Right now, I’m editing my next book, Before and After, an examination of the most interesting subject in the world: how we make and break habits. (My editor is reading the draft for the first time right now, in fact, so wish me luck.)
In the book, I identify multiple strategies that we can use to make it easier to foster good habits. One of the most familiar, and most effective, is the simple, straightforward, powerful Strategy of Convenience. And its counterpart, the Strategy of Inconvenience.
We’re far more likely to do something if it’s convenient, and far less likely to do something if it’s inconvenient, to an astounding degree.
For instance, in one cafeteria, when an ice-cream cooler’s lid was left open, thirty percent of diners bought ice cream, but when diners had to open the lid, only fourteen percent bought ice cream, even though the ice cream was visible in both situations. People take less food when using tongs, instead of spoons, as serving utensils.
We can use this tendency to help strengthen our habits.
One habit that many people want to form? Regular exercise. And when they explain why they find it difficult, they often point to inconvenience.
I’ve found that it’s very helpful to think very hard about exactly why exercise seems inconvenient. Instead of just thinking, “Oh, it’s such a pain, I can never get to the gym,” really think it through. Identify the problem.
Often, by identifying the problem, you identify solutions — which may be easier than you expect. @gretchenrubin (Click to Tweet!)
It’s a pain to pack up the gear when I’m leaving the house in the morning.
It takes too much time to work out.
It’s a pain to drive and park there.
It’s a pain to secure my place in a popular class or to wait my turn on equipment.
I don’t know how to use the equipment or do the exercises.
It takes too much time to get there.
I don’t want to sweat and mess up my hair.
I always forget something I need.
Identify the problem, find the solution. High-intensity work-outs take very little time. Many forms of exercise don’t work up a sweat. A friend told me, “Even though my gym has multiple branches, I found it very inconvenient. I finally realized that sometimes I’d go to the gym from home, sometimes from work, sometimes from my girlfriend’s apartment, so I never had what I needed. I bought multiple sets of everything—deodorant, shoes, a giant bag of cheap socks. I have what I need, so I don’t have an excuse to skip.” (Not an under-buyer, clearly.)
Justifications based on convenience may also be loopholes, so it’s helpful to use the Strategy of Loophole-Spotting. (How I love loopholes! They’re so funny.) It may also be helpful to consider this list of questions, to understand how to shape your habits better.
Note: for Obligers, the problem may not actually be convenience, but accountability. Obligers do well to figure out ways to build in the external accountability that’s key for them.
Gretchen Rubin is the author of the #1 New York Times Bestseller The Happiness Project—an account of the year she spent test-driving the wisdom of the ages, current scientific studies, and lessons from popular culture about how to be happier—and the recently released Happier at Home. On her popular blog, The Happiness Project, she reports on her daily adventures in the pursuit of happiness. For more doses of happiness and other happenings, follow Gretchen on Facebook and Twitter.
Image courtesy of chuddlesworth.