Journal entry – January 15. 99.5% of people.
“I’ve failed my New Year’s Resolution . I wish I could do better. I just don’t have enough willpower.”
Have you ever set a goal you didn’t achieve? Ever tried a New Year’s Resolution that didn’t stick?
What separates the 0.5% from the 99.5%? What makes some people succeed in building new, sustainable habits—-but almost everyone else fail?
I’m going to reveal to you surprising research about habit change–what influences success, what causes failure, and specifically, what you should do to build a successful new habit.
But first, I’m going to share with you a personal story, where I discovered the power of context on habit change
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then is not an act but a habit” – Aristotle
How living in a cave turned me into a blogger
October, 2011. I decided to hike for 28 days into the wilderness with no backpack, no tent, no sleeping bag.
Actually, let’s go back further. Sophomore year, college. I never could get an assignment done on time. I had to request late days often. I would procrastinate on every assignment, leaving me with a required all-night study session on the day before the assignment was due.
I took my advisor’s advice and visited a psychiatry clinic. I was diagnosed with ADHD. Now I had a name for my problem. I had pills. I thought that they would magically make me focus on getting my work done.
Boy was I mistaken.
Instead of focusing on finishing my work, the pills did the opposite: they made me hard-core focus on distractions. Now, I would Skype chat with 8 windows open, wasting my focus on unnecessary tasks.
The pills were making me focus on whatever I was doing. In this case, I was simply focusing on the wrong thing.
Back now to the wilderness. I’d been trying to start my blog for over two years, but I could never get words written on the page. My empty blog sat online, since 2008, just waiting for me to feed it content.
I blamed it on ADHD. I blamed it on being busy.
But in October, 2011, I was in a cave with just a little bit of food, a pen, and a moleskine. No distractions, no facebook, no notifications—just a pen, paper, and a grove of prickly pear cactii.
I woke up on the first day at sunrise when a mouse startled me by walking by my face. I got out of bed, walked outside, drank some water, and sat down by the river with my Moleskine and pen.
The words just flowed. I didn’t have a clock so I can only measure the amount of time I wrote with the sun: I wrote from sunrise till sunset. For 4 days. Almost 3000 words a day, over 1.5 months of blog content in four days.
And now that I’m back in society, with a computer (that allows me to type 10x faster) I barely manage to write 500 words a day.
Why? It’s a function of context.
How heroin addicts in Vietnam and your productivity habits are the same
Everyone knows the horrible effects of heroin addiction. Once someone starts taking heroin, it’s almost impossible to quit—and those who form a recurring habit will likely never quit.
So why didn’t heroin-using Vietnam vets relapse when they returned to the USA?
A study from the Washington School of Medicine concluded that very few heroin-using veteran relapsed when they returned to the USA—and those who did were most likely to have been illicit drug users before ever arriving in Vietnam. These vets weren’t addicted to the chemicals in heroin—they were addicted to the experience of heroin in a specific, situational context.
In the same vein, you think that you are in control of what you do. You think that when you fail, it’s a failure of your willpower.
But the fact is, you don’t even realize the influence your environment has on you. Did you know that obesity spreads through a network of friends? Happiness also spreads throughout a social network. Your situation determines your choices as much, or more, than your own personal choices and willpower.
“So how can I use this to improve my habits?”
You now know that your context influences who you are. So you need to make a choice—are you willing to create systems that will help you achieve your goals, or will you mindlessly try to make things happen that just don’t work?
Here are a few of the best methods for improving your context.
- Make better friends– You MUST associate yourself with people who help you achieve your goals. Everyone has had a depressed friend or family member, who makes you more depressed the more time you spend with them.You are the average of your five closest friends. So make sure that the people you associate with are helping you get closer to your goals, rather than pushing you away from them.
- Automate systems to increase productive time – It’s easy to say you ‘should save more money.’ But it’s much, much harder to force yourself to send money to your savings account every month. Why not automate it, so that your bank account automatically deposits money in your savings account/IRA every month?Some other systems that I’ve created – Hiring a virtual assistant to call me and remind me to do my tasks. Hiring others to do my work for me, so I can focus on specializing on important tasks. Hiring a personal trainer to force me to go to the gym.
- Work on projects/goal with a partner – Life isn’t a solitary thing. The best businesses have cofounders, and if you are working alone, you are fighting a losing battle. In anything, it’s better to have a partner.
- Use 30 day habits, and Tiny Habit mechanisms, to make new habits stick – My old professor from Stanford, B.J. Fogg, runs the Captology Lab, which researches behavior change using digital tech. He now runs a program called TinyHabits—a method to develop any new habit. Any new habit takes three steps:
1) Make it tiny – Any habit must be incredibly small. Floss one tooth. Walk for 3 minutes. nothing more. Once you get started, it’s easy to continue—so just make yourself start
2) Find a spot – Your new habit must go somewhere in your existing routine. Trigger it by forcing yourself to do something right after finishing something else. After brushing, floss one tooth. After lunch, walk for three minutes. Etc. This is called ‘anchoring’
3) Train the cycle – If it’s a very small habit (i.e. you followed step 1), then you simply need to start executing to make it automatic. If you are finding this too difficult, go back to step one and make the habit simpler.
You are basically training your body to associate the existing habit (the anchor) with a new habit. Thus, continuously do the small habit, until it becomes natural. Then you can try running more, or flossing your whole mouth.
Read this article by BJ Fogg for a more in-depth explanation.
To hack a better life, you need to build good habits. Follow the steps above, and build an awesome life.