To Start a New Habit You Have to Ask One Question

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Habits are notoriously difficult to manipulate. We typically fall into patterns of behavior unwittingly and then get stuck. It’s tough to ditch old habits and it’s tough to start new ones. Unless you have an understanding of how they work. Hopefully, this will help.

BJ Fogg, the author of Tiny Habits, has observed five main obstacles that prevent people from forming new habits: time, money, physical effort, mental effort, and routine. Any one of those things, or several of them together, can derail your most noble habit change initiatives. So what’s the solution? Start with a simple question: how can I make this easier?

Humans generally operate by default, and they usually default to the easiest option. Steve Jobs tapped into this idea when he created iTunes. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the music industry was sweating. The rise of software like Napster and other illegal digital downloading options made music theft alarmingly pervasive. Free music wasn’t just annoying for artists and producers, it threatened to shut down the entire industry. Music may be created for the sake of art, but there would be significantly fewer artists if no one was being paid to create the music. Jobs realized that people wouldn’t stop downloading free music for a moral reason, but they might for a more convenient reason. Thus, iTunes was born. The easiest way on earth to obtain music. Sure, there was a cost, but Jobs knew that people would pay for convenience, that they would drift towards ease. The iTunes/iPod music experience not only transformed the music industry, but also saved it. Jobs made obtaining and listening to music easy.

I think about some of my own recent habit initiatives. I’ve been trying to get out of bed early and consistently for a while with little success. I’ve tried moving my phone away from the bed, I set my clothes out the night before, I even prep the coffee maker in the evening so coffee is hot and ready when I wake up. The issue isn’t time, in fact, it would give me more time if I could nail this habit. It’s not a question of money, I don’t have to pay anything to wake up on time. Nor is there any problem fitting my desired wake up time into a routine. But it does involve some physical and mental effort to get out of bed on a cold dark morning. So my previous efforts are good, they definitely make my desired habit a little easier, but they haven’t tipped the scale yet, I need to make it easier.

Fogg also outlines a concept he calls ‘starter step.’ This is the idea that you don’t have to digest the entire habit all at once. Our habit initiatives often fail because we’re stuck on an all-or-nothing approach which relies on motivation to take action, and motivation is nothing if not fickle. Fogg suggests instead of trying to suddenly incorporate an hour-long gym session into your day, start by packing your workout bag in the morning. The habit you need to develop is not going to the gym and throwing weights around for an hour, you simply need to pack your gym bag every morning. If your gym bag is packed and ready, your mind will be more receptive to the idea of stopping by the gym on your way home from work. If you want to walk every day, focus on simply tying on your walking shoes. You don’t have to pressure yourself to workout or walk, just habituate the starter step and you’ll find yourself doing the workout or taking the walk more often than you don’t.

So I’ve come up with a starter step of my own to make my regular-wake-up habit initiative as easy as possible. Every morning when I climb out of bed to silence my alarm, I will turn on my lamp for ten seconds. If after the ten seconds I still can’t resist the warmth of my flannel sheets, fine, I’ll keep working at it, but my guess is that the light will wake me up enough to eschew the flannel and get started with my day. I wish I could say I’ve already proven this theory and it’s foolproof, but I’ll have to let you know how it turns out. Here’s to the unending pursuit.

How can you make your habit easier?

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