Podcast 133: How to create good habits

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This is podcast 133 and it’s about how to create good habits. I was inspired by reading a review of a new book called Good Habits, Bad Habits, by psychologist Wendy Wood. The author says what I already knew and have podcasted about before; that willpower has little to do with forming good habits, or being successful, or even having self control. The best way to form a good habit is to set up your environment to make success easy.

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If you don’t have any candy in the house, clearly you aren’t going to be eating candy. Pretty simple. If you turn your phone volume down, or even turn it off for awhile, you won’t be distracted by it as much. If you’ve got your checklist in front of you, it’s pretty seamless to get through your task. I talked about the power of checklists two episodes ago.

True story: my mom quit smoking when she was 84 years old. She’d tried a few times years before without success. After that, she stopped trying. But one day, she ran out of cigarettes. She’d had some health issues by then and driving to the store was not the simple operation that it used to be. It seemed like way too much work to get in the car and go over there and buy the cigarettes.

The next day, she realized she was still out of cigarettes, but also realized she just wasn’t up for going to the store. So she didn’t smoke. This went on for another 4-5 days, noticing there were no cigarettes and noticing that she just didn’t want to go to the store, until she realized that she’d unintentionally quit smoking. Now, I’m not saying that technique would work for everyone. I’m still amazed that she was able to quit so easily after over 60 years of smoking.

But it does illustrate the concept of quitting a bad habit by increasing friction, meaning simply to make it hard, less convenient, to indulge in. Marketers, on the other hand, want to reduce friction in order to get us to consume more. For only a few dollars extra, you can add (fill in the blank) to your order today. Internet cookies tempt you to buy more stuff that’s like stuff you’ve already proved you enjoy just by clicking a button.

Another key element to developing a good habit, whether you’re starting from scratch or replacing a bad habit, is having an immediate reward. Rewards release dopamine and that feels good. According to this book, the dopamine effect is quite short, less than a minute, and this is why an effective reward has to come right after completion of the task. If it’s too late, completing the task won’t be associated in your mind with that dopamine hit.

Delayed gratification isn’t going to work here; that would take willpower. Setting up a reward works with the brain the way it’s wired. In other words, the easy way. I’m all about doing things the easy way.

One way to think about how to get going on a good habit that you’ve had trouble forming is to find a way to like it. Most of us want to be the kind of person who eats sensibly, exercises, doesn’t procrastinate and so on. And we know that willpower isn’t going to get us there and that even admirable people don’t rely on some super human store of willpower to be successful.

Finding a way to like something is how you can discover what kind of reward will work for you. It won’t be the same thing for everyone. You might say that you’d be willing (“like” is too strong a word in this case) to work on your tax return if you only have to do it for 15 minutes. Or you could tell yourself that you’d like filing more if you could talk to a friend on the phone while you do it. For someone else, filing would be likeable if they could watch TV at the same time.

Remember, these are not cheats! These are ways of working with the nature of your brain’s wiring to more easily produce the results you want. Always take the easiest route to your destination.

Even meditation should be approached this way. People assume that you need to force yourself to sit still and think of nothing, but that’s not true, and not even possible. You can count breaths, you can repeat a mantra, you can even walk around. you can find things the body would like to do better than try to think of nothing, while still satisfying the point of meditation, which is to get off the habitual hamster wheel of thoughts.

My two tips for developing good habits today are to structure your environment in a way that reduces the friction to do whatever that new habit entails, and to look for ways to enjoy an activity you want to become a habit, but don’t really feel like doing. You can combine these techniques.

What you can do right now: Identify a habit you want to create. Let’s say it’s taking a walk every morning. First, set up the environment by setting aside time to walk and having the appropriate shoes and clothes handy. Second, pick a route that passes a garden you like to look at or a store you like to window shop at to make it more enticing.