Make It Last | Whiteboard

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Insight 24 | February 16, 2017

Make It Last

by Nick Morrison

Thoughts on Creating Sticky Habits

Initially, this talk was going to coincide more closely with New Year’s, but all the studies show no one keeps those resolutions anyway. So what’s stopping you from starting a new one today? Today I am going to talk about a loosely defined set of tools to hopefully help you with the formation (and retention) of new habits and routines.

Last year, I did several small personal challenges and worked on forming new habits to create more structure in my life. These challenges didn’t always have a clear expected outcome, but to me, it was exciting to challenge my own determination and self-control. But I did find that some of these did last. So I started to think about why.

Story Time

While I was in school and spending all day on campus, food was often the last thing on my mind. A result of this was a very chaotic and ultimately expensive eating schedule. I would get lunches at Jimmy Johns or the food court. I would drink coffees from various coffee shops. I would pick up dinner from Chick-fil-A, Delia’s Chicken Sausage. The list goes on…

So once I graduated and started working full-time, I noticed my old habits didn’t die and I continued to eat out a majority of the time. And those daily lunches definitely added up. I mean you have all heard of the ‘Latte A Day’ savings plan. This was worse.

So at the beginning of last year, Mirely and I set a personal challenge out for ourselves. We were going to eat out once a week. Only once. No excuses. This meant I was going to have to bring my lunch to work every day.

I knew this wasn’t going to be as easy as just flipping a switch, so how was I going to make it successful?

So after that challenge (and a couple more small ones from last year), I looked back and found a few things that helped me stayed focused and build new habits and routines. And hopefully, these tools will be helpful to you guys as well.

Key Messages


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Evaluating and Planning

Firstly, you have to evaluate your new habit and plan the steps you will take to make it successful.

The steps towards creating a successful new habit may be all about how you talk about it. We all like to think more positively about ourselves and the things we do. So when it comes down to planning your New Year’s resolutions or building a stronger routine, try to think about the language you are using.

So taking a look at my original challenge from last year to “Eat Out Less”, you have to evaluate what is replacing the eating out. Cooking. Instead of making my goal to “Eat Out Less” I can say I want to “Cook more food at home”.

The same could be said for the “Latte a Day’ idea. You can’t kid yourself and stop drinking coffee. So instead of vowing to stop buying coffee out, take it as a chance to invest in learning more about coffee at home.


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Habit Chains

Next, I want to talk about the practice of chaining habits together.

The most common example of habit chains is our morning routine. Everyone has a morning routine that is hovering around some level of consistent. One method of creating a sticky habit is to use an already established chain of habits and figuratively add an extra link. This allows our brain to write “if-then” statements and be triggered by already established environmental cues. So if you want to read more books this year, then why not work that into your morning routine or add it on the end.

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If I am done making my coffee then I will go read a book.

These sorts of “if-then” statements can be established outside of a chain as well. So take time-tracking as an example. The one thing we all hate to love to do. And surely a lot of forget about it from time to time. But what if you established a conditional plan that said:

If it is 5 pm then I will track my time for the day.

Once you have established a time and place, then it becomes less easy to create excuses and instead relies on concrete cue (time in this case) more than traditional willpower.


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Visualize the Process

Anyone who has ever dieted can remember visualizing the image of their healthier self. But did that mental image ever truly motivate you to success?

A study I read found that visualizing the actual process created more consistent habits and better results than fantasizing about the outcome. So in the example from the study, they gather two groups of student a week before an exam. One group of students was tasked with visualizing the process of studying: when, where, and how they would study. The other was told to visualize the outcome of their studying, the image of them completing the exam and receiving a good grade.

The results showed the students who spend their time visualizing the process received much higher marks on the exam than those who focused on the outcome. The act of visualizing the steps required to be successful reduced anxiety and had a positive effect on your ability to plan.

In my example, the process of coming home and cooking a new recipe with Mirely or my friends would likely yield higher results than visualizing the amount of money I was saving every month.


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Building Better Results

The infamous cheat day/week/month. We have all heard of this. The idea that I’ve done so well not eating carbs for the last 5 days that I deserve a piece of cake.

This reward system is detrimental to the formation of new habits and routines and effectively can reset the work you have accomplished this far. But I know that in the moment, we can make any number of excuses to let ourselves off the hook.

But we all still love rewards right? And they are proven ways to build more effective habits. So how do you establish a reward system that is both motivating and enjoyable? Simply form a system that rewards you with items or activities that further your habit.

Instead of rewarding myself for a month of not eating out by grabbing a great dinner at one of my favorite restaurants, why not sign-up for a week of Blue Apron with three great meals to cook at home, or treat myself to that new cast-iron pan I have been wanting. It still functions as a motivator and satisfies our want for achievement-oriented rewards but it deepens our connection and commitment to the habit and pushes us to keep moving forward.


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Keep it Simple.

Lastly, I will give some perennial advice. Keep it simple.

We have all heard of the idea of ‘decision fatigue’. But I think our own Peter’s good friend put it best.

“You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits. I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.” —Barack Obama, Peter’s friend, former 44th president of the United States of America


(Thanks Obama)

By forming habits out of repeatable tasks and creating long-term routines, we allow more energy to be put towards your work and personal development.

I experienced my own level of decision fatigue that made sticking to my new habit of cooking at home quite difficult. I would spend lunch break chatting with Mirely and browsing Pinterest, searching an easy meal to cook in the short hours after work. Then one of us would have to grab ingredients from the grocery store that same time. This added way more decisions, work, and stress to what seemed like a simple challenge.

So after January was only partially successful, I took a retrospective look at what made it unsuccessful. The daily planning felt too much like a chore and something had to be done. The solution? Weekly meal planning and leftovers.

Now, a year later, we have a spreadsheet populated with some of the best recipes of the past year and meal planning is ridiculously simple.

Final Thoughts

If you are struggling to form a new habit and are looking for a good place to start, why not start with making the bed. The formation of this as a long-term habit can be the stepping stone to building and maintaining more complex or difficult ones. Additionally, beginning your day with this task has been shown to improve your level of happiness by starting off the day with a small win and ending the day with a freshly made bed.

Don’t forget to wash your sheets every once in a while too. ?


The Power of Habit
Charles Duhigg

Great book that takes the ideas of habit formation and retention to the next level. Highly recommended read.

From Thought to Action
Lien B. Pham, Shelley E. Taylor

The scientific journal on the study mentioned in my talk that examines the power of visualizing the process and the not outcome.

The Science of Success: The If-Then Solution
Heidi Grant Halvorson Ph.D.

The science behind the 'If-Then' conditional brain training and how to remove willpower from the equation when it comes to meeting goals and building habits.

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