Although the rudder may be small, it directs the course of the entire ship. But what do you do when turning the rudder requires more power than you can, or want to, give?

During World War I, Anton Flettner had an idea. What if you put a smaller sort of rudder on the rudder itself — something you could use to steer the rudder in the direction you wanted it to go? He ended up developing the servo tab, which evolved into the trim tab of today.

A trim tab is a smaller part of a larger control surface (e.g. a rudder or wing) that uses the motion of the craft, and the resulting forces of wind or water, to push the control surface in the direction the pilot wants it to go. With a boat, a trim tab helps the pilot turn the rudder, and the rudder helps turn the whole craft.

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Learning about trim tabs reminded me of the power little things can have in life. Just like the humble rudder steers the greatest of ships, so your habits will affect the course of your life. But sometimes you may need a little help in getting new habits started.

Just like a trim tab helps move a rudder by using existing forces to push it in the desired direction, it’s also possible to leverage some of your existing desires and aversions to help establish good habits in your life.

For instance, instead of trying to do everything on your own, you could enlist the help of someone else — someone who will provide accountability along the way. Doing this not only provides support but also motivation to not lose face or let them down. If you’ve committed to doing something with them, it’s much harder to skip out since you know they’ll be there expecting you to show up. The desires to not let them down and not lose face help you stick with your plan.

You could also gamify the process of establishing habits, or use techniques like “don’t break the chain,” to keep yourself on track. This last technique, for instance, involves creating a visible display of which days you stick with your chosen habit. After a few days in a row, you begin to see a visible streak beginning to form. Once this happens, the desire to keep the streak alive provides additional motivation to keep going on those days you don’t feel like it.

You may even go as far as putting money on the line to help push you in the direction you want to go. Because of the psychological power of “loss aversion,” people who have something to lose have a much higher success rate in sticking with their goals.

Habits are important; they’ll have a significant impact on your life. And in those times where willpower alone isn’t enough to establish or break the ones you want, remember the lesson of the trim tab. Just like the pilot uses the trim tab to leverage the power of existing forces to push the rudder, and ultimately the craft, in the desired direction, you too can leverage existing desires and aversions to push yourself in the direction you want to go.


H/T: I first started thinking about trim tabs after hearing a reference to them on episode 7.03 of Winning Slowly, a podcast focused on taking the long view on technology, religion, ethics, and art.