Fortunately, we can reverse the feedback loop by engineering our habit environment:
- Create positive feedback for habits you want to form. Good ways to do that are to start with habits you enjoy and focus on the enjoyment of those habits create social accountability by telling your friends that you acted on the good habit, and rewarding yourself.
- Create negative feedback for not doing the habit. Social accountability is a good way to do this — tell your friends you’re going to act on this new habit for 30 days, and for each day you don’t, there will be a negative consequence.
- Reduce negative feedback for doing the habit. Don’t expect to form habits you persistently dislike — find healthy foods and exercise that you enjoy. Only do the activity you want to make a habit for 3-5 minutes at first — so it’s easy and not something you dread.
- Reduce positive feedback for not doing the habit. If you sit on your butt and don’t exercise, don’t allow yourself to do other pleasurable things. Create negative consequences. Make people get on your case and take away your wireless router and cable TV box, for example.
- Write down your plan.
- Identify your triggers and replacement habits.
- Focus on doing the replacement habits every single time the triggers happen, for about 30 days.
Here are some keystone habits to develop:
Active Goal Setting
In the morning, when you awake, you must ask yourself one very important question: “What have I achieved today?”
When you ask yourself that question first thing in the morning, you’re projecting yourself into the future, and it’s far easier to see just what’s important to get done that day. Once you ask yourself that question, and you can answer it, plan out your day with a set of achievable goals.
How do you expect to achieve that today? What steps need to be taken?
Time is our most precious resource.
Since all of us have an equivalent amount of time in this world – no one person has more time than the other – using that time wisely is quite possibly one of the most important principles to getting ahead in this world.
Use the Eisenhower Decision Matrix, which was later popularized by Stephen D. Covey in his celebrated 1994 book entitled, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.
The concept states that all daily tasks take on two areas on a matrix. The first is importance, the other is urgency. All decisions, then, can be boiled down to one of either two of those elements: urgency and importance.
The Eisenhower Decision Matrix breaks this out into 4 separate quadrants:
- Quadrant 1 – Urgent and Important
- Quadrant 2 – Not Urgent but Important
- Quadrant 3 – Urgent but Not Important
- Quadrant 4 – Not Urgent and Not Important
The goal in time management is to try to stay within Quadrant 2 as much as possible. It’s the important but not urgent tasks and decisions that help to progress our long-term goals in life. These are the tasks that don’t have to be done right away, but if they are, help greatly move us closer to our biggest hopes and dreams.
To effectively manage your time, and build up this habit, you should first start by auditing your time. Every day, write out everything that you do. Next to that task, indicate whether it’s a Quadrant 1, 2, 3, or 4 activity. Then, see which quadrants you’re most typically engaged in.
After a while, you can begin organizing your day by front-loading it with Quadrant 2 activities, focusing on the long-term goal-related activities at the very beginning of the day.
30 Minutes of Exercise
The first part of your day should be devoted to some type of exercise. Regardless of how strenuous this is, it should happen before you head to work in the morning. Why? Well, the keystone habit of doing 30 minutes of exercise helps to accomplish a few things. It helps to improve your health, clear you mind, and give you an early sense of accomplishment.
When you can exercise for 30 minutes at the first part of your day, not only do you feel better, but as a result, you’ll make healthier diet decisions and have a clearer mind. It helps to circulate the blood in your system, reduce your risk of illnesses and diseases, and gives you momentum to start your day.
This is a keystone habit that shouldn’t be passed up. Ensure that you do 30 minutes of exercise. If you have to, start small. Use a concept called micro-changes that see you building up to the habit. Remember, the habit won’t take hold for about 90 days, but this doesn’t mean that you can’t start out with 10 minutes of exercise each day for the first two weeks. Then, ramp up to 20 minutes the next two weeks, and in your fifth and sixth weeks, push out 30 minutes.
In order to execute this keystone habit, you have to pick one time of day and take 10 or 15 minutes to simply state what you’re grateful for. If you say that you have nothing to be grateful for, then you’re not searching hard enough.
Why is daily gratitude so important? Well, it takes us from an attitude of expecting to appreciating. When you can actively search for things to be grateful for, a real physical shift occurs in your mental thinking. The mind moves away from a state of lack and into a state of abundance. This helps to fuel us in our pursuits of all things and approach life with a generally more upbeat attitude.
Again, this keystone habit, like any other habit, takes time to solidify. Take 90 days and write out what you’re grateful for every single day. Do this without fail.
Learn a New Skill
Successful people take some portion of their day, no matter how small it may be, and devote it to a new skill.
This doesn’t have to involve a tremendous amount of your time. This keystone habit can also take the micro-changes approach. Start with just 10 minutes each day and build from there. Pick something that you’re interested in or passionate about, and enjoy the process of learning something new.
Taking just a few minutes to write down everything you’ve eaten during the day has many unexpected positive consequences. You begin to notice patterns in your eating and see with clarity exactly how much you’re eating. In studies, those who journaled their food intake began to eat less, make healthier choices, and begin a weight loss program.
Eating dinner together as a family
Eating family meals has been shown to give children a leg up with homework skills, better grades, confidence, and emotional control.
Visualization has been shown to support increased performance in all areas of your life when applied to the desired outcome.
Actively changing your mindset to view your life and circumstances from a negative to a positive point of view creates an attitude of confidence and energy that promotes many other positive habits. If you practice the habit of positive thinking, even when you don’t feel positive, you will eventually change your mood and outlook — and this impacts your desire to perform a variety of other behaviours that improve your life.
Plan your day the night before
When you get in the habit of planning your goals and priorities for the following day, you commit to specific actions that are productive and positive. When you write down these daily goals, you are far more likely to complete them.
Create a sleep routine
Minimise screen time
Ask yourself honestly: how much time do you spend each day staring at a screen?
What we put into our bodies matters and you intiuitively know what you need less of and what you need more of. If you’re eating too many processed foods, progressively cut them out of your diet until you’ve formed your new habit.
Meditation and/ or prayer and mindfulness
Taking some time out before the day starts allows you to centre yourself and realise what you need to do that day.
The Sea Change Habit Method
- Pick only ONE small, positive habit — a 5-10 minute limit to start with. You will expand it later, but start as small as possible. This is extremely important, because most people make the mistake of doing multiple habits, or trying to do too much with the habit they’re forming, or both.
- Come up with a plan. Take 1 week to pick your specific habit (start as small as possible), analyse your behaviours, pick a trigger, plan out how you’ll overcome your obstacles, pick the time of day you’ll implement the habit, plan who your support network will be, create a log for the habit, pick rewards, and decide what your motivations are. Write these down!
- Do the habit immediately after the trigger for 4-6 weeks. Build in reminders. Try never to skip it. The more consistent you are, the stronger the habit will be. Read more about triggers.
- Build in positive feedback. Focus on enjoyment, make it a game, create competition, do it with a partner or group if possible.
Some good ways to build in positive feedback:
- Enjoy the habit. This is the best way. If you form a daily habit of having tea, focus on the full enjoyment of that tea as you do the new habit. This is built-in positive feedback, and you’ll look forward to the new habit if you focus on enjoyment.
- Announce your success after the habit. After you go for your walk (a new habit), post about it on Facebook, Twitter, and your blog. People congratulate you. You feel great.
- Do something enjoyable right after the habit. If you like to check email, but want to write for 10 minutes a day, check email right after you write for 10 minutes (but not before).
- Report daily to a social group (blog, Twitter, Facebook, email, or friends at work), use them for support when things get difficult. When you feel like not doing the habit, have one or more people you can call on for help. A social group is built-in positive feedback, as well as motivation through accountability.
A few notes:
- Find a group you care about. This might be your friends on Facebook or Twitter. It might be your blog readers. You might have friends, family, or colleagues you can email. It might be an online forum you’re a part of.
- If you don’t have such a group, join an appropriate forum online and get to know the people there. There are tons of forums — find one that relates to your habit change. Read the rules of the forum, introduce yourself. Post questions, tell people about your new habit. Pledge to report to them daily.
- Every single time you do the habit, report to the group immediately after. When you’re done with your 10-minute run, for example, get into the house, drink a glass of water, and then go to your computer and report it. Or tell your wife and kids if that’s your accountability group.
- If you don’t do the habit for some reason, still report it. Commit to reporting either way, no matter what. It will greatly increase your odds of success.
- Test, adjust, iterate immediately. When you start a habit change, you are testing an approach, and it is very possible it will fail. That’s fine. Knowing that your initial approach didn’t work is good information, and you should use it to adjust your approach, and retry as soon as possible.
The Habit Change Cheat sheet
The following is a compilation of tips to help you change a habit. Don’t be overwhelmed — always remember the simple steps above. The rest are different ways to help you become more successful in your habit change.
- Do just one habit at a time. This is extremely important. Habit change is difficult, even with just one habit. If you do more than one habit at a time, you’re setting yourself up for failure. Keep it simple, allow yourself to focus, and give yourself the best chance for success. Btw, this is why New Year’s resolutions often fail — people try to tackle more than one change at a time.
- Start small. The smaller the better, because habit change is difficult, and trying to take on too much is a recipe for disaster. Want to exercise? Start with just 5-10 minutes. Want to wake up earlier? Try just 10 minutes earlier for now. Or consider half habits.
- Do a 30-day Challenge. In my experience, it takes about 30 days to change a habit, if you’re focused and consistent. This is a round number and will vary from person to person and habit to habit. Often you’ll read a magical “21 days” to change a habit, but this is a myth with no evidence. Seriously — try to find the evidence from a scientific study for this. A more recent study shows that 66 days is a better number (read more). But 30 days is a good number to get you started. Your challenge: stick with a habit every day for 30 days, and post your daily progress updates to a forum.
- Write it down. Just saying you’re going to change the habit is not enough of a commitment. You need to actually write it down, on paper. Write what habit you’re going to change.
- Make a plan. While you’re writing, also write down a plan. This will ensure you’re really prepared. The plan should include your reasons (motivations) for changing, obstacles, triggers, support buddies, and other ways you’re going to make this a success. More on each of these below.
- Know your motivations, and be sure they’re strong. Write them down in your plan. You have to be very clear why you’re doing this, and the benefits of doing it need to be clear in your head. If you’re just doing it for vanity, while that can be a good motivator, it’s not usually enough. We need something stronger.
- Don’t start right away. In your plan, write down a start date. Maybe a week or two from the date you start writing out the plan. When you start right away (like today), you are not giving the plan the seriousness it deserves. When you have a “Quit Date” or “Start Date”, it gives that date an air of significance. Tell everyone about your quit date (or start date). Put it up on your wall or computer desktop. Make this a Big Day. It builds up anticipation and excitement, and helps you to prepare.
- Write down all your obstacles. If you’ve tried this habit change before (odds are you have), you’ve likely failed. Reflect on those failures, and figure out what stopped you from succeeding. Write down every obstacle that’s happened to you, and others that are likely to happen. Then write down how you plan to overcome them. That’s the key: write down your solution before the obstacles arrive, so you’re prepared.
- Identify your triggers. What situations trigger your current habit? Most habits have multiple triggers. Identify all of them and write them in your plan.
- For every single trigger, identify a positive habit you’re going to do instead. When you first wake in the morning, instead of that habit, what will you do? What about when you get stressed? When you go out with friends? Some positive habits could include: exercise, meditation, deep breathing, organizing, decluttering, and more.
“Habit is habit, and not to be flung out of the window by any man, but coaxed downstairs a step at a time.” – Mark Twain
- Plan a support system. Who will you turn to when you have a strong urge? Write these people into your plan. Support forums online are a great tool as well. Don’t underestimate the power of support — it’s really important.
- Ask for help. Get your family and friends and co-workers to support you. Ask them for their help, and let them know how important this is. Find an AA group in your area. Join online forums where people are trying to quit. When you have really strong urges or a really difficult time, call on your support network for help.
- Become aware of self-talk. You talk to yourself, in your head, all the time — but often we’re not aware of these thoughts. Start listening. These thoughts can derail any habit change, any goal. Often they’re negative: “I can’t do this. This is too difficult. Why am I putting myself through this? How bad is this for me anyway? I’m not strong enough. I don’t have enough discipline. I suck.” It’s important to know you’re doing this.
- Stay positive. You will have negative thoughts — the important thing is to realize when you’re having them, and push them out of your head. Squash them like a bug! Then replace them with a positive thought. “I can do this! If Luci can do it, so can I!” 🙂
- Have strategies to defeat the urge. Urges are going to come — they’re inevitable, and they’re strong. But they’re also temporary, and beatable. Urges usually last about a minute or two, and they come in waves of varying strength. You just need to ride out the wave, and the urge will go away. Some strategies for making it through the urge: deep breathing, self-massage, eat some frozen grapes, take a walk, exercise, drink a glass of water, call a support buddy, post on a support forum.
- Prepare for the sabotage. There will always be people who are negative, who try to get you to do your old habit. Be ready for them. Confront them, and be direct: you don’t need them to try to sabotage you, you need their support, and if they can’t support you then you don’t want to be around them.
- Talk to yourself. Be your own cheerleader, give yourself pep talks, repeat your mantra (below), and don’t be afraid to seem crazy to others. We’ll see who’s crazy when you’ve changed your habit and they’re still practicing their own bad habits!
- Have a mantra. This is just a way to remind yourself of what you’re trying to do.
- Use visualization. This is powerful. Vividly picture, in your head, successfully changing your habit. Visualize doing your new habit after each trigger, overcoming urges, and what it will look like when you’re done.
- Have rewards. Regular ones. You might see these as bribes, but actually they’re just positive feedback. Put these into your plan, along with the milestones at which you’ll receive them.
- Take it one urge at a time. Often we’re told to take it one day at a time — which is good advice — but really it is one urge at a time. Just make it through this urge.
- Not One Puff Ever (in other words, no exceptions). This seems harsh, but it’s a necessity: when you’re trying to break the bonds between an old habit and a trigger, and form a new bond between the trigger and a new habit, you need to be really consistent. You can’t do it sometimes, or there will be no new bond, or at least it will take a really really long time to form. So, at least for the first 30 days (and preferably 60), you need to have no exceptions. Each time a trigger happens, you need to do the new habit and not the old one. No exceptions, or you’ll have a backslide. If you do mess up, regroup, learn from your mistake, plan for your success, and try again (see the last item on this list).
- Get rest. Being tired leaves us vulnerable to relapse. Get a lot of rest so you can have the energy to overcome urges.
- Drink lots of water. Similar to the item above, being dehydrated leaves us open to failure. Stay hydrated!
- Renew your commitment often. Remind yourself of your commitment hourly, and at the beginning and end of each day. Read your plan. Celebrate your success. Prepare yourself for obstacles and urges.
- Set up public accountability. Blog about it, post on a forum, email your commitment and daily progress to friend and family, post a chart up at your office, write a column for your local newspaper. When we make it public — not just the commitment but the progress updates — we don’t want to fail.
- Engineer it so it’s hard to fail. Create a groove that’s harder to get out of than to stay in: increase positive feedback for sticking with the habit, and increase negative feedback for not doing the habit. Read more on this method.
- Avoid some situations where you normally do your old habit, at least for a while, to make it a bit easier on yourself. If you normally drink when you go out with friends, consider not going out for a little while. If you normally go outside your office with co-workers to smoke, avoid going out with them. This applies to any bad habit — whether it be eating junk food or doing drugs, there are some situations you can avoid that are especially difficult for someone trying to change a bad habit. Realize, though, that when you go back to those situations, you will still get the old urges, and when that happens you should be prepared.
- If you fail, figure out what went wrong, plan for it, and try again. Don’t let failure and guilt stop you. They’re just obstacles, but they can be overcome. In fact, if you learn from each failure, they become stepping stones to your success. Regroup. Let go of guilt. Learn. Plan. And get back on that horse.
Your net worth to the world is usually determined by what remains after your bad habits are subtracted from your good ones. – Benjamin Franklin