Everyday system for managing habits

Big coffee potThis is the sixth of seven posts about simple everyday systems for managing your time, health, and eating developed by Reinhard Engels. Fifteen or so years ago, Reinhard was an overweight computer programmer who ate poorly, sometimes drank too much, and avoided exercising.

For most things simplicity is the ultimate sophistication and according to Thoreau, “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone.”

So Reinhard created habits that were easy to do and could be sustained forever. He didn’t like complicated exercise routines – he wouldn’t like doing them and would likely stop if he made it to a goal.

About ten years ago, I stumbled across Reinhard’s idea for exercising for 14 minutes a day using a sledgehammer to mimic shoveling and other common movements.

Starting there, I checked out his other systems. They were easy to implement and claimed longterm results for himself.

I didn’t really go whole hog on his system because I was already doing, and enjoying, other stuff like lifting weights, but I have used his sledgehammer idea, more as a fun way to rehab from injury.

Anyway, what follows are my shortened versions, from his website and podcast explanations, of his “everyday systems.” I did it for myself to have the ideas in one spot, and for you too, if you’re interested.

Managing habits is actually kind of a big issue.

Think about the difference between home improvement and self improvement. When you do a home improvement project, it’s a one time thing. Put in granite counter tops, it’s done, and move onto the next project.

Improving yourself isn’t like that. When you hit your goal in terms of diet or fitness or whatever, you can’t just back off. You have to maintain this behavior. It’s almost like having to re-install that new granite counter top every day. And most of us have more than one self improvement issue to work in at the same time. It’s like having to reinstall the counter tops, refix the roof, and retile the bathroom every day. If you express your self improvement goals in terms of goals and rely solely on conscious effort to achieve them, that’s really what you’re doing.

It’s pretty tough, but if you look at self improvement in terms of habit, it gets much easier. A habit is a behavior or set of behaviors that’s at least partically automatic and unconscious. Because of the big unconscious element, the maintenance is minimal.

They’re are all over the place. Your psyche is teeming with these dangerous but potentially useful forces. Habits are kind of like wild animals. Very powerful, but dumb. You can’t face them head on, they’ll tear you to shreds. But with some carrot and stick, you can tame them, and get them to work for you.

Conscious attention is a very limited commodity. You can do sophisticated stuff with it, but because it’s so limited, you want to reserve it for the when it’s really necessary. Save your conscious attention by hitching up habit to pull along desired behaviors, like a horse pulling a cart. You need conscious attention for the hitching up, but don’t have your conscious attention pull that cart. That’s what dumb strong unconscious habit is for.

So the question is, how do you take a conscious self improvement goal, like losing 50 pounds in six months, and turn it into an unconscious habit?

First, express the goal differently. The way you frame a goals is important. Think in terms of actions and behaviors rather than results. Framing your problem in terms of what you have to do to solve it instead of what you hope will happen as a result of your actions.

This is important for a number of reasons. We tend to be really, really bad at achieving “results” goals. They’re usually pretty arbitrary, not realistic assessments of what we can actually accomplish. And you can’t turn a result like “lose 50 pounds” into habit. Right? It’s an end state.

What do you do? It tells you where you want to be, but not how to get there. A habit is an unconscious behavior. A behavior is way of describing a repeated action. And an action is something you do. A results goal isn’t an action, and you can’t make it into a habit.

So instead, think about the actions that you hope will get you those results. For example, “no snacking on weekdays” or “exercise 14 minutes every weekday morning” are behaviors. Long term, results come from behaviors. You’re focusing on the part of reality that you can actually change. Results goals are essentially just wishful thinking.

Here’s the great thing, behaviors continue to be useful after you’ve hit your desired results.

You don’t have to change anything once you get there. In fact, I’d toss the results goal out entirely. A results goal is a distraction. It doesn’t tell you how to get anywhere. It depresses you if you don’t. And it doesn’t tell you what to do next when and if you do get there.

Another great thing about thinking in terms of behaviors is that you can’t fail, unless you decide to. With a habit, you’ll get there eventually if it’s a realistic goal.

You don’t have direct control over the scale or over a nautilus machine. But you do have direct control over your actions, so if you don’t do what you set out to, there’s no surprise because it’s your decision.

The power to fail is the power to succeed. They inherently go together. The alternative is powerlessness. A rock can’t fail. A rock can’t do anything.