Nothing will change—don’t count on it—unless you start doing something differently or new in your daily routine. Change is an eventual outcome of an accumulating process that starts with a decision to change. And the true measure of a real decision is not just saying you’ve decided but what actions you’ve taken since you’ve made the decision. If you say over and over again to want to make a change, yet haven’t followed up with real, concrete action, you’re kidding yourself.
Possibly the highest leverage form behavior change is creating rituals. A ritual is a conscious habit that you deliberately design and consciously practice until it becomes automatic in your daily routine.
The opposite of a ritual is a bad habit you’ve simply picked up, often unconsciously, a long time ago that fails to add value to your life but you continue anyway. The reason you continue with bad habits is you don’t know how to change, you’re surrounded with people who have the same habit who aren’t willing to change themselves and would like you to remain the same so they keep their influence—control—on you.
One of the most common reason people fail to effectively change their habits is fatigue. People try to change too many habits, often all at once, with no clear direction of how to change, how to measure their progress and to add insult to injury, they have surrounded themselves with other people who have the same habits, feeding off the same environment and wouldn’t encourage the individual to make the change. Even with the best intentions and strongest will, most if not all people will give up due to being emotionally and mentally tired.
The most persisting fallacy when it comes to habit (behavior) change is thinking that relying on willpower i.e. forcing yourself to do something whenever or wherever you want to, alone will be enough. Though this often makes a better story of agency, perseverance and the triumph of idealism over moral temptations, it’s a bit far from reality. The reality is, we only have a limited amount of willpower to do self-regulating tasks. Neuroscientists and behavioral researchers have repeatedly shown that once our limited reservoir of willpower is drained, we fall back on habits or automatic, stimulus-triggered behaviors to do the rest. The scientific term for this phenomenon is ‘ego depletion.’ Typically, any activity that requires mental strain like solving a difficult math problem, reviewing a lengthily contract, a intense discussion requiring a lot emotional self-control or diverting your attention away from a sexually attractive mate will all drain your willpower.
We must make strategic use of willpower to effectively change our behaviors. By strategic, I mean figuring out all the main factor that plays a casual-role in behavior change, then use our willpower to focus exclusively in tweaking those factors to make it easier for us to make the change. Depending on the specific behavior, how clearly you define the new behavior, how you create consequences for failing to adapt the new behavior, how you organize your physical and social environment are key factors for any change.
One of the most productive rituals I developed this year was to focus single-mindedly on one single task in time increments of 60’-60’-30’, often at my peak hours during the day. This basically means I decide beforehand what’s a priority task, set my timer for 55’, then I work on the task while ignoring everything, not even getting up. After my 55’ timer goes off, I get up and take a break for 5’-10’, completely disengaging with the task. Afterwards, I work for another 55’, followed by a longer 30’ break. I often divide my time in these time 2-hour blocks to help estimate how much time I’m willing to commit to a task but most importantly, when I focus, to have clean, laser-like focus on the task. I’ve been doing this for 6 months now and it’s a key ritual in my time/self management. In addition, this type of engaged focus is very demanding the more complex the task so I can only do two 2-hour sessions per day. Now, disciplining yourself to focus is an important—but focusing on what and why is another (strategic) issue. Lastly, if you work in an distraction-prone office like I do, you’ll have to multi-task or run around but the issue is if you don’t give significant (real) focus to your priorities, everyday, all the distraction will rob you of time, focus and you won’t even achieve anything significant to show for it.