When you woke up this morning, for the first few minutes of your day, you probably weren’t conscious of your actions, thoughts still a little cloudy from 7-8 hours of slumber.
Despite this, I don’t imagine you stood motionless in your bedroom like that girl from paranormal activity, waiting for conscious thoughts to catch up.
You probably checked Facebook, used the toilet, brushed your teeth, stared at your face in the mirror for a bit and only when the hot water cascaded across your face in the shower did you finally come to.
You weren’t fully conscious and aware, engrossed in the details of every action, yet you still made it to the shower – amazing.
Why are we able to achieve such feats of autonomy?
Ever drive somewhere, arrive and think, “fuck…I can’t remember half of that journey”.
Ever sit with a book, drift off into thought but your eyes have still been scanning the words and you’re several pages on?
Ever make a cup of tea and sit back down while having spent the whole time thinking about your day ahead?
Some of this can be explained by the idea of us having a System 1 and a System 2. Two centres of the brain that are responsible for conscious and unconscious action.
However, for an unconscious action to be created, it must have been engrained.
Performed hundreds of times.
When you first sat behind a wheel, when 10mph felt like you were speeding and the clutch was an unruly adversary, you were painfully aware of every action you took, it was difficult.
After time and repetition, driving is just part of your repertoire, a string to your bow.
We have an amazing ability to revert to habitual action when things are familiar and we do it every second of the day, we just don’t realise.
The way you think, respond in conversation, brush your teeth, drive your car and type on your keyboard at work – all results of habits engrained over time, etched into the fibre of your being.
Imagine if you were challenged, from today, to stand on one leg when you brushed your teeth. Do you think that from now, for the rest of time you’d manage without fail?
You’ve spent your entire life performing this task in a certain order, pattern and location, trying to change one small element of it will take repeated attempts, practice and many failed attempts.
Strangely, I think most would concede that trying to make that change and committing to it for ever would be a challenging feat.
We fail at habit change all the time.
We all have the friend that’s failed countless times to lose weight.
The co-worker who stops smoking for a month but reverts when life gets stressful.
If we perform honest self analysis, we all have our own list of behaviours that we’ve not been able to implement or bad habits we’ve been unable to stop.
I’ve always struggled to be diligent with getting to bed on time
I’ve failed countless times to meditate
Been unable to stretch on a daily basis with multiple failed attempts.
And I seemed incapable of managing my mounting to-do lists, no matter what productivity system I tried.
Was it because I wasn’t using the right hack?
Was I missing the one app that made habit change easy and simple?
See, there are two types of changes that we try to make.
Those with immediate reward and those with delayed reward.
Immediate reward behaviours are easy to implement but hard to stop. The action is matched with immediate gain.
If you had to eat a chocolate muffin everyday at 11am to lose weight for example, I’d imagine not many would have difficulty doing this.
Yet few people succeed in dropping the buzz of an 11am smoke.
Delayed reward behaviours are easy to stop but hard to implement. If we never had to save another penny for the rest of your life but still received a decent pension, not many would complain.
Yet not many of us succeed in maintaining that New Year’s promise to drop a few stone.
Most mistakes, bad behaviours and failures that people make are due to being unable to manage the basic principle of delayed gratification.
The idea of valuing the short term gains in the present moment versus the sustained long term gain received in the future.
I don’t go to sleep on time because right now, I’d have to turn off Netflix, and this season is just about to reach its finale.
I wake up tired and frustrated, annoyed that past Jonny
I was unable to make a simple decision.
I don’t mediate because I’m incapable of focusing on the long term mental benefits when there are more exciting things to do with my 20 minutes.
I don’t stretch because right now, it hurts.
I don’t manage my to-do list because right now, it’s overwhelming.
The common solution amongst the blogs and books is that habits should be built or broken using gradual methods and this certainly makes sense.
I’m more likely to meditate for 2 minutes than 20, do one stretch rather than 5.
However, the fleeting nature of motivation is still a factor.
If I start at two minutes and eventually work up to 20 minutes, I still have to deal with the unavoidable discomfort of taking action in the present moment.
Ultimately, I still need to be able to convince myself to take action, repeatedly, when I need to.
I need to be able to tame the voice in my head telling me that Netflix is more appealing and counter with a stronger proposal.
We’re only human and that has two implications.
One, we’ll always seek the path of least resistance and act in our own self interest when pressed. If we can choose pleasure today over pleasure tomorrow, even the most disciplined individual will cave on occasion.
Equally, we crave a few very basic things.
We crave comfort, we crave feeling content and we crave the feeling of happiness.
Above all, we crave acceptance and approval.
We want to be told we’ve done a good job, we want to be congratulated and we hate being thought ill of.
Think about when the last time was that you took action that wasn’t, in some way, based on seeking acceptance?
I’d wager most actions are based on this to a degree.
So, the standard advice fails, how do we fix it?
1) Find your lead domino
I do think the idea of breaking a habit down into smaller components is a valid approach.
The thought of completing a new habit (in its full form) may seem appealing for the next few days but in a week it will have lost its appeal.
Where I think the standard advice falls down is that whatever dose you choose, you need to convince yourself you’re being productive.
Again, back to the mediation habit.
I tried to meditate for minute for a few days to build momentum, sure, I completed all three days but I didn’t notice anything from the habit.
I would have had to wait for several months at this rate to build up to a dose that would have allowed me to receive benefits.
An even greater demand on my motivational drain.
What worked for me was picking an amount that I held no resistance to but still felt productive.
In the morning I’d ask myself:
Could I mediate for 20 minutes?
Hmmm that sounds hard
What about 15?
No still don’t fancy that
Yea ok. 5 I can do.
There will always be a minimum amount that you feel comfortable doing that still yields benefit.
This, is your lead domino.
The key that causes the habit hold in perpetuity.
That may mean doing a 15 minute gym session.
Replacing 1 of your 5 coffees with herbal tea.
Going to bed 20 minutes earlier instead of 1 hour.
Pick the dose that sounds manageable but motivating.
This is point is the main drive of the whole article.
As I mentioned, we’re driven on a basic level by social acceptance.
By becoming accountable to others for our actions, we align the present and future benefits of difficult behaviours.
Previously, the pain of not doing the task was minimal but the pain of following through with the behaviour is still there, it’s greater and it whens.
We take no action.
An “I’ll deal with it in the morning” justification and then, when you experience the annoyance, it’s too late.
When you’re checking in with someone, the pain of not staying on track happens right now.
You lose the benefit of being highly thought of.
The buzz of getting to check in with a perfect score.
The allure of having your friends envy your willpower.
Now the pain of not taking action is greater than the pain of the habit.
We do what we need to do, we start making change.
You need to have someone in place that you check in with, someone that will call you our if you fail.
I learnt the hard way, conventional advice when it comes to habit change is missing the mindset aspect.
The way we trick ourself into not taking action when it matters.
First, pick the easiest version of a habit that still seems motivating. Stretching for 5 seconds never helped anyone.
Second, enrol a friend, family member or hire a coach. Get someone to check in with and let them know exactly what you’re trying to do.
Want some more motivation? Put some skin in the game. Bet them £10 you can stick to the habit for a week or pay for coaching.
If you learn to create pain of failure in the present moment, you’ll always be able to change your behaviour in any way you desire.
Once you can do that, is there anything you can’t achieve?