Happy New Year!
There’s nothing quite like the turn of the calendar to help people get motivated to achieve awesome goals. While it’s fun hearing all the goals people set, it's sad to know many people will give up on those goals quickly. Rather than sit back and laugh at people for falling short, I want to help you reach your goals.
I’m pretty consistent in going to the gym, so one thing the New Year means to me is a busier crowd at the gym. Like clockwork, the year starts out with a surge of new memberships. While it’s easy to focus on the inconvenience of a busy gym, I am happy people are trying to better themselves. Despite best intentions, attendance begins to fizzle out by late February/ early March (if not earlier), as motivation wears out. While fewer people at the gym makes my life easier, I feel bad for the people that couldn’t stick to the “commitment” they made at the beginning of the year. So what’s the secret to helping people stick to their goals? It comes down to activation energy and the 20 Second Rule.
Old Habits Die Hard
We as humans are creatures of habit. Most of us have settled into fairly consistent routines, to the point where we don’t even need to think a lot about what we do. We just do it. The fact that habits are hard to break is both a blessing and a curse. If you’ve developed good habits (like brushing your teeth), it is great that it becomes automatic. Think of how hard it would be to break the habit of brushing your teeth (just please don’t try it). You may be thinking, why would anyone want to even try to break the habit of brushing the teeth? The point is you shouldn’t try to break good habits, but, instead, you should try to make other positive behaviors automatic.
If my story of dwindling gym attendance is any indication, we can’t rely on willpower alone. Distractions and other routines in life will get in the way, and our willpower will eventually break down. We start off the year with a ton of motivation, and slowly (or quickly) it depletes. Instead of directing your motivation to keep you going, focus your motivation on turning a goal into a habit.
Back to the activation energy thing I mentioned earlier. Activation energy is the amount of energy it takes to start a new activity. Despite our best intentions, sometimes it can be hard to get off the couch or out of bed and into the gym (or the workout venue of your choice).
In his book, “The Happiness Advantage”, author Shawn Achor walks us through his attempt to start the habit of working out in the morning:
“If you’ve ever tried to start up the habit of early-morning exercise, you have probably encountered how easy it is to get derailed by too much choice. Each morning after the alarm clock sounds, the inner monologue goes something like this: Should I hit the snooze button or get up immediately? What should I wear to work out this morning? Should I go for a run or go to the gym? Should I go to the nearby gym that’s more crowded or the quieter gym that’s slightly farther away? What kind of cardio should I do when I get there? Should I lift weights? Should I go to kickboxing class or maybe yoga? And by that point you’re so exhausted by all the options, you’ve fallen back asleep.”
I laughed the first time I read that because I’ve found myself in the exact same situation before. Decisions wear us down to a point of exhaustion and we end up giving up on our well-intentioned plans. How did Shawn overcome the need to make all of those decisions in a groggy state?
“Each night before I went to sleep, I wrote out a plan for where I would exercise in the morning and what parts of my body I would focus on. Then, I put my sneakers right by my bed. Finally - and most important - I just went to sleep in my gym clothes.”
When morning came, all he had to do was wake up, put his shoes on and head out the door. Very little activation energy and few decisions required. Not everyone is going to have a goal to workout more, and thankfully the principles discussed here can apply to a range of goals.
Research has shown that it takes around 60 days to develop a habit. Don't waste the first couple months of the year wearing out your willpower. Focus your energy on turning your goals into habits.
The 20-Second Rule
Developing good habits to accomplish your goals is one thing. Breaking a bad habit is another. There are only so many hours in the day, so in order to free up time for the good things, we need to break our bad habits. Like, say, watching TV:
“According to a quick Google search, the average American watches five to seven hours of television a day. At one point, I was watching about three hours a day, which was of course decreasing my productivity and time with my real-life friends. I wanted to watch less television, but every time I’d come home from work, I would be tired from teaching, and it was so easy to sit down on the couch and press the “on” button on the remote control. So I decided to do another experiment on myself. I took the batteries out of the remote control, took my stopwatch, and walked the batteries exactly 20 seconds away and left them in a drawer in my bedroom.”
Here, Shawn is referring to the 20-Second Rule. The 20-Second Rule is the idea, that, for habits you are trying to develop, it should take you less than 20 seconds to get started on the activity (i.e. less activation energy). On the flipside, the 20-Second Rule can also be used in reverse. For bad habits you are looking to break, it should take you more than 20 seconds to get started on the activity (i.e. more activation energy).
Taking the batteries out of the TV remote and putting them in another room might sound ridiculous, but if you are looking to cut back on TV watching, try it out. I'd be shocked if your TV watching didn't go down (provided every time you take the batteries out every time you are done watching).
Let me be clear, not all bad habits are easy to break, and developing good habits still does take effort, even if you minimize the effort it takes. However, applying the 20-Second Rule where possible can change your life. At a minimum, try it out.
If you want to read more, put a book on your couch or pillow.
If you want to eat healthier, hide (or don't buy junk food) and make nutritious food easy to access.
If you want to cook more, make sure you have the necessary ingredients at home.
If you want to save or invest more, automate it.
If you want to spend less, stay out of your favorite stores and be careful with Amazon's 1-Click ordering (they knew what they were doing when they created it).
If you want to work out more, sleep in your gym clothes.
I hope 2017 is the year where more and more people accomplish more and more of their goals. Try out the 20-Second Rule and if you fail at first, keep trying. Failure is a natural outcome on the path to growth.
Since I’ve already used two Shawn Achor quotes from “The Happiness Advantage”, why not leave you with one more gem:
“Lower the activation energy for habits you want to adopt, and raise it for habits you want to avoid. The more we can lower or even eliminate the activation energy for our desired actions, the more we enhance our ability to jump-start positive change.”