habit is an action that is supported by a set of routines. Every time that routine is executed successfully, two things happen.

First, the system of triggers and rewards is set in motion and an immediate goal is realized. Second, the routine is effectively revalidated. Every new cycle is like that additional layer of amber wrapped around this programmed set of events. Older habits, good or bad, have been revalidated hundreds or even thousands of times.

By contrast, new habits are faced with a litany of hurdles to close the credibility gap with the old ones. Perhaps, that is why they are most easily discarded.

Why It Matters (and Now What?)

Our minds and bodies are shaped by human evolution. The internal system that underlies our habits has kept the human race alive and kicking for eons.

But this system has its flaws and thus, so do we!

The system is sensible. Most of our habits are benign and useful. They allow us to execute our daily lives with a minimum of cognitive burden. The bar for adding new habits should be high. For all of the good habits that we struggle to add, we have surely been spared many detrimental ones. These are likely swept under the rug by the same process without our realizing it.

HAL is not a solution; it is a simple and astute observation. It sets the stage for you to establish more permanent change in your life. New habits are hard to establish, and that is to be expected. When you are struggling to restructure your habit profile, HAL reminds you that it is normal, even when you are on the right track.

Jim Ryun, the former track and field Olympian and US Congressman, said:

“Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going.”

Let’s keep going!

[i] LIFO is a way to allocate inventory costs when determining taxable profits. Essentially you calculate current profits based on the cost of the widgets most recently added to you inventory. If the new widgets cost more than the older ones, then it usually translates into less taxable profit in the near term.

Someday, you will sell your last widgets and have to pay those incremental taxes you deferred. However, as long as the business and inventory are growing, those higher taxes may be deferred indefinitely.

Lastly, the accounting treatment doesn’t necessarily have to match the actual physical widgets you sell. In other words, you may actually sell the older and cheaper widgets now, even though you are accounting for them based on the higher cost new ones.