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Changing My Habits and Finding Which Methods Worked

Looking for a list of quick and simple ways to adopt good habits in life which is guaranteed to work?

Sorry, me too.

But there are some methods for improving your habits and lifestyle which have been well researched. For instance, the famous Marshmallow test which is one example of how being able to delay gratification for a bigger reward tends to pay off.

Or how about tackling the biggest, hardest tasks at the start of the day, when you’ve got the biggest reserves of willpower. And doing what you can to avoid using your brain power on things which don’t matter? Examples include wearing similar outfits everyday to avoid expending though on choosing an outfit (e.g. Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Barack Obama etc).

I’ve certainly found some success in adopting a simple rule for cutting down on junk food and snacks. I don’t buy them.

If it’s in the house, then it takes conscious effort to not eat it when I’m tempted. If it involves a trip to the shop, then the times I either allow myself to inhale a tub of Ben and Jerrys in one sitting, or I’m tired and fed up enough to drive to a KFC are a lot less often. And it also means that for most things, I can force myself to walk to the shop and at least get some exercise on the way.

But I wanted to introduce some more good habits, and had the opportunity to test three methods to see which were personally more effective. Obviously your results may differ depending on your personality, lifestyle and experiences.

 

Changing My Habits: Willpower Alone:

When I was younger, I’d read books voraciously. It’s a good habit I inherited from my parents and my maternal grandmother, and led to my love of language, writing, and career.

But it’s slipped a lot over the years. Spending all day reading on a variety of screens for work and pleasure, and having limited spare time would mean I’d find it hard to be enthusiastic about opening a printed book at the end of the day.

I don’t agree that the internet and social media have destroyed the ability to concentrate. I’m as likely to be distracted from work by a good 60 minute video or a lengthy article as a short one. But the odds are that it’s followed by sharing the article and jumping right back into another work task. Not taking any time to digest what I’ve watched or ridden.

So I wanted to reintroduce nightly reading, ordered some books, and tried to introduce 30 minutes or more of time spent enjoying the printed word.

Play Money by Julian Dibbell

So I recently ordered a few books from Amazon that I’d always meant to read. The advantage of older books is that most are pretty cheap now. I also rediscovered my copy of Cryptonomicon, and a cheap copy of The Dogs of Riga in a charity shop.

Results?
Mixed, to be honest. I’ve finished 2 of the books from the unread pile in around a month. And restarted Cryptonomicon this week.

But I haven’t seen any noticeable improvement in my ability to concentrate or my sleeping habits. Partly because my commitment has been patchy at best. Some nights I’m skipping reading because I finish work late, or I have other things to do. And when I do read, I occasionally get engrossed and go way over time, which then means I’m tired the next day.

But overall, I’m reasonably happy with progress. I’ve got almost 50% through my target list in a month, and I’m becoming more committed as time goes by. Plus I might not necessarily be able to concentrate harder (difficult to prove without testing), but I do feel like I’m starting to come up with more ideas and links between topics than I have for a while.

The caveat is that I’m someone who has always loved reading, so it’s not necessarily going to be as successful with something tougher. I think my willpower only attempts would struggle a lot more with cutting down on caffeine, or grouting the tiles in the bathroom. As the next example proves…

So I’d give this a 5 or 6 out of 10.

 

Changing My Habits: Public Validation:

I rarely join in viral Facebook memes. But when #22pushups was going around earlier this year and someone nominated me, I decided to give it a go. Partly because raising awareness of the struggles people face with PTSD and mental illness was a good cause. And also to see what happened when I not only made a public pledge to exercise every day, but had to also video myself and share it.

22PushupsFacebookGrab

The video element was a big part. It’s too easy to fake data logging or a few photos. And it also meant I had to involve a 3rd party cameraman most of the time. And my son provided a particularly enthusiastic bit of encouragement, as well as turning every video into some kind of dating advert.

Results?

Well, I’m still single.

The actual challenge went well. I think I missed  1 or 2 days, which I made up for straight away the next day. And even kept the run going when I was traveling for work conferences. Including when slightly hung over the next day.

And I could feel the difference from barely managing 22 pushups, to being able to do more than double that. At the local park, I even started doing chin ups on the play equipment for probably the first time in my life. For fun.

But…

I thought 22 days would be long enough to establish a good habit I could build on. But since the impetus to video my exercise ended and I don’t have family and friends prompting me, it pretty much went out the window. It’s too easy to blame work, or having other things to do.

The simple fact is that I wasn’t motivated enough to keep going without some kind of external impetus, and I reverted to being lazy.

So the end result is probably a 2/10 if I’m honest.

(But I do have a plan to counter this, as I’m registering a private Instagram account to start posting daily live videos of my fitness efforts. It’s private because I’m not intending to be a fitness guru, and my only having friends and family watch, I should be comfortable enough to look like an idiot on a regular basis without too much shame).

 

Changing My Habits: App Notifications:

The last habit I wanted to introduce was learning a language. Having some history of Alzheimer’s in my family and also seeing various research on the benefits of foreign languages, I had a quick look around for quick, free apps to try out.

Having downloaded Duolingo, I had to pick a language. Rather than refreshing my schoolboy French or German, I went with Swedish. Seeing as I spent 13 years in a relationship with a Swede, it seemed silly that I’d picked up random phrases and words over the years but never buckled down and acquired enough Svenska to have a proper conversation.

Duolingo Mobile App Swedish Screen

Jag måste lära mer svenska, I thought. So the mobile app takes you through some word matching with images and translations. You also have to transcribe audio clips or translate them yourself, or use a drag-and-drop approach with a selection of words.

There’s a desktop version as well, but the advantage of the mobile app is that my phone is always on and with me. So I can’t escape by powering down my laptop before I remember my daily lesson.

And I also get an email and notification reminder as a preset time. I’d originally set it for the end of the day, but now having it mid-evening so I still have some motivation reserves left.

Best of all, hitting my standard level target takes 5-10 minutes. So it’s something I can do quickly and easily without fearing a massive commitment.

Results?

I’ve missed a couple of days, but made it up in the next 24 hours. The rest of the time I’ve managed daily progress for about a month.

It’s a fairly low commitment, so I haven’t exactly mastered Swedish yet. But I’ve accumulated more than 220 words, passed the first checkpoint, and gone back and kept up my previous lesson strength (Each lesson prompts you with a reminder after a set amount of time to go back and refresh your weakest words/phrases).

But I’m definitely picking up and remembering more words and phrases (I still get Hon and Han confused occasionally), and I’ll be interested the next time I watch a subtitled Swedish film or crime drama to see whether it’s helped.

So I think the combo of easy use and notifications (plus a very tiny amount of gamification with scores etc), has definitely proved successful. So I’ll give it an 8/10 so far.

Changing Habits: My Conclusion:

So if you’re a person with strong willpower or have enough motivation, it’s easy to change a habit. Just do it.

In the case of reading, I do log my progress on Goodreads, but it involves an effort to visit the site etc, so I don’t really count it as motivation at the moment.

When it comes to public validation, it definitely works. Until you stop sharing.

The problem is that some of my friends were certainly uninterested in seeing me do pushups. But I think a private distribution list may work OK – will see how it goes.

And something which includes a bit of gamification with regular prompts and notifications definitely works for me.

Exercise takes more physical effort than the other two habits, but I tend to be mentally tired rather than physically due to my work and lifestyle. And having an encouraging/nagging email and prompt has stopped me skipping days I might have dodged.

The next step will be finding if there’s a solution for reading and fitness which will combine the things which worked best so far, and then seeing what else I can…

Comments

  1. Willpower and motivation is a myth. You just have to get off your arse and do stuff. 🙂 Or as Yoda said – do or do not, there is no try.

    • DanThornton says:

      To be fair, you seem to be constantly running, training and achieving stuff at the moment, so it’s well qualified advice.

      And I definitely agree that waiting to be motivated is doomed to fail. I failed a bit at the formal exercise component, but I’ve had more success in forcing myself to go out for a walk at weekends, even if it’s just by driving to a nearby town and walking around for an hour when I need to pick up food and drinks rather than going straight to the supermarket… Means I get some more interesting pics for Instagram too (Last weekend, nipping out for some cola resulted in 2 hours walking the Saxon Way, for example!)

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