I always write about habits after they're done, but I thought that it would be interesting to write about one before it starts, to get really specific about the actual process of creating a new habit.
For my entire life, I've been messy. Battles were waged over my unwillingness to keep my room tidy as a kid. My RV is very easy to clean, but somehow my four forks and spoons live in the sink instead of their drawer. Even when I stay with friends while traveling, where I know it's extremely important to be respectful of their space and keep my stuff as low-impact as possible, I find myself being careless about leaving power cords and shoes around.
A useful first step towards changing a big lifelong habit like this is to build up a healthy contempt for your previous execution. This isn't self loathing or anything like that, just the attitude where you say, "This is completely unacceptable and ridiculous."
I remember about two years ago when I went to the dentist, I asked her what the most important thing I could do for my teeth was. She said it was flossing every day. I already knew that, of course, but I asked the question in a subconscious hope that she would say that it was something I was already doing. At that moment, I thought, "How insane is it that I'm unable to just floss my teeth every day, and that I need to ask a dentist for some justification not to do it?"
That night I started flossing every day, a habit which is now second nature (except when I travel, sometimes).
Once I build up that disgust with my previous ways, I stoke the fires by really thinking through the ramifications of each path. With being a tidy person, for example, I thought about how I'm the one doing the cleaning anyway, so if I would just do it up front, I would do the same or less work but have a nicer environment. I thought about how I actually think better when my surroundings are pleasant, and how that impacts my work. I thought about how poorly it reflected on me that I wasn't a tidy person.
With pretty much every habit, too, I think: "If I can't build this habit, how much can I really expect of myself?"
I thought that about flossing. Can I really expect to have the discipline to build a great blogging platform if I can't get myself to floss for two minutes every night? Can I be the head of a family if I can't keep my tiny RV clean all the time? This serves to whip me up into a minor emotional frenzy, a state which causes me to have very little respect for the Tynan who would go down the lesser path.
Habits are easy once you've build momentum, but these emotional tricks can help get the ball rolling.
Next I figure out exactly what the problem is. Here's exactly what I wrote:
Problem: RV is always messy, not a tidy guest.
I then break the problem down and figure out when it's hard and what I'll do in those situations. Again, from my personal notes:
Identify times when I'm NOT cleaning and should be. Figure out strategy for each type of mess.
Food: clean up immediately after eating. If trash is full, always empty. Always wash utensils after use.
Tea: Dump leaves after first steep, or make cold tea. Move tea stuff back to counter.
Tools: Put away after project.
Papers: FIle immediately or stick to ceiling. Throw away useless.
Electronics: If won't use in 24 hours, put away.
Bed: should make every day, but 1 week grace period.
To come up with this list, I looked around my RV at everything that wasn't perfectly clean. I tried to identify why each one wasn't clean, which was illuminating.
For example, with no set rule about when to put away plates and dishes, I just stack them up. When I make tea, I often keep the spent leaves in the steeping basket thinking I'll make more. I almost never do, so now my rule is that I either throw it away or put it in the fridge with water to make cold tea. Electronics (SD card reader, USB cables, etc) always seem to pile on my desk, so I made the decision be about whether I'll use it in the next 24 hours or not, with a clear action for both.
I gave myself a one week grace period on the bed because adherence is more important than perfection. I'd rather make it easy to roll into the habit and then have to waste excess willpower on it.
Now I have a bunch of triggers for my habit. When I finish tea, dump it or steep it cold. When I finish eating, wash utensils. If I see a full trash can, dump it.
Next I set standards. This helps me from getting into a gray area (like: well... I am more organized now, even if my RV isn't THAT clean), and it lets me avoid going overboard. Here's what I wrote:
Times when RV must be 9/10:
-- before going to sleep
-- after tea
-- after meal
9/10 means everything in proper place, vacuum if necessary, surfaces if necessary, no dirty dishes. Try to organize 1 more thing each time (wrap cables, throw something away, etc)
Here I'm saying that my standard is a nine out of ten, to be measured after each meal (because that's when I generate a mess), before going to sleep, and after my morning tea. I then define what that standard means, so that it will be very obvious whether I'm sticking to the habit or not. Having four checkpoints is a good balance between making sure the RV is usually clean and not having to think about it very often.
To make the habit an upward spiral, I add to my definition doing one extra thing. I might organize a drawer, vacuum under the front RV seats, organize my fridge, etc.
So this is how I start off a new habit. I build contempt for the version of myself that doesn't do the habit, I internalize the benefits of sticking to it, I come up with a plan that addresses my actual weaknesses, and then I set some standards. This planning takes about fifteen minutes but gives me a 10x better chance of success than if I said, "From now on I'm going to be more tidy!"
In fact, having a plan like this, along with track record of other plans like this working, makes me completely confident that I will change this habit for life. Check back with me in a couple years and see... but in the meantime, give birth to a couple big habits of your own!
Photo is some new budding leaves from an incredible organic Japanese tea farm. You can buy their tea at http://naturalitea.com.
I'm doing a 2.5 week cruise in November... thinking about spending a couple hours each day writing a new book about willpower and building habits. Interested?
Really loving Linux. Will do a follow up post in a few months.
I'd be interested in hearing how your book will be different from: The Willpower Instinct, The Power of Habit, and The Motivation Hacker.
I've read the first two of those but not the third one. Rather than an abstract theoretical approach it would be a practical step-by-step guide on how to implement new habits. So part of it would be various real-life strategies to implement and manage habits, and then part of it would be common habits that people would like to build with specific ideas on how to do each one.
I think that I could write a book that would be very actionable for everyone who read it and would lead to some new permanent habits as well as a better understanding of how to select and implement new ones.
Hey Tynan, this is very good, I've done similar. At work we have a tool called an A3, named for the sheet of paper. The idea is that the problem/solution statement should fit on one A3. Sections are :
This idea comes from Lean management which comes from Toyota originally, I believe. Sounds like you are doing most of these steps. Triggers for the habit is a really good idea that makes sense.
I did it on why there are clothes on my floor--came to an interesting root that I don't hang them up because I have to jam them in my closet, which led me to put an incentive in place to continually get rid of clothes.
Thanks for the post!
Funny, I just finished writing on my blog about my process for birthing a new habit.
My current process has three steps:
I really like how you set your attitude and standards. I'm definitely missing those right now. I try that out for my next habit project.
If you couldn't tell from my process, I'm still new at this and have to put up a lot of scaffolding to keep myself on target with each habit.
Also, I love using The Lift app for iPhone and web browser. Doesn't anyone use that?
When I spend a lot of time in the computer I always don't remember to eat or drink water, so I've setup alarms to remember me every waking hour about it.
It's been 5 weeks and I don't have missed any of the alarms, consequences > better alertness overall, better sense of time passing, better day division and losing some weight (1k/week more or less)
What an xcellent post 2 our males to help them become better co-ordiinators.I hope they will read it and borrow leaves from the post. bless yr heart sir.
Hey, I know that this isn't totally related, but have you ever heard of taking cold showers for motivation and other benefits ? I believe it would be a great blog post on how to create the habit of taking them.
I've been taking cold showers for almost a year and half now. There are a lot of reported benefits. Everything from fat loss to increased willpower.In my experience, a cold shower makes me feel tougher. Every morning, I have to choose to use a little bit of willpower to continue my habit. Then, I feel great because the cold water is refreshing, but also because I know I did the right thing. I've also found my tolerance for cold water and cold weather in general is better. It also has the benefit of jolting you awake.
This was one of the first habits I intentionally built, and it was a good foundation for future habit work. Feel free to ask me any more specfic questions.
It was good to read your habits.
When I first moved into my Rialta I was often frustrated by how unaccommodating it was to being passively messy.
It took awhile to develop but my present routines are: Alarm at 5:50AM, start the pot of water on the stove, and start work with my cup of coffee at 6.
Start breakfast at 6:30 and have it at 7. After breakfast is when work really begins. I segment the early part off for emails and other things that could otherwise loom over my day and break focus.
Three months ago I decided every lunch will be a diverse salad. The raisins for my salad ended up being kept in my one food bowl, as Rialta's are limited on space these things tend to happen. Every morning I'd grab a handful as I took my bowl out. I realized I set myself up for "failure" (as petty of a failure as it is) and put my fish oil there instead -- something I'd forget once in a while -- and place 3 gel caps of it on my mouse pad when I take my bowl out.
The syntactics of driving my house and having a stock Rialta sink means I clean all of my dishes before my daily gym trip. Even if I'm not working out that day it's my only shower. I put my work stuff/electronics away neatly into a laptop bag and place that under my bed at the same time.
For the first time in my life, I then make my bed.
Driving to the gym is a trigger for me to floss. While driving I use those plastic floss picks.
I'm over a year living in the Rialta now and I went from never having space or patience for it to having plenty of space and what I thought took patience being second nature.
I've never been good about being a tidy guest, either, but having developed these habits in the RV they resolved themselves.
I'm looking for shop space to rent and stay at. If I find it I'll pick up my sedan. I intend to do my hardest to persist these habits when they become optional.
I've had a few friends who've gone through quitting smoking. The hard part, they say, is that certain things trigger wanting to smoke. Stressful situation? Time to smoke. Driving a car? Time to smoke. Drinking at a bar? Time to smoke. The reason that bad habits are so hard to quit is that we have these many triggers that start us down that path almost automatically. A compulsive eater might get into a stressful situation and have a hamburger halfway into their face before they even consciously think about whether or not they should be eating.
The silver lining of this nuance of human nature is that we can also harness triggers to create positive habits. Just as bad habits are so hard to break because of our triggers, good habits can be made resilient using the same mechanism. And just as bad habits are built slowly and incrementally, so are good habits.
I meditate for five minutes every day. As soon as I wake up, I grab my phone and press the start button on a five minute meditation timer. Waking up is my trigger. At first I had to remind myself to do the meditation every morning, but now I do it almost automatically. It would feel strange not to meditate. Just as a veteran smoker is likely to have a harder time quitting than a new smoker, the longer I keep my meditation habit, the easier it becomes to maintain.
There are two main types of triggers: contextual triggers and constant triggers. Waking up is a constant trigger, since I do it every single day and want to meditate every day. A contextual trigger is something that happens at an inconsistent frequency. For me, feeling tired during the day is a contextual trigger. Whenever that happens, I drink a glass of water, because I've found that sometimes I'm just dehydrated and not actually tired.
I'm thrilled that Tynan is coming to you with two things -- first, he's offering a breakthrough session through GiveGetWin. It's geared around doing more of the kind of excellent work you want to do, becoming more internally focused with your emotions, having a more enjoyable life, building great habits, and producing a lot of value in the process. There's five spots, so check it out now.
Second, we have this wonderful tour-de-force interview: it starts by covering how Tynan made the shift from unfocused to focused, how to derive internal enjoyment from things, useful actionable exercises you can do right now, Tynan's method and mindset for producing creative work consistently, how to set up great habits and an excellent mental and physical work environment, and how to make blogging work and similar endeavors work for you.
Total Focus; Total Enjoyment by Tynan, as told to Sebastian Marshall
When I turned 30 and I had a minor freak out… I thought, "I'll be 40 in not long, and then 50… there's things I want to do in my life, and they're not happening at this pace."
Before that, I had a general idea of things I wanted to do and have in my life, but I went about in an unstructured way. It was good in a lot of ways. It made be a broad process, but not much depth.