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Want to change your behavior? Clear these six hurdles.

hurdle photo

We've occasionally mentioned in recent updates that ClearerThinking is developing a free tool designed to help users change their daily habits or form new ones. As a result, we've been thinking in great detail about the process of changing one's behavior. Today, we thought we'd share some useful observations about the nature of behavior change that we've arrived at during this process. Specifically: changing your behavior successfully is actually a multi-step process that begins well before you take action.

We've identified six specific hurdles to clear whenever you want to change your everyday habits. We've summarized each of them below and paired them with a basic example so you can see how they might affect the behavior change process. Be sure you clear each of these six hurdles next time you try changing your daily routine.

1. Select the specific behavior you want to change.

This may sound obvious, but it's really the most fundamental step in this process. Without deciding what behavior you're going to alter, you can't move forward in accomplishing whatever more abstract goal you might hope to serve with the change. For example: suppose that you want to improve your physical health. You could change your behavior in many different ways that might help move you towards this goal, such as altering your diet or becoming more physically active. (Or both!) But until you settle on this basic part of the plan, you're unlikely to make any progress. Be as specific as possible when you make this choice.

2. Decide how specifically you want to change the behavior.

Again, you need to make some decisions up front in order to get to the target – without knowing what new behavior you're going to adopt, or what old behavior you're going to get rid of, you can't form a concrete plan. Imagine that you've concluded that you're going to become healthier by introducing more physical activity to your life. Once again, you could go about making this change in all manner of ways. Jogging? Squash? Yoga? Capoeira? It's unlikely that you'll do much of anything before you fill in the details.

3. Put reminders in place so that you remember the new behavior.​

This requirement is among the trickier to satisfy when it comes to the sort of behavior you frequently practice. If you're trying to change a routine habit that you've held for years, it requires some effort to merely remember not to revert to your former ways. This holds especially true when you're trying to introduce a new routine behavior where no behavior existed before. To return to our going example, let's say you've decided to add some activity to your day by taking up yoga. If you're not already doing yoga, this change will require you to add something new to your daily schedule that wasn't there before – you'll have to set aside time for your workout, and you'll have to remember it on a regular basis. Some methods you might use for this purpose include adding the new activity do your daily calendar, putting reminder alerts on your phone, asking a friend or lived one to remind you, or leaving a reminder note for yourself in a place where you’re sure to see it.

4. Learn how to do the new behavior properly.​

Again, this might sound like a no-brainer, but it's essential, especially for more complex and involved activities. If you want your new behavior to help you achieve your broader goal, you need to make sure that you're doing it correctly. This matters a great deal for two reasons. First and more intuitively, it ensures that you aren't wasting your time with your efforts. But doing your new behavior the right way can help you achieve your goal more efficiently, and seeing results faster can help motivate you to maintain the new behavior. Think of the hypothetical new yoga practice — if you don't perform the exercises correctly, you won't see as many fitness or flexibility gains, and you're far more likely to abandon a form of exercise that doesn't seem to be working than one that does. So it’s essential that if you are going to take up a new behavior, you should ensure that you know exactly how to carry out the behavior first, which means that some reading or training may be in order.

5. Use tricks to maintain your motivation.

This requirement is the most taxing component of many behavior changes. If you're picking up a new behavior that requires some energy, or trying to drop an old behavior that requires willpower to resist, you'll need to motivate yourself to stick with your given plan. In the case of our hypothetical new yoga practice, that might mean overcoming the couch-potato inertia by force of will and getting on the mat for the day even if you don't feel like it. Or, if you're quitting smoking for instance, you must motivate yourself to resist cravings and trigger situations. Techniques to maintain motivation include making a list of the reasons you care about engaging in the new behavior and putting that list somewhere that you’ll see it, making a commitment to a friend or family member that you’ll stick to the new behavior, or making a monetary bet with yourself (using a site like

6. Set aside focused time to avoid derailments.

So you've begun your new behavior — great! The final requirement is following through and finishing it whenever you practice it. This step isn't of much significance if the behavior in question is relatively brief, but for longer activities that require extended periods of focus, it can mark the difference between success and failure. Suppose, for instance, that your phone rings during your hypothetical workout. If you stop what you're doing to answer the phone, you may well end up abandoning the workout altogether. To avoid derailments, make sure to set aside the appropriate amount of distraction-free time to carry out the new behavior in full, or free up more time in your calendar by de-prioritizing other activities.

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