Making Success More Likely When Changing Habits

What are the warning signs when making resolutions? And how can you do it better? We’re talking New Year resolutions or any decision to change for the better.

1. A strategy that consists of “I mean it this time!”
2. Any strategy that is based more on willpower than on triggers and routines. (A milder form of point 1.)
3. A goal that sounds good – when I think “I really should do this” rather than really thinking through the most likely paths to achieve my goal.
4. A vague goal, without a clear target, such as like “eat healthier”, “exercise more” or “blog”.

What can work better? First, let me emphasise: Find what works for you, and be willing to experiment.

Below are some insights which have helped me to create good habits:
– Expect that you’ll need to improve your strategy, as you find things that aren’t working, and try new approaches, until you have it working just right.
– Goals to “get X done” haven’t been the most effective for me. Goals to “Make it easier for myself to do X”, or “Work out a routine to do X” have given better results.
– Make it easy. Put effort into minimising any obstacles.
– If what I need for my habit is within reach and within sight, so I can start on my habit in seconds, it’s much more likely that I’ll do it. E.g. my yoga/exercise mat lives on my bedroom floor. It’s not the only place I exercise, but it makes starting that much easier.
– A good routine is awesomely powerful, making your new habit easier and much more consistent.
– The energy I have for life determines the energy I have for achieving my goals. For this reason, exercise and good sleep are key for me, and I’ve persisted in getting these right. (These habits are much improved, and my energy levels are better for it.)
– If your new habit requires focus, create time when you won’t be distracted. E.g. getting up early is by far the best way for me to write. (Staying up late to write can work for me in the short term, but ruins my energy and productivity in following days.)

What are you doing to make success more likely in 2015?

How To Use Rewards to Defeat Procrastination

Procrastination is our bias towards the present, controlling our behaviour. A small pain or loss now looms more than a much more serious gain, pain or loss in the future. Understanding how this works can let us turn procrastination around.

Procrastination is basically a simple term for a deep problem with human nature and the problem has to do with time. We live in the here and now but what’s good for us is often long in the future. And we have plans in the future. We will save money, and we would eat healthily, and we would exercise and we would do this and we would do that and we will do all that. Today I just don’t feel like it. Today the chocolate cake is tempting, and the gym is far away, it’s oh too humid outside, and I really saw a new bike and I don’t feel like saving.

These are the words of Dan Ariely, professor of psychology and behavioural economics, and the author of the highly regarded “Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions“. Ariely suggests associating undesirable tasks with pleasurable activities, and tells a enlightening personal anecdote.

As a student, Dan Ariely faced a powerful reason for procrastination – a far away loss versus a short-term, intense pain. He contracted hepatitis C from a blood transfusion. Without proper treatment the disease could be deadly, but not for perhaps 30 years. (A very serious loss, very far away.) The treatment was to inject himself three times a week for 18 months. The medication made him feel terribly ill for hours, with vomiting and fever, beginning within an hour of the injection. (Immediate pain.) He followed the regimen without fail for the full period – but according to his doctors, he was their only patient to do so.

Amazing self-control? More self-control than other patients? No, he has the same struggles as the rest of us. Instead, he created a connection in his mind between the task and something he loved and wanted: movies. He did this in a very deliberate, planned way. Three days per week, he rented videos in the morning and carried them all day in his backpack, anticipating them. When he came home, he got everything he needed to watch the movies, gave himself the injection, and began watching.

His strategy imported new benefits for the present, making them even more immediate than the suffering. Rather than bemoan his lack of foresight, he subverted it.

What about us? Look for ways to use this principle to turn your own procrastination challenges around. This might be through a reward. It might be through creating a strong, “gut-level” association between the action you need to take and the results you want. This is something you can work on yourself, as well as something I do in my coaching, using reframing and NLP; I also use another approach called “propagating urges”, taught in the excellent CFAR workshops.

 

In this short video, Ariely tells his story. If you want more detail and some introductory neuroscience, skip to the second video, further down the page.

 

(Source and transcript)

And with more detail and neuroscience:

Advertising Explained

A scientist friend describes a supermarket trip at age seven, where he saw a packet that advertised Imitation raspberry flavour.
“That means it’s not raspberry, ” he said to  his mother. “Why do they say what it isn’t, instead of saying what it is?”
His mother replied, “They probably tried This is made from coal but we think you’ll like it, and nobody bought any.”
And that, says my friend, is the moment he first understood the nature of advertising.

Focus First: Facebook and Email in Their Place

The distractions

I love social media, and I’m connected with lots of smart, interesting people. I enjoy the interactions and I like that they make me think (and feel). Some of these people I count as real friends – not just Facebook friends. But needless to say, Facebook is an enormous time suck – even looking at intelligent, insightful posts is no comparison to working on my goals, creating, and carrying through on my vision. 

I’m also somewhat addicted to email. Like a laboratory pigeon pecking at a lever hoping for a reward, like a gambler putting dollar in the machine, part of my brain is hoping for the reward: the news, interesting tidbit, opportunity or idea that occasionally comes in email form. But whether or not I act on it now it’s a distraction from anything else. Once I open an email in the morning, the ideas are in my head, pushing aside my work, my top priorities, the things most important to me, which become much more difficult to focus on. Perhaps you find the same thing. The solution? The single best thing I’ve done for my productivity in the 10 years: I ignore my email until afternoon, giving email its own focused time later in the day.

I have one more morning distraction: an idea pops into my head, I look it up online and start reading. I may tell myself it’ll be a 5 minute search, but I’m a compulsive reader and it’s always more. And though there’s always something valuable to read on the web, generally it won’t change my life or world the way that meeting my commitments and exercising my vision will do.

All of these distractions have value, but they mean making a passive choice to not do something else. The alternative that works powerfully for me is to make an active choice, to defer these things and give myself time now for what’s important. I hold myself to this commitment by making it publicly – on Facebook, here on this blog, and/or to those close to me in real life. This is the commitment:

The commitment

Between now and the end of February, 2014:

  • Email only between 3pm and 9pm each day, other than than the starred messages view, or searching for a work-related email. (I use an email filters to add stars to emails from colleagues and family – anything else can wait a few hours. A search shortcut in my browser lets me search directly, without seeing other emails that could distract me.)
  • Facebook only between 3pm and 9pm each day. (I also use this time for other things, so I might miss Facebook altogether most days, which is great. If I want to share something outside the 3-9pm window, I’ll use the share on Facebook bookmarklet or add it to my-do list for later. It goes without saying that I don’t have Facebook notifications or email notifications on my phone – I don’t even have the app installed.)
  • No Facebook stream or checking the Facebook notification icon from Monday to Thursday. That means I can only check my own page, private messages and events, and only during the allowed times. From Friday to Sunday I may check what I wish between 3pm and 9pm. 
  • No internet searches or reading web articles before 1pm, Monday to Friday, unless it’s related to something I’m working on.

At the end of February, I will reassess, either keeping these guidelines or adjusting them. I’ll report back in a later blog post.

I’m looking forward to getting awesome things done with this increased focus.

What works for you?

Let me know your focus secrets, by commenting here or where I’ve shared the link on social media.

New Year’s Resolutions – What Works For You?

I’m conducting an informal survey. Have you ever made a new year’s resolution… and kept it? If so, you’re officially awesome, and I’d love it if you could share how you did it. What strategies did you use? What support did you have? How did you think about it, that made it easier and made it a reality? Any secrets to share? Please let us know in the comments.

Many resolutions are made, but few are kept, so in future posts I share ways to keep resolutions, and alternatives to the traditional new years resolution. For now, just these tips:

  • Try a January resolution instead. Then February.
  • Do it every day
  • Think ahead: How you can make it easy to succeed. What you will do to remember. How you’ll stay motivated.

How about you – what works, in your experience? Please share below.