Making Change Stick

It’s All About Paying Attention to the Right Things.

Last month, I had the opportunity to be interviewed by a local radio station. The topic? How to successfully start, and stick to, an exercise program—a popular pursuit at the start of any new calendar year. My main message was to start small and do what feels enjoyable to you. Something sustainable. And if you’re still not sure, seek the advice of a fitness professional who can help point you in the right direction based on your personal needs and preferences.

I felt pretty good about the interview and fortunate that I’d recently read The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. (Phew. Talk about timing!) I might not be writing much about my views on exercise here on Free to Pursue, but what I can offer is that the same principles that lead one to become a lifetime exerciser also apply when changing any other habit, including money habits—a category near and dear to my heart.

Piling on too much at once made it impossible for any of [the change] to stick.
— p. 120, The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

The sad reality is that though there’s a pretty clear recipe for effective habit change—deep down, we all know how it works— we often feel too smart or too capable to need to follow it. For some strange reason, we think we can game the system by taking shortcuts. That we can game ourselves into overnight transformations. NOT!

How do we change a habit?

No matter what change of habit we're contemplating, the steps to success are the same.

We have to:

  1. Decide we want to change it.

  2. Believe it’s possible.
  3. Identify habit triggers.
  4. Replace it with something that gives us a similar reward.

Sounds simple enough, and it is. We just have to do it. And to help with that, let’s take a deeper dive on each of these action steps.

1. Decide to Change

One paper published by a Duke University researcher in 2006 found that more than 40% of the actions people performed each day weren’t actual decisions, but habits.
— p. xvi, The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

Our habits are part of our daily routine. In fact, they make up the lion’s share of how we go about our day. So in order to change one that we find less than desirable, we don’t have to just be aware of it, we have to be unhappy enough with the behaviour to want to put in the effort to change it. 

That desire needs to come from us and us alone, otherwise it won’t work. Ever have someone tell you you needed to change something about how you live your life? How did that go over? My guess is that nothing changed because you weren’t the one who decided that change was needed. In fact, it might have further intrenched in the behaviour! We, and only we, can decide to change something about ourselves because internal motivators are the only motivators that count over the long term.

2. Believe

For a habit to stay changed, people must believe change is possible. And most often, that belief only emerges with the help of a group.
— p. 92, The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

It’s important to decide to change but change isn't possible if we don't believe we can make it. Doubt and fear of failure are powerful emotional states that can cause inertia, inaction, or worse, more of the bad behaviour as a way to stop thinking about the need to change it! 

What’s the most effective way to start believing we can change? As Duhigg will tell you, it’s hanging out with people who have successfully done what you're trying to do and who live the lifestyle you want to live:

  • Want to stop shopping? Hang out with people who don’t shop.
  • Want to save more money? Hang out with people who love to save money.
  • Want to get out of debt? Hang out with people who've flipped the bird to creditors and live debt free.
  • Want to stop smoking? Hang out with people who've "butted out".
  • Want to lose weight and keep weight off? Hang out with someone who’s successfully dropped some sizes in a healthy and sustainable way.
  • Want to be more active? Hang out with people who value exercise or a sport you want to take up or continue participating in.  

When it comes to belief, there’s real power in evidence and surrounding ourselves with it can only help.

3. Identify Triggers

What sucks about bad habits is that they have a lot of staying power. Habits, good and bad, are automatic behaviours. They’re like subroutines that allow us to put a lot of what we do on autopilot so that we can save our decision-making energy for the unexpected issues that come up every day. That’s why it’s so hard to change them. We have to increase our awareness of them and that takes time and effort—energy we'd prefer to direct elsewhere. 

Most cravings are like this: obvious in retrospect, but incredibly hard to see when we are under their sway.
— p. 278, The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

Identifying what triggers a given behaviour can reduce the time and effort in reworking the habit. It can help us take the guesswork out of habit change.

Here’s how it works: when you feel the need to do that “thing” that you’re trying to change, pay attention to what you were doing just beforehand. The trigger you’re looking for could be a location, a time of day, an emotion, other people and/or other people's actions, or something else you were just doing. It may take several attempts to identify the right trigger but taking the time to build that awareness has a huge payoff: it takes you off autopilot because you've started paying attention to what leads to the behaviour you want to change.

4. Replace the Behaviour

[T]o modify a habit, you must decide to change it. You must consciously accept the hard work of identifying the cues and rewards that drive the habits’ routines, and find alternatives. You must know you have control and be self-conscious enough to use it…
— p. 270, The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

Here’s the deal. The trigger will likely always be there because it’s an external cue. However, it’s how we respond to the trigger that matters. It’s the routine we need to change and that means that we have to make our new response to the trigger automatic. It’s the successful implementation of the new response that will ultimately change the habit. And that response has to feel at least as good (our reward) as the payoff we received from our previous action. Otherwise, it'll feel like a punishment—and who likes to feel punished in perpetuity?

Here are potential scenarios for changes in routine:

  • It’s 3 o’clock in the afternoon and I get bored with what I’m working on. Normally, I’d head to the kitchen for nothing in particular but instead, I’ll head outside for a few minutes.
  • I got disappointing news and need a pick-me-up. Instead of shopping online, I’ll catch up on a few of my favourite personal finance blogs.
  • It’s 5pm on Thursday and, instead of going to Happy Hour, I’m going to go to a spin class with some friends instead.
  • I need to get to my 4th floor office and I’m going to take the stairs as opposed to push the elevator button.
  • It’s 10:15am, time for a smoke but instead, I’ll head down for a coffee and catch up with coworkers in the cafeteria instead. 

The key to each of these potential changes in behaviour is that they have to “feel good”. The payoff we get from how we responded to the trigger has to be as effective as the previous behaviour. It’s the only way it’ll stick. If it’s not as good, change it up until you feel you’ve found something you feel is a reasonable, sustainable substitute.

The “feel good” reward doesn’t have to be big, but its presence is more important than the magnitude of the change. It the change feels like punishment—like biting off more than we can chew right off the bat—we will not keep it up. That’s a guarantee.

5. BONUS Point: Cause A Ripple Effect

[Insert best infomercial voice here.] 

Wait, There’s more!

As people strengthened their willpower muscles in one part of their lives—in the gym, or a money management program—that strength spilled over into what they ate or how hard they worked. Once willpower became stronger, it touched everything.
— p. 139, The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

One of the significant insights in The Power of Habit is the concept of keystone habits. A keystone habit is a change we make that causes a domino effect in other areas of our lives. Examples include choosing to exercise or to practice good money management. People who change one of these aspects of their lives often find their new habits cause a ripple effect that leads to the implementation of other improvements that increases their overall quality of life.

That’s pretty powerful stuff.

[O]nce you understand that habits can change, you have the freedom—and the responsibility—to remake them. Once you understand that habits can be rebuilt, the power of habit becomes easier to grasp, and the only option left is to get to work.
— p. 271, The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

So, what's next?

For me it's reducing my TV watching, which has recently crept up to unacceptable levels, aided by the frightful weather we've had over the past few months.

First step, I'll be removing the offending hardware from the living room so that I don't pick up the remote by default (its mere presence is a trigger). Step two, replace TV watching with other leisure activities, such as reading, taking a nap, cooking, catching up with friends, etc. because my reward is relaxation and distraction and I find these activities achieve that just as well as TV.

Are you thinking about making a change? If so, congratulations. My only other question is how are you going to set yourself up for success?

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