How to turn resolutions into habits

Women-on-Treadmills-Credit-iStockphoto-124584919-630x420It’s great to know you can count on yourself to do what you say you’ll do. Drive to the parking lot of any gym or fitness center the next few days and you’ll see a lot of hopeful people parked. Most of them, sadly, will let themselves down by February, when the habit of not exercising comes back from winter vacation.

So how do you make a new habit out of a goal or a wish or a hope? There isn’t one answer, but the process does have some common features.

There is power in repetition

But you don’t have to physically repeat the act for it to work. A study using college basketball players showed the power of visualization .

They were divided into three groups. One group practiced free throws as usual. The second got to skip that portion of practice. The third group was asked to suit up, sit on the bench, and visualize themselves shooting free throws. After a few weeks, the group that didn’t practice had gotten worse. But the visualization group scored 97% as well as those who practiced.

So even when you aren’t actively doing your new resolution, visualize yourself doing it successfully. Your brain doesn’t know the difference.

feet walkingVisualize it down to the last detail. Picking out your workout clothes, your socks, which aren’t still in the washer but are waiting for you, fresh and dry. Pulling out your membership card, which is in your wallet because it’s always in your wallet. And so on. Don’t just have a general plan. Plan every little step and walk through those steps again and again.

My friend Chapman Ducote is a top LeMans race car driver. The night before a race, he walks every foot of every mile of the course, visualizing the race. The next day, he knows the route intimately.

That’s how well you should know your plan, whether it’s how you’ll get out at your stop loss or profit target, or how you’ll pull the trigger and enter a trade.

Talk in the present tense

We often say things like, “I’m trying to work out Monday, Wednesday, and Fridays before work,” or “This year I’m going to” or “My goal/resolution is to.” To make it worse, we might even add a shrug or eye-roll or a “We’ll see how it goes.” Wrong!
You don’t say “I’m trying to brush my teeth every day” or “My goal is to shower every day.” Those are habits. You talk about them as habits, in the present tense: “I brush my teeth daily,” and “I shower every day.”

Talk about the new resolution the same way. “I eat vegetables and fruits with every meal,” “I work out Monday, Wednesday, and Friday before work.”

Sure, someone will ask how long you’ve been doing it or point out that it’s January 1st. Ignore him. Change the subject. Pretend you didn’t hear. Go to the restroom.

Your subconscious mind doesn’t ask such questions. It simply accepts what it hears over and over. If it hears, “I’m a professional trader who always uses stops,” it won’t pull out last week’s trading record and cross-examine you. Ignore the part of your mind that does that. You’re not in court. You’re creating a reality in your mind.

Fake it till you make it.

Find and use a trigger

APTOPIX South Korea Athletics WorldsAlmost everything we do automatically has a cue, a trigger. You see the Starbucks on your route home and you immediately change lanes. You hear a certain voice and you immediately tense up or get excited.

You hear “Have a Coke and a–” and you think “smile” even though that ad ended decades ago.

A recent study of patients recovering from surgery showed the power of triggers. I learned about it in a recent email from Chip and Dan Heath, the authors of Made to Stick and Switch:

Action triggers like these can be surprisingly effective in motivating action. The psychologists Sheina Orbell and Paschal Sheeran studied a group of patients in England with an average age of 68, who were recovering from hip or knee replacement surgery. Some of them were asked to set action triggers for their recovery exercises—something like, “I’ll do my range-of-motion extensions every morning after I finish my first cup of coffee.” The other group did not receive any coaching on action triggers. The results were dramatic: Those patients who used action triggers recovered more than twice as fast, standing up on their own in 3.5 weeks, versus 7.7 weeks for the others.

Find a simple trigger–something that is already part of your routine, and attach the new habit to the old one. The trigger can even be silly. A little phrase you say out loud in a funny voice. A little song you sing.

I sing a line from a song by Mr. Rogers to remind me to use stop-losses: “I can stop when I want to/stop when I wish/can stop, stop, stop any time/And what a good feeling/to feel like this/and know that the feeling/is really mine.” Shut up. It works.

The reward

Sure the stick works faster than the carrot sometimes, but in the long run, our most powerful motivation is love, not fear. Successful people motivate themselves by focusing on what they want to be, not what they want to avoid.

Don’t think of a purple elephant.

What did you just think of? Of course. It’s because your brain only hears the interesting, new part of the sentence, “purple elephant,” and not the “don’t.”

This is why telling children not to do something doesn’t work. Tell them what they can do instead and make them feel happy about doing the alternative.

The resolution-keeping, habit-making part of us is like al child. Sure, we might fancy it up with psychology and big words, but in the end it still comes down to: See cookie; think “Cookie!”; Eat cookie.

And then of course, blame parents for wrecking self-esteem and the media for promoting unhealthy body images. But still, cookie.

You’re thinking about cookies right now, aren’t you?

Eating a cookie has its rewards. They are immediate and familiar. Eating healthy vegetables will only become habit if you feel the reward of it, if it makes you happy, not just weeks later, but as you’re eating them.

That’s why it’s important to make the habit its own reward. If your diet (horrible word, never use it) involves you thinking, “If I eat all my salad, then I can have pie for dessert. 100 grams of pie.” That is just sad.

Seriously, you want to spoil the eating of pie by introducing math? And Americans don’t like the metric system to begin with. No wonder we’re so fat.

What if instead, you celebrated every bite of a delicious salad, then had a tasty balance of protein, monounsaturated fat, and finally, something sweet that you took time to savor instead of scarfing it down while driving? What if you enjoyed feeling like one of those people, the healthy ones who aren’t hungry all the time?

The technical term for an activity that is its own reward is teleological intrinsic finality. It means that you don’t do something for a later, separate outcome or reward. You do it because it is inherently worth doing.

Think of billionaires who keep working. If more people had jobs they would do for free because they enjoy them so much, the economy would boom.

The simplest way to make your new resolution teleologically intrinsic is to do what Chip and Dan call “looking for the bright spots.” Find one little part of it that you enjoy and make sure that part always happens. You may not like everything about your workout, but you like the always-happy aerobics teacher, so you go. You like doing curls in front of the mirror. You like lacing your shoes and listening to the theme from Rocky (or “Firework” by Katy Perry, we’re not judging).

It doesn’t matter what the bright spot is, just find it and make sure it’s always in there.

Pick ONE habit and start small

Your brain can only handle so much change at once. So even though you might have a whole list of self-improvement goals, don’t try to do them all on January 2nd. That’s a sure way to make yourself sad by January 10th.

lola bites carrot bPick one, an easy one. And make starting to do it as ridiculously easy as possible. Take small bites.

The flow experience is what makes any activity self-rewarding. It’s that feeling you get during a great conversation or doing something with total absorption. You lose track of time, there’s a perfect balance between the level of challenge and your ability. I’m sure you’ve felt it.

The key is to make the start as easy and frictionless as possible. My resolution (and I’m only focusing on one for January) is to wake up at 4 am, get out of bed, and do a Surya Namaskara, the sun salute exercise that every yoga student learns. It’s a simple act of waking up, getting into my body and mind. Most importantly, it’s an act of doing what I promised myself I would do.

This morning it is well below freezing outside in Chicago and I went to sleep a little after midnight. But I wanted to make myself trust myself.

Simple as that. I wanted to know I could trust myself at least in this small thing. I got up, stretched and moved, and got back under the warm covers.

Funny thing, though. Instead of going back to sleep, I started doing other parts of my morning routine. I proofread Kathy Garber’s excellent technical analysis of the S&P’s direction as we go into 2014; it didn’t need much editing, so I just ended up admiring it. You should read it.

It’s about how she (like all good traders) doesn’t make predictions, but offers If-Then statements. If price holds below level X, then we’ll see more downside, and so on.

In the same way, can I predict at 5:45 AM how my day will go? No. But IF I was able to trust myself to do one small good thing at 4 AM, THEN maybe I can have more confidence in myself to handle the rest of the day well.

Don’t break the chain

dont break the chainYou may have heard of Jerry Seinfeld’s great “Don’t Break The Chain” advice on habit formation. It is now quite famous among coaches. You simply do the new habit, then mark that day on a calendar with a big red X. Next day, same thing.

Soon you have a growing chain of Xs, which you’ll enjoy seeing. Your job is just to not break the chain. Do you see the pattern? Inherently rewarding, easy to start, has a trigger.

Go to dontbreakthechain.com for a free, simple app (and Chrome extension) to start and keep your own chains. As I said, start with just one. Keep it small and easy. Like, “put the cap back on the toothpaste” easy. Studies show if you do it for 21 days in a row, it’ll be habit.

Happy New Year, everyone! I hope you have fun. And I hope having fun becomes an unbreakable habit for all of us.

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