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How To Create Instant Habits

How To Create Instant Habits

I know my title is probably hard to believe.  However, research done over the past 13 years by Gollwitzer and many others has shown that it’s actually possible to create instant habits by using a very specific kind of simple plan.

This simple plan is called an “implementation intention” by scientists like Gollwitzer and has been proven effective in a variety of domains from helping students study during Christmas break, to getting women to do regular breast self-exams, to taking medication regularly.

But because the term “implementation intentions” is kind of a mouthful, let’s use a variation of the term Chip and Dan Heath used in their book Switch and call them “verbal action triggers.”

So what is a verbal action trigger?  It’s an if-then plan you use to connect a specific cue to a specific behavior.  For example, I created the following action trigger for myself “If I sit down at my desk, then I start writing my next post.”

It’s a great way to get yourself to do a specific task that you want to do right now but it’s real power is it’s ability to get you to engage in new habits practically overnight.

In one study 114 adults who had a heart attack were put into two groups to see how well verbal action triggers might affect their level of physical activity.

One group was given instruction in how to use verbal action triggers, another group was not given this instruction.

Both groups were given short-term rehabilitation of about 8 weeks and were told that they should continue to exercise on their own 3 times a week.

Eight months later only the group taught verbal action triggers maintained the recommended level of exercise.  The other group’s activity level had dropped off sharply.

So now that you know that this technique works, I’ll give you some specific instructions on how to use it as well as a caveat that explains why it won’t always work.

Here are the instructions:

1.  Pick a goal.  It can be as simple as getting a top grade in a math class. Or getting into physical shape.

2.  Pick a specific action that will help you achieve your goal.  For exercise it might be to go to the gym.

3.  Pick a specific cue that tells you when to engage in the action.  You might decide that when you leave work is the best time to get to the gym.

4.  Put the cue and the behavior into an “if-then” statement.  For the example above “If I leave work, then I go to the gym.”

What you’ll find is that when the time comes you are more likely to remember the goal and more likely to take the action specified in your verbal action trigger.

Now here’s the caveat:   It won’t always work.  In every study there are some people that didn’t respond to the verbal action triggers.  Other studies have been done to find out what make this technique work more often.

Here are some guidelines from the research that can increase your chances of success.

1.  Make sure that you believe you can take the action you are specifying.  The research shows that your belief in your abilities affects the likelihood of a verbal action trigger helping you.  If you don’t think you could ever go to the gym straight after work, this technique won’t help you do that.  So find a behavior you believe you can do at least once.

2.  Make sure you are committed to your goal.  It’s OK if your commitment is an “I have to” commitment as opposed to an “I choose to” commitment.  The research shows you’ll get the same results either way.  But if you are not committed at all and just don’t care about the goal, you won’t get results.  You can increase your commitment to your goal with a technique called Mental Contrasting which I wrote about in my last post.

3.  The strength of the mental connection made by the if-then plan is important.  So if you make up the statement on the fly while distracted by other things the link may not be strong enough.  So repeating the statement it several times in a quiet place where you can concentrate can be helpful.  Also visualizing yourself responding to the plan in the third person has found to make the connection much stronger.

With these three tips, you’ll be much more likely to benefit from verbal action triggers.  Since they take so little time and so little effort to use, you may as well try them several times to see when they do and do not work for you.

So will you use this technique today?  Consider forming an if-then plan then writing about it below.

An Easy Way To Overcome Procrastination

An Easy Way To Overcome Procrastination

Several months ago I read about a technique that causes people to be more committed to their goals called Mental Contrasting.  This procedure has been used to help people follow through on goals as diverse as exercising, time management, test preparation, learning a second language, achieving work-life balance and getting to know an attractive stranger.

I’ve personally applied it to overcome procrastination and seen it produce startling results for myself and I’ll show you how to apply it to overcome your procrastination in this post.

So what is Mental Contrasting exactly?  It’s a technique that involves imagining the benefits of achieving your goal first, then thinking of obstacles in the way of achieving your goal.

The research shows that doing this causes a person who has high expectations of success to feel more energized about their goal because they see reality as putting some barriers in the way.  Merely imagining how great it would be to achieve the goal did not produce these benefits.

And since most procrastinators know they can get themselves to complete an action they are procrastinating on it works wonders.  For example, most students procrastinating on a paper that is due, know they can complete it because they’ve completed many papers before.  They just have a hard time starting early and then following through.

Before I tell you the best way to apply this technique to procrastination though, I’d like to share with you just one of many studies that shows how effective this method is.

In a 2001 study, freshman enrolled in a vocational school for computer programming were put into two three groups.  One group did mental contrasting in which they thought of positive aspects of finishing their program (feelings of pride, improved job prospects etc) and then thought of obstacles in the way (being distracted by peers, feeling lazy).  Another group only thought about positive aspects of reaching their goal, and the last group only thought about the obstacles to finishing the program.

At the end of the study only the group that did mental contrasting and had expectations of success invested high degrees of effort as reported by themselves and their teachers and they also got the highest grades.  Students in the Mental Contrasting group with low expectations felt the least energized and expended the least effort and consequently got the lowest grades.  Participants in the other two groups did not show any differences in motivation or achievement based on their expectations of success.

What this shows is that Mental Contrasting causes you to put in a level of effort that’s in line with your expectations of success.  So if you want to stop procrastinating and start taking action on a goal try the following steps.

1.  Pick a goal, for example, I had a hard time getting myself to plan my week on Sunday so I set my goal to plan the week.

2.  To make sure you have high expectations of success, remember past times that you were able to take that action.  I thought of the other weeks in which I successfully planned the week.  Research shows that describing the past events in the imperfective (I was doing) as opposed to past tense (I did) is most effective in motivating you to take the same action again so I described my past experiences that way by saying “Two weeks ago I was planning my week…”

3.  Think of all the positive benefits that can come from achieving your goal.  I thought about how I’d be more confident that I was taking care of all the things that need to be taken care of if I planned my week.  That I’d feel more relaxed as well.

4.  I thought of several obstacles in the way.  One was inertia from not taking this action for at least two weeks.  Another was the fact that I have so many wonderful things I could do on a weekend with that same time.

After taking these four steps, I felt energized about planning my week and I did it in a very short amount of time.

So will you try this technique today?  If so, consider telling me about how you’ll use it in a comment below.  Thanks in advance for doing this.

Reference to 2001 study mentioned above:

Self-Regulation of Goal Setting: Turning Free Fantasies About the Future Into Binding Goals

How One Word Can Help You Achieve Your Goals

How One Word Can Help You Achieve Your Goals

Would you like to know the one word that’s proven to increase the chance that you’ll achieve your goal? 

Recent research from the Journal of Consumer Research not only tells us what this word is but why it’s so powerful (hint: I just used it in that last sentence).

The word is why.  And here’s why it’s so powerful.

Imagine that your goal is to save money.  And you ask yourself how to do it.  So you decide to create a specific plan that involves you spending less money at Starbucks.  Will you take other money-saving opportunities or not?  The answer is “not” or at least not likely.  Those who ask themselves why they want to save money far are more likely to notice other opportunities to reach their goals.  In fact, asking how alone can actually keep you from seeing other opportunities.

Here’s how researchers discovered this:

They conducted several experiment to see how different questions affected people when they had the goal of saving money.  In one study, participants were asked to create a specific plan to save money while another group was asked to focus on the reasons why they wanted to save money.  And the members of a third group were asked to focus on the abstract reasons for saving money and to form a plan.

The members of each group were given the chance to buy candy.

Those who formed specific plans (concrete thinkers) were less effective in avoiding the candy purchase than those who had focused on the reasons they wanted to save money (abstract thinkers).  And among those who focused on the why, the ones that formed plans were the most effective at avoiding the candy purchase.

“Planning is more effective when people think abstractly, keep an open mind, and remind themselves of why they want to achieve a goal,” the authors of the study write. “This strategy is especially effective when the plan turns out to be infeasible (cheaper restaurant is too far away, gym is closed today for a holiday) or when other goal-directed activities become available (walk instead of taking a cab, eat a healthier meal).”

So if you want to reach a goal, focus on all the reasons why you want to achieve it, then form a plan.  Doing so will allow you to be open to many more opportunities to reach your goal and so increase your chances of success.

To find an official source describing this study visit the link below.