A new habit can be like a rocket ship, it often requires a considerable amount of energy to get off the ground. When the rocket gets up into space, however, the comparatively resistance-free momentum can carry that rocket huge distances. It’s the same with putting a new habit into practice, some self-discipline is required to lift off. Once off the ground however, the unconscious mind takes over and habit becomes the driving force.
The location of the launch can be just as important for a successful takeoff. For instance, what would happen if you tried to launch a rocket from a frozen lake? The heat from the blast-off would melt the supporting ice, causing the whole launch-pad to sink before it could even get off the ground. This is like trying to launch a habit from a poor mental foundation, with every condition working against a successful takeoff. In order to make a desired action become habit, the action must have an adequate measure of harmony between five main criterion.
1) Knowledge: Knowing what to do and how to apply that knowledge.
2) Motivation: The desire, a will to do and a strong enough reason why.
3) Mindset: Congruence between the action and self-perception (how you see yourself as a person).
4) Personal Philosophy: Harmony between the action and personal philosophy (does the action fit into your beliefs).
5) Time and Practice: An appropriate amount of time and consistent practice.
So as a real world example, I'm not a morning person… I'm like a zombie until I've had a shower! I have poor knee joints, my energy is low and I can't stand running in the wet and cold (I live in England). This is a poor foundation from which to launch the habit of early morning running, this is my frozen lake. Forcing myself to get up early to do something I dislike requires alot of energy, and this figuratively melts the ice, which forces the rocket to come crashing down before it gets a chance launch into a habit.
There are a few solutions I tend to use in this kind of situation.
- I move launch the habit to a more stable foundation
- I strengthen the existing foundation or
- I decrease the size of the rocket.
Each of these approaches are in aid of making the action much more manageable.
Launching From A More Stable Foundation
Continuing with the early morning running example. Instead of trying to launch the habit first thing in the morning, I could simply move it to a more agreeable time in the day. This takes away most of the aforementioned problems, and makes it far easier and more enjoyable to stick with. I still don't enjoy running, but it works out better for me to run in the evening than it does to drag myself out of bed and start my day hating every second.
Strengthen The Foundation
If I were adamant about running early in the morning, I could begin putting measures in place to make the whole process a lot easier, or alleviate some of the obstacles in my path. I could wake up half an hour earlier to properly wake myself up before running. I could even have a quick two-minute shower. The night before my run, I could imagine the great feeling I'll get after finishing my run and hold onto that thought. I could find a running partner to help keep me motivated and make the whole process a lot more enjoyable. If needs be, I could even invest in a treadmill for my home so I'm not out in the cold and rain. Basically, I would do everything I could think of to make the action a lot more enjoyable, and thus increase the odds of me sticking with it consistently.
Decreasing The Size Of The Rocket
By decreasing the size of the rocket, the amount of energy required to take-off also decreases. Applying this to the running example, instead of running I could go for an early morning walk. By making the action a lot more manageable, I don't have to use as much energy (willpower) to get started. It's a trade-off between long-term sustainability and short-term explosive results. Yes I could burn more calories by running every morning, but if I can't launch that action into a habit, then it's not going to get me long-term results. So over the long-term, early morning walking is the better choice.
I've put a together a little comparison so you can see what I mean
30 minutes walking burns an estimated 180 calories at my current body-weight. I enjoy walking and it requires little to no willpower, as such my compliance rate is in excess of 95% and has become an unconsciously driven habit.
347 days X 180 calories = 62,415 calories burned over 1 year
347 days X 180 calories = 124,830 calories burned over 2 years
30 minutes running burns an estimated 280 calories. My compliance rate for early morning running is less than 30%
110 days X 280 calories = 30,800 calories burned over 1 year
I probably wouldn't continue running into the second year, so the total calories burned = 30,800
Over the long-term, walking is clearly the more effective choice for me. Yes I'd get better short-term results from running, but long-term, nothing beats consistency!
The beauty of a compromise like this is that when the habit becomes well-established, it's possible to come back to it and scale things up. So for example, now that my early morning walking has become part of my routine, I can start turning my early morning walks into occasional jogs. This incremental process of change alleviates the need for a “big launch”, since I’m merely utilising a habit that’s already off the ground. I know this concept goes against the switch of a button, instant gratification, all or nothing heroic displays of willpower. However, beyond impressive short-term results, that approach typically results in a lot of wasted energy and alot of failed launches!
I believe a solid foundation is important to get new actions off the ground. One way I've found to gauge a new action is to ask “assuming my needs stay the same, could I keep this up consistently for the rest of my life?” Sometimes we have to do things we don't want in the moment to get to where we want to be. However, this is where shifts in beliefs, values and mindset as a whole comes into play and that's an article for another day.
I've applied this small rocket principle to many other actions that are now established habits. One such habit was eating vegetables on a regular basis. When I first started out I used the big rocket approach and attempted to clean up every poor dietary habit I had, along with introducing a serving of veg with every meal. When that rocket inevitably fell through the ice, I compromised by starting small and eating only one serving of veg a day with my main meal. I mixed the vegetables in with the rest of my food to hide the taste, and after a month or two it became habit. Now I'm able to build upon that habit and I'm currently eating two decent sized servings of veg a day.
The problem I used to have and that I see all too often is with people trying to launch several “big rockets” from fragile foundations at the same time. They've got a temporary surge of motivation (think new years resolutions) which is matched only by the massive actions they’re aiming to take. So there’s an all-or-nothing approach to change from one extreme to another, I.e. from a sedentary office worker to tri-athlete in 30 days. They choose the most intense training program, the most faddy and restrictive diet and attempt to shake every bad habit simultaneously. Shortly after, the extent of the change is so consciously taxing, that the discomfort becomes greater than the original surge in motivation. As a result, every action comes crashing down before it gets a chance to become a habit.
There's nothing wrong with taking massive action or trying to adopt multiple habits, although it's arguably easier to concentrate on one or two at the same time. Nevertheless, you must be willing to face your ego when an action is simply not launching successfully. Never be afraid to start smaller and build up! It's a sacrifice of short-term gains for long-term progress, but once the action becomes an established habit, it can always be improved upon later.