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How to Make Habits Form More Quickly


While it always takes time for a habit to form, if we want to encourage one to take hold, here are some key things we can do:

  1. Do it more often. Each repetition of a behavior helps to strengthen the neural connections that can make that behavior automatic.
  2. Skip the excuses and exceptions. While nobody’s perfect, it’s important to keep in mind that any time we skip a day or decide to let things slide because of “special circumstances” sets things backward and delays the formation of a habit. (See “How Not to Make Excuses“)
  3. Plan in advance. Sometimes we don’t have a lot of attention to spare to think about a goal at the times when we need to make key choices. By planning ahead when we do have a few moments to think, we can have the right choices mapped out for us and increase our chances of making them.
  4. Think, visualize, discuss, daydream. The more time we put into thinking about our goals and imagining the payoffs, the easier it is to tap into motivation when we need it. Use a daily commute, time waiting for appointments, time in the shower, and even conversations with friends to spend more brain time on your goal.
  5. Simplify. The more we make our desired behaviors simple to manage, the more likely we are to be successful managing them. Use tools, regular events, well-thought-out systems, and repeatable behaviors to stay on track.
  6. Find the appeal. It’s much easier to keep to a course of action when it’s something we think of ourselves as enjoying instead of something we think of as a chore or limitation.  Focus as much as possible on the things that make a behavior appealing, and be willing to try to find some enjoyment even in circumstances you’re used to thinking of as unpleasant, like feeling hungry or getting organized.

Photo by Maia C

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How Not to Make Excuses

States of mind

An experiment in excuses
For most of my life I’ve been running an experiment between two categories of things in my life: the “excuses are OK” group and “no excuses” group. It’s only recently that I noticed I was running this experiment, though, and so the years and years of results are only now starting to come in handy.

Let me give some examples of choices that have been in each group. By the way, though I talk a lot about eating well in this post, the points about excuses and exceptions apply just as well to forming any other kind of habit.

“Excuses are OK” group

  • Eating foods that I’d be better off not eating
  • Going to bed at a reasonable hour
  • Keeping track of incoming mail

“No Excuses” group

  • Parenting
  • Vegetarianism (for the 22 years I decided to do that)
  • Going to work

So I might do well for a stretch at making good eating choices, then hit a day when I was traveling and didn’t have many options, so I’d say to myself “Oh well, it’s really hard to eat well on a day like today–I’ll just eat whatever.”

But on that same trip I would not say “Oh well, it’s really hard to eat vegetarian on a day like today–I’ll just get a hamburger.”

My results
Knowing what I know these days about self-motivation, it shouldn’t surprise me that the “no excuses” group of activities were much more successful than the “excuses OK” group. For instance, when I started making a rule of eating only at specific times of day, it became much easier to make better eating choices. I went 22 years without knowingly eating any red meat, seafood, or poultry–even that time back in my 20’s when I was out of money and extremely hungry while traveling and someone offered me a hamburger. By contrast, it’s rare that I’ve gone 22 days without overeating (though all the days I have eaten well count for something, as I eventually lost 60 pounds and have been in great shape for quite a while now).

To look at it another way, and in terms of a real experiment, one study on habit formation found that those participants who kept up the behavior they wanted to make into a habit with no more than one exception over the course of months were much more successful at forming durable habits than those who made two or more exceptions.

The secret of excuses and exceptions
The thing about excuses and exceptions is that if we’re trying to build habits, there’s no good reason for excuses short of total catastrophe. Any time we don’t stick with the behavior we’re trying to build up–that is, any time we make exceptions–we lose some of the habitual behavior we’re trying to build. There may be days when eating well is inconvenient, boring, or annoying, but if I use inconvenience, boredom, and annoyance as excuses, then they’ll wreck my attempts to build a habit over time.

That’s not to say that making one excuse is the end of the world, but it is true that taking excuses as a serious problem and not an acceptable norm will help us develop the habits we want to create.

Easier said than done–but possible!
“That’s really nice,” you might say, “but it doesn’t help me for you to just tell me to behave the way I’d like to all the time. Not behaving the way I want to is the problem in the first place!” And that would be a reasonable thing to mention. Fortunately, there is a practical takeaway here: excuses are red flags and should be treated as such. There’s no such thing as a good excuse when trying to build a habit, there are only catastrophic interruptions. If a friend of yours is in the hospital and you end up throwing your good eating habits out the window from stress and limited choices, that’s fine; it’s not the end of the world–but it is a catastrophic interruption, and it means you’re damaging a good habit you’re working on for something more important. But good friends are more important than good food, and that’s a reasonable choice if you really need to focus on your friend.

On the other hand, what if you just interrupt a good habit because you’re in a bad mood or happen to be in a restaurant that serves something you like? Many of us immediately reach for the excuse box.

But if we recognize excuses and exceptions as danger signs, we can stop ourselves and say “My goal here is to build a habit, not to come up with excuses to screw that up.” Using this kind of awareness, making rules, taking responsibility, surrendering excuses, and making use of any useful tactics we can learn (like this list of 24 Ways to Stop Feeling Hungry), we can move ourselves out of the “Excuses OK” group and into the group that’s really kicking experimental butt.

Photo by ariel.chico

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Harnessing a Winning Streak

Strategies and goals

Katherine Hepburn's Oscars

In gambling, winning streaks are a sucker’s bet, but with willpower, projects, and good habit formation, winning streaks are not only possible: they can be a highly effective tool for making on-and-off success into consistent success.

Why Winning Streaks Help
In matters of willpower, our tendency to see patterns and to get invested in scores and numbers can work in our favor. A winning streak is the kind of system that tends to attract our attention. It’s also a way of harnessing the power of rules.

Let’s say I’m trying to develop a habit of getting to work half an hour early every day. If I’ve been managing to arrive at that time a few times a week, I’ll probably be encouraged, because arriving early on some days is clearly an improvement over arriving early on no days. However, doing something 3 or 4 times out of 5 isn’t a good way to develop a habit: the habit will develop more quickly if I show up at the new time I’ve chosen every single day.

This is where a winning streak comes in: if I have been in at the new time 3 out of the last 3 days, and if I’ve started to keep track, I’m likely to care more about being in at the new time on the 4th day, and then on the 5th. Every time I show up early, my count goes up, and I establish a new record–my “score” gets higher. If I don’t get in early, it ruins my winning streak, and my count is back down to 0.

Small, But Easy to Focus On
If you’re thinking that these kinds of scores are trivial, in some ways you’re right. Yet winning streaks are useful because our brains don’t always pick out the most important information: they like patterns. They also like clear, simple, short-term goals. This is why video games, soap operas, and sports events can be so engrossing to so many people: it’s not because these things are important for themselves as that they offer simple, immediate problems that are either going to be solved or not solved in the short term, along with a structure we recognize and can judge.

A winning streak means we’re not overwhelming ourselves with the requirement to become fluent in Korean or lose 40 pounds or organize the entire house. Instead, we focus on the current day and the current task: learn 10 more Korean flash cards; track all of what I eat for the day, exercise for at least 20 minutes, and stay under my calorie limit; do the next item on the house organization list. If we do the little bit that needs to be done every day, the winning streak is maintained and the days mount up. And if on one particular day things go awry, that’s disappointing, but the new goal is pretty obvious: start over and try to “beat” the old score, the longest previous streak.

My Experience
I’ve been experimenting with winning streaks in my own life lately, and so far the results have been strong, and I’ll be trying them out in other areas.

I’ve have been losing weight and getting more fit for years: I’m down 60 pounds so far, and I’ve become stronger, fitter, and more energetic than I’ve ever been in my life. My eating habits have been good, but typically I’d eat well on average maybe 5 to 10 days in a row, then have one or more days when I got just far enough off track to temporarily stop my weight loss.

Applying the winning streak approach, I started by writing “Day 1” on the pad of paper where I keep track of what I eat, what exercise I do, and what I weigh. My task was to keep my food intake within 1700 calories each day (a level at which I know from experience I lose weight at a healthy rate) and to exercise on every day it was feasible. Each day do these things this counts as a “win.” So far, every single day has been successful. Today is day 24, and not only is this probably a record for me in terms of consecutive “perfect” days for weight loss, but I weigh 7 pounds less than I did on day 1. That breaks out to about 2 pounds a week, the highest weight loss rate that is probably healthy for me. I’ve even been through a number of disruptions during this time–illness, Thanksgiving, a trip out of town, eating out, and so on–but because I was on a winning streak, my attention remained focused on how I could keep on track for each of those days. For Thanksgiving I planned ahead with my family and brought some healthy foods along to the meal myself. On my trip I packed healthy food before I left and chose a restaurant to have lunch in with care. I have no doubt that I would have felt much less motivation to make things work in those particular, difficult situations if I hadn’t been trying to protect my winning streak–and getting motivation during those trickiest times is exactly where willpower needs to shine.

Want to Try It?
If you want to try using a winning streak yourself, you’ll need to know two things first: what your requirements are (exactly what do you have to do to “win” each day?) and what you need to have or know to be able to meet those requirements. For instance, you can’t plan to study Korean every day if you don’t yet have materials to study.

Most habits will benefit most if you do them every day, but if that’s not practical, you’ll want to establish an exact schedule, for instance “every business day” (which would be suitable for a job-related goal) or “every Monday, Thursday and Saturday except when ill.” Write down all the allowable exceptions at the beginning–it’s too easy to change the rules and wiggle out of things if you change the rules in the middle of the game.

Then just write “Day 1” … and start your winning streak.

Photo by cliff1066


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