The Power Habit Lab
From Test Maven
It happened to me:
I was waiting for a website to load, which because of the ancient one-year-old technology I still use, can take as much as five seconds (I know, right?), and to pass the time, I reached for my phone.
Alarmingly, it was not in my pocket.
I shuffled around for some time, increasingly anxious, tearing the room apart, searching behind cushions, on the floor, under the bed. It had been right there, moments before, within my grasp, I was sure. In fact, I distinctly remembered holding it in the very palm of my hand.
As a matter of fact, there it still was in my grip, having just finished loading that website.
Yes, that's right:
I was so addicted to my phone that I would reach for it even while it was already in my hand.
I'm not embarrassed to admit that I had this problem. In fact, I'm excited to tell you how bad I had it, because it proves how dramatically I changed, using the method I describe below. Today, instead of letting my devices control me, I control them. Instead of making snarky social media posts, I make actual decisions about how I'm going to live each moment of my life. Can you imagine? Decisions.
Some days, I'm awake for hours before it even occurs to me to check my phone.
If even I can stop constantly checking my phone and start living my life, so can you.
But you have to think about this the right way. If you just make a resolution to get a hold of yourself, then grit your teeth and try not to pull your phone out every time you feel like it, then you're going about it all wrong.
The Will Power Trap
You might say to yourself right now, "I'm only going to look at my phone when I really need to from now on." And maybe you have enough will power to push through till dinner time. But as you start to get tired, or stressed, or overwhelmed by responsibilities, that resolution is going to weaken, and you'll fall back on your habits.
I'm willing to bet that's happened to you before. And you probably blamed yourself. You weren't "motivated enough." You didn't "really want it." Whatever story you told yourself, it was based on the idea that you change your behavior by having enough will power.
But if you believe that, you're dooming yourself to a cycle of failure, because nobody has enough will power to make a permanent change in their lives just by deciding to do it. If you try to make the change on will power alone, you're going to fail, and that failure is going to reinforce your belief that you can't change.
Everyone runs out of motivation eventually, and when that inevitably happens, habits take over.
The only way to get ahead of that process is to take control of it. Instead of leaning on will power, take charge of the habits themselves.
It's easier than you think.
Just Stop Trying
Any behavior strategy that depends on "trying harder" and "powering through" is doomed.
We love stories about people with high and noble goals who push and strive until they reach the height of achievement. But the reality is that constant effort is an exhausting way to live your life, and sooner or later most people are going to run out of juice.
Instead of trying harder to do the difficult thing, what if you made it so easy to do that you didn't even have to try?
For years, I chastised myself for spending too much time doodling around on my phone. I tried and tried to resist the urge to pull it out. But the habit was stronger than my effort. The beautiful and horrible thing about habits is that they move faster than our decision-making process. By the time it occurred to me to "resist the urge," I'd already have the darn phone in my hand.
So I stopped trying.
I don't mean that I gave up. I mean that instead of trying to stick to a resolution, I created a system that would get me away from my phone without my ever having to decide not to look at it. The system did the work for me. All I had to do was design and implement it, and almost overnight I was spending less than half as much time on my phone, without even once telling myself not to use it.
The core of my strategy is a method developed by my mentor, Stanford behavior scientist BJ Fogg. His Tiny Habits system is the only complete habit formation method that has been scientifically validated as an effective way to create new habits that last, quickly and easily.
With an open mind and a willingness to practice, anyone can make this system work for them. The simple breakthrough idea is that a habit is like a seedling, which planted in the right place, will naturally grow into whatever fantastic organism you care to imagine. It's hard to install a full-grown tree, but it's easy to plant a seedling. In the same way, it's easy to create a very small habit that will naturally grow into the big, important changes you want to see.
All you have to do is make it so easy that you won't feel any resistance, no matter how unmotivated you feel. It has to be something quick. Practice that tiny little habit, and every time you do, celebrate like you just won the Nobel Prize. Soon you'll be doing it automatically. And soon after that, you'll find yourself naturally taking the next steps.
Want to floss every night? Celebrate flossing one tooth after you brush! Soon you'll be flossing them all.
Want to go running every morning? Celebrate putting on your gym shorts after you get out of bed! Soon you'll be heading out the door.
Want to stop checking your phone all the time?
Well, this is just a little more complicated, because it's about not doing something. In order to create a Tiny Habit around this goal, first I had to translate it into a positive form. For me, the problem with my phone wasn't just that I was using it too much. The problem was that I was using it for no reason. I kept swiping it open automatically, even when there was absolutely nothing I needed to check or do or find out.
So the new habit I needed was just to stop for three seconds to ask myself what I actually wanted to do. All I had to do was put a little pause in between the impulse and the action.
Here's the habit I came up with, following the Tiny Habits recipe:
"When I notice an urge to reach for my phone, I will open my journal, look at today's list, and say, "What should I do now?" (I keep a to-do list for each day in my bullet journal.)
Notice what isn't in that recipe. Nowhere does it say that I will then not look at my phone. I absolutely gave myself permission to look at my phone as much as I wanted to. The only difference was that first, I would stop for a moment and notice whether I actually wanted to do it. More than half the time, I'd realize there was something else I actually wanted to do, and without even trying, I wouldn't feel like looking at my phone anymore.
I never had to fight with myself. I was still doing exactly what I felt like doing. I had just given myself a chance to feel like doing something else!
It might look a little funny to some people that I periodically open up my journal, mutter to myself, and then do an excited fist pump. But personally, I think that's less ridiculous than walking around all day like a zombie with no purpose other than to consume a stream of information I don't care about.
So when are you going to start?