In my prior article, I advocated the end of “snake-oil” time management, where authors and trainers imply that implementation of entire new systems of behavior is easy or instantaneous. Instead, I said that learners need to break changes down into small steps, and then to arrange these steps into a conservative schedule of planned changes. In this article, I’ll show that you’ll need some support to implement your plan.
There is a delicate balance to be struck when you make a month-by-month plan for permanent behavior changes. It must be slow enough for you to build some momentum—moving from one success to another. Most people try to implement too many changes at once and then fail in only a few days, reverting to their original habit patterns especially after a moment of crisis.
At the same time, it must be fast enough to keep your attention. You can’t make it so simple that it falls off your radar.
And no, you can’t simply copy someone else’s plan. The plan that you make to overhaul or upgrade your time management system is yours alone, built upon your unique personality and the profile of skills you have perfected over time. Knowing your starting point is an important beginning and an intelligent, customized plan to take you from your current habits to the ones that you want to manifest in the future is the next logical step. If you know how to construct such a plan, you can use this skill for any behavior change you wish to implement, even when the author/trainer stops short and implies that implementation is up to you… and that it should be easy.
However, having a decent plan that has a nice balance between speed and challenge is just the first step. It’s not enough. Most of the changes that we wish to make aren’t one-shot actions, as the behavior change experts at Stanford have found in their work. They have distinguished between individual behavior changes that require a single action (such as changing your toothbrush) and others that require habit changes (such as flossing each day.) The first kind of change requires a single reminder. The second kind of change needs support.
In order to implement these changes you need to craft a habit change support system.
The idea is simple. According to the authors of Change Anything, we can’t be trusted to implement habit changes using willpower alone. It’s a non-renewable resource that peaks at certain points (during training, for example) and dips at others (during times of stress.) Just deciding to change a habit isn’t enough—the authors are clear that we over-estimate our will-power, leaving us floundering when the inevitable dip occurs.
If will-power can’t be trusted, then what can we use? They also make it clear that we each need a specific support plan to suit our needs. Not only should our plan be unique, but it needs to have multiple facets that reinforce each other. For example, hiring a coach to call you at dawn is a great way to get to the gym on a regular basis. It’s also a good idea to set an alarm clock, and lay out your clothes the night before. The combined effect of these supports can help you overcome the 5 am fog that threatens to make you turn over and go back to sleep.
There are a long list of change-supports we can use—the best ones don’t rely on our memory or our willpower, but operate on their own. Some use technology, others use people, but they all need a certain reliability and integrity that makes the action that’s being prompted hard to escape.
Putting together an effective support system for habit change requires some knowledge about yourself, and this is where we often fall short. In a way, we are trying to trick ourselves; to work around our weaknesses using external mechanisms that don’t rely on our memory or will-power. How we trick ourselves into doing what we need to do when our will-power is low: that’s an art and a science that can’t be copied from anywhere else. It’s information about yourself that only you can gather.
The scientific name for this particular activity is meta-cognition – learning how to improve your own learning. But theory isn’t needed. You just need how to work with, and around yourself to implement new habits. When you can, then implementing the habits required by a new time management target becomes a lot easier.