How can we use simple tricks to form habits?

So making behaviors as easy as possible is key to turning them into habits. Luckily, there are a few tricks we can embrace to make anything seem easier. The first is to focus on reducing friction.

The author has always been hopeless at sending greeting cards, while his wife never fails to do so. Why? Well, she keeps a box of greeting cards at home, presorted by occasion, making it easier to send congratulations or condolences or whatever is called for. Since she doesn’t have to go out and buy a card when someone gets married or has an accident, there’s no friction involved in sending one.

You can also use this approach to increase friction for bad habits. If you want to waste less time in front of the TV, unplug it and take the batteries out of the remote. Doing so will introduce enough friction to ensure you only watch when you really want to.

The second trick for making a habit easier in the long term is the two-minute rule, a way to make any new activity feel manageable. The principle is that any activity can be distilled into a habit that is doable within two minutes. Want to read more? Don’t commit to reading one book every week – instead, make a habit of reading two pages per night. Want to run a marathon? Commit to simply putting on your running gear every day after work.

The two-minute rule is a way to build easily achievable habits, and those can lead you on to greater things. Once you’ve pulled on your running shoes, you’ll probably head out for a run. Once you’ve read two pages, you’ll likely continue. The rule recognizes that simply getting started is the first and most important step toward doing something.

Now let’s take a look at the final rule for using habits to improve your life.

In the 1990s, public health researcher Stephen Luby, working in the neighborhood of Karachi, Pakistan, achieved a huge 52-percent reduction in diarrhea among the local children. Pneumonia rates dropped by 48 percent, and skin infections by 35 percent. Luby’s secret? Nice soap.

Luby had known that handwashing and basic sanitation were essential to reducing illness. The locals understood this, too; they just weren’t turning their knowledge into a habit. Everything changed when Luby worked with Proctor and Gamble to introduce a premium soap into the neighborhood for free. Overnight, handwashing became a satisfying experience. The new soap lathered easily and smelled delightful. Suddenly, everyone was washing their hands, because it was now a pleasing activity.

The final and most important rule for behavioral change is to make habits satisfying.

This can be difficult, for evolutionary reasons. Today, we live in what academics call a delayed-return environment. You turn up at the office today, but the return – a paycheck – doesn’t come until the end of the month. You go to the gym in the morning, but you don’t lose weight overnight.

Our brains, though, evolved to cope with the immediate-return environment of earlier humans, who weren’t thinking about long-term returns like saving for retirement or sticking to a diet. They were focused on immediate concerns like finding their next meal, seeking shelter and staying alert enough to escape any nearby lions.

Immediate returns can encourage bad habits, too. Smoking may give you lung cancer in 20 years, but, in the moment, it relieves your stress and the craving for nicotine, which means you may ignore the long-term effects and indulge in a cigarette.

So when you are pursuing habits with a delayed return, try to attach some immediate gratification to them.

For example, a couple the author knows wanted to eat out less, cook more, get healthier and save money. To do so, they opened a savings account called “Trip to Europe,” and every time they avoided a meal out, transferred $50 to it. The short-term satisfaction of seeing $50 land in that savings account provided the immediate gratification they needed to keep them on track for the ultimate, longer-term reward.

However pleasurable and satisfying we make habits, we may still fail to maintain them. So let’s take a look at how we can stick to our good intentions.

Whether you’re trying to write your journal or give up smoking, managing your own behaviors can be hard. Thankfully, there are a few simple measures that can help.

Habit tracking is a simple but effective technique. Many people have kept a record of their habits; one of the most well known is founding father Benjamin Franklin. From the age of 20, Franklin kept a notebook in which he recorded adherence to 13 personal virtues, which included aims like avoiding frivolous conversation and to always be doing something useful. He noted his success every night.

You, too, can develop a habit tracker, using a simple calendar or diary, and crossing off every day that you stick with your chosen behaviors. You’ll find it effective, because habit tracking itself is an attractive, and satisfying, habit. The anticipation and action of crossing off each day will feel good and keep you motivated.

A second technique is to develop a habit contract that imposes negative consequences if you fail to stay on track.

Bryan Harris, an entrepreneur from Nashville, took his habit contract very seriously. In a contract signed by him, his wife and his personal trainer, he committed to get his weight down to 200 pounds. He identified specific habits that would help get him there, including tracking his food intake each day and weighing himself each week. Then he set up penalties for not doing those things. If he failed to track food intake, he would have to pay $100 to his trainer; if he failed to weigh himself, he would owe $500 to his wife. The strategy worked, driven not just by his fear of losing money but by his fear of losing face in front of two people who mattered to him. Humans are social animals. We care about the opinions of those around us, so simply knowing that someone is watching you can be a powerful motivator for success.

So why not set yourself a habit contract? Even if it isn’t as detailed as Harris’s, consider making a commitment to your partner, your best friend or one of your coworkers. If you agree upon a set of consequences for failing to follow through, you’ll be much more likely to stick to your habits. And as we’ve seen, sticking to a positive habit, however small, is a surefire way to achieve big things in life.

A tiny change in your behavior will not transform your life overnight. But turn that behavior into a habit that you perform every day and it absolutely can lead to big changes. Changing your life is not about making big breakthroughs or revolutionizing your entire life. Rather, it’s about building a positive system of habits that, when combined, deliver remarkable results.

A simple trick for you to try out. Use habit stacking to introduce new behaviors.

If you want to build a new habit, you could try stacking it on top of an existing habit. Let’s say you want to start meditating, but you’re struggling to find the time. Try thinking about those things you do effortlessly each day, like drinking coffee in the morning. Then just stack the new habit on top. Commit to meditating each morning when you’ve finished your coffee, and build on the natural momentum that comes from a habit you already have.

Check out my related post: Why do we neglect our future selves?

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