Motivation. It’s one of those funny words. You see motivational quotes on Instagram and watch motivational videos on YouTube. A quick google search reveals thousands of articles written by personal development bloggers on how to become more motivated.
We read articles and listen to podcasts hoping to find some magic formula that will inspire as to take action. We tell ourselves that we want to lose weight or we want to study more but for some reason we find taking action so difficult. Why?
The problem with motivation is that it’s unreliable. It’s fleeting. Perhaps on Monday morning you wake up feeling motivated to hit the gym but on Tuesday, you just can’t find that same drive.
If you spend your life waiting around for some surge of motivation to hit you, you may never take action.
In this article I will talk about the key to creating real change. It doesn’t come in the form of some inspirational quote on Instagram or some 3 minute motivational video on YouTube. No.
The key to making lasting changes that stick lies in the simple power of habit.
The Power of Habit.
For many people, one of the most mundane aspects of their week is the daily commute. That long drive to the office. But when you think about it, driving itself is a highly technical skill. Think about all the actions involved in the simple act of reversing of your driveway in the morning.
Yet when you’re cruising down the motorway at 70 mph you’re not thinking about any this. You’re thinking about that argument you had with your husband this morning or what to buy your mother-in-law for her birthday. When it comes to the act of driving itself, you’re on autopilot.
This is exactly how habits form. They are behaviours which have been repeated so many times that we now perform them on autopilot. This is precisely why habits can be so powerful.
If I asked you to name a habit you have developed in your own life, you would probably talk about how you eat too much junk food or mindless surf YouTube videos. When we think about habits, we tend to think of them as being negative.
But not all habits are created equal. In fact, with a little understanding of human psychology we can learn to build systems for eating healthier or studying harder. More importantly, we can achieve all of this without having to rely on motivation but by building small, daily habits that can transform our lives.
The Habit Loop.
Okay, so how do we actually go about building better habits? Let’s dig into the 3 key pillars of habit formation.
1: Build a routine.
In his book, ‘The Power of Habit’, Charles Duhigg talks about how all habits are formed of three key components. You have the cue, the routine and the reward. As always, I think the best way to learn is through examples. So let’s suppose you have a friend called Tim, who has a terrible habit of eating far too much chocolate.
First of all we have the cue. This is often some aspect of our environment which triggers a specific behaviour. Perhaps when Tim is watching the latest episode of ‘A Game of Thrones’ , he has the tendency of popping into the kitchen during the commercials, to find himself some chocolate to snack upon.
So now we have our trigger: Those Boring TV commercials serve as the cue for Tim’s chocolate eating behaviour.
The routine is a little more obvious. It’s the behaviour itself. The act of getting up and heading into the kitchen to find some delicious chocolate to consume.
Finally, we have the reward. Now remember that Tim’s chocolate eating behaviour is not actually a result of hunger, but rather boredom. So the reward would not necessarily by the taste of the chocolate per se, but rather the relief in boredom eating such chocolate provides.
So now we have seen how bad habits form, we can apply the same principles to creating more productive behaviours.
Create action triggers:
When trying to build any habit in your life, it’s vital to build a regular routine. One of the most effective ways to achieve is by creating action triggers. An action trigger simply involves taking an already existing habit and using it as the cue for a newly desired behaviour.
For example, if you wanted to get into the habit of exercising more, you might decide to perform 10 push-ups every morning after you brush your teeth. What you are doing, is training your brain to associate the act of brushing your teeth with the action of performing 10 push-ups.
Some more example might include:
1) After I eat my lunch, I will meditate for 5 minutes
2) After my morning shower, I will spend 15 minutes tidying my bedroom.
3) As soon as I wake up, I will write 3 goals for the day.
4) After I have walked the dog, I will study for 20 minutes.
You get the idea. Remember, our brains love familiarity and to key to building any habit that sticks lies in building a routine.
2: Start small.
Whilst we have a good understanding of our physical limits, we often fail to appreciate how our willpower too, is a finite resource.
In a classic experiment carried out in 1998, the psychologist Roy Baumeister asked participants to take part in a study which involved completing a few geometric puzzles.
The participants were split into two groups and were seated in two separate rooms before completing the task. Ever the host, he even went so far as to provide snacks for his budding volunteers.
Here’s the catch. In each room was a delicious bowl of cookies and a not so appealing bowl of radishes. For the participants in the first group, they were allowed to indulge in the biscuits whilst the second group were only allowed to snack on the radishes.
What the experiment found, was that those who were only allowed to snack on radishes, gave up on the puzzles far more quickly than the cookie eaters.
Why? Because those poor radish eaters had already depleted their precious willpower in resisting those delicious cookies!
So how does this study relate to building better habits? It demonstrates how our willpower is a limited resource. When we try to make huge changes overnight, we simply exhaust ourselves. It’s far more effective to succeed at making a small change, than to fail at making a large one.
Rather than trying to make massive changes over night, focus on one small change at a time. For example;
1) If you want to start exercising more, start by going for a 5 minute run in the morning.
2) If you want to start reading more, read just a single page every evening.
3) If you want to quit smoking, start by cutting out just 1 cigarette a day.
Remember we’re not trying to climb mountains overnight but we’re focusing on creating habits that stick. Once you’ve established the routine of going for a 5 minute jog every morning, this can easily transition into 10, 15 or 20 minute run over time.
The difficult part is starting and the easiest way to start, is by focusing on those first few steps.
3: Design your optimal environment.
Let’s be honest, you’re lazy. It’s not just you, we all are. Don’t believe me? Take a look at the following chart. The following graph shows the organ donation rates across a variety of countries.
What you probably notice is that the countries on the right have a significantly higher organ donation rate than those on the left.
So, what could possibly explain this divide?
As it turns out, it all comes down to the form people complete, when applying for their driving licence. You see, the countries on the left use a form that specifically asks people if they would like to donate their organs to medical science, once they die.
However, the countries on the right assume consent as the default option unless people explicitly opt not to donate their organs.
That’s right. Simply changing the default option massively increased the likelihood that somebody would opt in for organ donation.
This study demonstrates another fundamental aspect of human nature. The decisions we make are hugely influenced by the design of our environment.
This brings me to third and final point about habit building. One of the best ways to form more productive habits is to design your environment to work in your favour.
Previously, I have written an entire article on how our environment influences our behaviour, but I will highlight some of the key points here.
1: Remove distractions.
We live in a world full of distractions. One of the simplest and most effective ways for cultivating positive habits is to cut off distractions at the source.
1) Delete social media apps from your phone, or at least remove them from the home screen.
2) Turn your phone off altogether.
3) Disconnect your computer from the internet whilst working.
4) Remove the TV from your bedroom or living room.
5) Throw out all the junk food from your fridge.
Whatever change you’re trying to make, it will be a much easier journey if you remove the rocks along the road.
2: Make things easy.
As we have already seen, when given a choice we so often take the path of least resistance. Take advantage of your natural laziness by making the good decisions as easy as possible. What do I mean? Here are a few examples:
1) Are you trying to eat healthier? Prepare a selection of healthy meals ahead of time and keep them stocked in the fridge. This way, whenever hunger strikes you will have a healthy snack ready to go.
2) Are you trying to make exercise a habit? Pick a gym that you pass on your way to work or better yet, buy some cheap equipment and work out from home.
3) Are you a student struggling with procrastination? Set up a dedicated study area at home. Make sure it is well-lit, comfortable but free of distractions.
3: Find your people.
One of the very best ways for overcoming procrastination is to find a group of people with a common goal. If you’re trying to cut down on the alcohol, surrounding yourself with friends who want to clubbing every night is hardly going to help.
A great way to make sure you stick to a new habit is to make yourself accountable. If you want to make weight-lifting a habit then find a personal trainer. If you want to get that A grade at school then join a study group. Search sites such as Meetup.com for groups who share your ambitions.
As human beings, we are hugely influenced by social pressure. Luckily this is something we can turn to our advantage. By surrounding yourself with like-minded individuals and making yourself accountable to others, you are significantly more likely to stick to your goals.
Some final words …
The key message I want you to take away from this article, is that relying on motivation is a pretty bad way to achieve any goal. A much better method is to focus on building habits.
When you focus on building habits you can make exercise or healthy eating or studying more a daily aspect of your life, rather than some laborious chore.
I hope you find value in this article. If you want to learn more about building better habits and overcoming procrastination then please sign up to my email list. That way, you will receive a notification letting you know the moment I publish a new post.
Until next time then, take care.
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