Little steps

In trying to implement some new behaviors, I'm finally listening to advice and looking at how to piggyback the new behaviors on existing behaviors. The best way to introduce a new habit being to start small and link the new behavior to an existing behavior. These are basically implementation intentions [1], as introduced to me by the Psychology Today blogger on procrastination, Dr. Timothy Pychyl [2] (who also has an extensive site devoted to his procrastination research, an affordable e-book on the topic, and scads of podcasts subscribable through iTunes).

An implementation intention basically says. "I will do behavior x when y happens so that I can achieve z." The objective is to have your environment deliver the cue for the behavior you want to encourage. In addition to supporting your goals, implementation intentions can support something called prospective memory, which I'll blog about someday (after putting it off for nearly a year!).

If a task I need or want to do is a one-off, or requires extra will-power to motivate myself to do it, then that's a task I'm not likely to do. Therefore, I need to plan how to make more routine the things that I that I think will be beneficial to me. So here are some behaviors I'm trying to implement now:

  • Liz always goes to bed an hour or so before I do. After I kiss her good night, I always walk past the bathroom on my way to my office. So, an obvious intention would be, "When I walk past the bathroom, floss and brush my teeth so I can have better gum health and keep the dentist far away from me." I'm very bad about flossing regularly.
  • I have my banjo lesson on Friday mornings. When I come back home, I always leave the banjo in its case until the next time I decide to practice, which may not be till Monday or Tuesday. And I leave the case sitting off to the side even though Liz gave me a banjo stand for my birthday. So, to encourage me getting my banjo out and ready to play, my new intention is: "When I get home from my lesson on Friday morning, I will remove the banjo from its case and put it on the stand so I can quickly pick up the instrument when I want to practice." Even though removing the banjo from its case involves tiny effort, it's just enough resistance to keep me from practicing. By making this new behavior a policy or rule, I remove the need to use emotions or will power to get the task done.
  • On a related note (heh): I often practice my banjo immediately after I get home from work or school and before I pull my MacBook out of my backpack. I do this because once I have the MacBook out and plugged in, I get lost checking email, blogs, etc. With my desk clear of the computer, I have more room to set up my music, I can sit in my chair, swivel around to the banjo stand, pick up the banjer, and start plunking away. Little steps, and probably silly to someone who's more disciplined, but the more I can clear my path of little stones like this, the easier the journey.
  • A long-standing rule of mine has been to fill up the car when the gas gauge indicates there's a quarter of a tank left. Lately, though, I've come close to running on fumes so I needed to change this. There's nothing worse than being in a hurry to get to the next town and then discovering you have to divert to get some gas. My new rule now is to fill up every Friday on my way home from grocery shopping, no matter how much gas is in the tank. This lets me start off the next week with a full tank.

Now, will these intentions work every time? Maybe not. But by thinking about how to work around my natural resistance, I increase the chance that I'll do them more often. And more often is better than not at all.

Links [1] http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/dont-delay/201001/implementation-intentions-facilitate-action-control [2] http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/dont-delay