Updated: Mar 23, 2020
Making habits that make us
When it came to hitting versus missing new years resolutions, and they are around the corner now, I often found myself disproportionately successful at the latter.
Aiming too high was never the issue for me, it was mostly the inability to tame the predictable dragons of doing too much too fast, heavily relying on will power, losing motivation too soon and falling prey to general procrastination.
“We first make our habits, then our habits make us.” ~John Dryden
Over last 12 months I experimented with a few new approaches to behavior change and am happy to report they have appeared to work with more efficacy than I initially feared.
For most of my life I have stuck with the mantra of bulldozing through narrowly defined tasks including eating healthy, exercising, reading, writing articles, conducting workshops & seminars, preparing lectures, etc. That generally worked really well for a couple of months. Exhausted, I would inadvertently spend the next 4–6 months throwing away semi-formed habits and related productivity gains. This rather ineffective habit loop would repeat all over again.
Here is what I learned from my last 12 months of habit forming experiments:
1. Know what rows your boat
We are all different and may respond very differently to the same stimuli. For example, some of us can consistently zone in on a treadmill for an hour. Others, like me, begin to lose their mind at the thought of running every day like this. I need variety and I mix things up by running, swimming, tennis, hiking, etc. I may anchor myself with one activity like playing tennis but peppering in other exercises of interest, is key for staying active.
Similarly, if you are trying to improve your networking skills and are intimidated by the awkwardness of reaching out to strangers, maybe start with networking within your interest domain. A hobby like cooking, cycling or painting is a great place to start as it is a comfort zone you can build upon. As you gain more confidence through your hobby network you can then start bringing self-awareness benefits into other networks including your professional and community groups, e.g.
Stay as close to your nature as possible, especially when starting out — nature creates stickiness.
2. Systems over will power
James Clear, the author of ‘Atomic Habits’ suggests we should design and develop better systems that feed into our goals. Systems are essentially processes that repeat themselves and edge us closer to our goals. An author needs a daily writing schedule to assist in finishing his book on time. An athlete diligently follows his specifically designed workouts and meals in pursuit of continuous performance improvement, expected to position him for a victory in competition.
I discovered first-hand that a system improves the odds of success dramatically by providing clarity on required effort, visibility into trackable progress and reduced reliance on will power, a relatively scarce resource. This does not mean will power is mutually exclusive to habit systems. I believe well thought out systems drive potent behavior change, especially earlier on, compared to will power alone.
For example, I was struggling with excess weight and stress to the point I started avoiding watching sports. As an avid sports fan and club-level competitor in various sports like tennis, cricket, table tennis and swimming, I was becoming increasingly uncomfortable watching others perform at the highest levels of human ability, from my warm, comfortable couch.
I finally decided to invest in a Fitbit wristband. This little gadget was my daily exercise system. Starting with 3,000 steps a day I slowly ramped up to 5,000 steps and then eventually 10,000 steps a day. By month 4, I found myself pacing around before bedtime to get in the last 100 steps to the 10,000 mark.
Given my affinity toward analytics and visuals, Fitbit was a system that worked extremely well for me. Tracking my daily steps, heart rate, calories burned, intensity, etc., I comfortably dropped 25 lbs in 1 year.
Likewise, my son was struggling to read his entire series of Harry Potter books. After watching this go on for a few months I stepped in and built a book-reading system for him. We decided my son would commit to reading a book every two weeks and record his progress in the app Goodreads. Upon finishing the book, he would update the app with a rating and a short review and also discuss with me in more detail his thoughts about the story line and its characters.
He was accountable and motivated to see his progress every night as he read a few pages before going to bed. In 2 months, with marginal parental push, my son finished reading 12 books, well ahead of our initial expectations.
Refine your self-regulation systems over time while simultaneously enhancing your will power. The former is the machine that produces results, the latter is the spark that ignites action.
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