People who try to change using conscious willpower alone generally fail.
A habit is an automatic behavior.
That means it doesn’t require conscious willpower to maintain. That’s nice because willpower is a limited resource.
We all have positive new habits we’d like to create. But many of us fail to do so because we use poor strategies.
Quite a few things people fail at regularly are just bundles of habits:
- losing weight is just eating and exercising habits
- saving money is just spending habits
- becoming super-productive is just work habits
…and so on.
If you could identify each of the behaviors involved in a goal of yours, and then program them in so they are automatic for you, success would be inevitable.
I’ve spent most of my adult life studying psychological techniques. Recently I asked myself this question:
How can we create new habits in the most effective way possible, using every psychological trick we can to aid our success?
What follows is my answer…and it is awesome.
What We Need
To create a new habit, we must specify the behavior itself, as well as the context (where, when, with whom) for the behavior, and the trigger or cue (when to start the habit). It also helps to have a little reward after we do the habit for positive reinforcement.
Then the challenges are motivation, and remembering to do the behavior.
Motivation and Remembering
If you are motivated to do the behavior, and you remember to do it at the right time and place, you will do it. If you do this consistently, eventually it will become automatic.
Motivation is fickle however, especially for new activities which require conscious willpower.
We can bypass motivation by creating a tiny habit aka mini habit. When we make the behavior so very small, it requires a negligible amount of willpower. It’s something we can do easily even if we don’t feel like it.
For example, instead of flossing, you can floss just one tooth. Or instead of exercising, you can just put on your exercise clothes.
You can always do more than your tiny/mini habit if you feel like it, but this is the minimum you will be committing to.
We can make remembering automatic by linking this tiny habit with the trigger.
For example, “After I brush my teeth, I will floss one tooth.” Or “After I get home from work, I will put on my workout clothes.”
Since tiny habits are so easy to do, 5-10 days in a row is sufficient to make it reasonably automatic. So if we can just do it for 5 days in a row, we are doing pretty good.
Taking Motivation up to 11
We can further increase motivation by using WOOP:
- determining our Wish,
- visualizing the desired Outcome,
- anticipating any Obstacles we might encounter,
- and creating an if-then Plan for getting around those obstacles.
Many studies show that this strategy is much better than just fantasizing or just thinking about the challenges. This 5-minutes of mental rehearsal will also strengthen the trigger/tiny habit link.
We can then increase compliance by adding accountability to someone else. You can hire a coach or find an accountability partner who checks in with you daily to see if you completed your tiny habit. Being accountable to someone else greatly increases one’s chances of success.
To keep track we can use the “don’t break the chain” method built into the app Coach.me. This further increases motivation via negative reinforcement.
And we can seal the deal by using even more negative reinforcement: if we fail to do the tiny habit for 5 days in a row, we will lose a significant sum of money using StickK. I suggest using 1% of your yearly salary as a baseline, so if you make $50,000/year, you would pledge $500. (Ouch!) Don’t worry, if you succeed you will get back all your money. :)
If the carrot doesn’t work, the stick(K) will. (You may want to wait to add this step until you’ve experimented with the tiny/mini habits method for a couple weeks first.)
These extra motivational steps are somewhat overkill, but they don’t take very long so why not.
The Ultimate New Habit Strategy Steps
So let’s make this into a step-by-step recipe:
- Determine the new specific behavior you want to adopt. Example: exercise for 30 minutes, 5 days a week.
- Specify the context in which this behavior will take place: where, when, and with whom will you do this new behavior? Example: exercise after work, at the gym, by myself.
- Create a sensory-specific trigger that will let you know it is time to (automatically) do the new behavior. This should be something you see, hear, feel, or do. For example, “After I brush my teeth…” or “After I see the elevator door…” or “After I hear the sound of the alarm…”.
- Reduce the behavior into the tiniest first step, a seed of the habit aka a tiny habit. A good tiny habit takes less than 30 seconds and requires zero willpower. Thinking about doing your tiny habit should elicit no resistance, and perhaps even humor because it seems too small and insignificant. Examples: “I will floss one tooth,” “I will put on my running shoes,” “I will do 2 pushups”.
- Write out your tiny habit in the following way: After I [trigger], I will [tiny habit].
- Determine a tiny reward or celebration you will do for yourself once you complete the tiny habit. For example, pumping your fist into the air and saying, “Yes!” Don’t reward yourself with sugar or other potentially addictive bad habits.
- Do WOOP. You can use the app or guided audio here. Make sure to anticipate any obstacles and visualize how you will get around them.
- Continuing with WOOP, visualize the trigger causing you to immediately do the tiny habit, followed immediately by the celebration/reward. Practice over and over, at least 30 times in a row. (This should only take a few minutes.)
- Break state. Test to see that the new tiny habit is automatic by imagining the trigger. Do you automatically see yourself doing the behavior, or have a strong urge to do the behavior?
- Use negative reinforcement by signing up for StickK and pledge money if you fail to complete your tiny habit for 5 days in a row (Monday through Friday only — weekends often have different contexts and thus your trigger might be absent).
- Hire a coach on Coach.me to support you in your tiny habit, or get a friend to be your accountability partner for the week (and have them also do these steps). Also use Coach.me to track your habit using the “don’t break the chain” model.
Or if you want me to guide you step-by-step over Skype, you can hire me as your coach here.
After a successful week, you have two options: you can either allow the tiny habit to grow naturally into the full habit via intrinsic motivation (this is the ideal scenario), or you can link the completion of the first tiny habit to a second tiny habit and repeat the process.
This second strategy is called habit stacking and is useful for creating a larger routine, such as a morning routine, or a pre-bed routine.
Ultimately we will still be limited by available time and “ecology” concerns, i.e. how all our habits interact with each other and other people in a psychological ecosystem. For example, if you try to build out a 5-hour morning routine, chances are something will eventually give and you won’t be successful, whereas a 30-minute routine will have a much greater chance at working.
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