This is part two of five in a series devoted to taking control of our habits. Previously I described habits as being unconscious procedures that our brain uses as shortcuts to complex and routine problems. In order to take control our habits, we must first start with awareness. Awareness of our habits is the key to controlling and modifying them.
Habitual Mastery – Series
Habits are simply the processes that we’ve conditioned repeatedly. Do the same procedure enough, and our brain automatically continues with the pattern when it is triggered. Therefore, the way to change or modify a habit is simply to condition a new one. The goal for any conditioning technique should be to use a small amount of willpower to initialize the change. After that, the habit should run smoothly without added force.
Conditioning a new habit requires conscious focus. While habits generally run automatically once in place, creating a new habit means that you must direct your focus to override your default behavior to establish a new one. One of the biggest mistakes I’ve made when trying to change habits, is simply in underestimating the amount of conscious focus keeping the habit will take. In many ways, making big changes for diet, exercise or sleep is easier than making a little change because it is too easy to undervalue exactly how much emphasis is required to make the change.
Now conscious focus is different than willpower. Willpower is needed when the old habit served a positive benefit and pain is created while transferring that benefit to the new habit. Most of our habits serve a purpose in some way, even if they are primarily destructive. In the articles on leverage and replacement I will discuss these habits in more depth. Conversely, conscious focus is needed regardless of the difficulty of the habit. Conscious focus simply means forcing your brain to do a different procedure than the one it would do naturally. So if your default habit is to watch television when you get home, and you want to replace that with reading, conscious focus is needed to override the default pattern of watching television.
Willpower and conscious focus are resources that can only be used for a short period of time. If you are having to rely on willpower to sustain a habit, the change will not last. Habit changes are like launching a space shuttle. If the shuttle went straight up, when it ran out of fuel it would just fall back down again. However, once the shuttle leaves the atmosphere, it locks itself into an orbit, so that it can maintain its height without any added energy. Similarly, effective conditioning techniques try to get you into orbit as soon as possible, so you can reach the most dramatic heights with the least willpower.
Natural Conditioning Techniques
Most of my experience with conditioning new habits has been using what I will refer to from now on as “natural” conditioning techniques. Like their name implies, natural conditioning techniques condition the habit in the exact same way the habit would naturally be run. These techniques tend to be longer and require more patience, but they are also a lot easier to pull off.
My favorite natural conditioning technique is the 30 Day Trial, which was introduced to me from Steve Pavlina. Although I know that his method has been adapted from many other similar 21 Day programs, I’ve found it to be incredibly effective. The essence of this trial is that you intend to focus on the habit only for 30 days. Because the conditioning phase is usually a lot shorter than it first appears, this technique gets you to focus your efforts really hard for the first burst so you can reach orbit quickly.
I’ve been told that the minimum amount of time needed to condition a habit is actually only 21 days, but I like 30. The extra nine days may be a little overkill, but I’ve always found that going a little overkill is always better than underestimating the requirements of a habit change. Furthermore, 30 days fits nicely into one month increments, so you can start and end on the same day of the month.
To conduct a 30 Day Trial, simply set a goal to live your habit for the next thirty days. The habit has to be run through a minimum of once per day. I made the mistake of trying to modify the strategy for a 4 week (28 days) trial for something that repeated once or twice a week. This method simply did not condition the habit enough and I didn’t feel any further along then when I started. The idea here is the number of continuous repetitions, not just the timeframe.
Another important rule for the trial is that you must restart it whenever ANY exception is made. I put emphasis on ‘any’ for a reason. Even if your exception was justified, a break in your repetitions will still damage the conditioning process. If you have to quit the trial because of a legitimate and temporary reason that is still better than pretending you completed the trial when you should have restarted.
Depending on the habit this is how I almost all of my thirty day trials go. The first few days are usually a difficult adjustment, but you are working on the willpower you’ve built up from your resolution to go through with the trial. After this initial kickback period things start to get a bit easier and you may start forgetting to apply conscious focus on your habit. Then it happens.
Usually after about 2-3 weeks into the trial, something will come up that will really test you. This has happened in virtually all of my habit trials and they were the reason I failed when I was just starting with this technique. Often these obstacles are completely unforseen and they may even make quitting seem rational. Getting sick when you are in the middle of an exercise trial. Being stuck in a hotel room without anything to do, except the television sitting there that you’ve sworn off for a month. Starting a new diet when you are called out to a birthday at a restaurant.
These moments are the ones that make you want to cringe. Often you didn’t intend for your habit to impact these areas, but you know you need to move forward. This is why I really like the thirty day trial. A little bit of pain is far easier to rationalize if you are aware that you only have to hold on for a few more days. Standard New Year’s Resolutions make the habit seem indefinite which makes it so easy to quit whenever there is a problem.
The real beauty of conditioning is that after you’ve made it through one of these moments, everything becomes a lot easier. You are also satisfied with your ability to persevere. Once you hit the thirty day mark, you might even wonder what was so difficult about the challenge at all? Now that it is a part of your life, it no longer takes any extended effort or willpower to sustain. If you continued that habit for a hundred days, likely it would be harder not to follow it then to revert backwards!
If you are new to making habit changes, the thirty day trial is probably the best technique to start with. Try starting with an easier, but still challenging habit change. Don’t try overhauling your entire life in the first go. Select a habit that could definitely be improved but is also something you think you can do. As I said earlier, creating habitual changes is a skill which needs practice.
Simulated Conditioning Techniques
Natural conditioning techniques work by implementing the habit through running it continuously in your life. Those techniques work incredibly well when the habit is repeated often and the habit repeats itself in a similar fashion. Since most of the habits we want to change initially fall into this category, natural conditioning methods are probably the easiest way to achieve results.
Simulated conditioning techniques, on the other hand, are conditioned by simulating the experience where the habit would be run. Often simulated techniques can be run more rapidly and they can also handle experiences which you encounter infrequently. For example, if you have a habit of losing your temper when you get in an argument, simulated techniques can allow you to condition a more empowering habit without having to test the new habit every day for a month.
The easiest simulated conditioning technique I have found is simply by pretending to run your habit in a false setting. Several months ago when I started my habit to wake up early, I decided to enact my wake up ritual repeatedly when I was awake in the evening. Using this process I made myself wake up immediately after my alarm went off. I even gave myself a big smile to associate positive emotions with waking up. A few months after I did this, Steve Pavlina detailed a very similar process that he used to become an early riser.
Another simulated conditioning technique is through visualization. This technique involves deeply visualizing the situation that involves your habit and conditioning your new one. Unlike the natural conditioning model, this technique requires that you be very careful about how you visualize the situation so that your nervous system will activate the habit upon the correct stimulus. I have had mixed success with the visualization technique. I believe it has a lot of potential to change habits that would be untouchable by natural conditioning methods, but I also believe it is on an order of magnitude more difficult to successfully condition.
Whether you choose to use a natural or simulated conditioning technique to change your habit remember the critical rule: “When in doubt, condition some more.” If you aren’t sure it is conditioned, then condition it some more. Having an incredibly reinforced new habit is far better then one that will cave upon any obstacle. Remember to keep your focus on changing one habit at a time. Running three 30 Day Trials at once may seem attractive, but trust me, you can’t multitask habit changes effectively.
Condition your habits successfully and you can have highly complex and optimal habits supporting your life. Don’t let your habits control you, conditioning the solution!
I hope you enjoyed this look at conditioning habits. In the next article I will discuss ways to set up habits when conditioning simply isn’t enough. By leveraging our habit changes we can utilize a very small amount of willpower to set in motion huge habit changes. I’ll also discuss the incredibly potent concept of identity and how it can shape our habits, hindering or furthering any changes we try to make.