What works better than willpower?

Think in terms of triggers, cues and rewards

When we resolve to do something but then fail, we usually beat ourselves up for our lack of willpower. However, willpower is a finite resource, and by far the least effective method to embed a new habit. Rather than gritting your teeth and making yourself do something (and then being frustrated when, over time, inevitably you don't), it is much better to set up your environment so that you build in cues to do what you want to remember to do. As Dr B.J. Fogg, Director of Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab, says: "There’s just one way to radically change your behavior: radically change your environment."

You also need to think through how to remove temptation, so that, for instance, you don't end up surfing mindlessly instead of writing (so, if you don't want to end up on Facebook, you might be better to do your daily writing in a notebook, or if you are going to use a computer then at least shut down your browser and email programme whilst you write). Peter Bregman, in Harvard Business Review says:

It would be lovely to think that we make our own choices and follow through on them, without being too influenced by things around us, but all you need to do is read a little bit of Brian Wansink’s book Mindless Eating to realize just how much our actions are determined by our environment. Brian did a series of fascinating studies that suggest the reasons we eat have little to do with hunger and a tremendous amount to do with the subtle cues that drive us.

For example, if you use a big spoon, you’ll eat more. If you serve yourself on a big plate, you’ll eat more. If you move the small bowl of chocolates on your desk six feet away you’ll eat half as much. If you eat chicken wings and remove the bones from the table, you’ll forget how much you ate and you’ll eat more. If you have a bowl of soup that never gets less than half full, you’ll eat more. And the more people you eat with, the more you’ll eat.

Another way of looking at the 'change your environment' idea is more literal - actually go to a different place, which you associate exclusively with doing your new habit. So you might go to the library or a coffee shop or a park bench to write, rather than trying to do it amidst the competing demands at home. This is one reason why writing retreats are successful. If you are cunning, you may be able to combine this with a reward, by going somewhere you particularly like. In the long term, you might want to try to adapt some corner of your home to be exclusively associated with writing - some full time writers go to the extremes of having two desks, one for admin and editing and another which is just for writing.

Charles Duhigg has written extensively about the way habits work. He describes the simple neurological loop at the core of every habit, a loop which consists of three parts: a cue, a routine and a reward. If you want to set up a new habit, you need to find a reliable cue (so, if you want to do the habit every day, this cue needs to happen already every day), then this cue needs to trigger the activity, and then you need an immediate reward (which is a sufficiently important factor that it will be getting its own blog post...). The stronger you can make the new association between the cue and the new habit, the better. A typical example for someone who wants to go for a run every morning is to leave their running shoes and gear right by their bedroom door each night when they go to bed, so that they get a big visual cue in the morning. If what you want to do is to write first thing in the morning, can you come up with a similar visual cue?

A huge part of our problem with doing a new habit is our brain's inbuilt resistance to any form of change. With that in mind, what can you do to make starting as easy as possible? If what you need to do is to make a vacuum flask of coffee the night before, and then leave that next to your laptop, ready for the morning, do it. Or, would you be more likely to write if you kept your favourite notebook next to your bed, and simply sat up and started writing as soon as your alarm went off?

Different times of day will work for different people and different lifestyles, but first thing in the morning seems to be a popular one, and there are a couple of reasons why that might be. For one thing, if you need a consistent daily cue, one which is guaranteed to happen, then waking up falls into that category. Another advantage is that, since you can choose to set your alarm fifteen minutes or half an hour earlier, it is potentially within your own gift to create a useful time slot at this time of day, which is not something that could be said later on in the average working day. Finally, there are advantages to getting your 'must do' task done first thing - it can't get crowded out by the distractions which will inevitably start piling up as the day goes on; and you will get to start your day with a burst of achievement, which can't be a bad thing. Finally, doing your 'morning pages' absolutely first thing was advocated by Dorothea Brande in her classic, Becoming a Writer, partly because you get to capitalise on your sleepy self's access to the unconscious world of dreams, thus getting a short cut to your creativity. She also advocates, once you are successfully doing your morning pages every day, then setting another time, later in the day, to do a further fifteen minute writing slot.

Think about your cue in terms of if/then planning, So, in our example, if my alarm goes off, then it is time to write for fifteen minutes. Heidi Grant Salvorson writes in Psychology Today:

Amazingly, you are two to three times more likely to succeed if you use an if-then plan than if you don't. In one study, 91 percent of people who used an if-then plan stuck to an exercise program, versus 39 percent of non-planners. Peter Gollwitzer, the NYU psychologist who first articulated the power of if-then planning, recently reviewed results from 94 studies that used the technique and found significantly higher success rates for just about every goal you can think of, from using public transportation more frequently to avoiding stereotypical and prejudicial thoughts.

These plans work so well because they speak the language of your brain: the language of contingencies. Humans are very good at encoding information in "If X, then Y" terms, and using this process (often unconsciously) to guide our behavior. Deciding exactly when and where you will act on your goal creates a link in your brain between the situation or cue (the if) and the behavior that should follow (the then).

This way, you are bypassing the need for willpower, you have just given your brain a simple instruction, and all it has to do now is to follow it. As long as you make sure that the 'if' cue is something that will reliably happen, and that you have found a way to give yourself enough time to follow up on that cue, the rest should follow automatically.

You can also use if/then planning to think about potential stumbling blocks and how you might overcome them. Inevitably there are times when you will be thrown off course. You or your child will be ill. You will be on holiday and all your cues will be different. You will be swamped with work, or not sleeping properly because of stress. If/then planning involves thinking through what your likely stumbling blocks are, and making a plan for them. It avoids you making a stressed decision in the heat of the moment and helps to ensure that you don't let a good habit slide as your circumstances change.

Bringing it all together

  1. Think about the habit loop of cue, action, reward.
  2. A good cue for someone who wants to build a daily writing practice, will happen reliably, every day, at a time when you would then be able to write for fifteen minutes or half an hour.
  3. Start by making your action small, make it as easy as possible to start, and give yourself a visual cue as well as a time or location specific one.
  4. Thinking of this cue in terms of if X then Y can be a useful way of framing it - and you can also use this frame to think through in advance your stumbling blocks.

So, think about what cue, action and reward will work for you for writing. Make sure your trigger will reliably and regularly happen and that you start small. Bear in mind that visual cues also help - is there something that will work for you?

I've baked in triggers, cues and rewards to the accountability element of my Mastermind group - are there ways you can integrate them into how you run your business?