As we all know from bitter experience, it can be very tough to change a habit.
But surprisingly, habit change can sometimes be easy. In the research for my upcoming book Better Than Before, I discovered many strategies that we can exploit to master our habits, and four strategies–the Strategies of the Clean Slate, Monitoring, Inconvenience, and Treats– that are easy to use. They’re straightforward, simple to apply, and make habit change fairly painless.
The Strategy of the Clean Slate is powerful, and can come at any point When we experience any transition, our old habits are wiped away, and we get a “clean slate.” In this vacuum, new habits take hold much more easily. A clean slate might involve a relationship, such as marriage, divorce, or a new puppy. Or the slate may be wiped clean by a change in surroundings, such as a new apartment or new city. Or some major aspect of life–a new job, a new school–may change. Sometimes the clean slate moment isn’t obvious and is easy to overlook, so be on the lookout for opportunities when life offers a fresh start, and seize the opportunity to exploit them.
During college, I would have declared it impossible to wake up and exercise. But from my very first day when I started working, I went to the gym before I went to the office. The clean slate made it much easier to start that habit.
In particular, research shows that the time of moving is a terrific time to change habits. In one study of people trying to make a change–such as changes in career or education, relationships, addictive behaviors, or health behaviors including dieting–36% of successful changes were associated with a move to a new place. Anyone who’s moving has a real opportunity to change a habit.
Another easy way to change habits? The Strategy of Monitoring. When we monitor a behavior, we tend to improve, even if we’re not consciously trying to change. To paraphrase a business school truism, “We manage what we monitor,” and tracking our actions means we do better in categories such as eating, drinking, exercising, working, TV and Internet use, spending–just about anything. For instance, one study showed that dieters who kept a food journal six or seven days a week lost twice as much weight as people who did so once a week or not at all.
It’s important to accurately measure your actions, rather than just guess. When we guess what we’re doing, we’re often inaccurate. No surprise, we’re more likely to underestimate how much we eat, and overestimate how much we exercise. When people were asked to estimate how much they walked in the course of daily activities (excluding exercise regimens), they estimated about four miles; most covered less than two miles.
We’re often lousy at tracking expenditures, too. For some people, using a credit card makes spending all too easy, while parting with cold, hard cash is easier to track. For others, plastic works better than cash, because the extensive reporting provided by credit cards makes monitoring easier.
Another easy way to change habits? The Strategy of Inconvenience. To an astonishing degree, we’re influenced by the amount of effort, time, or decision making required by an action. The more convenient, the more likely we are to do it; the more inconvenient, the less likely we are to do it.
Therefore, to squelch a bad habit, we can make it inconvenient. For instance, to stop checking a phone, lock it in a desk drawer. To stop hitting the snooze alarm, put the alarm clock across the room.
The Strategies of the Clean Slate, Monitoring, and Inconvenience are all easy ways to foster better habits. And there’s another way that’s easy and also fun. That’s the Strategy of Treats.
A treat is not a reward. A reward must be earned or justified, but a treat is a small pleasure or indulgence that we give to ourselves just because we want it. We don’t have to be “good” to get it, we don’t earn it or justify it.
It may sound self-indulgent or frivolous to give ourselves treats–but it’s not. When we give ourselves treats, we feel energized, cared for, and contented, which strengthens our self-control–and helps us maintain our healthy habits. For example, studies show that people who got a little treat, in the form of receiving a surprise gift or watching a funny video, gained in self-control.
If we give more to ourselves, we can ask more from ourselves. Self-regard isn’t selfish.
However, it’s important to have healthy treats. Many people need to steer clear of treats related to shopping, eating, and TV-watching, which often become unhealthy. A healthy treat might be going for a bike ride, going to a comedy club, looking through travel books, listening to a podcast, or checking out new music.
Changing habits can be a challenge. By doing the easy things first, we may find that change is less demanding than we expect. When we change our habits, we change our lives.
Gretchen’s new book Better Than Before comes out March 2015, when she’ll join us for a discussion about how to make lasting habit changes in our lives.