This is the time of year that we resolve to shed that excess weight and save more money. Want to know how 2011 can be the year you actually do it? My research on the latest psychological and neurological studies in support of my book, The 24-Hour Customer, found that purposefully reducing attention (yes, I said reducing) can often achieve better outcomes and make behavior change stick.
Make It Unconscious and Automatic
Researchers have found that almost half (about 45%) of our day is spent in routine and habitual behavior. Have you ever driven toward the office on autopilot when you needed to go, say, to the post office?
The part of our brains which controls habits, called the limbic system, is much older in human evolutionary history than the conscious centers, and it responds much faster. The limbic system also drives survival impulses such as fight or flight. That’s why we reach without thinking for that forbidden tray of donuts, or we type “Google” when we want to find something out.
We can avoid giving into negative impulses by shaping our environment to avoid them. Keep cookies out of the house, for example, or program automatic savings from our payroll so that the money is safely out of easy reach. These techniques can be more effective than relying on constant (but increasingly distracted) attention and willpower to alter our behavior. I’ve written about how time pressures and context shape our behavior here.
Here are two ways to make your New Year’s resolutions automatic:
- Brain Habits: Start with forming a small habit.
- Systematic Habits: Program it so you don’t have to think about it.
Brain Habits: Form a Small Habit
Forming a small habit inside an existing routine is the best way to ensure that a new behavior sticks. Such habits etch into the brain itself (and we all know about the power of habits in defining behavior). You need three elements for success:
- A Trigger
- Fast feedback
Trigger: Find a daily cue that reminds you to automatically perform the behavior. Start by making the habit as small as possible by inserting it into idle moments. For example, I wanted to reduce back pain and flatten my belly by performing a few minutes of stretching and sit-ups every day. I found the perfect time in the morning while my coffee was brewing. Rather than staring blankly into my dripping coffeepot, the whir of the coffee grinder now reminds me to get on the carpet and stretch. I do my sit-ups almost every day now without even thinking about it.
Frequency: A small change performed consistently will have greater impact than a big- bang change that ultimately fails. Consider how the Grand Canyon was formed not by a major geologic event, but by the slow erosion of the earth with the consistent flow of Colorado River water. Repetition is key.
Attach the new habit to an existing routine that is performed either daily or weekly. Sue, a harried mom, became tired of the dental hygienist lecturing her to floss her teeth. Too busy and impatient to perform this task after brushing, she now carries a pack of one-handed dental floss picks in her car. While parked at her kids’ elementary school curb waiting for the end-of-day bell to ring, she now pulls out a flosser for her teeth. (Although this doesn’t pass for perfect etiquette, it doesn’t seem as bad as texting.) She enjoys a brighter smile with no cavities, and her hygienist now praises her at check-ups.
Fast Feedback: Reinforce the habit with rapid feedback. For Sue, it is the fresh feeling of clean teeth after flossing. For my morning exercises, it is the pleasure of controlling my life balance, and knowing that this task is done for the day.
Small habits can be powerful drivers of behavior. Can you walk by those ubiquitous hand sanitizer dispensers without the urge to take a squirt? That’s a commercial habit that has inserted itself into our daily lives over the past decade. Google search is another example. Imagine if your product or service had such a repeatable impact on your customers.
Systematic Habits: Program It and Forget It
Perhaps one of the best ways to cope with information overload is to program and outsource tasks that you have no desire to pay attention to. Unlike brain habits, these tasks are automated into computer memory instead of cerebral activity. This gives rise to what I call the Inattention Economy.
Opportunities abound in this area, from saving money by setting up a small automatic payroll deduction into a savings account, pre-ordering diet dinners sent to your door (so you don’t have to pay attention to calories or meal planning), setting up system defaults and text reminders, and outsourcing activities to gadgets, such as buying a robotic vacuum to avoid devoting attention to cleaning the house. Of course, evaluate the providers of these services carefully, as you will be using them for a long time.
Automate and Reduce Attention to Achieve Your Goal
Some up-front attention and planning is needed to pick a resolution that will hold for a long time. Rather than fretting over the need to maintain willpower, or pay constant attention to the budget, focus instead some up-front attention on forming a brain or systematic habit that can help you achieve your goals. It may not be the task itself that needs adjusting, but the environment around you that needs a new trigger or program.
The best part? In the long run, you won’t have to think about it.
Library Journal says Adrian Ott is, “revolutionizing marketing by adding the concept of time.” She is the award-winning author of The 24-Hour Customer: New Rules for Winning in a Time-Starved, Always-Connected Economy and CEO of Exponential Edge® Inc. consulting. Follow Adrian on Twitter at @ExponentialEdge
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