[This post is part of a series on Cold Showers. If you don’t see a Table of Contents to the left, click here to view that series, where you’ll get more value than reading just this post.]
Years ago I tended to have unintentional habits that I did without thinking about them and they didn’t improve my life much. Now they’re mostly ones I intentionally adopted because I knew they would improve my life. And ones I don’t like I’ve gotten rid of. You can create the same mix in your life. Here are my top tips for starting habits you want and stopping habits you don’t.
Don’t stop doing one habit, start doing another. It’s easier to do something than not to do something else, especially if trying not to do something makes you think about what you aren’t doing. If you want to eat less junk food, instead of trying not to eat potato chips, eat more fruits, nuts, carrots, and other quick food. Instead of trying to watch less tv or spend less time on Facebook, start doing something else, like join a team or writing a book.
Make your goal creating emotions you want. If you want to start a habit, think about what emotions you can and want to create and work primarily on them. If your habit won’t create emotional reward, you’ll eventually stop. If it will create emotional reward, doing it will motivate you to do it again. If you want to get in shape and make your goal just “going to the gym,” you won’t likely create a self-sustaining activity. If you make a goal “learning to enjoy going to the gym,” “finding gym partners you enjoy spending time with,” or “finding a team you love to play with,” you’ll more likely succeed. Whatever the goal you want to achieve with your desired habit, think of what emotion you could get out of it, usually by looking at what successful people who do it get out of it, and shoot for that. If you don’t focus on the emotion coming from it, expect to lose interest.
Use willpower as starter motor to engage emotions as main engine. New habits compete with old activities for your time and other resources. Those old activities bring you some reward, predictably so. New habits you aren’t sure will bring reward so your emotional system won’t kick in to motivate you. You can use willpower to start the habit, but willpower takes mental effort that runs out. If you know what desired emotion your habit will create, use willpower to start the habit enough for your emotional system to feel that reward, which will motivate you to keep doing it, now without the mental effort willpower required.
Start with awareness of current situation. If you don’t know where you are it’s hard to get to where you want to go. If you want to go to the gym more, know what you’re doing instead that going to the gym will displace. If it’s sitting on the couch watching tv, know that that activity creates reward, will motivate you in stressful times, is always available, and is easy. If you don’t take everything into account when you plan new habits, you won’t overcome the old habits’ allure.
Use environment, belief, and behavior. If you only change your environment, only your beliefs, or only your behavior, you’ll likely miss some parts of your life that motivate the old habits you’re trying to displace, or miss reward that could motivate the new habit. When your environment, beliefs, and behavior align, you’ll feel reward and want to continue. If they don’t, you’ll feel internal emotional conflict, which will discourage you. So don’t just say you’ll go to the gym, which is just behavior and environment. Also include belief, like believing the exercise gives you energy, increases attraction, or something else that will motivate you.
Notice what you’re doing, like if you’re using willpower to do something you don’t like. Many people start habits that don’t make them happy without realizing it. They force themselves to exercise when they don’t enjoy it or don’t eat meat when they love it. Nothing will destroy a habit you want more than feeling emotional punishment when you do it. Nor will anything make you feel more helpless about starting other habits, even ones that would improve your life. Yet people persist in willing themselves to things they don’t like.
Practice discipline all the time. Whether you’re doing your habits or not, do things that develop discipline. For me, things like marathon training and cold showers develop my ability to do something even when I don’t want to. Find things like those that work for you and you’ll find maintaining habits easy. I weened myself off potato chips by making a game of limiting my eating.
Find role models. Somebody does what you want to. You can learn from them. Find them and get to know them. Learn from their mistakes. Adopt what works — beliefs, practices, etc. Have them hold you accountable if you can.
Create accountability, ideally public. Few things motivate more effectively than looking bad in front of others. Also, having others see your plans and behavior helps find problems.
Create reward intrinsic to the habit, not external, and attach it to habit. The closer the reward is to your habit, the more your emotional system will motivate you effortlessly and the less you’ll have to rely on willpower. The reward of feeling stronger will help motivate going to the gym, but not as quickly and directly as seeing your body look how you want it in the gym mirrors while you’re there. Enjoying a sport and teamwork may be even more direct and intrinsic.
Share what you love. I’ve written about this at length. The more you share what you love, the more people will bring more of that into your life and the less they’ll interfere. Once you start enjoying a new habit, tell people about it to attract supportive people and repel discouraging ones. Take responsibility for creating your community.
Habits aren’t logical don’t expect reason to help. It’s nice to know if something you want to eat more of is healthy, but intellectual ideas don’t motivate. Find a way to make that food delicious if you want to eat more of it. Emotion and reward motivate. Thinking just gets you thinking.
On success, build more because it’s a skill, or set of skills. When you feel a habit you want take root, start building another habit you want. When you kick a habit you don’t want, find another and kick it too. Starting and stopping habits uses skills and your skills are sharp when you’ve just succeeded, as is your motivations.
If you miss one day you can miss two, if you miss two it’s all over. Read this post on this advice.
Develop and use tricks that work. Talk to people who successfully started habits they like and you’ll hear lots of little tricks they develop that work for them. As little and ad hoc as the tricks sound, I’ve come to believe they are integral to success. When I start my burpees, I don’t think about the whole set. I think about starting one, then when I’ve done one I finish the remaining nineteen (actually, remaining twenty-four lately) because I feel like doing more once I started. My friend who goes to the gym a lot doesn’t think about going for two hours, he thinks about walking in the door, then stays for two hours because he feels like it once there. Before starting my cold showers I start my five-minute-and-ten-second timer because once it starts I feel like I have ten seconds to start and get in the cold water.
Last and most important:
Do. Act. Start. Try. Habits are fundamentally behavioral. If you don’t start them you’ll never continue them, nor will you feel what doing them feels like. If you want one to stick you need to feel emotional reward.
Read my weekly newsletter
Subscribe for a weekly update of musings on leadership, the environment, and burpees.