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A Short Guide to Changing Habits – 5 Strategies for Successful Self-Improvement


“Chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken.”

— Warren Buffett

Understanding Habits

In life, we are constantly bombarded with decisions we have to make. If we took the time to thoroughly analyze all of the pros and cons of each decision, we would be paralyzed by the sheer volume of analysis required. Luckily, as humans, we have the ability to make snap judgments about the importance of decisions, allowing us to focus our thoughts and energy on those that are most important. For the rest, we rely on our instincts and intuition, honed over years of experience, to guide us, subconsciously, through the litany of tasks and choices we simply don’t have the time to consider in detail.

These subconscious decisions are our habits. Habits are very necessary—they allow us to effectively navigate a complex world by simplifying our daily mental to-do list. They are also—it turns out—very difficult to change. The following three concepts will help you understand why: inertia, ‘path dependence,’ and ‘mindless choosing.’ For now, however, just think about the following question:

Have you ever gotten in the car, started driving, and then minutes later realized you were driving yourself to the wrong place? (the place you drive to most often)

Don’t underestimate the power of habits. Sometimes your habits are not serving your best interest and need to be changed. They absolutely can be changed. But this process takes thought, energy, and planning. If you are serious about changing a habit, the following explains how you can go about doing it.

Changing Habits

First of all, changing habits is not about overcoming willpower. If you construe the change this way in your mind, you are bound to fail. Just read our post on the marshmallow test to understand why.  What you need to do is to set yourself up for success…you need a plan. (tip: form this plan when you are feeling GREAT; you’ve just exercised or had some coffee, and now have a ton of energy and are thinking long-term)

This plan needs to involve strategies for keeping yourself away from possible temptations or distractions; it needs to break you goal down into manageable chunks; and it needs to have a feedback mechanism (see #4 below).

You also need to be motivated. Yes you need to involve yourself with the process of change, but you also need to constantly be thinking about the light at the end of the tunnel—why you are putting yourself through this uncomfortable change process in the first place. It’s very important to keep perspective. These two principles: managing yourself and motivating yourself are the cornerstones of changing habits.

But beyond these cornerstones there are specific strategies you can use to make the change process easier. The first four we recommend you try first. If they don’t work you can try the fifth one. We’ve found it to be the most powerful, but also the most controversial…

1.  Make change happen…every day

Often we think about adding things to our schedule ‘once a week’ or ‘every now and then.’ Psychologically speaking this doesn’t work very well. New habits form when we do them EVERY DAY, and when you think about doing something only occasionally, it probably will never happen. This is why daily workout systems like P90X are so effective—working out becomes a daily habit. It is o.k., of course, to take a day off, just don’t let that become a habit of its own.

2.  Create deadlines

They work. We are motivated by deadlines. Deadlines force us to put one foot in front of the other and acutaully do work. Only once you have done the work can you go back and reflect on how you did, what could have gone better, and how to improve next time. Just make sure the deadlines aren’t leading to excessive stress. Some stress is good—it motivates us. However, too much stress can be overwhelming and, frankly, unhealthy. The key is to find the happy medium.

Now, obviously, many of these deadlines will have to be self-imposed, since this change is something you want to accomplish yourself. Creating completely arbitrary deadlines is just fine, only make sure you trick yourself into thinking they are real. A deadline you can easily push back is no deadline at all. You’ll know when you have successfully convinced yourself the deadline is real. Excuses and distractions will diminish and your productivity will go up.

3.  Use reward substitution

As we mentioned before, using logic and willpower alone is highly unlikely to bring about all the changes you would like to make. Thinking long-term can be really hard. However, there is a trick you can use called ‘reward substitution’ that brings the theoretical ‘long-term’ into focus in the here and now. The way it works is by combining something hard or unpleasant (but that is nevertheless in your best interest) with a treat or reward that you enjoy. For example, if your goal is to read 50 pages in a book every night, but you dislike reading, you could allow yourself to watch your favorite ‘TiVoed’ T.V. show after you complete your reading. We got this idea from Dan Ariely, a psychology and economics professor at Duke, after watching a compelling youtube video he made, in which he discusses having to make tough choices about his own health. We recommend you watch it.

4.  Create a feedback loop

The concept of a feedback loop is becoming more and more popular within the realm of the decision sciences. This is because it has proven itself as being a profoundly powerful way to change behavior. The idea is that of measurement, followed by action based on that measurement, more measurement, more action, and so on. For example, stepping on the scale every day during a 30-day diet is an example of a feedback loop. Data on one’s actions is collected and analyzed, and this, in turn, encourages further action, because it becomes clear that progress is being made. Think about how you can add a feedback loop to your change process; it can serve as highly effective motivating force. We will be talking about feedback loops in more detail later, but if you want to learn more now you can read this article from the blog Wired.

5.  Use the website Stickk

One of the most powerful motivating forces out there is that of social praise & shame. As human beings, we love it when others tell us we have done something well, and we hate it when others say that we have done something stupid. The fantastic web-tool Stickk takes advantage of this sentiment by creating a system in which you set a goal and then invite others to referee and watch you as you attempt to complete it. If you fail to complete your goal, Stickk charges your credit card and makes a donation to charity (and your friends know you have failed). You can also direct Stickk to make the payout to your worst enemy (brilliant!).

Now if you have tried everything else and you still haven’t been able to change your habit, you can try one last trick. It works like this: take an embarrassing photo of yourself. Not a lewd photo, not a photo that will derail your future presidential aspirations, but one you would strongly prefer your facebook friends not see. The photo should be silly more than risqué, but the point is you have to be motivated to not have it be shown to the world. The idea is to simply add this photo to the Stickk pot. Give your goal moderator on Stickk, a friend who you designate (and trust!), the password to your facebook account as well as the photo. If you fail, not only does a person you dislike get some of your hard-earned money, but your friend also posts the picture on your facebook account for twenty four hours. People find the prospect of such an outcome to be quite motivating.

Wrapping It Up

Make sure to take changing your habits seriously. Real management skill is required, because we don’t always make the right decision when we are in an emotionally aroused state or faced with a snap decision. Start the process of change now. The longer you wait, the harder it becomes.



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