In his excellent ebook about changing habits, blogging friend Scott Young described the process of forming habits as walking home through fresh
snow. The first person to go through the snow has to forge a path
through the snow, and it’s difficult … but others will follow in that
path and it gets easier and easier.
Photo by chicadecasa
Forming a habit is a matter of forging that initial path until it’s harder not to take the path. Who wants to forge a new path through the snow?
But let’s take that concept a little further: what if you engineered
it so that even the initial person forging through the snow would
rather take that path than another, because it would be harder not to take the path.
Engineer your habit change so that it’s harder not to form the habit.
Why habit changes fail
I think I can safely say that all of us have attempted and failed at
creating a new habit or changing an old habit at a few points in our
lives. It can be hard to change old ways and create new ones.
The problem is that creating a new habit can be difficult. The reason: negative feedback.
Negative feedback is when we do something, and it is painful, or
difficult, or we get criticized, or in some other way get a bad feeling
rather than a good one. Difficult exercise, for example, contains
inherent negative feedback, as it is more difficult than sitting on the
couch. Quitting smoking contains negative feedback, because you suffer
withdrawal pains and urges.
Positive feedback, on the other hand, is when you get compliments
from friends and family that you look thinner or healthier, or the
satisfaction from the number on the scale dropping. It’s the
encouraging comments I get on this blog. It’s the great feeling when
finishing a good run or a 5K.
But when the negative feedback makes the habit change difficult,
especially in the first few weeks, habit changes often fail. That’s
because it’s easier to quit the habit change than to keep doing the new
habit, because of the negative feedback. It’s easier to take a puff
from a cigarette than to suffer withdrawal pains. It’s easier to sit on
the couch eating potato chips than to go out for that run.
Habit changes fail because the negative feedback from doing the new habit outweigh the positive feedback, and it becomes easier not to do the habit.
Engineer the habit change
So how do we overcome this problem? Think of it from an engineer’s point of view:
- When negative feedback outweighs positive feedback, habit change fails.
- To make the habit change successful, positive feedback has to outweigh negative feedback.
- The solution: increase positive feedback and/or decrease negative feedback until the ratio favors the habit change.
Think of it this way: if you want to take a certain path in the
snow, put obstacles along all other paths so that it’s difficult to go
anywhere but the path you want to take … and have the path you want to
take shoveled, so that it’s easy to take that path.
You can engineer your habit change so that it’s harder to quit than to do the habit.
How to do it
You have four options in your custom engineering solution. In each,
I’ll give some ideas, but you’ll have to come up with ideas of your own
to fit whatever habit you’re trying to change.
1. Increase positive feedback for the habit. Some
habits have instant positive feedback, but often the positive feedback
is delayed. It takes awhile to lose weight. It takes awhile before your
blog starts getting encouraging comments. This delay in positive
feedback is what causes many people to fail, because in the crucial
first few weeks they are getting mostly positive feedback.
Instead, find ways to have instant positive feedback. The more, the
better. Add as many of these (and others you can think of) as possible
to increase chances of success. Some examples:
- Creating a log or journal of your habit let’s you feel satisfied that you’re actually doing the habit.
- Joining an online forum, where you can receive positive feedback
from others going through the same thing. Quit smoking forums or
running forums are two examples I’ve used. The Zen Habits challenge forum is a great idea.
- Join a real-world group, such as a book club, a running club, a class, etc., where you can get similar feedback from people.
- Reward yourself, early and often. Small rewards are appropriate, but celebrate every little success.
- Email or talk to people about your habit change, giving them daily
updates. If people expect the daily updates, you will feel motivated to
do your habit so you can tell people about it.
- Blog about it. If you have a few readers, they will most likely be encouraging.
2. Decrease negative feedback for the habit. First
you have to list the negative feedback for your habit. For quitting
smoking, there are urges and withdrawal pains. For exercise, it can be
an exertion, which takes effort and energy. Analyze the negative
feedback for your habit, all of them, and see how to decrease them.
- For quitting smoking, reduce urges and withdrawal pains with nicotine gum or patches.
- For exercise, reduce exertion by only doing a little bit in the beginning.
- For eating healthy, reduce the negative taste feedback by eating
healthy treats, such as berries, or adding a little bit of good fat or
a little salt to make things tastier.
- For reducing sweets, reduce urges by eating little treats, such as a bit of dark chocolate, or fruits.
- For developing the reading habit, reduce boredom (if that’s the
problem) by reading exciting and fun books. Thrillers are favorites of
3. Increase negative feedback for not doing the habit. You want to make it hard not to do the habit. As hard as humanly possible. So to do that, you need to put all kinds of negative feedback on yourself for not doing the habit. Some ideas:
- If you join a forum or a real-world group or give people you know
regular updates, or update your blog readers (see ideas in #1 above),
you will face the embarrassment of having to tell people you didn’t do
- Get a partner or coach or trainer, or your spouse, to make sure you do the habit, and to nag you if you don’t.
- If you’re trying to develop the reading habit, remove all other temptations.
- If you’re trying to exercise, get rid of the TV and Internet and
make your house uncomfortable, until you do your exercise. Once you
exercise, get your cable TV box or Internet modem back from your
neighbor who was holding it for you.
- If you’re trying to quit smoking, tell your kids not to let you smoke.
- I’m sure you can think of many others — get creative!
4. Decrease positive feedback for not doing the habit. What tempts you not to do your habit today? Give this some thought, and then decrease those positive things. Some ideas:
- If you’re trying to exercise (a common example), there is often
positive feedback from not exercising, because it’s relaxing to stay
home. So if that’s the case, reduce the relaxation at home. Get your
spouse or kids to nag you. Get your mom to call you. Remove the
cushions from your couch. Be creative!
- If you’re trying to stop procrastinating, the positive feedback for
procrastination is the fun of going on the Internet (for example).
Well, disconnect from the Internet or use a utility to block the sites
that waste your time.
- If you’re trying to wake up early, there is of course the positive
feedback that comes from sleeping in. Set up multiple alarms all around
your room. Have people give you wake-up calls, so you can’t sleep. Have
people waiting for you at the track for your morning run, or waiting
for your phone call for an early business call.
Final word: In the end, be sure that you’ve
engineered it so that it’s harder not to do the habit. If you fail,
just add more of any or all of the above four options and try again.
Don’t give up!