Taking action is something I’m (more or less) good at. That wasn’t always the case: I used to be a total mugwump. Mugwump is the old-fashionedy word for a flip-flopper. I would hem and haw at any major decision, ask a dozen friends what they thought I should do, put it off and generally get nothing done.
Often, when it was too late to seize the day and the opportunity was passed, it felt almost like a relief instead of a disappointment.
But despite the comfort factor, the eventual effect of not making big decisions was devastating. My life became rote: a recurring series of habits and routines, some pleasant (friends and beer! yearly vacation!) and others decidedly not. Most were somewhere in between: contenting. I was content to live my life.
Here’s something they don’t tell you in high school: being content is the ass-end of happiness.
Getting out of “that place” seems unpossible. A lot of people don’t think they can do any better, or don’t see how they can make a real change in their lives. Often this is reinforced because they’ve made attempts and failed. You can recognize this syndrome by five telltale words:
I could never do that.
“Last week I went caving. We had to crawl through spaces as narrow as our shoulders.”
“Wow, I could never do that.”
“Well, it was hard to lose weight, but not that hard. I limited myself to 1700 calories a day.”
“Oh, I could never do that.”
“I’m going without coffee or caffeine for a month to see if it reduces my anxiety levels.”
“I could never do that.”
(These are all real examples.)
These are the words that people say when they can no longer even envision breaking out of their routine. Or when the notion itself is threatening, because they’ve tried before and been burned.
So what makes the difference between taking action and seeing it work, or taking action and getting burned?
More factors than I can imagine, I’m sure, but I’ve discovered one that outweighs them all. Once you know it, it feels like you have some special secret weapon, because so many people don’t get it. At the same time it is a great universal truth, because it is equally vital in any walk of life. Whether you’re an athlete trying to improve your performance or a mother of four wishing you had more income, this single factor is the greatest key to making change.
Yet it’s deceptively simple:
You have to change your habits.
This is the special ingredient in the recipe for taking (effective) action. Change isn’t something you can just add in on top of what you’re already doing.
Your current life is awash in a myriad of habits that press you in the direction of where you’re already going. The hundred things you do everyday give your life the structure it already has, and that structure has inertia. It’s hard to shove the whole thing in a new direction, even if it’s as minor as swearing less.
This is why most people who pick up a “teach yourself German” book never learn German. The material in the book might be solid, but do you dedicate 40 minutes a day to practicing? Do you give up your normal TV time to watch shows or movies in German? Do you seek out German-speaking friends and ask to do a once a week coffee date with no English allowed?
Changing habits requires a conscious willingness to give up things, which is why it’s the last thing most people resort to. Only by giving up familiar activities will you be able to integrate new ones into your schedule. You can’t spend your Saturday morning on English-Free Coffee Date if you insist on sleeping in every Saturday.
Here are ten ways I’ve successfully changes a habit of my own:
- Set a time of day that I have to do something, including an alarm that goes off on my phone.
- Made a rule that I cannot eat dinner until I have done my new activity.
- Enlisted peer pressure, by exuberantly telling all my friends what I would do. They frequently asked how it was going and I wanted to be able to show them something.
- Left a note for myself in a place where I usually waste time—in my case, on the couch.
- Literally got rid of the things I needed to keep up my old habit. I sold or threw away items associated with it.
- Set a reasonable limit on the old habit, such as “no more than two glasses of wine in an evening.”
- Found replacements for the habit, such as eating pistachios instead of chocolates.
- Signed up for a coach who would enforce my new habit, such as a class for learning a language or a personal trainer for getting fit.
- Made a written plan of how to reach my new goal, with all of the steps along the way (and a timetable!) outlined.
- Sacrificed sleep for victory, staying up 1 hour later than usual three nights a week to put in time on the new activity.
The power of habits is strong. But the human mind and body are adaptable and if something is required on a daily basis, they will learn to do it with ease. The secret is to find some way to make a new habit indispensable. Your lifestyle has to rely on it in some way, or it will fall by the wayside.
This is the single greatest determining factor in the success of any life change.
So, what next? Well, I’m enforcing a new habit of my own by embarking on a three month program of healthy eating, Traditional Chinese Medicine style. I’ve decided to chronicle what it’s like going through the program, so if you want to see my challenges and victories, click on over to I Will Be That Man.
Have you ever tried to change a habit? Was it part of a larger goal or a goal in itself? Hit the comments and tell me—but first, please be a good internet citizen and tweet this post.