I like to think of myself as someone who is good at creating productive routines. And if by creating, you mean writing them out in elaborately color-coded charts, calendars, and plans, then perhaps I am good at creating productive routines. If you solely go by my perfectly penciled and stenciled bullet journal, I am the reigning empress of routine.
My actual lived habits, however, are more of a hot mess.
That’s because planning a new routine or habit is the easy part. The rubber meets the road with the consistent application of your new habit. It’s easy to commit to doing this work, but it’s very hard to follow through.
More Than Just Commitment
So why is the consistent, habitual work so hard to do? Perhaps because it tends to be boring, whereas creating a rainbow-sherbet colored spreadsheet of early wake-up times is fun. (Okay, maybe that’s just me).
Habit and productivity expert James Clear pinpoints this problem in his book, Atomic Habits. Clear writes about meeting with a renowned athletic coach who had worked with nationally ranked athletes and Olympians. He asked the coach about what makes the best athletes different from everyone else:
“[The coach] mentioned the factors you might expect: genetics, luck, talent. But then he said something I wasn’t expecting: ‘At some point it comes down to who can handle the boredom of training every day, doing the same lifts over and over and over.’”
The boredom of athletic training every day is similar to the boredom of tracking expenditures, planning ahead for future financial needs, cleaning the house, organizing paperwork, getting up early to write, and eating healthy. There’s an excellent reason why people don’t like doing these things. They don’t feel good in the moment, so you have to do as James Clear advises and “fall in love with the boredom.”
This is one of the reasons why my finances are organized but my closet is not. I enjoy the boring work of tracking expenses, budgeting, and even filing my taxes. I hate the boring work of keeping my clothes neat and organized. So, I do the boring that I love, and avoid the boring that I hate.
But the boredom is not the only problem with creating a consistent habit. There is also the fact that doing the initial work to set up a budget can feel pretty great, because you are enjoying the optimism of a better future. This enjoyment of beginning the work is often made harder by the fact that there are always new products, apps, software, services, and books that promise to help you transform your commitment into action. But buying or trying these options often means you are taking the false first step.
The False First Step
For as long as I can remember, my mother and I have both sought out the product that would finally make us organized. We have spent untold hours wandering the aisles of stores like The Container Store, oohing and aahing over various bins, baskets, dividers, clips, bags, trays, shelves, hooks, jars, and hangers, wondering which of these items would finally lead to the perfectly organized homes she and I both dream of.
My mother and I have had a lot of fun indulging this expensive habit. But if we truly wanted more organized homes, all we needed to do was take a look how my organized sister lives. Unlike Mom and me, my sister Tracie has always simply and consistently put her things away, decluttered unnecessary items, and found homes for everything in her life. No trips to The Container Store were necessary for her.
The trap that Mom and I fall into is a common one. Anthony Ongaro of mindfulness site Break the Twitch describes this as the false first step. Ongaro writes, “[The false first step is] believing we’ve made a meaningful step toward a goal when all we’ve…done is spent money or not done the thing we actually need to do. We’ve…lost something (money and time) rather than attained something (meaningful progress).”
The false first step tempts us over and over again because it feels like we are doing something to help us finally organize our homes or responsibly manage our money or lose 20 pounds, etc. And even though making such a purchase can indeed help us with our goals, it can’t help unless we do the consistent, habitual work—which can feel intimidating and overwhelming.
Ways to Be More Consistent
While false first steps feel good, they don’t actually help you create a new habit or routine. The only thing that can help you do that is to do the work, every day, even when it’s boring.
Ain’t nobody got time for that.
So how do you improve your consistency when you haven’t yet fallen in love with the boredom--and the new 80-pocket Canvas Hanging Scarf Organizer you purchased hasn’t yet prompted you to clean up.
This is when it’s time to start tricking yourself with some mind games. For whatever reason, us human beings aren’t able to simply make a decision that we want to do something consistently and then do it. We often have to trick ourselves into doing the very things we want to do most. And some of the most effective mind games include:
1. The 5-Minute Rule
Set a 5-minute timer for whatever habit you want to cultivate that you don’t enjoy, and allow yourself to stop doing whatever it is when the timer goes off. In general, either one of two things will happen: you’ll either find that the minor chore takes you less than 5 minutes, or you’ll find that you don’t want to stop when the alarm goes off.
This is because of a mental quirk known as the Zeigarnik Effect, wherein your brain nudges you to finish a project if you’ve left it undone. According to the psychologists who discovered it: “It seems to be human nature to finish what we start and, if it is not finished, we experience dissonance.”
If you want to create a consistent habit for exercise, money management, cleaning, organizing, or the like, then start by committing to a 5-minute rule for it each day. This will help you overcome the “ugh, I don’t wanna” feeling since you’re only committing to 5 minutes, while also allowing the Zeigarnik Effect to nudge you to keep going.
2. Make Like Jerry Seinfeld and Track Your Habit
Jerry Seinfeld is not only pretty good at making people laugh, but he also knows a thing or two about motivation. According to a Lifehacker article, when someone asked him what tips he would give to a young comic, Seinfeld responded:
He said the way to be a better comic was to create better jokes and the way to create better jokes was to write every day.
He told me to get a big wall calendar that has a whole year on one page and hang it on a prominent wall. The next step was to get a big red magic marker. He said for each day that I do my task of writing, I get to put a big red X over that day.
“After a few days you'll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You'll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job is to not break the chain.”
This strategy is a great way to trick yourself into starting and maintaining a new habit, until it has become second nature. That’s because tracking gives you a visual cue to maintain your habit, offers you motivation to keep the chain going, and helps you see your progress over time. Setting up a calendar, a bullet journal spread, or an app to track your progress can help you to fall in love with the boring, since you’ll get to enjoy the pleasure of an unbroken chain.
3. Reward Yourself
Some of the scientist-types at MIT have found that the basal ganglia, the part of the brain responsible for the performance of habitual behavior, lights up like a roman candle, which indicates interest, at two different times during the creation of a new behavior: first when the habit is cued, and then when the habit is rewarded. In MIT’s case, it meant that some adorable lab rats were taught how to run through a maze to get chocolate.
Sadly, the white lab coat wearers found that taking away the reward meant the ol' basal ganglia stopped showing activity, and the lab rats attached to said basal ganglia lost interest in their new habit. They received the same cues to do some maze-running, but without a delicious chocolatey reward at the end, Rizzo, Scabbers, and Remy just noped on the opportunity.
Once chocolate was reintroduced as a reward, the rats’ basal ganglias started showing activity again, and the getting-through-the-maze behavior became habitual again.
So, what does this mean for folks who do not happen to be lab rats?
In short, you’ll have a much easier time of getting a habit to stick if you attach some sort of reward to the habitual behavior—since the long-term rewards of consistently exercising, cleaning, managing money, or the like, can’t keep basal ganglia all hot and bothered for the length of time it will take for the habit to stick.
Perhaps for every 10 items you put away, you could reward yourself with a Hershey’s Kiss, or for every three miles you walk, you could reward yourself with a relaxing bath. The trick is to find a reward that you don’t already consistently enjoy (which is why the Hershey’s Kiss reward wouldn’t work for a chocoholic like me) that you can do immediately after you finish your new habit. Creating a habit-reward system will help you not only enjoy the habit more, but also help reinforce the habitual behavior so that it becomes part of your daily routine.
Doing a little bit every day is the only way to reach big goals, but sometimes the little habits can feel as insurmountable as the huge outcome you’re hoping for.
So, if you’re not feeling the love for consistently doing the boring stuff, find a way to trick yourself into doing them.
Instituting a couple of Jedi mind tricks on yourself gets you a hell of a lot farther than color-coded plan or an expensive trip to The Container Store.