To Start a New Habit You Have to Ask One Question

bence-boros-oeBU_ZJkKNU-unsplash

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?

Book Takeaways – Atomic Habits

AH-Preferred-Badge

This year I’m a part of a book club. Each month we read one book in the genre of self-improvement and meet to discuss our findings and takeaways. January’s book was Atomic Habits by James Clear. Along with the regular book club meeting, I’m going to highlight some key ideas and actionable items for you, my readers. Books may be the single best source of knowledge and wisdom available to humans. I love reading, and I love sharing ideas I’ve read so this exercise will tick a few boxes for me. Here goes. 

  1. Outcomes are a lagging measure of our habits, we get what we repeat. This is great news because it means we can work to change our habits and get different outcomes. 
  2. Goals are not correlated to results. Clear makes an impactful point that winners and losers have the same goals. Goals are helpful for providing direction but mostly worthless in obtaining a desired result. For that, we need systems/habits.
  3. Habits change identities. I consider this Clear’s most profound and important contribution to the discussion of habits. We fail to make lasting behavior changes routinely, regardless of our intention or passion, the size or specificity of our goals, or the breadth of our knowledge. Even when faced with an ultimatum, change or die, (ie, change your diet or your diabetes will kill you) people fail to change. The reason is that our actions are closely knit with our identities, and we fail to change who we are. The antidote is to start with a tiny action. Just do something good, however small. Each good action is undeniable proof that we have acted like (been) a different person, and that begins to mold our identities. The point of all this self-improvement effort is not to accomplish goals, it’s to become different people. I don’t need to lose 20 pounds, I need to become a healthy person. I don’t need to make $200k in five years, I need to become a valuable coach. The pounds and money are only byproducts.
  4. Make good actions easier and bad actions harder. In order to begin taking the small actions that will shape our identities, it’s helpful to set ourselves up for success. Humans drift toward the path of least resistance by default, so remove resistance from good actions and add resistance for bad actions. A few examples: 1) Set out your workout clothes before bed so it’s easy to wake up and get dressed for the gym. 2) Unplug the TV after each use so you have to plug it in if you want to watch something.
  5. An implementation intention is critical for habit building and behavior change in general. We tend to set goals and hope for some motivation to begin working on them. The problem is that motivation is scarce and inconsistent. An implementation intention solves that problem, it means we make a plan to implement our new habit by giving the habit a regular time and a regular place. In order to do something different, you must have a plan for it. If you intend to work out, choose a regular time (that fits into your schedule), and a regular location (whether it’s a space in your house or gym nearby). We make plans for all sorts of important things in our lives, habits call for the same attention.
  6. As a general rule, the more immediate pleasure you get from something, the more suspicious you should be of its long-term benefit. Not that we need to stop doing things that make us happy, just be aware that immediate pleasure and long-term benefits are almost never congruous.
  7. At some point, it comes down to who can handle the boredom of taking regular good action, day after day. You become healthy by eating good meals every day. You get strong by lifting the same weights over and over. You gain wealth by doing the same important function of your work time after time after time. Fall in love with the process, embrace the boredom.
  8. Success is not a goal to achieve, it’s a system of improvement, an endless process of refinement. It’s incredible what you can build if you just don’t stop.

A story about preparation

kelly-sikkema-S4eh9DWTId4-unsplash

I learned an important lesson in high school about preparation. Some peers and I participated in a talent show/fundraiser event. A group of us got together to perform a funny old song, the details are foggy (probably for a reason). I was the lead singer, and I was pretty confident about the whole thing, the band, my part, the quality of the material. We were really going to impress some people. Maybe I yet hadn’t learned how to pay attention to nervousness, maybe I just way overestimated my own abilities, or maybe a bit of both, but the level of preparation I gave to my lines was minimal. I only sort of had the song memorized, but I was sure it would all be in my head when the lights went bright and the music began. I was even confident that they’d be there after I forgot the first time, while on stage, and had the band start over. I even thought maybe I could piece it together after the second restart, while still on stage. Somewhere through the third disastrous start, my Dad, sitting near the front row, motioned for me to use the lyrics which I (thankfully) had in my pocket. The fourth try went mostly without a hitch, though I was so broken by that point I was having trouble even reading the words. For high school me, it was fairly devastating, but emotions run high in high school. I remember thinking that the thorough humiliation I had undergone was just a wound to my overworked pride. But my Dad talked to me afterward in the depth of my despair, and said simply, “you gotta prepare.” So I learned that preparation is important.

In college, this important lesson was reinforced in a much happier way. I’m not usually a performative type person, but I ended up in another performance event (as I think back, my brother was an instigator for both of these groups and he does have the performance gene), this time lip-syncing. We gathered a few close friends, five us of in all, and set out to imitate NSYNC’s famous ‘Bye Bye Bye’ dance. We spent hours upon hours in the basement of our small college gym, dealing with crappy wifi and incomplete YouTube videos, rehearsing the beautiful (depending on the refinery of your tastes) choreography of NSYNC. The crowd was significantly larger this time (and included my future wife), the lights brighter, the music louder, and the stakes much higher. But this time an amazing thing happened, the first try went off without a hitch! And not only that, but we also won the category for ‘best applause’! We were a hit! So I learned that preparation pays off.

Preparation usually isn’t a lot of fun. The fun part is the game, or the performance, or the meeting, or the presentation, or whatever it is. But here’s the deal, the fun part sucks if you haven’t prepared, and it can be better than you hoped if you have.

The key to a good routine

Change is hard. As posted recently (here), it takes some attention to adjust our default behaviors. We don’t just change because we intend to. One helpful way to attack personal change is to address our routines.

Routine is defined as ‘a sequence of actions regularly followed; a fixed program,’ per Google. A routine is kind of like a large scale habit, like several habits stacked on top of each other. We’ve all got them, some are helpful, some not so much so, and most of them we probably fell into with little or no intention. But the great thing about routines is that you can mold them.

This month, my family and I embarked on a brand new routine. Routines can be very sticky, but including the whole family has made it significantly more so. Kids, especially young kids, will notoriously derail attempts at a new routine, so I’ve given up resisting and made them part of it. The routine revolves around their school schedule, which is great because school happens regardless of how my wife and I are feeling or how well or not well we slept (one of the primary derailing factors of children). The start of the school day is a cornerstone that we’ve built our new routine around. We’ve got a series of actions we take leading up to getting the kids ready and out the door, and a set of actions we take after the kids are dropped off. It happens every weekday, and we’ve settled into the regularity of it as a family. James Clear talks about habit stacking, using one of your existing habits as a cue for a new habit. The school bell is not a habit, but it functions in a similar way, it’s a regular thing that we can build additional habits around, an anchor.

5 of the best books I read in 2019

 

1. Range – David Epstein.

Range is my 2019 winner. It was the best book I read last year, and one of my favorite books related to personal development ever. By range, Epstein refers to a set of broad experiences, inputs, interests, experiments, etc. In a world that values specialization and highlights the ‘10,000-hour rule’ (which says you must dedicate 10,000 hours to something to achieve mastery), Epstein argues that hyper-focus is actually not the path to success, far more often those who have range win. Epstein encourages us to pursue hobbies and interests, to be unafraid of making a change, to never feel behind, and not because life is more fun that way, it’s actually a more effective way to live. I can’t recommend it highly enough, read Range.

2. Atomic Habits – James Clear.

There are few personal development/self-improvement books that I consider must-read, but Atomic Habits is one of them. James Clear notes that winners and losers have the same goals, what sets them apart is their systems (habits). Humans operate by default and we relentlessly fail at improving ourselves because we fail to address our default behaviors. Goals are fine, they help give direction, but only our systems can take us where we want to go. Clear guides us through how habits operate and how to make meaningful and lasting changes by changing our defaults. It’s a fascinating and fun read, and one that has had a profound impact on how I think about behavior and pursue change.

3. Factfulness – Hans Rosling.

Hans Rosling made it his life’s mission to reinform commonly help misconceptions about our world. He penned Factfulness as he battled the cancer which would eventually take his life. Through ten chapters he addresses ten fascinating topics that we routinely misunderstand (world population, poverty, bias, etc.). He emphasizes the fact that the world can sometimes be bad, while still being significantly better than it was before. By offering clarity, thoughtfulness, and objective facts, Rosling helps us to see things they way they are. It’s occasionally mind-bending, which is a good thing, and always enjoyable.

4. Born a Crime – Trevor Noah.

Born a Crime is an autobiography. Trevor Noah takes us through his wild, funny, and unlikely childhood in one of the more engaging books I’ve ever read. It’s at times hilarious (I literally laughed out loud more than once), sentimental (his relationship with his mother is remarkable), thoughtful (interacting with apartheid in South Africa), and ultimately a completely rewarding read.

5. Billion Dollar Whale – Tom Wright.

Billion Dollar Whale consistently made my jaw drop as I read it. The story is absurd, unbelievable, scandalous, incredible, and completely true! It’s about a young Malaysian fancier/businessman (Jho Low) who cons billions of dollars from the Malaysian government in a stream of devious business deals and spends it on some of the most extravagant partying the world has ever seen. The story involves Hollywood actors and actresses, world-leading finance companies, even the president of the United States. Another interesting part of this story (as if it wasn’t interesting enough) is that it hasn’t concluded yet. Jho Low is currently a wanted man hiding out, most believe, in China, but is certainly still active. In fact, his team of lawyers aggressively campaigned to ban Billion Dollar Whale from being sold, and succeeded to keep the book off British bookshelves for a year! Truly, a remarkable read.