April 28, 2014

New Habit Experiment: A Simple Trick to Make 'Em Stick

By Crabby McSlacker

New habits can be uncomfortable, right?

Our old habits just don't want to let go--they are deeply wired in our brains, comfy and familiar and sneaky because they are nearly invisible. We don't even think about them.

Which is mostly a good thing, right?  If you had to consciously re-think and plan how to get out of bed in the morning and ambulate to the bathroom and figure out what to do in there, then go to the kitchen and re-decide each day how to make your coffee and what to put in it and what vessel to drink it out of, you would probably get even less done in a day than Crabby McSlacker.

But sometimes we want to change an old habit or add a new one.  Healthy habit formation is one of the most annoying, pain-in-the-ass, but essential challenges if you're trying to enjoy a lifetime of good health and reasonable fitness.

The problem is, most often your brain will go along with the new program for a good two minutes while the executive part is in charge.  Then the busy executive will get distracted with busy executive things and your unconscious lizard brain will take over.  And it will likely say: "Nice try. But  f--ck that, I'm going back to our comfortable old way of doing things since you're not paying attention anyway, you bossy buttface."

Or at least that's what my lizard brain says. Yours may be a bit more polite.

So anyway, this is just an experiment in one aspect of adopting new habits. It been around since the beginning of time. But the way I'm using it is new for me and so far I have ONE, count 'em, it, ONE success and I'm hoping to build on it.

What's the trick?

Use Triggers!

photo: FDR library

And yeah, there are million other tricks to habits.  Best selling books that I haven't read have much better advice. This is just one tiny piece I'm playing with: using external cues in daily life as reminders to prompt new healthy behaviors until they become automatic.

Anyone else want to join me and pick a simple healthy action you'd like to do more of, and pair it with an environmental reminder and see if you can establish a new habit?  Let's get trigger-happy and give it a shot!

Here's the basic idea:

Just choose one or two trigger/habit combinations you're willing to try to do consistently for a month until you don't even have to think about it anymore. 

More than that and you'll forget too often. I tried 4 and pretty much forgot about 3 of them within a few days, so I just shrugged and went with the one that seemed stickiest even if it was kind of a dumb one.

Note: If you pick a silly little thing like I did, it will seem too lame to do just one new thing for a whole month. But keep in mind this pairing experiment is on top of the probably 4,000 other healthy plans, schemes, resolutions, and good intentions you have.  You don't have to stop trying to make yourself go to the gym or cook healthy meals or whatever; this is all about experimenting with something little and automating it, so it becomes like closing the refrigerator door after you grab something out.  (And if that hasn't become automatic yet, perhaps that should be first on your list).

Forget Something?
Photo by Ray

Then the next month, you add one more trigger/habit combo.  And keep adding until you become superhuman! Or until you start forgetting all the previous habits you worked on, whichever comes first.

I'd suggest making the behaviors something small and relatively easy:  "Whenever I am waiting for the bus, this is a cue to remember to take 3 deep breaths."  Not: "Every day when I get home from work I will embark on an hour-a-day progressive relaxation program."

Some sample habits ideas:
  • Drink a glass of water
  • Spend a minute assessing your stress level and relax tense muscles
  • Kegels!
  • Mindfulness practice
  • Stretch
  • Brainstorm/scheme/fantasize about Long Term Goals you keep putting off
  • Posture check
  • Gratitude
  • Calf raises, squats, lunges, counter push-ups (or real ones if you're unselfconscious or you work at home)
  • Deep breaths
  • Meal planning/strategizing
  • Journaling
  • Get up and walk on an invented errand to break up long periods of sitting on your ass
  • Affirmations

Some sample trigger ideas:
  • Stop lights
  • Standing in a line
  • When you get bumped off the internet or your computer reboots because of some stupid software update you didn't even ask for
  • Walking in the front door after work
  • Whenever you fix yourself a cup of coffee or tea
  • When using the restroom (you're going anyway, especially if you are using the above trigger a lot)
  • When a reminder program you set on your computer or phone goes off
  • While waiting to microwave something or for water to boil
  • Before you turn on the tv at night
  • While flossing your teeth

If you can replace a trigger for an old bad habit with a new good one, bonus! 
  • When a co-worker offers tempting home-baked treats, it's a cue to make a cup of boring but healthy green tea
  • When you pull into a crowded parking lot and start feeling pissy, it's a trigger to park way way far from the entrance and get a little more exercise
  • When you find yourself opening the refrigerator or cabinet where snacks are kept, and it's not for a planned indulgence, it's a trigger to invent an errand at the other end of the house, and see if a brief break makes any difference
  • When you see an elevator door, it's a cue to look for a staircase instead
  • When your teenager mouths off, it's a trigger for a couple of deep breaths
The possibilities are endless, but the idea is to make it easy and simple enough that you're actually willing to devote some focus and awareness to it because it actually seems somewhat doable.

And don't beat yourself up if you forget sometimes (you will), but don't give up either! Even one puny habit change is great proof to yourself of your own potential for awesomeness.

Case Study: Stairway to... Well, not Heaven Exactly. But to Slightly Stronger Legs.

I decided that whenever I take stairs, I will from now on take them two at a time.  Why?  No reason really except it sounded like a fairly easy new habit to pick up. I'm going upstairs anyway, and they're a big honking obvious thing, hard to ignore. So I might as well leverage that trigger to give my legs a little more challenge without taking any extra time, right?

I still have to think about it a bit, but it's becoming more ingrained all the time!

Here's a dramatic reenactment:

Executive Brain: Thinky thoughts, more thinky thoughts....

Lizard Brain: Wait, look, there are stairs! That means something now!

Executive Brain: So, what does that mean, lizard brain?

Lizard Brain: Stop! It's a trigger!

Executive Brain: Yeah, I got that part. What do we do now?

Lizard Brain: I don't know. You haven't trained me long enough for it to just come to me. But at least give me credit for noticing,

Executive Brain: Yeah OK, that's progress anyway.  And  I remember now--we go up the stairs two at a time! Someday, lizard brain, you'll be programmed well enough I don't even have to interrupt my lovely thinky thoughts and you can just do this without me.  Meanwhile, let's just send that message on down to the legs, shall we?

Legs: WTF? No one asked me! Ow! I hate you, you suck!

So yeah, I started this stairway trigger experiment before I headed off for vacation, and suspecting there might be a blog post about it, I actually took pictures of staircases along the way.

In case you all didn't know what they were?

But you already knew I was weird.

Of course I wasn't perfect. I'd forget about 10-15% of the time at first but I'm probably at about 98% compliance now.  Partly because I make myself walk back down and do it over if I forgot, unless someone else is around to stare at me like I'm completely nuts.

And as you may imagine, there are caveats and escape clauses: it's not mandatory if I'm carrying 100lbs of luggage or if I'm hiking up 27 flights or if it would be totally socially inappropriate.  But for my basic 2-3 flight many-times-a-day stair ascension, carrying groceries or not, it's now two stairs at a time, and I think it's stuck.

Stay tuned for the next experiment--I've got several new trigger/habit combos in mind, but I haven't decided for sure yet.  I know if I don't narrow it down to one or two, nothing's gonna stick.

How about you guys, do you do weird stuff like this?  What kind of triggers and habit combinations intrigue you, or are you already efficiently-wired superhumans?


  1. Wow. The hardest part will be narrowing down the list of things I keep forgetting to do and choosing one. Could you please keep reminding us to go ahead and add one more? Hmm. For now, I plan to go home and put something odd on the counter that's the perfect height for the quad stretches I'm supposed to be doing to help out the old knees, and every time I see it, I plan to stretch and not put the odd thing away (that last bit will be all too easy...). Now all I have to do is remember this when I get home.

  2. Too funny DRG! One of the habits I tried but forgot was a hip stretch that involves placing a bent leg on a countertop and leaning in--something I discovered I can do while flossing my teeth. (Brushing was too drippy). But I kept forgetting. So I like your idea of putting something odd on the counter to remind me! Although it's amazing how fast I can habituate to the sight of something odd and not even see it any more...

  3. I did something similar when I added a (very) few squats to my morning. I do them right after my standing on one leg stuff, but before stretches. It only took a few days before I was thinking of them before I finished the one-leg ( I am sure it has a real name) stuff.

    1. I think "one-leg" is a perfectly good exercise name Leah, and good for you for adding Evil Squats!

  4. Arntt good habits grand? I've been using the time right before dinner, when everything is ready and I'm just waiting for that one thing to finish to work on handstands. I'm so glad you posted this, I've been trying to figure out how to trigger myself to take medication at a new time, and had forgotten my phone could remind me! Perfect. Soon my lizard brain will learn to do it, but until then i have back up. I need a get away from working and walk trigger, anyone have a good one?

    1. Ooh, handstand practice, I'm working (lazily) on that too, AA! But I suck at it so far, and gotta do it outside or our downstairs crazy-lady neighbor would have me arrested. Great idea though for timing.


      (did that help?)

      And, well, if you drink as many cups of coffee as I do, refills and bathroom breaks can trigger a few longer strolls. But I think your phone or laptop could be set to nag you too! Or there may be some natural breaks that happen in your workflow if you look for them?

    2. Ahhh, that did help! Natural breaks in workflow is also a great idea...I'm going to keepan eye out for such triggers, Or get a hand mounted on my chair that smacks me in the head once an hour!

  5. I don't know if I have any triggers but I do take the stairs (unless I'm schlepping a large suitcase!) all the time - I hate elevators!!

    1. I woulda guessed you were a stair-climber Kim, and I wouldn't be surprised if you take 'em 3 at a time!

  6. Crabby - that two steps at a time idea is FABULOUS in that not only is it tied to a trigger, but it's pure efficiency in every way! I can totally see you doing this :) :)

    Triggers are such a terrific technique because they also tend to have a 'compounding' effect in that one small success leads to another and then more and more and - well, before you know it, you're half way to grabbing a halo what with all the great new virtuous ways!!

    Seriously - this is one of the best things to have in the arsenal of techniques to help one hit one's target/s for self improvement. Sheesh - I now seem to be on a whole weaponry theme... dang.

    Actually, I guess that's ok, because if we are going to talk about arming ourselves, it should be for the purposes of good: all the benefits of blowing bad habits to smithereens absent any annoying or harmful consequences!

    Anyway - this post is inspirational and has me now cogitating on all manner of things I might tie together - so, thanks!!

    1. I doubt there will be too many halos for me ultrakaz, as I have a pair of devil horns that already fit quite nicely, but who knows, maybe one little habit at a time I can get some traction on a couple virtuous habits? But will be very curious what triggers & behaviors you might be contemplating! Anyone who can do 100 miles in an ultra is probably pretty unstoppable!

  7. Now that you've reminded me, i realize this is how i trained myself to always put my keys on the hook -- turning off the engine was the trigger to put the lanyard around my neck, and the keys dangling and jingling was the cue to take them off and put them on the hook.

    What i found was that at first i would always remember well after the fact. As i would stop and put the keys away the moment i remembered, eventually i remember in the middle of the time i was supposed to be wearing the keys, and soon after i would remember right away, when the engine cut off.

    Another thing that helped was, instead of berating myself for not doing it the first time and every time, i congratulated my brain for remembering! Instead of saying to myself, "oh, i forgot," i would say, "oh, i remembered! thank you, brain, for remembering! next time, let's try to remember a little earlier in the process." Yes, i'm weird like that, but the positive reinforcement worked.

    So, a new habit, and a trigger. Every time i approach my computer desk, it will be a cue to do a few squats or lunges (on leg days) or some arm exercises (on arm days).

    1. Excellent point messymimi, about the encouragement to give yourself for remembering late. I do that too, and it's way more motivating than self castigation.

      At one point I paired walking through the door with putting away keys, phone, sunglases, wallet etc all in a set place where they "belonged," but I seem to have drifted off that a bit, maybe that would make a good one for me to take up again!

  8. Very well presented! After reading it I realized how practical this is because by luck, I've done this, and it works!

    1. Thanks Dr. J! And I'm guessing it's not just when it comes to fitness--in your profession routines and triggers are probably very important as the stakes can be so high if anything is forgotten, like what body part you are operating on!

  9. You just HAD to make the stairs an example, didn't you??!?!?! ;-)

    That's the VERY habit I'm trying to establish!

    1. Excellent LuckyMama, glad to contribute to the conspiracy to make it a habit--hope it's a success!

  10. Great idea! I have several things I would like to try - but one at a time.

    1. Yeah, I found out pretty quickly that for me, more than one at a time was more than my tiny brain could handle. Good luck with it mk!

    I love the way you write.
    when do you pick one reader and let her move in and help her shed her unwanted habits???

  12. I am weird BUT right now just doing the survival game - can't take on any more stress.... meaning more to dos.. :)

  13. This is fascinating. The last habit I established was several years ago. I forget how long I've been managing to floss my teeth daily instead of several times a week, but it's been at least five years. I can't remember doing anything except deciding to try doing it in the morning instead of after supper, when I feel less rushed, but apparently am not as good at doing routine things.
    What's really interesting is that I can't think of a single habit I want to add (or subtract!) at this point in my life.

    Mary Anne in Kentucky

  14. I take the stairs two at a time as often as possible. I hate walking up stairs behind people who lug there bodies slowly, up one stair at a time. I hate stairs, so it is better to do them quickly.


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