New Habit Experiment: A Simple Trick to Make 'Em Stick

By Crabby McSlacker

New habits can be uncomfortable, right?

Our old habits just don't want to let go--they are deeply wired in our brains, comfy and familiar and sneaky because they are nearly invisible. We don't even think about them.

Which is mostly a good thing, right?  If you had to consciously re-think and plan how to get out of bed in the morning and ambulate to the bathroom and figure out what to do in there, then go to the kitchen and re-decide each day how to make your coffee and what to put in it and what vessel to drink it out of, you would probably get even less done in a day than Crabby McSlacker.

But sometimes we want to change an old habit or add a new one.  Healthy habit formation is one of the most annoying, pain-in-the-ass, but essential challenges if you're trying to enjoy a lifetime of good health and reasonable fitness.

The problem is, most often your brain will go along with the new program for a good two minutes while the executive part is in charge.  Then the busy executive will get distracted with busy executive things and your unconscious lizard brain will take over.  And it will likely say: "Nice try. But  f--ck that, I'm going back to our comfortable old way of doing things since you're not paying attention anyway, you bossy buttface."

Or at least that's what my lizard brain says. Yours may be a bit more polite.

So anyway, this is just an experiment in one aspect of adopting new habits. It been around since the beginning of time. But the way I'm using it is new for me and so far I have ONE, count 'em, it, ONE success and I'm hoping to build on it.

What's the trick?

Use Triggers!

photo: FDR library

And yeah, there are million other tricks to habits.  Best selling books that I haven't read have much better advice. This is just one tiny piece I'm playing with: using external cues in daily life as reminders to prompt new healthy behaviors until they become automatic.

Anyone else want to join me and pick a simple healthy action you'd like to do more of, and pair it with an environmental reminder and see if you can establish a new habit?  Let's get trigger-happy and give it a shot!

Here's the basic idea:

Just choose one or two trigger/habit combinations you're willing to try to do consistently for a month until you don't even have to think about it anymore. 

More than that and you'll forget too often. I tried 4 and pretty much forgot about 3 of them within a few days, so I just shrugged and went with the one that seemed stickiest even if it was kind of a dumb one.

Note: If you pick a silly little thing like I did, it will seem too lame to do just one new thing for a whole month. But keep in mind this pairing experiment is on top of the probably 4,000 other healthy plans, schemes, resolutions, and good intentions you have.  You don't have to stop trying to make yourself go to the gym or cook healthy meals or whatever; this is all about experimenting with something little and automating it, so it becomes like closing the refrigerator door after you grab something out.  (And if that hasn't become automatic yet, perhaps that should be first on your list).

Forget Something?
Photo by Ray

Then the next month, you add one more trigger/habit combo.  And keep adding until you become superhuman! Or until you start forgetting all the previous habits you worked on, whichever comes first.

I'd suggest making the behaviors something small and relatively easy:  "Whenever I am waiting for the bus, this is a cue to remember to take 3 deep breaths."  Not: "Every day when I get home from work I will embark on an hour-a-day progressive relaxation program."

Some sample habits ideas:
  • Drink a glass of water
  • Spend a minute assessing your stress level and relax tense muscles
  • Kegels!
  • Mindfulness practice
  • Stretch
  • Brainstorm/scheme/fantasize about Long Term Goals you keep putting off
  • Posture check
  • Gratitude
  • Calf raises, squats, lunges, counter push-ups (or real ones if you're unselfconscious or you work at home)
  • Deep breaths
  • Meal planning/strategizing
  • Journaling
  • Get up and walk on an invented errand to break up long periods of sitting on your ass
  • Affirmations

Some sample trigger ideas:
  • Stop lights
  • Standing in a line
  • When you get bumped off the internet or your computer reboots because of some stupid software update you didn't even ask for
  • Walking in the front door after work
  • Whenever you fix yourself a cup of coffee or tea
  • When using the restroom (you're going anyway, especially if you are using the above trigger a lot)
  • When a reminder program you set on your computer or phone goes off
  • While waiting to microwave something or for water to boil
  • Before you turn on the tv at night
  • While flossing your teeth

If you can replace a trigger for an old bad habit with a new good one, bonus! 
  • When a co-worker offers tempting home-baked treats, it's a cue to make a cup of boring but healthy green tea
  • When you pull into a crowded parking lot and start feeling pissy, it's a trigger to park way way far from the entrance and get a little more exercise
  • When you find yourself opening the refrigerator or cabinet where snacks are kept, and it's not for a planned indulgence, it's a trigger to invent an errand at the other end of the house, and see if a brief break makes any difference
  • When you see an elevator door, it's a cue to look for a staircase instead
  • When your teenager mouths off, it's a trigger for a couple of deep breaths
The possibilities are endless, but the idea is to make it easy and simple enough that you're actually willing to devote some focus and awareness to it because it actually seems somewhat doable.

And don't beat yourself up if you forget sometimes (you will), but don't give up either! Even one puny habit change is great proof to yourself of your own potential for awesomeness.

Case Study: Stairway to... Well, not Heaven Exactly. But to Slightly Stronger Legs.

I decided that whenever I take stairs, I will from now on take them two at a time.  Why?  No reason really except it sounded like a fairly easy new habit to pick up. I'm going upstairs anyway, and they're a big honking obvious thing, hard to ignore. So I might as well leverage that trigger to give my legs a little more challenge without taking any extra time, right?

I still have to think about it a bit, but it's becoming more ingrained all the time!

Here's a dramatic reenactment:

Executive Brain: Thinky thoughts, more thinky thoughts....

Lizard Brain: Wait, look, there are stairs! That means something now!

Executive Brain: So, what does that mean, lizard brain?

Lizard Brain: Stop! It's a trigger!

Executive Brain: Yeah, I got that part. What do we do now?

Lizard Brain: I don't know. You haven't trained me long enough for it to just come to me. But at least give me credit for noticing,

Executive Brain: Yeah OK, that's progress anyway.  And  I remember now--we go up the stairs two at a time! Someday, lizard brain, you'll be programmed well enough I don't even have to interrupt my lovely thinky thoughts and you can just do this without me.  Meanwhile, let's just send that message on down to the legs, shall we?

Legs: WTF? No one asked me! Ow! I hate you, you suck!

So yeah, I started this stairway trigger experiment before I headed off for vacation, and suspecting there might be a blog post about it, I actually took pictures of staircases along the way.

In case you all didn't know what they were?

But you already knew I was weird.

Of course I wasn't perfect. I'd forget about 10-15% of the time at first but I'm probably at about 98% compliance now.  Partly because I make myself walk back down and do it over if I forgot, unless someone else is around to stare at me like I'm completely nuts.

And as you may imagine, there are caveats and escape clauses: it's not mandatory if I'm carrying 100lbs of luggage or if I'm hiking up 27 flights or if it would be totally socially inappropriate.  But for my basic 2-3 flight many-times-a-day stair ascension, carrying groceries or not, it's now two stairs at a time, and I think it's stuck.

Stay tuned for the next experiment--I've got several new trigger/habit combos in mind, but I haven't decided for sure yet.  I know if I don't narrow it down to one or two, nothing's gonna stick.

How about you guys, do you do weird stuff like this?  What kind of triggers and habit combinations intrigue you, or are you already efficiently-wired superhumans?

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