How I’m Using the Habit System to Help Ingrain my Daily Habits – 15th July, 2017

I want to share with you how I'm structuring my habit system to follow through on the habits that I'm trying to instill...

Here is what I'm currently working on:-

  1. Daily ritual - every day I take five minutes to write the answer to a number of questions. The questions currently include:- What type of person are you? Why are you doing what you do? Where do you want to be by a certain date?
  2. Writing - I'd like to be able to communicate in written form much more effectively. I'd like to be able to write compelling content that people actually enjoy reading. My minimum commitment for this habit is 50 words per day.
  3. Video - I'd like to develop the skill of creating interesting videos about personal development that people want to watch. My minimum commitment for this is to record myself for 30 seconds every day (publishing to my channel is not a requirement, but preferable).
  4. Reading - I have a target of studying 140 self development books over the next few years. I'd like to improve the speed at which I read and the amount of information that I retain. Minimum commitment is 2 pages per day
  5. Gym - 3 times per week on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Would like to work my way up to 5o0lbs deadlift, 400lbs squat and 300lbs bench (current pb's are 473/400/286 respectively, but I'm currently weaker than this). Minimum commitment is at least one working set for each training session.

I'm still playing with parts of my habit system to work out the best setup for minimum ego depletion.  

As an example, on days where I'm scheduled to work out, I've started to go to the gym first thing in the morning rather than in the evening as the last activity.  

Why?

I noticed that, in the evening, it was a bit of a strain to make myself go.  Switching this to first thing in the morning makes it much easier for me to follow through without resorting to using so much willpower.

My Current Habit System

  • I have triggers and rewards for each of my activities.  The whole list of habits can take anything from an hour to the whole day, depending on how much I decide to do for each habit.
    • ​On Mornings that I work out, I'll wake up and head straight to the gym.  My reward for finishing is a tasty protein milkshake.
    • As soon as I arrive at the office I do my daily ritual and reading.  My reward is a cappuccino
    • Once I've finished my coffee I'll write something for this site with a reward of lunch, a walk or a half an hour of billiards depending on my mood and the time
    • Once I'm back I'll start my daily work.  My reward for completing this is to motorbike back home for 20 minutes to where I'm living
    • When I arrive at home I'll shoot my video.  The reward is both a cup of tea and the satisfaction that comes from seeing a new video on my channel (for some reason I quite enjoy this).  I'll also move a paperclip to my momentum glass (see this post for more details about the paperclip strategy).
  • My environment is as streamlined as possible
    • My gym bag and clothes are always ready to go when I need to hit the gym.  I can just pick it up and go.
    • The gym is only about 5 minutes by motorbike from where I live
    • I'm lucky enough to have found a really beautiful co-working space - the best one I've ever worked at.  

      It's a pleasure to work in an environment with nature, great coffee on demand, dogs and cats running around (I love animals) and a whole bunch of like minded people.

      I'm much more focused in an environment such as this, rather than simply working from home or a normal office.  I've found that the separation between work and free time is really important for me.
    • I have invested in ear plugs for when I need silence to focus
    • I leave my phone in my motorbike outside the office (I don't bring it to work with me) to remove the possibility of chat distractions
    • I have a script on my laptop desktop that shuts down all communication applications at the click of a button - I use this first thing in the morning when focusing on my reading and daily ritual writing
    • I live in an area that's close to really healthy restaurants with lots of organic fruit and vegetables - it's pretty hard for me to eat unhealthily around here.  
    • I have melatonin tables beside that I can use on occasions where I'm struggling to sleep.  I also have a nasal decongestant next to it for times when I am finding it difficult to breathe (sometimes I have nasal congestion - I have to have an operation to sort this).
    • I have set up a video recording studio at home so I can record at any point just at the click of a button - no extra setup required.
    • My kindle is set up for one click book delivery.  No need to carry lots of books and efficient ordering process.
  • I have specified very clear minimum commitments for each of my habits.  Don't forget, minimum commitments are designed to provide flexibility and beat resistance - I very rarely only just do this amount.
    • Daily ritual - this is small enough that it only takes 5 minutes and it's pretty well ingrained at this point (at the time of writing I have 318 copies of my daily ritual) so no minimum commitment required.
    • Reading - 2 pages per day
    • Writing - 50 words
    • Video - 30 seconds in front of the camera, even if it's just nonsense, and no requirement to upload to my channel if I don't like it.
    • Gym - drive to the gym and do just one hard set of exercise to failure (this would take 60 seconds to complete)
    • Daily work - read items on my wonderlist, check emails and answer any Slack messages that have been fired my way.
  • I have a few sneaky little traps set up to make sure I follow through
    • Relentless video club - this is a small group that I setup for video creators.  We hold each other accountable for producing at least one video per week.  This added social pressure helps me make sure I don't slack off with my videos.  

      To top this off, I have a $100 bet with one of the members.  Whoever fails to keep the schedule owes money to the other guy.  This gets my competitive spirit going..
    • My Habit log page!  I'm transparently publishing to the whole world whether I stick to my habit schedule or not.  And, I'm publishing this on a site that talks a lot about how to build habits!  Added social pressure right there.
    • I'm currently looking at accountability apps that will check the location of my mobile to ensure that I hit the gym.  Once I've figured this out, I'll be publishing a post about it.
  • I track my achievements on a daily basis in a variety of ways
    • I have a calendar up on my wall where I put a big tick across every day that I succeed to stick to my habits
    • I am following the paperclip strategy for my videos - so each time I produce a video I move a paperclip form the full glass to the momentum glass.  When the paperclip store is depleted, I'll have a small celebration.
    • I record everything in my habit log spreadsheet and my habit log page. These both contain a column for momentum, so I can see how long I've managed to keep the string of daily habits going for.  This can be both very motivating but also make me very reluctant to break the chain!
  • Planning for enjoyment and downtime - this is very important for me because I know myself well enough that if I don't have enough flexibility built into this plan, then I'll fail.
    • Weekends I really try to only work until midday and then spend the rest of the day doing sporting activities or something else that I enjoy.
    • During the week I aim to have everything done by 1800 so that I have at least a few hours of free time to do things that I enjoy.  I try to disengage from what I'm working on and will only respond to urgent things.

To be finished.  Still need to write about:-

  • Core habits
  • Delegating non core stuff that depletes my willpower​
​Read More

Why Trying Harder is a Terrible Strategy – The Strength Model for Ego Depletion

 

This time you're not going to quit...

It's new year's eve and you've decided that this is the year.  This is the year that you're going to finally get your body back into shape...3 times a week at the gym, without fail.

And your strategy for doing this?  

"I'm just going to try really hard and make sure I follow through".​

Really?  That's your strategy?

You've tried this before, haven't you?  And what happened last time?  

​Herein lies the problem.  Trying harder is usually a recipe for failure when trying to instill a positive new habit in your life.  It's just really not very effective.

What's the Problem with Trying Harder?

Of course, training yourself to do difficult things through willpower is a virtue and is not a fruitless endeavor by any stretch of the imagination.

Studies show that the more you manage to get yourself to do difficult things, the bigger your capacity to do difficult things becomes.

​The problem with just resolving to trying harder for habit formation is twofold:-

  1. It's extremely limited in its capacity (and once depleted you're screwed)
  2. It's often not your highest point of leverage for getting habits to stick

I've written extensively about point 2) in my habit system guide.  In this post I want to talk about the first issue - why is trying harder limited in capacity?

A lot of the information in this post has come from a fantastic book called "Willpower - Rediscovering our Greatest Strength" - I highly recommend that you pick up a copy.

Radishes and Geometry

Fasting students were sent into a classroom containing cookies, chocolate and ...radishes.

The lucky students were told that they could munch on the cookies and the chocolate whereas the less fortunate were only allowed to eat from the bowl of radishes.​

Of course, to maximize the temptation, the evil researchers then left the students alone in the room.  ​

Those who were only allowed to eat the radishes looked at the cookies and chocolates, flirted with them, one even picked one up and dropped it on the floor.  They resisted, but clearly they had to exercise a good degree of self control.

Radish, anyone?

After a period of time, all the students were asked to work on a geometry puzzle designed to measure their ability to persevere. Unbeknownst to them, the puzzle couldn't be solved.  

And the results?  

Those in the chocolate/cookies group worked on the puzzle for 20 minutes whereas those who were only allowed to eat radishes and thus had to exercise self control only lasted 8. 

Scientists concluded that the radish eaters successfully resisted the temptation of the cookies and the chocolates, but the effort left them with less energy to tackle the puzzles.

This is the flagship study for what's now commonly known as ego depletion.

A litany of research followed, all with similar findings.  Here are a few of the most interesting:

  • The Sad Italian film experiment found that people had reduced endurance  while gripping a hand exerciser if, prior to the physical test, they are asked to either over exaggerate their emotional reactions or suppress them when watching a film.  In short: The effort to control their emotional reactions depleted their willpower and performance worsened.
  • Subjects that were ask to watch some upsetting clips from documentaries showing animal suffering and dying while trying to control their emotions and then perform the "Stroop" test took longer to respond and made more mistakes than a control group.  In short: the effort to control their emotions meant the brain subsequently performed slower.

The vast number of studies have helped us form a strong picture about what willpower actually is.

Summary of What Research Tells us about Ego Depletion

  • You have a finite amount of willpower that depletes as you use it
  • You use the same reservoir of willpower for all manner of tasks.  It doesn't matter if you are resisting chocolate, sticking to a diet, working on self control for work, exercising - the same source of energy is affected.
  • Use of willpower can be divided into four categories:-
    • Control of emotions
    • Control of thoughts
    • Impulse control (or, rather: how you react to impulses)
    • Performance control (focusing energy on the task at hand)
  • A meta analysis of 83 studies about ego depletion discovered that the five biggest things that cause ego depletion are:-
    • Effort - how much effort is required to do something
    • Perceived difficulty - how hard something is to do.
    • Negative affect - if you are in a bad mood.
    • Subjective fatigue - if you are tired
    • Blood glucose levels - low levels of blood glucose.

So Why Is Trying Harder a Bad Strategy for Habit Formation?

There's no denying that willpower is one of your tools to stick to habits, but it's an extremely valuable resource that should ​be used sparingly.

Why?

Using willpower puts you in a state of ego depletion...

This will leave you with diminished willpower, increase your sensitivity to fatigue, tiredness and other negative emotions and make your cravings (for unhealthy food, for example) as strong as ever.  

Simply: once you've exercised self control, you are less effective afterwards...until your willpower reserves are restored.

Of course, using willpower is not inherently bad, and we all need to use it at times.  Also, It's like a muscle and can be trained.  But, in the same way that you can't obliterate your biceps with 20 sets of curls every day, you have to keep willpower use in balance.

Out of all the ways that you can increase your chances of sticking to a habit, willpower needs to be the one that you protect and pay attention to the most.

Use it only when you have to, and don't rely on it.​

​Read More

Change in YouTube Publishing Strategy – 13th July, 2017

Nothing major to report at the moment - I've been sticking to the habit system pretty well so far.  

One thing I didn't fully consider:- I'm producing videos on a daily basis, but I think this is probably a bit excessive for my subscribers...

I'm not sure at what point delivering content is considered spam, but I guess I'm getting a bit too close to the line 🙂

​So going forward, I'll continue to produce the videos, but I'll make sure I won't publish them immediately...Instead, I'll schedule them for twice per week, most likely on a Tuesday and Sunday.

By the way, if you're not already a subscriber, you're missing out!​  At the time of writing, I have a massive 86 subscribers.... Yep, I'm famous.

Subscribe below 🙂

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Showing Up Consistently and Using Brute Force

As I sit here and write this post, I'm experiencing resistance. 

I​ don't really want to write at the moment....and my brain is masterful at providing me with seemingly justifiable reasons and rationalizations as to why I can just put this off until tomorrow.

"You have nothing good to say, do some more reading and you can just write tomorrow"...

​"One day won't matter, take it easy... you've had a hard week"

"You've been writing every day for the past few weeks, one day off won't matter"​

Of course, I don't always feel like this - some days come way easier than others.  

On the one hand I know that writing this piece of content is the right thing to do, but on the other hand I don't really want to.​

This battle of wits seems to occur to everyone, yet some people seem to have the ability to feel the resistance and plough ahead anyway.

Why is that?  And what are they doing differently?

Well, they tend to have a habit system.

But, even with a habit system, no matter how much you streamline your environment, put in place traps, implement minimum commitments and build up momentum... sometimes you still have to brute force it.  

Sometimes you just gotta show up, whether you like it or not. 

This is More than Just a Piece of Writing

My brain is right, if I don't sit down and write this piece of content, the world will carry on, the sun will come up tomorrow morning and it won't really matter.

But, to me, this matters... a lot.  

It's not about words on a page...it's about my ability to do things that I don't feel like doing in the moment because I know that it will serve me well in the long run.  

Writing this blog post is a means of deliberately practicing that skill.  It's an opportunity for me to exercise my ability to manipulate my animal brain.  

The famous metaphor of the rider and the elephant is particularly prevalent here:-

So, here, this is me showing up to write for another day...Brute forcing it.

My habit system has another victory to add to its ever increasing pile of victories.

Each victory is like a heavy set at the gym; We don't always want to do it, and we don't always enjoy it, but we ultimately get stronger and can handle more weight the next time it matters.  (Caveat: If you're brute forcing too much, you'll eventually fail).

​The other, probably more important point is this: Doing hard things makes us happy.

What have you done that you didn't want to do today?

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How to Build Habits for Good – The Warrior Habits System

By taking the time to grasp a basic understanding of how our brains operate we can learn to use it more effectively and become a more prolific results-getter.

Without this understanding is like owning a Ferrari without taking the time to understand and learn how to drive it properly.  You can't get it to perform to its potential and you're simply not making the most out of the incredible machine.

​In this post I want to talk about the single most important discovery that I made about the design of our brain that's really helped me tame and manipulate the wild animal inside of me and allow me to do difficult things on a consistent basis.

A Story of No Discipline

I haven't always been very disciplined in my life

In fact, I would say that for a large majority of my life I have been completely the opposite...Especially when it comes to deep work.   

Deep work, where you get lost in a state of flow because you're so focused and deeply engaged in what you're working on, used to be so elusive to me.  ​ I would go weeks and weeks without managing to get myself in that state.  

Intellectually I knew that I needed to get into that state on a regular basis, but I just couldn't bring myself to do it.  No amount of thinking or reasoning with myself helped this situation.  I spent many hours trying to find a mental "frame" through which to pitch to myself the benefits of deep work... but it didn't work

I lacked the skills and self-knowledge needed to design a system that would consistently get me into that state.

I've since made quite large inroads and have managed to build some difficult habits into my life.  Of course, the way I did this came from a completely different place than I expected.  And that's what I want to share with you today.

First let's look at the problem, then I'll give my best solution (which, by the way, is continually being developed)​.

The Problem: The Impatient Elephant and the Wise Rider

​Your brain is in a never ending conflict with itself...

In the red corner, you have the extremely powerful, large and automatic subconscious part of the brain that is very animalistic by nature.  This thing​ wants sex, food, sleep, to avoid pain and have as much pleasure as possible.  Immediately.

This thing can't tie an action now to a reward next week.  It's only appeased by actions that produce immediate results.  

You eat, you're immediately rewarded.  You sleep, you're immediately rewarded.  You have sex, you're immediately rewarded.

And then in the blue corner, you have the "smart" and "wise" part of your brain.  This part is called the prefrontal cortex.  This part has way more understanding of the complexities of modern day life and is able to understand that consequences often take a long time to materialise.  

This part of the brain understands that if you work out three times per week for the next 6 months, then you'll eventually be fit.  It understands that if you deliberately practice your writing every day for a few years, you'll be a recognised author.  

To further paint this picture, I'm going to use an analogy that was first introduced to me by a book called the "Happiness Hypothesis" by Jonathan Haidt...

Imagine a small rider on top of an incredibly large and powerful 1,000 lbs elephant...  

The rider is doing its best to control the mammoth, but it's a constant battle.  The mammoth is fiercely independent and difficult to override and when it decides to go a certain way, no matter how hard the rider pulls on the reigns, that's where they end up going.

Of course, in this analogy, the rider is your prefrontal cortex and the mammoth is your animal brain.

So why is this important?​

Well, here's the thing:-  To live a successful life and be a prolific creator, you need to learn how to give control back to your rider.

Simply put: You need to learn the skills of manipulating the elephant to go where the rider knows is best in the long term.​

It's very easy to recognise this, but it's incredibly hard to do in practice.

Designing a Habit System

Any big result that you want to attain is going to come through an action that you repeatedly do on a regular basis.  

"We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit."
Aristotle​

The problem with habits is that there's no immediate reward...

It's not uncommon to do something every day for months or years before the result ever comes to fruition.  ​

In other words: Your animal brain hates habits.  Yet habits are probably one of the most cruical elements of success.​  If you can continually work on a skill for years, you'll be in the top few percent of people in the world.  You'll be successful.

Here's the thing:  You don't need a habit.  You need a habit system.  

Deciding on the habit that you want to implement is the first step.  The next step is to run through the checklist below and design a habit system to support it as strongly as possible and ensure that you stick to it consistently.​

The Warrior Habits Elephant Trainer

This is the system that I'm currently using to make sure that I stick to my important habits.  

These habits include:-

  1. Recording a video on a daily basis
  2. Writing on a daily basis
  3. Reading on a daily basis​
  4. Hitting the gym three times per week
  5. Still having enough time to my day to day busy work

This system has enabled me to stick consistently to positive and productive habits while still having plenty of time to do things that I really enjoy doing.  

Of course, I can't take credit for any of the ideas here. I've just pulled together a bunch of things that I've learned from reading as much as I can about habit formation into one system that we can use.

Here are the steps:-

  1. Decide a suitable reminder and reward
  2. Create a minimum commitment
  3. Purposely design your environment to assist you
  4. Predict "resistance points" and design traps to snare yourself
  5. Track your achievements visually and build up momentum
  6. Plan for enjoyment and downtime
  7. Plan for failure
  8. Take care of your Core Habits

1. Decide a Suitable Reminder and Reward

A not very effective approach to instilling a new habit is something like this:-

"I'll commit to doing 90 minutes worth of writing each day at no specific time, just when I feel like I have the time to do so".​

Why isn't this effective?

It relies far too much on willpower.  

You set out with the best intentions of sticking to this schedule but as time progresses you'll find it harder and harder to "find the right moment" and follow through.

Scientists have found that a better approach is to sandwich your habits up with a trigger and a reward.  

Each morning you have your morning coffee and you immediately sit down and do your daily reading.  Once you're done, you follow this up with a healthy lunch out.

The trigger for your habit is drinking a nice coffee and your reward is to eat lunch.  

Over time these cues generate an automatic habit response.  You'll drink your coffee, and it will feel normal and natural for you to sit down and do your daily reading.  You'll have minimal resistance (if any) and minimal willpower will be required.  This is the ideal.

This trigger and reward system is a very effective method of creating habits for two reasons:-

  1. The trigger removes the deliberation of "should I do this now, or later?" and signals to the brain to expect the reward after the routine.
  2. The reward creates a positive feedback loop for the brain so that it knows that this loop is worth doing again.

It's not enough to just have a reward, though.  The reward must be such that you crave for it when the trigger occurs. Scientists believe that this is the key part of changing the neural pathways in your brain to support your new habits.

The trigger kicks of a craving which is satisfied with the reward.  The neural pathway is strengthened every time this happens making it easier to do the loop again next time. This is how habits are formed.

How to Choose a Suitable Trigger for Your Habits

The approach I use to list down all of the actions that I always do on a daily basis, for example:-

  • Have a shower
  • Drink a coffee
  • Eat lunch
  • Check emails
  • Write my daily ritual
  • ​Travel to my co-working office
  • Eat breakfast
  • Eat dinner

From that list, I'll choose the trigger that makes the most sense.

At the time of writing this post, here's my current habit schedule:-

Trigger

Habit

Reward

Morning breakfast and coffee

Daily ritual and reading

Motorbike to my coworking space (I love riding my motorbike)

Arrive at coworking space

Daily writing

Food! Order lunch

Finish lunch

Day to day work

Motorbike home

Arrive at home

Record Video

Viewing my YouTube account live on my account while eating snack

Video published (on Monday, Wednesdays and Fridays)

Head to Gym

Healthy dinner after workout in restaurant

This is a pretty packed day, but I'm usually done by early evening giving me the rest of the time for sport, recreational activities that I enjoy doing and chatting with friends.

2. Create a Minimum Commitment for Each Habit

I was inspired to include minimum commitments in my habits system by a book called "Mini Habits" by Stephen Guise...

The author let himself get into pretty bad shape and wanted to go to the gym to lose some weight and get stronger.  But he just really didn't want to do it.  

No matter what, he just couldn't get himself to go the gym, even though he knew that he really should.

​His answer was to just start doing something stupidly small and build up from there.  In his case it was doing just one press up per day.  Long story short - this led him to building up a consistent workout habit three days per week.

Here's the thing...

When trying to incorporate a habit into your life, you will experience resistance. There will be times where you really, really just don't want to see your habit practice through.

You'll try and think about all the reasons why you should do it, trying to rationally convince yourself why it's important to follow through... but it won't work.

Rather than trying to rationalise and intellectualise all the reasons as to why you should do the work...just get started.​

"You can’t think your way into right action, but you can act your way into right thinking." - Bill Wilson

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Convince yourself to do the smallest possible thing towards your daily habit.  What tends to happen is that your brain slowly switches into "ok, we're doing this" mode.

  • If your daily habit is to read an hour each day, then commit to reading a single page.​
  • If your daily habit is to write, then commit to writing a single sentence
  • If you daily habit is to record a video, then commit to getting in front of the camera for 30 seconds.  Even if you have nothing to say.
  • If your daily habit is to go to the gym, then commit driving there without committing to doing the actual workout.

The chances are that once you get going and you start getting into it, you'll do much more than your daily commitment.  In this way, it's a bit of a trick for your brain.

However, even if you only manage to do your daily commitment, it's still a success for you.  You've still got something done and you've reinforced that habit further.

So, come up with a minimum commitments for your new habit.  This is your "success criteria" if you like.

This minimum commitment should be extremely small, something that only takes a few minutes, but that you can still consider a victory if you achieve it.

Here are my current minimum commitments:-

Habit

Minimum Commitment

Daily ritual and reading

Read 2 pages

Daily writing

Write 50 words

Day to day work

Do at least one task or reply to one email

Record Video

Get in front of the camera for 30 seconds, even if content is nonsense

Head to Gym

Drive to the gym and do one single set

Having minimum commitments offer greater flexibility and a fallback if you're having a really bad day.

You can complete all your minimum commitments within half an hour... it means that:-

  1. If your day to day work starts to get pretty intensive and takes up a lot of your time, you can still manage your daily habits
  2. You can plan for trips / adventures without jeopardizing your habit building​
  3. If you have a bad day, you can convince yourself to just do the minimum commitment leaving you with a positive feeling of success.

Habits need to be done regularly and consistently in order for them to stick.  The minimum commitment leaves you with little excuse for not following through and greater flexibility.

3) Purposely Design your Environment to Assist You

​This is a really big part of the habits system and can make a huge difference in your ability to stick to do hard things consistently.

​The key point is that you need to design your environment to make it as easy possible to stick to your habit and as hard as possible to fall off the rails.  I call this: setting yourself up for success.

Imagine you're trying to work on a habit to drink more water on a daily basis.  What can we do to make this as easy as possible to follow through?  Let's run through the options at our disposal:

Level of Environment Assistance

Description

Analysis

None

N/A

With no environmental assistance then you have to get up and go to the kitchen each time your habbit trigger occurs. This means disrupting your focus and could negatively effect the amount of deep work you do on a regular basis. Clearly this is not ideal.

Medium

Have a bottle of water right next to you on your desk

This is better than going to the kitchen.  You can drink regularly without disturbing your workflow and focus.  Doesn't require the unnecessary additional effort of walking to the kitchen.

Pro

Have a cooled water dispenser right next to you

This solution doesn't require the additional burden of remembering to purchase and bring the water bottle each time you sit down to work.  

It's always there in plentiful amounts.

You don't even have to think about it any more.  It's a set and forget system.

Just by taking the time to think about your environment and tweak it to support your habit, you make it far easier to follow through.

Here's another example of tweaking the environment that I personally use for recording videos:

I know that I am highly likely to experience resistance right before I record a video. Therefore it's crucially important that I design my environment to make it effortless to get shooting...

So how do I do this?

I have a makeshift fully prepared video recording studio in my room.  The camera always has a full battery (charged from the night before) and is sitting on its stand in exactly the position I need.  

My lighting is also set up in exactly the right position.  Same for the black background canvas that is hanging on my wall.

My microphone is sitting right next to the camera, also with fully charged batteries.  

I can simply step up, press the record button and start talking nonsense!

Why is all this important?  It means that when it comes time to record, I can simply stand in front of the camera, turn on the light, attach the microphone and start recording.  It takes me less than 20 seconds to do this - it's effortless.

​Contrast this with going through the rigmarole of setting up both the camera tripod and the lighting tripod and plugging everything into the wall, finding the camera and the microphone and checking the battery levels of each respectively, hanging up the background canvas and doing a test recording to make sure everything is in the correct position...

Forget it...

The willpower depletion that comes from doing all of that nonsense before even hitting the record button would guarantee my failure at sticking to the habit.

Let's consider some other examples of designing your environment to support your goals:-

  • ​If you're trying to lose weight, don't keep sweets, chocolates and other foods that you're trying to avoid in the house.  If you start craving for things that you shouldn't be eating, you'll have to go all the way to the shops to buy them which could be enough of a deterrent to put you off.
  • If you want to go to the gym tomorrow, get your gym clothes ready the night before and put them next to your bed.  In the morning, when you wake up, they're right there.
  • If you want to be more focused at work, leave your distracting phone at home or in the car, turn off all communication apps on your computer and use ear plugs to protect yourself from interruptions.
  • To save money you can automate your finances so that money is automatically transferred from your current account to your savings account at the start of each month.

There are so many ways you can set up your environment for your success.  It's just a case of taking some time to think about to design how it can support you, rather than hinder you.  

It's amazing how simply taking the time to consider how you can optimize your environment can make such a big difference.

4) Predict Resistance Points and Design Traps to Snare Yourself

Whenever I decide to do instill a new habit in my life, I can almost always predict ahead of time the parts that I will find extremely difficult to stick to.

For example: If I'm trying to instill a gym habit, I know that I'll experience the most resistance right before I have to leave for the gym.  Once I'm at the gym, I never have any problems seeing the workout through.

​Another example is that when recording a video I'll have resistance right before I'm recording. This will be exacerbated if I don't have a clearly defined script that I'm comfortable with and have rehearsed.

In the above examples these two points of resistance need to be handled so that they don't stop me from following through.

There are techniques to handle these points of resistance in the moment (see point 2 about "just getting started"), but you can also put in place what I call "traps" ahead of time.  

These traps or "snares" as I like to call them leave you in a really nasty predicament if you don't follow through and they are designed to appeal to your elephant.  The traps are both painful and immediate, something your elephant respects.

Let's use the gym example for clarity...

I can predict that I will have resistance before I head to the gym.  What traps can I lay?

  1. I can agree to work out with a friend who also wants to get into shape and we can hold ourselves accountable. 

    This works well because if you miss a session on your own, then it's no big deal. But if you know that you're letting someone down, that's an added layer of pain.

    You can ramp this up even  further by agreeing that the first person to miss a workout has to pay the other person $100.  

    There are accountability apps online that can help you set this up.

  2. If you don't have a gym partner to train with, no problem.  You can give $200 to a friend/spouse/partner and tell them to give it to charity if you miss a training session.

  3. You can sign up for some kind of physical challenge or assault course in the near future that costs money and that you can't do in your current state of fitness.   You can also invite your friends to join you.

    Better yet, commit to donating the money to charity if you complete the course. 

The idea is that you come up with creative ways of trapping yourself into doing hard things by raising the stakes and making the benefit/pain more immediate. 

In the early days of creating videos, I had an accountability agreement set up with my friend.  We committed to publishing videos once per week. If either of us failed then we had to pay the other person $100.​

​This rule definitely helped me put videos out on days when I really didn't feel like doing it.

5) Track Your Achievements Visually and Build Up Momentum

It's important that we celebrate small wins.  For each day that successful habit reinforcing day that goes by, you need to give yourself a pat on the back.  To celebrate.  

The best way of doing this is to track your victories in a very visual and public way.  

For example:-

  • A large calendar that's on the wall with a green tick for each day that you stick to your habit.
  • A glass that contains a paperclip for each day that you've succeeded. 
  • A spreadsheet that you look at regularly and is publicly viewable.

It's very motivating to see the stack of paperclips build up over time!  
On the left is my paperclip store glass and on the right is my momentum glass...

I find that an important part of doing this is to make sure that you can visually see the current momentum number.  In other words, you should be able to immediately see how many times you've successfully done your habit in a row.  

If I look over at my calendar, I can see that today I have a momentum score of 25.  I know this immediately because I have a massive green "25" showing there.

So, why is monitoring so effective?

Studies show that this kind of monitoring and tracking improves your chances of sticking to things.  

There are a few subtle psychological things going on here:-

  1. It's designed to serve as a reminder for you.  Each time your calendar/paper clips or spreadsheet enters your attention, it serves as a gentle reminder of what you're trying to achieve.  It's never far from your focus.
  2. As you build up momentum, you'll have a constant visual reminder of how well you're doing and you'll the pain of breaking that chain becomes larger.  Nobody wants to break a string of ticks with a huge red cross.  This is why I recommend highlighting your "running score".

So come up with a way that you'll publicly track your progress.  Make sure it's highly visual and that you can clearly see your chain of momentum growing over time.

6) Plan for your Enjoyment and Downtime

​The temptation when starting a new habit is to go all out.  Generally speaking, the motivation is high and you're excited at all the benefits this is going to bring you.

The temporary motivational high makes it very tempting to work 16 hour days and focus relentlessly on the thing you're trying to achieve.  

Every spare minute of the day you're focusing on your new habit...

That's great, right?  How can this possibly be a problem?

The problem comes from willpower.  It's a finite resource that we all have and needs to be used smartly.  It's a bit of a balancing act between maximizing short term progress and "stickability" (the ability to stick to something) over the long term...

Here's a great metaphor for this...​

When I was younger I used to play an athletics game on my computer.  One of the races in the game is a 10,000 meter run and to win it requires a certain degree of strategy.

On the left hand side is a colored bar that represents your athlete's remaining energy.  As the player, you can control how hard the athlete runs over the duration of the race.​

When I first took part in this race I used to burn it way too fast at the start.  The athlete would be knackered after about 2,000 meters and would either finish last or sustain an injury and fail to complete the race.

Clearly, given the length of the race, a smarter strategy is pace the athlete accordingly.

The same is true for habits...they are a matter of balance.

It's far more important to consistently do something over the long term than go nuts for the first few weeks and wear yourself out.  It's the stereotypical tortoise vs hare scenario.

I know, for a fact, that I can't sustain 12 hours of focus per day for the long term.  I also know that if I don't include flexibility and times where I can do things that I enjoy, I'll fail.

​The importance of incorporating downtime to rejuvenate has been studied extensively and is known as Attention Restoration Therapy (ART).

With all this in mind, here's the one thing I recommend:-​

Stop Working at a Certain Time Each Day and Do Stuff You Enjoy

I only work up to 1800.  After this, I'm done for the day.

My fun and relaxation schedule changes fairly regularly depending on how I feel but currently it looks like this:-

On Tuesdays and Thursdays I will often go out and practice pool with my playing partner and on Wednesdays and Fridays I will go out for dinner with company.

I also interchange this with feeding homeless dogs (something that I enjoy immensely), going to the beach to watch sunset (there is quite a lot of evidence to suggest that nature is highly effective for attention restoration), exploring new places and other random excursions.

On the weekend I aim to do my minimum commitments and not much more. The rest of the time is sidelined for spending time with people and doing things that I enjoy doing.

The net result of this is that when I sit down and work, I'm recharged and in a great state for deep work, something that I constantly strive for.

7) Plan for Failure

Sometimes life gets in the way and you won't be able to meet your minimum commitment.

Hey, don't worry about it - this small failure doesn't make you a failure, it just makes you human.

The good news is that while habit formation takes quite a long time to build (average range is from 18 to 254 days with an average of 66 days), it doesn't matter if you miss a day or two along the way.

When it comes to failing, here are a few key points:-

  • ​Just do something.  Even if you can't make your minimum commitment. Something is better than nothing.  

    Can't get to the gym?  Do one push up
    Can't write your post?  Write a sentence
    Can't read your book? Just read a page

    A small failure is better than a big failure.
  • Be wary of failure stacking.  Missing one day is not a big deal, but it's problematic when these days accumulate.

    If you miss your habit on one day, pay particular care and attention that you nail it the next day.

8) Take Care of your Core Habits

If I sleep in and get up late then, for one reason or another, I very rarely have a productive day...

Psychologically I'm unhappy that I've wasted some of the day but physically I'm also lethargic.  The unfortunate net result is that I'm less likely to have a productive day and stick to my habits.

This link between getting up early and having a strong, productive day is something that I've grown to recognize and accept.  Simply put: this is one of my core habits.

My business partner has fitness as a core habit.  If he doesn't regularly exercise at a high enough intensity his mood suffers and that cascades down into other areas of his life.  

So what is a core habit?

A core habit is one that every other habit is dependent on.  It's something that has to be in place first, before you can reliably stack other habits on top.  Without this core habit in place, everything else falls by the wayside.

What are your core habits?  Are there things that you absolutely must have in place before you work on additional habits?  

If so, you need to own them.  You need to be all over those core habits like a cheap suit.​

For me, this meant doing a bunch of reading and research about how to make sure I stick to a consistent sleeping schedule and get a good night's sleep.​  I bought a sleep mask, adjusted my sleeping environment, experimented with supplements like melatonin and will shortly be going for an operation to remove a cyst that's obstructing my breathing. 

I can't tell you what your core habits are, but ​take some time to figure out what they are and get them in check.

To be continued...​

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How to Stop Procrastinating and Nail Your Dissertation

This dissertation is the single most important piece of work that you've ever had to do....ever.   Your whole degree is riding on it.

It's also the biggest piece of work that you've ever had to do.  

All you can think about is that huge mountain of pages that you have to complete by the deadline. 

But no matter what you do, you can't seem to get yourself to sit down and write the bloody thing!​  

You keep telling yourself that you'll start tomorrow... But when tomorrow comes, the resistance overwhelms you, and you push it back once more.

What's Going On Here?   Why Can't You Make Yourself Write Your Dissertation?

It's really simple, and it's not what you might think...

The reason you keep procrastinating on this piece of work is because you keep focusing on the huge mountain of work that you have to do.  It intimidates you.  You can't see yourself ever completing it.  You're overwhelmed.

So your brain, in its infinite wisdom, decides that the best solution is to procrastinate.

"It's ok I'll just do it next week."​  

"I haven't got the sources that I need to start yet".  

"It's not the perfect environment right now so I'll start after the holiday"

Your brain is a master at creating excuses.

It's More than Just Overwhelm Though...

The most powerful part of your brain is animalistic.  

It wants to eat, it wants to have sex, it wants to sleep and it wants to move away from pain and towards pleasure.  One more thing - it wants all of the above immediately!​

This animal part of the brain has no ability to tie an action today to a reward next week. It wants the reward cycle to be instant.   It wants you to do something today and get rewarded today...

This was pretty useful when we were running around hunting for food, avoiding predators and trying to survive.  But this simplistic notion of immediate rewards doesn't lend itself to success in the modern day world.

How does this relate to your dissertation?

Well, your dissertation is due in 2 months time.  The animal part of your brain completely disengages. 

"I'm only going to be rewarded after two months?  Forget it, I want pleasures now!"​
Your Brain

But there is still one part of your brain that understands the complexities of the modern day world.  

This is the part of the brain the realizes that if you eat shitty food now, then you'll be fat and die of heart disease in the future.  

It's also the part of the brain that realizes that if you don't write your dissertation sufficiently ahead of the deadline, then you're going to fail your degree and three years of effort will be for nothing.

Enter the Prefrontal Cortex

This mass of grey matter that sits at the front of your head is pretty smart.  It's called the prefrontal cortex.

It has a much more useful understanding of the complexities of the modern day world and can understand the virtue of working hard today to success in a few months.

The main problem with this part of the brain is that it's commonly overpowered by the animal brain.  

Even though you know you should be writing your dissertation, it's so tempting to push it back one more day, sit down and play a video game.  You're rewarded immediately with enjoyment.  Another victory for the animal brain.

In short: You have a brain that is in conflict with itself.  How do you bring these two parts into alignment?

​I submit to you that if you can learn how to run your life such that your pre frontal cortex has more control over your life decisions, then you'll prosper handsomely.

Leo Gura from actualized.org calls this "making the emotionally hard decision".  

Jonathan Haidt, in his book "The Happiness Hypothesis" calls this "the rider taming the elephant".

Whatever you want to call it.  If you can learn how to get your animal brain to follow the instructions of your prefrontal cortex more often, then both parts of your brain will be in alignment and pointing towards success over the long term.

​You have to learn how to Manipulate
Your Animal Brain

While the animal brain is powerful, it's also pretty stupid and can be manipulated.

The million dollar question is how?

​In the context of dissertation writing, there are four main things you can do to force your animal brain to get writing:-

  1. ​Change the way you think about your dissertation
  2. Create a habit of writing
  3. Understand how to combat resistance
  4. Fail small and manipulate the environment

1. Change the Way You Think About Your Dissertation.

When you think about your dissertation, you're thinking about this huge pile of work that you'll never be able to complete.  It's like looking up at the summit of Everest or walking through a tunnel where there's no light at the end of the tunnel.

Simply put: the size of the task ahead puts you into a state of overwhelm and intimidates you. This causes you to procrastinate and keep putting it off.

​Instead of thinking about the result, simply think about the action of writing.  Better yet, think about a schedule of writing.

For example:- One hour per day of writing is not intimidating to most of us.  ​Most students can easily commit to doing one hour of writing per day.

​Massive results are achieved through consistently taking small steps.  Understand that writing for one hour each day for two months is likely enough to not only complete your dissertation, but do an amazing job of it.

But, more importantly, it's not overwhelming to think about your dissertation in this way. This will stop you from procrastinating.

When you sit down to do your one hour of writing per day, don't focus on what you produce in the hour, simply commit to the action, and let the result take care of itself.​  

Animal brain taming tip #1:  Create a non intimidating schedule that you can commit to rather than focusing on the massive amount of work that you have to do to finish your dissertation.

2. Make Dissertation Writing a Habit

Big results don't come from one off changes, they come from doing the same thing again and again consistently over a long period of time.   It's about consistency and stamina not about sprinting and speed.

The beautiful thing about consistency is that if you do something repeatedly on a regular basis, it becomes easier to do.   This is the beautiful benefit of creating a habit.

According to studies, the best way to create a habit is by having a trigger before the work and a reward after.  This is otherwise known as the three R's - reminder, routine and reward.

​The trigger tells the brain "Ok, now we're working" and the reward appeases the animal brain by giving it an instant benefit (what it thrives upon).

How to Create the Habit of Writing your Dissertation

Write a list of things down that you already do every day without fail.  Maybe you have a shower, drink a coffee, have breakfast...and so on.

Now you need to choose a suitable trigger for your dissertation writing.  Let's say, for instance, that your trigger is having a coffee.

Now, each morning when you make yourself a coffee, you sit down and get on with your dissertation writing. 

The key here is consistency - habits are instilled through regular repeated actions.  For the first week or so, you might find it quite hard to stick to... but as time goes on, it will get easier.

Once you've met your schedule for the day (let's say that you're schedule is one hour of dissertation writing per day) then you should reward yourself.

The reward could be playing a video game, eating a food that you enjoy, chatting to your friends on WhatsApp... it just needs to be something that you look forward to doing.

In short: Wrap the routine of writing your dissertation in a trigger, reward sandwich!

The Paperclip Strategy

Here's a great little trick I picked up from James Clear that you can follow to help yourself stay consistently on track with the schedule that you have. 

Go out and purchase a box of paperclips.  Then, in front of your desk where you write your dissertation, put two glasses.  One of the glasses is full of paperclips, and one is empty.  

For each and every hour that you spend writing your dissertation, move one paperclip from the full glass to the empty glass.​

For every hour that goes by, you'll have a visual reminder for all the work that you've done and see the stack slowly growing.  ​It's a psychological trick to help you focus on the action of doing the work, rather than the result, and helps encourage you to keep the momentum going.

Animal brain taming tip #2: Make your dissertation writing a daily habit​ 

3. Have a Plan for Overcoming Resistance​

There will be days where you really, really, really don't want to sit down and write your dissertation.  You'll ​come up with all manner of reasons why you don't want to get to work.  

These days don't make you a failure, they just make you human.

Firstly, expect that these days are going to occur and secondly have a plan for them.

There's a famous quote by ​Bill Wilson that goes like this:-

"You can’t think your way into right action, but you can act your way into right thinking."

I've found this to be so true...

If you really don't want to do something, trying to rationalise and intellectually come up with reasons as to why it's important that you do it just simply doesn't work. 

A better strategy is to just get yourself to sit down and do the smallest possible thing that you can do at that moment in time.

So, in the context of writing a dissertation, this might be sitting down, opening up Microsoft Word and simply writing just one sentence.

Just by simply going through the motions of getting started, your brain moves from thinking about the task to "OK, we're actually doing this now"...

What tends to happen is that, even just by doing something as small as writing one sentence, the resistance starts to dissipate....and you'll end up doing the full hour of writing.

Sometimes, however the resistance is still there, so you need to trick your animal brain even more by coming up with another ridiculously small task - let's say writing a second sentence.

In the worst possible case scenario, you stop working after you've written two sentences because the resistance overpowers you.  But, even in this scenario, you've still reinforced the habit of sitting down and writing on a daily basis and you've contributed at least something to your dissertation.

Animal brain taming tip #3: Expect resistance and have a plan for overcoming it

4. Put in Place a System for Sticking to your Schedule and Minimizing Failure

Bouncing Back from Failure

Listen, sometimes life really does just get in the way.  It happens to even the most prolific artists and creators.  So if you miss a day, don't beat yourself up about it.

Even if you miss a few days on the trot...

The key is this, though:  Get back on the horse as soon as you possibly can.

Don't throw the whole schedule out of the water and give up because you had a bad few days.  You need to develop your bounce-back ability.

This is something that I've personally incorporated into my life with the book reading project (reading, taking notes from and making videos about 140 self development books) that I'm currently going through.  

There have been times where I've completely dropped the ball - at its worst I didn't read anything for around a month due to some particularly challenging personal times.  It was difficult to get the project going again - but I bounced back.

​It's really important you incorporate this too.  Put the few missed days behind you and get going again, even if you don't complete your full schedule on your first day back - just do something to start building that momentum again.

Accountability and Immediate Pain

If you go to the gym on your own then missing a day is no big deal.  

"No worries, I'll just go tomorrow".

But if it's already 7pm and you're due to meet your friend at the gym at 8pm, it's a different story.  Even if you don't feel like going, the additional cost of letting your friend down is usually enough to keep you going anyway.

You can use this psychological lever to your advantage.  

When creating your dissertation schedule - involve a friend.  Hold yourselves accountable.  

Design the system so that you can't cheat.  Agree to work in the same place, together.   If you really want to amp this up - add a "fine" of $100 USD each time either of you miss an hour.

What you're doing here is making the cost of not sticking to the schedule as large, painful and immediate as possible - something that your animal brain pays attention to.

Make it as Easy as Possible to Succeed

Finally, make your environment work for you.  

If you want to go to the gym tomorrow morning, then to increase your chances of success you should get your gym clothes readily folded by the side of your bed tonight.  Tomorrow morning, you can roll out of your bed and immediately jump into your gym attire without thinking about it.

Your dissertation writing should be equally as easy.  Have a dedicated workspace, remove all distractions, make sure that your word processing application is already open on your computer, have a bottle of water on your desk.

Simply: Make it as easy as possible to sit down and get on with your work.​

If you have a bunch of hoops that you need to jump through just in order to sit down and get writing, then you're making it that little bit harder to succeed.  

Design your environment on purpose.

Animal brain taming tip #4: Develop your ability to bounce back, make it as costly and hard as possible to fail and make it as easy as possible to succeed.

Some Final Thoughts

A lot of what I've written about in this article is designed to:-

  1. Make you feel less overwhelmed by the size of the work that you have to produce (overwhelm is one of the most common causes of procrastination)
  2. Make the pain of not writing your dissertation as immediate as possible, rather than two or three months into the future.  (Your animal brain respects immediacy)
  3. Make the benefits of writing your dissertation as immediate as possible
  4. Deliberately designing your environment to assist you, rather than hinder you.

This is really a great structure for anything big you want to achieve in your life.

Creating daily habits that you follow consistently are critical to results making. The hard part, however, is not understanding this fact, but executing on it.

This is where understanding how your brain works and how it can be manipulated can really make the difference between success and failure.

Good luck with your dissertation writing and get started right now!

p.s If you don't feel like doing it, just write a single sentence!  Go on, I'm waiting...

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