Hack your habits the smart way — conquer powerful habits overnight without agonising over your motivation
You’ve done it again — you haven’t stuck to your carefully crafted exercise routine, healthy menu for the week, or super smart email management process again.
Too busy, too tired, too overwhelmed…
And your goals of healthier, fitter, happier you are drifting away. You feel like you’re failing yourself, your family, your dreams.
You know the power of daily habits, be it exercise, flossing, eating your 5-a-day’s. You know it’ll bring you health, wealth, happiness — you name it, all on autopilot — powerful and effortless.
You’ve set your goals. You’ve read tones of self-help articles, you’ve bought this magic app to track your goals, or motivation-boosting device; you’ve even paid for a personal coach/trainer/magician…
But you still can’t stick to your routine.
You think: I must get motivated again!
Stop cursing your willpower; dump your search for ‘motivation’. There is probably nothing wrong with them.
There is nothing wrong with you either. Changing your own habits is tough. Many of us struggle with unhealthy lifestyles and unproductive schedules, knowing they are not right. But it’s hard to know which way to choose with so many conflicting approaches. It’s even harder with the constant pressure on your motivation and willpower.
Yes, I’ve been there, too. Struggling to keep up with my commitment to regular exercise and crack down on sweets. I’ve listened to pep talks and read inspirational quotes and even put some up on my wall.
Nah, did not work for me. After a few days of ‘better behaviour’, my exercise routine and diet returned to being as erratic as before.
Motivation is not the answer
Contrary to common perception, the biggest challenge in lasting behavioural change is not really lack of motivation. Most of us know our behaviour is not healthy/productive/happiness-creating. People are motivated to do the right thing and you are, too — no doubt about it. The real problem is often overlooked — it’s the environment that’s not conducive to the changes you’re trying to implement.
You have been misled, and so was I. My exercise routine and diet did not need pep talks and inspirational posters. It wasn’t motivation I was lacking, it was my environment — jeopardising my best efforts. Once I’ve tweaked my surroundings, everything else was a breeze.
And even though getting it right took a few itinerations, the process has been much easier and produced results much faster. I went from about 60–70% compliance with my exercise regime to over 90% compliance — and literally overnight.
Ready to discover my secret system?
Are you sick of not following through on your decisions to change your diet/exercise more, floss regularly/write daily/ whatever it is that you want to change? Tired of trying to motivate yourself constantly? Don’t want to feel like a failure again?
The little known key to successful habit change is a well designed system that always nudges you in the right direction.
And here is my little treasure — an 8-step framework to design that system.
1. Chose the behaviour you want to change and be specific
Sounds obvious, right? Well, maybe, but the more specific you are about the behaviour, the more likely you are to achieve the change.
So have your new habit goals clearly spelled-out. No more ‘I want to eat healthier’, please. You need to be more specific.
Start with your goal and then choose a simple, specific (preferably daily) action that will take you there. E.g. If your goal is to eat healthier, or lose weight, eating 5 servings of fruit and veges daily, or a daily dose of exercise may be your simple action.
Express it as a positive rather than negative action — say, you will perform this new routine rather than avoid an old behaviour (‘I will do cook myself a healthy dinner at least 3 times/week’ vs ‘I will limit my takeaways to 4 times/week’).
Make sure your action is realistic in the context of your current level of expertise in the area (fitness, healthy cooking, time management etc.). Go for small steps and incremental improvement — it’s easier to complete and more likely to become habitual over a period of time.
2. Choose a trigger/cue for your new behaviour
You need a trigger (sometimes called Cue) to anchor your new behaviour so it’s easier to remember what you want to do and plan for it.
Your cue/ trigger can be:
· time-based , e.g. I will go for a run every morning at 6.15am
· event- based, e.g. I will go for a run every morning after breakfast
Time-based cue are more rigid, but provide more structure. This type of cue would suit you if you already have a structured, because you can just slot another thing into your diary.
However, if for whatever reason you need more flexibility, choose an activity/event-based cue. The downside is that these triggers tend to be ambiguous and leave some ‘wiggle room’, which may result in less tight adherence to the plan (e.g. What do I on an odd occasion when I DO NOT have breakfast? Shall I go for my run or not?).
Whether you choose a time- or event-based cue/trigger choose something that is already on an autopilot, something you do every day, that in itself does not require remembering about, such as brushing your teeth, getting dressed, or hitting the off button on your alarm.
Write it all down and be specific. The formula that has been proven to work time and time againis called implementation intention and uses the IF- THEN structure:
If [the X situation occurs] I will [initiate the Y goal-directed behaviour] (specify when, where and how you will act to achieve the goal).
3. Jump on the default wagon
Decision- and choice-making weakens our willpower. Weak willpower reduces the chances of implementing your new habit, so protect your willpower!
By making your new, desired behaviour the default option.
Defaults are powerful. They can double and even triple opt-in rates when it comes to organ donation and other choices.
There is a debate regarding the ethical aspects of assuming people want to opt in, and that they may be tricked into opting in, but it’s easier here, because you are not tricking anyone — you are just working on yourself and you well know what you’re doing and why.
How to make it the default?
a) Take the path of least resistance
We have all experienced it: you have good intentions, but after a few days, you feel the new behaviour costs you too much effort and you slip back into the old one, because it’s easier.
The path of least resistance gets in the way.
If this is your case, I have a great solution for you — don’t fight it, embrace it! By simply designing your new behaviour to follow the path of least resistance, you can outsmart the busy/tired/overworked/stressed guy in you who can drag you away from your commitment.
For me, setting up my exercise routine was like navigating a road full of potholes — with all those ‘yes — buts’ and ‘I don’t like this/that’. I don’t like driving or parking my car and I don’t like exercising in groups, and I don’t like having to be on a schedule. So any scheduled group activities, anything that was not within walking distance or required booking/finding a partner or getting equipment out- were out.
Gradually, I was left with very few options, and between walking (don’t really count it as exercise as I do a lot of walking anyway) and running (boring, hate it!), I chose…
Yes, you’re right! I chose running, even though I hated it, and found it boring. And guess what more? Ever since I’ve tweaked my environment further, I’ve been going for my runs religiously every day it’s scheduled, come rain, shine or headache.
Think what may get in the way of your carrying out your healthy behaviour and design your routine to incorporate that.
Need a quick, healthy breakfast — buy your ‘unadulterated’ cereals in bulk and make up little one-breakfast portion and keep them handy. On the morning — just add some milk. Done!
Know you usually struggle to fit in fruit in to your diet, but know you’ll never skip your lunch at work — get some more fruit and veggies into your lunchbox. You get the drift.
b) Skip a step in your decision-making
Get under way before you get underway, e.g. if you want to exercise in the morning, get up and get dressed in your tracksuit and running shoes. Want to walk to and from work; keep your work shoes in your office and wear your walking shoes to get there and back home. Some people actually choose to sleep in their workout gear!
c) Limit the frequency or intensity of temptations
Want to reduce your unhealthy fastfood habit, but struggle to find time to cook? Prepare healthy meals in advance or/and in bulk and freeze them — this way you’ll have a stock of healthy ‘fast’ meals at home. Buy pre-cooked healthier meals, etc.
4. Keep it going with an effective feedback system
Even the best systems in the world won’t work without a proper maintenance safeguards.
Future- and fool-proof your environment to remind you what you want to do.
a) Use flashing-light cues
Knowing you want to eat healthier or exercise daily is not enough. Research shows that simply knowing is not enough to preform a healthy behaviour, and reminders work wonders. So set yourself a reminder system.
Behavioural economics experts call it flashing light feedback system — just like with our modern cars, which starts beeping and flashing red lights if you forget to put your seatbelt on, find ways to plant those cues into your environment to remind you of your goals.
I’ve mentioned about that some people sleep in their workout clothes. If you find it unacceptable, how about leaving your running shoes by your bed so they are the first thing you trip over when you get up?
If you want to remind yourself to eat your fruit & veggie-packed lunch, get a coffee mug with a picture of an apple (or some other fruit), so every time you grab your coffee, you get that flashing light reminder to eat your greens.
b) Slow yourself down with some extra decision-points
Decision points are opportunities to stop and think about what you just about to do. Because you pause, you’re more likely to reflect on the activity and remind yourself about your goals. This is your last chance to stop yourself form automatically going into the old habit and choose the new alternative.
This is why people who want to stop smoking wrap their cigarettes packs in several layers of paper and lock it away.
If you want to cut down on chocolate, keep it in a locked cupboard/cabinet and lock the key in another drawer, which is lockable — this way you’ve introduced three extra decision points to slow down your habit of eating chocolate and remind yourself of your decision to be healthier etc.
c) Keep your goals visible
Having your goals visible is another way you can remind yourself of what you’re working on. You can do it by simply putting up your goals on a poster, piece of paper, write it on the wall — you name it.
You can also use more sophisticated tactics. When dieting before her wedding, one of my friends put up a long mirror by her fridge and stuck a photo of her dream wedding dress on it. She swore by the effectiveness of this little trick — apparently it drove her away from the fridge on a number of occasions.
d) Use social pressure
Recent research have undermined the effectiveness of previous recommendations to make your pursuit of a goal public.
However, surrounding yourself with people who have been successful in achieving the goal you are pursuing is still an effective strategy
So increase the likelihood of reaching your goals by hanging out with those whose steps you want to follow into.
5. Reinforce your new behaviour with a reward
I’m sure you already know that rewards boost motivation, but if you’re not careful how you go about the, you may spoilt it completely.
a) Get the most of your intrinsic motivation
First of all, explore your motivation for the new behaviour and find your own internally-driven, intrinsic incentive to carry out the new behaviour and max out its appeal.
Intrinsic motivators are built on our desire to master a skill or subject, be autonomous or pursue our purpose/noble goal. Frame your goal in one (or more) of those categories and return to it as often as you can to remind yourself why you’re doing it.
So your fitness goals it may be driven by your dream of completing a half-marathon (mastery), or reducing crippling health problems (autonomy), or being a healthy lifestyle role model for your kids (purpose).
b) Reward yourself for every time you carried out your desired behaviour
Rewards, even those extrinsic ones, such as money, praise, and other everyday pleasures, are important particularly in the early stages of habit formation.
Reward is a crucial part of every habit loop and the reason why we keep doing what we doing even if we know it’s not good for us in the longer run.
In the long run, the new habit should obviously rely on the intrinsic (internally-driven) motivation, such as being healthy or fit (e.g. exercise, healthy eating), or having a sense of professional fulfilment (e.g. better time management). But in the early stages you need to make sure you have a little treat to reward yourself for completing the new behaviour.
If you want to reinforce the new behaviour, choose a reward you enjoy. Whether it’s your favourite drink, a chocolate bar, or 30 minutes of watching whatever show you fancy without feeling guilty. It has to be something you will truly look forward to, otherwise your incentive will not be effective. So keep an eye on it and if you feel your reward is not working, reconsider it.
6. Track your progress
A tracking system is important not only because you want to know how you are progressing towards your goals, but also because the tracking itself can act reinforce your habit.
Plus, consistent self-monitoring increases adherence to diet and exercise regimes and improves academic achievements.
You can keep track of your progress in a variety of ways — e.g. by using tracking apps, your paper-based or electronic diary, or even having a fancy custom-made map on a board.
When you’re working towards a long-term goal, which, by definition, is in distant future, have a number of mini-goals along the way. Milestones that gradually take you towards your final achievement, whether it’s a weight loss, fitness levels, or improved focus skills, will make you journey easier. Choosing distant future gains (weight loss) over powerful here & now temptation right in your face (yummy chocolate cake) is hard. So to limit the difficulty, break your big goals into sub-goals and milestones, map them all out and track your progress.
7. Write it all up and have it handy
Don’t trust your memory — write it all up.
This system can work wonders, but you need to invest some time and effort upfront to set it up, and then along the way for testing and further tweaking. But once it’s up and running effectively, it can help you put the desired new behaviour on auto-pilot literally overnight. And you know what the benefits of auto-piloted behaviour are — you’re doing what’s good for you, you’re doing it without much effort, or more — enjoying it. You have energy and time you can now invest into whatever else you wish to. Habits are low maintenance with great ROI.
8. Test and keep tweaking until you find the perfect set up
You don’t always get it perfectly right in the first go. But: done is better than perfect, so get your first system up and running asap and monitor it.
If you see things are not working as well as you expected them to, and you still fail to comply with your new routine, look at the framework again. Identify what’s not performing and tweak it. Test it again for a few days — or however long the minimal amount of time is, and reassess. It took me several itinerations to get to near 100% adherence to my running routine.
Remember, the first moves are probably most likely to produce the biggest, most evident results. The closer you get to the 100% compliance, the harder it is to improve. But keep trying and you will get there.
Master your habits the smart way
You know it makes sense.
If you get your exercise routine, or healthy meal cooking, or email-processing, or whatever your goals are — on autopilot, you’ll feel healthier, happier, more effective. Moreover, you may even look forward to once dreaded morning workout, healthy lunch, or opening your email in the morning.
Impossible? Too time and energy consuming?
Not any more.
Now you know there is a system that can help you develop effective habits literally overnight without having to constantly ‘motivate’ yourself. All you need to do it is to set it up and adapt to your personal situation.
The feeling of effortlessly performing your new habit is now within your reach.
So don’t waste any more time, grab a piece of paper and start designing your own fast and effective, habit-forming environment.
If you are interested in learning more about my habit-hacking system — click here, grab a copy of this article with bonus content and get notified when my book Hack Your Habits is published.
Originally published at www.shapeshiftersclub.com/blog