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How to exercise every morning and not eat chips in the evening when you have never done this before? How to repeat a new habit until it sticks, without discipline?
Create a context in which temptations are easy to resist or hard to fulfil.

A study found that people with a lot of willpower, don’t struggle with temptation because running or eating healthy is a part of their (subconscious) routine: it’s an automatism1.
Meaning, when you start a new habit, habit development would be a more accurate word than willpower until that habit becomes subconscious.
How do you even start with this? The idea is to make the ‘habit development’ as smooth as possible.

Moving to the South of Europe is probably a very drastic context to create a more sustainable lifestyle, but everybody considered it at least once in their life, right, starting with a clean slate?
But that’s not possible for most people. Also, the mind travels with you, wherever you go, and the idea behind these mini-essays is to manage to maintain your own life in a hectic society without dying a thousand deads.

When routines become a ritual

Top atletes have all kinds of rituals to deal with the pressure of the game. Rituals give peace of mind: I always wear a soft, colourful legging (made from plastic waste) and always use the same personal workout playlist in the car to stay motivated to hit the gym. After training I always have my first coffee of the day on a sunny terrace close to the gym ( reward, read previous post).
A powerful tool is to connect a new habit to another strong habit: after my coffee, i go to the Bioshop by foot. It’s not a coincidence that all these locations are close to each other.
This strategy was figured out by Stanford professor B.J. Fogg in what he named the Tiny Habit recipe2.

Gardening at the weekend means connecting with my husband, who loves being outdoors. I also joined gardening to our healthy lifestyle because digging in the earth with your hands is beneficial for our immune system3. And those veggies are less expensive than the Bioshop ;-).

If you want to quit smoking, you would be well advised to eliminate bad triggers and stimulate the good ones. Avoid bars and alcohol in the first couple of weeks and find yourself a sports buddy who drags you to a squash court where your nicotine phlems create resentment.
You could approach this process as unlearning the habit of smoking rather than quitting smoking. It sounds the same, but the focus is different.

Create context in your best life

Psychologist Kurt Lewin created a formula for external powers that influence our behaviour: B= f (P,E). Behaviour is the function of the person and the environment.
That’s what marketers know and use very well. They are pro’s in creating context. It’s their job: influencing our perception of reality. In addition, thanks to cookies and approvals, they know our behaviour better than ourselves. Big data helps them to connect their product to our (a) desired identity. Since I work in Porto centre, I get advertisements for handmade vegan laptop bags with super handy pockets for chargers, headphones, and smartphones (so damn tempting!).

A real power tool here is friction. When you shop online, friction is kept very low; you just need a few clicks, and that fantastic bag is yours! On Instagram the button to shop online is next to your thumb. In contrary, the settings to eliminate bad triggers have high friction. You have to figure it out yourself and leave the default function as it is. In that way, the next episode on Netflix already appears before you decide to go to bed.
You need to know very well what you want and what you don’t want to resist these daily bad habits.

Marketers are pros in creating context. It’s their job to influence our perception of reality

Another thing those tech giants and marketers know all too well is that our brain is not that picky. Studying law or creating a business plan to grow weed: everything is possible for your brain. But when it comes down to creating context, it’s preferable not to sell drugs to pay your renovations while living at your in-laws. Other than that: no judgement here.
In this way, industry constantly creates new needs and habits we don’t need or want, while living above our paycheck until those smart storage systems, basements, sheds and attics bulge out.
We officially are hoarders, which can never be the goal of making a career right?
An example of the disastrous consequences of context with high social friction is the food deserts in black or poor communities where it’s almost impossible to make healthy food choices. Hearth diseases and obesity are rampant in these areas.

 

Construct your possibilities

Conclusion: we always think that we have to make a big effort to change our lifestyle, but it’s about changing minor tweaks. We sometimes meet people for whom life is easy; life gets along with them. They are always at the right moment in the right spot. But maybe this has more to do with adopting the proper context by lowering friction ( declining a job that gets in the way of your life dream or hobby) or increasing friction by moving outside the city, so you need to take the car, find a parking spot for shopping). Cities are full of low friction to buy, buy, buy and it’s not easy to say no, no, no.

With small tweaks you increase your succes rate to expand your hobby to something lucrative, to eat healthier or to spend less by aligning the intentions with the goals. Or like writer/designer

Debbie Millman wrote in her essay Fail safe4: “…It is about how they constructed possibilities for their life…”

Final conclusion: if you want to be on the right moment on the right place, start by creating that place.

Next time: Why our primitive brains sabotage us.

1 More info on this research, click here.
2 How to start with tiny habits, following this recipe.
3 The Clever Gut Diet, Dr. Michael Mosley, 2018
4 Fail Safe narrated by Debbie Millman herself, listen here

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