Editor’s Note: This story is part of 5 Habits Changes You Can Actually Make In 2015. Check out the full list here.
We all have goals, whether they’re lofty plans like getting a promotion or taking on more responsibility at work or simple lifestyle changes like going to bed earlier or eating healthier–it’s how we accomplish these goals that’s not as easy to identify.
To make our ambitions a reality, we looked to a particularly clever marketing strategy last week for some inspiration. If marketers can use environmental triggers to trick us into associating one thing with the need to buy their products, why couldn’t we use the same concept to remind ourselves to accomplish our objectives, we wondered.
In our meta experiment of using this habit change to effect more habit change, we found that while creating environmental cues for changes we wanted to make was an effective hack for remembering our goals, this trick is only a piece of a much larger habit-change puzzle.
Since I’m saving up for a wedding, I kept a quarter on my desk to curb my frivolous spending. Every time I felt tempted to buy coffee or lunch, I’d look at the quarter and think, “That’s all you have to spend today, so cut it out!”
I also want to keep up healthier habits, so I made a mental note to associate my water cup with eating healthier lunches and drinking plenty of water throughout the day. I kept my running shoes in front of my bedroom door to remind myself to work out each morning, and Co.Exist senior editor Ariel Schwartz similarly left her exercise gear where she couldn’t miss it to get back into the habit of running every day.
To atone for her “luxurious food binge” over Thanksgiving, production director Carly Migliori decided to cut back on her junk food intake. As a reminder for this goal, Migliori associated the office’s “rainbow table”–a multicolored meeting table notorious at Fast Company for its bounty of communal treats–with not snacking. She also has a photo of Idris Elba at her desk, and every time she wanted to have a snack, she says she looked at him. “Idris Elba is clearly not chowing down on Rice Krispies treats,” she explains.
Director Of web projects Claudia Rojas cleaned her home workspace and left her sketchbook on her desk ready for her to pick up and start drawing. Similarly, Migliori used a clean bedroom to trick herself into going to bed early each evening. “Coming home to a clean and inviting bedroom definitely made it easier for me to want to go in there earlier than usual.”
Experts agree that successfully changing our habits starts with setting small, manageable goals. Schwartz, for example, found that having her exercise gear nearby was key to achieving her overall goal of boosting her mind, since it’s something she can do almost every day.
While my overall goal was to save a huge chunk of money for a wedding that’s months away, I started small by breaking this down into smaller, more actionable goals, like not buying breakfast or lunch–and it worked! In contrast, when I set the lofty goal of losing a ton of weight instead of something more manageable like simply getting moving, all I saw when I walked past my shoes after waking up too late to work out was a hot pink symbol of failure.
In keeping with the idea that we want to make it easier, not harder, to accomplish our goals, we found that it’s also a good idea to make sure you have the right tools in place to get to it.
Outside support from friends and coworkers certainly helps, but one of the most important tools is being our own champions and keeping a positive mind-set.
On Wednesday, Schwartz told herself it would be okay for her to fail from the beginning because she was so tired. For the rest of the day she was frustrated every time she thought about exercising.
“It’s hard enough for me to convince myself to go outside in the cold and/or rain and exercise, so even a kernel of doubt is enough to throw me off,” she says.
And in a world full of temptation, where anything we could possibly want is right at our fingertips, it becomes even harder to keep up our good habits.
“Say my goal was to cook dinner every night, but I was feeling lazy or tired,” Migliori explains. “I could totally have a sushi feast delivered to my door in less than an hour.”
What helps mitigate this issue is recognizing what’s lying in wait to tempt us to give up on our goals. “I think temptations become more powerful when you’re tired or in a bad mood, so I’d probably try to find a different route around the sushi place if I was feeling particularly cranky,” Schwartz offers.
For the complete discussion, take a look at the transcript from our live chat last Friday.