When I think of times when I successful changed a habit, almost all of them happened with a process I call “the slow burn.” And, in every case, the process was as follows –
1. Create a simple and clear goal – e.g. replace playing games on my phone before I sleep with reading a book, score 7 exercise points every week where 1 point = 20 mins of exercise
2. Think about my schedule and about how the new habit will fit in
3. Test it and keep iterating until it works
The most important aspect of the slow burn is the lack of finality. There are no statements like – “If this doesn’t work by this week, I’m really doing badly” or “it HAS to work by the end of the month.” It is not played in the spirit of win-lose. Instead, it is played in the spirit of the infinite game. We have until eternity to figure this out, and we will. We just need to really want to do it, listen carefully to ourselves for feedback, and follow it up by tweaking our schedule and environment to make it work.
For example, replacing playing games on my phone with reading a book required me to tweak the environment just a bit – placing a bed side lamp made it easy for me to switch off the lamp and head to bed (this was before I got myself an iPad and, while I understand this sounds incredibly lazy :-), this little tweak successfully changed a habit I really wanted to change). Similarly, hitting my exercise targets required many tiny tweaks to the schedule.
At first glance, this can all sound like too much effort to create a habit. Why not just power through it by creating big consequences, e.g. a $100 fine every time you miss exercise? My experiences have taught me otherwise. Yes, there are many ways to “power through” changes – create big fines, ask peers to guilt you into making changes, announce your intentions on facebook and shame yourself. But, these are just hacks. And, while hacks help improve systems and make them more efficient, they don’t help solve basic effectiveness problems. Guilt-tripping ourselves into changes are a sure-fire way of ensuring they don’t last.
If we really want to make long term changes, we have to first want to make them. Once we decide we really want to make them, we then need to make a commitment to evaluate these changes every few months and re-commit. This ensures we’re mentally ready. Once we’re ready and committed, we are ready to begin testing them and making small tweaks in our schedule to ensure they’re here to stay. This process requires a willingness to fail, a willingness to be kind to ourselves, and a willingness to be thoughtful about the tweaks and changes we need to make in our lifestyles and in our execution of our priorities.
Yes, it is a tough process – but it is not tough because it requires massive amounts of willpower at one go. It is tough because we make a commitment to re-commit when the going gets tough and to relentlessly take in feedback and get better. It is not about the big push. It is about the slow burn.
And, when we revisit the progress we’ve made thanks to a slow burn over a long period of time, it feels like magic.