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Are you struggling to establish a new habit?

Science-backed techniques to the rescue

Photo by Francesco Gallarotti on Unsplash

Even if I have the best of intentions, new habits can be challenging for me to form. My desire to feel a certain way — my why — by establishing the habit will only take me so far.

To succeed, I try to use techniques proven by science to put my plan into action. Here’s how I stack the odds in my favor.

Struggle no more: Combine desire and science-backed techniques

1) Find my motivation or my why. The WHYs in my life right now are the fundamental ways that I want to feel each day. (These feelings are what those who use the Desire Map process refer to as core desired feelings.) I do not choose to set a goal or start a habit unless it helps me feel the way I want to feel. Simple as that.

2) Next, desire meets action. I set achievement-based goals that will help me feel my core desired feelings. As Danielle LaPorte states in the Desire Map, “When you get clear on how you want to feel, the pursuit itself will become more satisfying.”

3) I choose behavior that I have the ability to do that also brings me closer to one of my achievement-based goals.

4) I use an existing habit as a cue to trigger behavior.

5) If possible, I remove willpower from the equation.

6) I take 60 seconds or less to perform the tiny habit.

7) I give myself a small reward when I finish the behavior.

8) I track my progress. I try to check in with my progress on a daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly basis. If at any time, I am not feeling the way I want to feel I am free to change things up.

9) If I am having problems maintaining a habit, I will consider setting a commitment contract.

So how do I put this into action? I’ll get to that, but first I want to go into detail on a few techniques. Have you heard of tiny habits?

Change your life forever by starting tiny

“Plant a tiny seed in the right spot and it will grow without coaxing.” BJ Fogg

No matter how large my goal, BJ Fogg wants me to start tiny. Tiny habits that is. He isn’t another random “expert” giving advice. BJ Fogg, Ph.D. is Director of the Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford University and has been studying human behavior for 20 years. His TED talk on tiny habits has almost 1 million views!

For a tiny habit, I choose something easy to do which requires almost no motivation. For example, if I want to floss my teeth every day I set a goal of flossing a single tooth. I will probably end up flossing more than one tooth if I start. After I complete the habit, celebrate right away. Look into the mirror and tell myself that I am amazing, do a little happy dance, or pat myself on the back.

BJ Fogg had a goal of getting healthier. He decided to start doing pushups. But as this is a tiny habit, BJ began with a single pushup. To trigger himself, he performs his pushup after he goes to the bathroom and flushes. Doing pushups on a bathroom floor kind of grosses me out, but it works for BJ. Over time, he increased this to a few pushups. But to remain a tiny habit, his pushup routine has to take less than 60 seconds to complete.

To establish a habit, I need to understand what causes my behavior. BJ Fogg uses a formula to explain the cause: B=mat. To spell it out, Behavior = motivation + ability + trigger. In other words, motivation, ability and, a trigger cause behavior to occur. This formula applies to all habits, not just tiny habits.

Rise and shine sleepyhead

“When you know how to create tiny habits, you can change your life forever.” BJ Fogg

Photo by elizabeth lies on Unsplash

Here is how I am achieving my desires by putting science-backed techniques to the test. I have two writing-related goals which help me to feel creative, one of my core desired feelings.

To help me reach these goals, I need to do the majority of my writing while my son is at school. If I am not careful the school day tends to fly by. To make the most of this precious time, I need to get out of bed faster in the morning. But I make no claims to be a morning person.

Thus, it won’t surprise you that I have always had a problem getting out of my cozy bed in the morning. I was one of those people who hit the snooze button, again and again, and buried myself under the covers. In the winter, it is still dark outside when my alarm goes off which makes getting out of bed even more difficult.

Here is where a tiny habit comes to my rescue. BJ Fogg suggests using the following sentence to create your new habit. “After I (existing habit), I will (new tiny behavior).”

The first sentence that came to mind did not cut it. After I hit the button on my alarm clock in the morning, I will get out of bed. This tiny habit would still require a tremendous amount of willpower even if it only takes a few seconds.

If it is going to take me 66 days to establish a habit, failure is almost a given if I have to rely on willpower alone. Back to the drawing board.

Instead of creating a sentence for the morning, what if I created a tiny habit for the night before? Maybe this would set me up for success the next morning? I also needed to figure out how to remove both willpower and motivation from the habit.

Ta-da! Here is my new sentence. After I turn my alarm on with the snooze setting off, I will put the alarm clock on my dresser. When my alarm goes off, I am forced to get out of bed and walk over to my dresser before I can turn the alarm off.

I admit that there are days when I hop back into bed. But I never fall back asleep once I have gotten out of bed to turn off the alarm. I consider this a win.

My reward is a tasty breakfast once I get downstairs.

Once I am ready to write, I need to avoid my biggest willpower suck: the lure of technology. If I get sucked into the technology vortex which tempts me from every corner, it is hard to escape. I can emerge minutes or hours later without accomplished anything. I’m not going to change my life that way, am I?

I cannot have my mobile phone in the room when I need to focus. I also turn off all notifications on my computer and phone. I try to have only the apps and browser I need open on my laptop. I find this total focus helps me when my muse seems to have left or when a significant deadline looms.

Instead of tracking my progress with this tiny habit, I monitor my progress on the writing goal instead. When I was a kid, I used to love when I got a gold star for a job well done or for accomplishing something. As an adult, tracking my progress on establishing habits gives me the same sensation as the gold star.

Right now, I prefer to use technology to track my habits instead of pen and paper. I use the app Habit List to track my habits. I am also considering an artful way to track my habits. It sounds fun to color my way to progress with a mandala or progress map.

Plan B: Commitment contract

If as the year goes on, I am feeling stuck establishing new habits I have a plan B in mind. I will add a commitment contract to my arsenal of techniques.

A commitment contract is a binding agreement I sign with myself. But that is not all. I have to put my money on the line to motivate me. I can give the money to a commitment partner or a friend. Or, I can donate money to a cause that opposes my beliefs. If that doesn’t inspire me, I don’t know what will?

I learned about this technique from stickK, a free platform where you can create a commitment contract. I have never tried one before, but the concept intrigues me. I imagine people who need accountability will benefit by creating a commitment contract.

I admit that it sounds strange to me to decide in advance to punish myself if I don’t follow through on my goals. But commitment contracts stem from concepts in behavioral economics and psychology. Loss aversion and accountability are proven to drive action.

Furthermore, stickK is based on the work of Professor Richard Thaler. Did I mention that he is the winner of the 2017 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences? I can’t argue with his expertise!

Still curious?

Download a free 2018 calendar based on the Desire Map planner.

Articles I wrote on resolutions, habits, and productivity:

Other tools and resources:

Kelsey Cleveland is a Desire Map facilitator who helps women in transition figure out how to set goals based on how they really want to feel. She is also a freelance writer who writes articles, essays and blog posts and is working on a book-length memoir.

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