14 April 2014

On Kickstarting Harder Habits

Source: tumblr

As I entered Spring Cleaning time, I made a little round-up of my past habits and resolutions, and noticed there were two kinds of habits - the daily, "low energy" ones I carry on daily without giving it much thought, and the harder, "high energy" ones I can't seem to apply as easily. Here are some tips to help kickstarting those harder habits sitting in the to-dos.

It is a bit simplistic to just cut the habits in two categories, the easy and the hard ones. I think the truth is, there is a sort of "energy" meter of how much effort you have to put into a habit, the lower end being "I'm used to this and do it daily automatically" (ex: brushing your teeth), the higher end being "I wish I could implement this in my life (ex: exercise more, start a new activity, learn something new...)

  • The "High Energy" Habits

Today, I'd like to talk about the habits at the higher end of the energy meter, the ones that require your time, attention, resources to start and maintain. Often, these habits are hard to start, because you need to make time for them, or research where to go, how to do... In other words, they put you out of your comfort zone, and there are a lot of barriers that keep you from actually diving into them.

Example: Starting a new activity. When I decided to play the violin again, this meant I needed to find and buy a new violin (which I had no idea where to get or how much to pay to get a decent one), plus find a teacher, close to my home and office, at a reasonable price, for weekly lessons. It took me over a year from the "decision" to play the violin again to my first lesson with my teacher.

  • Using Marketing Tricks as a Help

First, let me give you some context. Among the various aspects of marketing, there are some very straightforward actions which short term goal is to make potential consumers take the leap and actually make a purchase. Flash sales anyone? As a part of a bigger marketing campaign or business model, these actions have one goal: making you buy it now. And for this, they have one objective: reducing the barriers between the consumer and the purchase action to make it as easy as possible to buy it.

While I am not going to detail each marketing action I have learned or used in the past, I have decided to tweak these techniques to lower the barriers to purchase and make it easier to trigger the purchase and present them to you below as tips to trigger your good habits instead.

1. Know Your Barriers

What are the barriers that make it so hard for you to start this habit? In marketing, getting to know a consumer's barriers is the first step to lowering them. For example, for online clothing purchases, the barrier can be that you're not sure it fits. No problem, let's make returns free! (gg Asos)

You get the idea. For your hard habit, it's the same, what are your barriers? Are they psychological (you think you aren't capable of it or fear to fail?), are they practical (lack of time, money, information...), are they linked to your personality (too shy to go somewhere new...)?

For me, I know my major barrier is my introvert personality and my wanting to limit contacts with unknown humans as much as possible. The habits that took the most time to form are the ones that involved calling, meeting new people (for example, a violin teacher...)

Once you know your barriers, you can start applying strategies to lower them, and make the start and continuation of the new habit as easy and comfortable as possible.

2. Do Your Research

That strategy works very well for me - when you are trying to do something new, you often don't know where to start. You don't know where to go, how much it will cost, how it works... A first action to do in order to lower this barrier of the unknown is to gather information about that habit you want to start.

Want to change your diet? Go to the internet and look for books, sites, blogs that discuss about healthy eating habits and find one that seems to make sense for you, your values, ethics, goals and lifestyle.

Want to donate, sell or repair your items? Google a cobbler/seamstress/repairman near your home, get information on how you can sell your items as easily as possible, what charities you can donate them to and how it works.

Want to start or restart an activity or project? Get information on associations around you, what material you may need to get started, how much a class/teacher costs.

This is an easy step - just a bit of time and a computer, which shouldn't be very hard to find. It doesn't force you to spend any money, doesn't require you to go anywhere, to change anything in your daily habits yet, or to talk to any unknown human being (although you can call places within your research process).

I personally like to find specialized sites or blogs who actually gather the research for me, so much easier. Of course, it doesn't mean I'd blindly believe what they say, but if the site is reliable, there will be some additional sources to read from, resources, books, and useful summary articles where they share the results of their own research, which is nice. You can take a look at my source page for some sites about simplicity, health, food, wardrobe editing, or even forming habits, as a matter of fact.

3. Prepare the Steps

A key element for marketers who are trying to trigger purchases, is to make the steps to purchase very simple, and few, if possible. Any good online site has no more than 2 or 3 clicks between you and the "Order" button. Buying a digital game or downloadable contents on the Xbox is insanely easy (poor parents).

Your steps to practice your habit have to be clear and simple as well. Where do you need to go? When is it open? What do you need? Select your steps and make them as easy as possible. In the blog Nerd Fitness, Steve presents the Batcave for Habit Change,  and one of his key tips is to make the access to your habit as easy as possible. Want to practice guitar every day? Put the guitar in the middle of the living room, in plain sight, easy to grab.

When you are about to donate some items - after doing your research, put the address and opening hours of the charity shop on your notebook/smartphone, put the bag of items to donate near your front door, and next time you go out, take that bag with you and bring it to the charity shop. Easy.

If you are about to change your food habits - select some easy "rules", I'm sure you can unearth some simple guides to healthy eating on the internet for example. Apply them one at a time and make it easy to apply - by cooking simple dishes and not 3-star chef 2 hour expert thing. By adapting the rules to your lifestyle so you can stick to them without extra daily effort.

You get the idea. When I decided to play the violin again, once I had bought the violin, I started searching for a teacher, and I decided my main criteria would be that either he can come in my appartment, or he lives in the area between work and home so I can easily go to my lesson on my way home in the evening.

4. Get Some Help

Sometimes, it's just easier to do it with friends. Marketers know it, and they love friend recommendations, you know, invite a friend and you both get 20% off kind of deal. It's the same for daily habits.

It can be a friend who wants to start along with you. You have the same level, and both need a bit of extra motivation to take the step - then do it together, you'll motivate each other when the other one feels like skipping.

It can also be a friend who practices the habit for a while, who knows where to go, what to do, how it works. It can be reassuring if he/she gives you tips and recommendations, or even if he/she comes with you the first time. For example, it took me 6 months to go to my office's gym, because I never went to any gym ever before, and it was full of unknown humans. So a colleague, who was going every week, took me with him one day. I go there every week automatically now.

If you don't have friends who are familiar with your habits or want to start it with you, don't hesitate to connect with like minded people online. That's the magic of the internet. Go to sites and blogs, ask people for recommendations, join forums if necessary, motivate each other online... There are a lot of resources out there, for all kinds of habits.

5. Schedule It

Doing the research, preparing the steps, getting the recommendations and partners in crime is all good, but at one point, you'll have to take that first step and do it. Marketers know that too, and always make it easier, more appealing to buy now and not later. Newsletters with a "Call to Action" such as a "Shop Now" button, promotions & sales valid for a few days only, or controlled stocks to make pieces out of stock quickly, all kinds of strategies are deployed to make you buy now.

It's the same for the new habit, at some point, you'll have to do it now. When I have a lot of chores and high energy habits to engage in, I make a list, and schedule them over time. "This week, I do the taxes, next week, I take my pants to the seamstress, and the week after I start researching ways to sell my clothes easily". You see what I mean?

Once you have done all the research and planning, schedule when you will actually start. Sunday is a market day? Start your new food habits and recipes on Sunday with the market produce. Need to donate that bag of clothes? Put the bag near your front door and go take them tomorrow on your way to work.

Scheduling the first step of the habit makes it more concrete, and doable. You don't have to revamp all your food habits on Sunday, you only have to go to the market, buy seasonal veggies and cook them. Easy, no? My experience is, if you have prepared your steps, and gathered your allies, once the first step is engaged, the next ones tend to follow easily. If they don't, schedule them too.

As a Last Word...

I think it is important to be indulgent with yourself and remember to do your best. Sometimes, your best will be to rock a new habit in less than a month and turn it into a low energy automatic thing right away, and sometimes, your best will be doing some research and reading for months before you even start thinking about taking action. And it is OK anyway.

I think, at least in my experience, that the biggest barrier to new habits it to simply think I can't do it. If you let yourself be discouraged because you failed the first time or because it takes a long while to adapt and adjust, then you will stop trying altogether and that's how the new habit fails.

I would recommend to remove that barrier right away by acknowledging that you can do it. With your own steps, at your own pace, but you can do it. And any failure is an opportunity to learn what doesn't work and find out what works instead. For example, I failed at practising sports for years because I was persuaded that I wasn't "made" for it. But once I removed that barrier (by watching the paralympics, by the way), I kickstarted the sports habit, little by little, and now I'm going to the gym several times a week and can run over 10kms, which is a big deal for me.

What about you? What are your high energy habits that end up on your to-do lists or resolutions? Does this help?


  1. Again, such a helpful post! I like how you explain things, you do it very structured, combine tactics in a way I haven't read before (which is one of the many things why your blog is so appealing), like today habitforming and marketing (it just makes sense). (That's my F admiring your T!) You give little anecdotes about how you do it, but you always stay on the level of helping and explaining instead of putting yourself into the center (something which annoys me on youtube how tos a lot). Then again you also write very personal posts sometimes like you did on your birthday. That and the beautiful pictures in every posting (the general design of your blog, anyway) makes me eager for every new post (and sometimes I think, I'd really like to meet you in person one day.)

    I not only have some problems with starting habits, but the biggest difficulty is maintaining them. After two months of gym, I was seeing the first results, but now, I haven't been there for two weeks because I hadmymind on so many other things. Which somehow is some very poor excuse... Ok, sometimes we need to prioritize our habits, and doing too much at the same time isn't good either, bit that's not the problem with me right now.
    I'dlove to read about maintaining habits, bit I guess, that's logically your next posting anyway :)

    1. Thank you very much for this very detailed feedback on my post and blogging style in general! It is very difficult for a writer/blogger to have a rational opinion on their own work - I mean, it has to be biased, doesn't it? - so it's very helpful to know how it looks from the reader's point of view. Besides, I'm really happy that you actually like it :) If you ever come to Paris I'm sure we could arrange a real life discussion around some tea and home made pastries (I know places...) Although I'm not sure how I'd appear, outside of my introvert's online comfort zone haha ;)

      I'm totally with you on having difficulties to maintain habits, and to focus on many at once, I think it's impossible actually. Some habits have to become automatic, "low energy", in order to be maintained while we focus on harder ones. I do have a few post ideas around that, one of which being something I called the "upwards spiral". I'll probably write about it soon. Now isn't that a teasing...?

  2. Good post, and I like that you'll do a follow-up on maintaining habits. For me too, that's often difficult. Even the most mundane of tasks can feel energy draining to me at times (like doing the dishes after dinner everyday, preparing my lunch for the next day and picking out my outfit ...). I find that for these chores, the rut is probably more off-putting than the task itself. Therefore, although somewhat counter-intuitively, paying more attention to these imposed habits and why I'm doing them can make them easier. E.g. the dishes are a consequence of a conscious choice to home-cook meals and to not invest in an energy-consuming dishwasher. Picking out an outfit is a must and takes up precious time that could be spent reading, but on the other hand it gives me a chance to be creative with and pay attention to my clothes. Obviously that doesn't always work because there are just so many household chores (!), but it can regularly make me smile at a task that would otherwise be performed on autopilot, with my mind on the more rewarding tasks awaiting ...

    1. It's true that it can be daunting to look at all the daily chores and habits to keep up with, and it feels harder to maintain. And it does help to remember why we decided to engage in these habits in the first place. I don't pretend to be an expert at it, I also failed (and still fail) at maintaining some habits on a day to day level. But I have learned a few things that I'll gather in a post shortly, in case it can help maintaining a few more habits, a bit longer :)