Everything I (currently) know about starting and keeping habits in one long manifesto
Cross-posted on the Bold Academy Blog.
I had the opportunity and honor of speaking at the first ever Bold Academy in Boulder, Colorado the other day. I have been trying to distill many of the ideas we've experimented with and learned about in Habit Labs into something that is sharable, and I used this 3-hour talk/workshop as a way to test a first draft of some of these thoughts and got some really great feedback from the group.
Rather than summarize the entire talk, I thought I’d just continue to push forward some of the core ideas for ways to make your habit decisions more fail-proof.
What is a habit decision?
A habit decision is my made-up term for a sentence you write that describes a change in behavior that you intend on applying to yourself. If we were computers, this would be the script you ran on yourself to change yourself in some real way. Some examples:
“I am going to walk to work whenever it is not raining for 2012.”
“I’m going to drink 2 glasses of water before I look at my phone in the morning for the next month.”
“I am going to do pushups every day at 8:30am for the rest of my life.”
The important parts of a habit decision statement are:
- You – yes YOU – are making a conscious decision to do something different from what you usually do.
- It’s concrete (“pushups” and “run” are both better than the vague “exercise”).
- It’s flexible (no need to specify an exact number of pushups, though “more than X” is sometimes helpful as long as X is something you think would be pretty easy to do even on a bad day).
- It mentions something about frequency (every day is best, a specific time every day is better, but the key is to be specific).
- There is some understanding of duration. How long are you deciding to do this?
Why are habit decision statements important?
It’s really important that you frame your decisions in words that are succinct and easy to understand. You’re attempting to introduce a new idea into your subconscious, and the less ambiguous and complex it is, the more likely it is to be accepted. Writing out your habit decision statement explicitly is a great way to give yourself a preview of how your brain is going to react to it later on. By merely saying the words out loud, you can actually hear how your subconscious reacts immediately (and that will be an important factor in how things play out with this decision). Listen to the reactions that bubble up. Do you hear positive or negative reinforcement? Does it say, “Awesome!” If so, you’re gonna have a pretty simple time with this. On the other hand, what if the voice say “no, I’m not” or “I can’t do that” or “that’ll never work”? Things are going to be a bit more difficult… and it’s important to simply accept this fact up front. Remember, despite sharing a skull with you, this voice is not you. It’s your Lizard Brain, or “the Resistance” as some call it. The key is to hear what it says, but not necessarily to allow it to control you. The rest of these tips will help even the most resistant subconscious slowly learn to accept a new habit decision statement into the fold.
1. Make your habit decision real.
Writing your habit decision statement up is a big step towards making it real. Saying it out loud is part of this too. But keep going until it actually feels real to you. Tell someone about it, blog about it, tweet it, buy it a domain name, throw it a party, turn it into a t-shirt, get a tattoo. Everyone has different trick for making something feel real, feel like a part of you. Find that different trick for yourself. Again, make note of how your subconscious Lizard Brain reacts to this “making it real” strategy. It’s important to get to a point where you and your Lizard Brain are both on board with this… think of yourself as the sales person and your Lizard Brain as the customer. Compromise is okay. Make it an offer it can’t refuse. Then, it’s real.
2. Don’t rely on your brain to remember.
People always overestimate their own excitement at the beginning of a new habit. They think that they’ll just remember to do something every day, because at the beginning it’s exciting. Excitement is a terrible long-term motivator. Go back to basics and give yourself an impossible to avoid reminder system. Here are a few ideas:
- Set an alarm on your phone. This is my favorite one. I’ve had an alarm on my phone for over 4 years at the same time every day (8:36pm, when I take a picture and tweet it). I also have one at 8:30am to do pushups. In both cases, I hit snooze until I do it. It works better than almost anything else I’ve tried… but everyone is different.
- Set a reminder on your calendar app of choice.
- Put a post-it note somewhere that you are sure to see it every day.
- Add a reminder to your phone's lock screen.
- Make a commitment to do something right before something else that you do every day already. I drink 2 glasses of water before I let myself look at my phone in the morning. You better believe that I drink those 2 glasses of water right away every day!
3. Train yourself to respond to your own triggers.
Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work. - Chuck Close
This is a really important one, and a meta-habit that everyone should practice. Remembering to do something is useless unless you also actually do it when you remember. It means NOT listening to that part of your brain that says “I want to do this” or “I don’t want to do this”. It means making the behavior small enough that you can brute-force-just-fucking-do-it even when you don’t want to do it. It means removing the requirement for creativity and inspiration from the first steps of your behavior (don’t think about writing something awesome, just think about typing gibberish words; don’t think about running your fastest or farthest, just think about putting your shoes on and getting out the door). Design the first step to be so emotion-free that a Roomba could do it.
Just consider for a moment how utterly ridiculous it is that we often wait to find Inspiration (with a capital I) before acting on something that we already know we want to do. If your habit is to do some pushups, just do them without talking yourself into it. Skip that step. You are the doer of pushups, goddammit! You don’t need approval from your Lizard Brain. You don’t need a tiny pellet of dopamine in order to get off your ass. Break that addiction to dopamine as the approval you need in order to act. Eventually, it will get easier. But in the beginning your Lizard Brain will talk all kinds of shit about you for disobeying it. You are not your Lizard Brain. The Lizard Brain works for you, not the other way around. This is easier said than done, but it must be done.
Imagine a day when you were able to set a trigger for your future-self (say, a blue dot on your bathroom mirror) and you didn’t have to fish around for a reason to floss whenever you saw it. Save that dopamine for something that actually needs creativity and inspiration, which is best used when you’re already well into the work.
4. Plan for sick days, low energy days, bad mood days, busy days, and days where you’re not in your usual environment.
Nobody wants to get sick, but imagine if our bodies were never prepared for when we actually did come down with something. We’d be dead in a matter of days after being born, right? Which is the same fate that your habits will have unless you have a plan for down days. Come up with cheat days, or something that you think you can do even when you have no time or energy to do it. Give yourself permission to do less, or nothing at all, ahead of time so that your Lizard Brain doesn’t have the opportunity to say “you are changing the rules and you suck” when it does happen. It will happen.
5. Focus on the enjoyable aspects of the habit as you do them.
When you’re doing your habit, focus your attention on the pleasurable aspects of what you’re doing as you do them. Feel the spike of energy and bigness of your lungs after doing pushups. Enjoy the slowness of time when you meditate. Notice the texture of words as you write. Feel the emotional, physical, mental, social, and spiritual resistance building up simply as a side effect of practicing a habit consciously. Don’t exaggerate it too much, or else you might start trying to get into a competition for the most enjoyable this or that. Just put an tiny smiley face on the moment in time and watch it fade away with each second. Wave goodbye.
6. Practice tracking.
Our tech-loving society has pulled a fast one on us and made us believe that tracking is an aid to any habit. For most people, it’s more of a barrier than an aid. Tracking is a habit in itself, and should be treated separately from whatever habit decision you’re currently working on.
If you’re not someone who naturally tracks everything you do in life, think about breaking off a separate habit decision statement for the habit of tracking. Practice tracking something other than a behavior that’s important to you. Experiment with tracking in a journal, and on a calendar in your kitchen, and with an app on your phone, and see which ones feel natural and enjoyable to you. I personally do my tracking via an SMS journal I built called Peabrain, which is private but allows tracking of anything via #hashtags. Don’t blame yourself if a tool doesn’t work for you… just keep looking until one resonates with you. And remember that tracking is NOT essential to changing your behavior. Treat each habit and behavior separately, and until you have momentum, don’t stack them.
7. Practice talking to yourself nicely.
Another habit that can be played by anyone but which takes a lifetime to master. Pay very close attention to how you talk to yourself when things don’t go according to your expectations. What names and labels do you put on yourself? What words does the voice use? When did you first hear them? Who first said them to you? Do the words, when spoken out loud, still ring true? Since you’re saying them to yourself, give yourself permission to take back the meanest things, and instead offer yourself more patient, understanding, and constructive feedback. Sometimes it helps to write out dialogue between two sides of yourself and to act as a moderator that wants to keep things civil and constructive. These are some of my most productive sessions on 750words.com. Since these conversations can be private and entirely in your head, there’s no need to feel embarrassed about it. Have fun with it instead.
8. Celebrate occasionally.
One of the benefits of #6 (the practice of tracking) is that it helps present numbers to you, and round numbers are great reasons to celebrate. Your 10th day doing pushups! Celebrate! 3 days in a row! Celebrate! You’ve done 1000 pushups total! Celebrate! There are so many ways to track things, and so many ways to come up with round numbers, that you can almost celebrate every day. And why not?
9. Schedule regular monthly reviews with yourself.
Do this right now. Schedule a 30-minute meeting with yourself to occur in 1 month, and to recur every month after that. Make the meeting non-negotiable, and if for some reason it has to be rescheduled, reschedule it but don’t cancel it. Your agenda for the meeting is:
- Thank yourself for another month of effort.
- Forgive yourself for any lapses along the way. You have a lot going on!
- Celebrate any progress made, even if it’s simply that you made time for this meeting.
- Review your habit decision statement and change any wording that you think will make it more you-friendly for the next month.
- Restart the habit decision if it needs restarting.
10. Restart without fuss.
Restarting doesn’t need to be a big deal. In fact, many habits become more likely to succeed after each lapse. Count your lapses, and celebrate them. Each lapse gets you a better long-term success story. Imagine being the person who can say, “I tried to quit smoking 150 times, and lapsed 149 times.” Make lapses fun and track them with hash marks on an imaginary jail cell somewhere. Imagine PacMan dying, and then re-appearing again full of zest for life as if nothing had happened. That can be you.
You can’t really fail, because you get to create the rules. If you’re particularly hard on yourself, try not even using the word “failure”. Think of it all more like a boss. You hire habit decisions, and are the manager in charge of trying to make sure they thrive in the workplace of your brain and life. Sometimes, even the best intended habit decisions turn out to be a bad fit. It’s not the habit’s fault, or the brain’s fault. It’s a matter of cultural and self-identity fit. As manager, you can demote ill-fitting habit decisions. You can even fire them. You are not failing the habit decision that doesn’t work out, the habit decision is getting fired. Doesn’t that feel better?
11. Embrace flux.
The last myth of habits is that they are forever. We live in a universe that has only one constant: that everything changes. Any attempts to fix something permanently to your brain, or your life, or the world will ultimately lead to frustration. Instead of trying to make something permanent, just try to integrate it into the moving flow of your life. Let it weave back and forth in prominence and bob up and down as is fit.
A new behavior or habit isn’t successful when you stop thinking about it. It’s successful when it fits perfectly into your sense of self. It becomes a part of you and becomes indistinguishable from the person that you are.
In the end, this is not about simply changing your behaviors, or controlling your life, or becoming automatic. None of that is even possible, much less desirable. It’s really about lifting your whole identity into a more functional whole, one that fights against itself less, one that moves, thinks, and expresses in tune with your true self. And it takes practice.
Start any time.