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The New Lifehacking #5 – Tricking Yourself into Making the Changes You Need

The New Lifehacking #5 – Tricking Yourself into Making the Changes You Need

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

More by this author

Francis Wade

Author, Management Consultant

The New Lifehacking #7 – Why You Should Be Open to New Stuff, But Wary About Using It How To Manage A Post-College Productivity Dip Why You Need to Understand and Accept Your Productive Type A Tendencies The New LifeHacking #6 – Staying Away from Harmful Gadgets The New Lifehacking #5 – Tricking Yourself into Making the Changes You Need

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Last Updated on July 21, 2021

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system.”[1]

A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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From Creating Reminders to Building Habits

A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being 6 hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

The Wonderful Thing About Triggers — Reminders

A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

How to Make a Reminder Works for You

Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

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Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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Reference

[1] Getting Things Done: Trusted System

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