Suppose that, for some reason, you wanted to place a large, heavy ball on the peak of a steep hill. You place your feet, walk a while, rolling the ball up the slope, and then carefully position the ball at the top of the hill. So far, so good. The trouble is, this is a very unstable situation – a small gust of wind, or a heavy truck driving by could dislodge the ball and cause it to roll down the hill again, making it necessary for you to repeat your work. So if you wanted to keep the ball at the top of the hill, you would need to constantly supervise it, and perhaps even keep your hands on it, to prevent it from starting to roll.
Consider the opposite situation, where you wanted to place the same ball at the base of a valley. In this case, it would be an easy proposition – roll the ball to the edge of the valley, tip it over the edge, and let gravity do all the work. The ball would probably overshoot the base, roll back, overshoot again, but at some point it will reach bottom and stay right where you want it to be. Keeping the ball there will then involve essentially no effort – perhaps a periodic check to ensure that no one else was trying to roll the ball out of the valley, for example.
This situation is artificial, but it is a great analogy with the way habits are formed. We can think of long-standing habits as deep valleys – highly stable points – where our behavior effortlessly and automatically returns to a certain equilibrium state. Conversely, behaviors that are not yet habits are like hills – it takes conscious effort to perform these actions, as well as vigilance and self-supervision to ensure that we perform them on a regular, desired basis. You can visualize the process of forming a habit as though it reshapes this landscape over time. With time and effort, it is possible to convert the “hill” of an intended habit, to a “valley” of a regular habit.
For example, when I first began eating only plant-based foods (a vegan diet), the process of food shopping and eating at restaurants took a lot of thinking and effort. I learned from nutrition books, questioned waiters, and spent lots of time in the grocery store reading labels, trying to figure out which foods I could buy and which I could not. I had to keep monitoring the ball at the top of the hill and make sure it did not roll off.
However, now, over a year later, the process of obtaining the kind of food I seek now takes minimal effort and thought. I have developed habitual behaviors for restaurants and grocery stores that create the results I desire with no stress. At this point, eating a plant-based diet feels to me like a highly stable point, like a ball at the bottom of a valley. Some situations – for example, my friends decide to eat at a steak house – might have the potential to bump the ball to one side or another, but the habit is strong and will quickly return the ball to equilibrium. (In that situation, for example, I know that steak houses have lots of vegetable-based side dishes, so I will be able to both socialize with friends and still order food that contains no animal products.)
The following are 8 techniques that you can use to turn hills into valleys and to create the habits that you truly want to practice in your life.
Engineer your environment. Does your environment make your desired habit harder to practice? For example, if you want to study and do homework between 8 and 10 every night, but you live in the most popular party house on campus, your environment will make this habit into a hill for you, regardless of how much willpower you exert. It will feel like pushing a ball up a hill to complete your study session without distraction. By going to a cafe or library, you exert control over your surroundings and can avoid the distraction during the specific time that you have set aside to study.
Select your peer group. If you want to become a non-smoker, but your regular social activities include going to a bar, watching sports, and smoking cigarettes with your friends, it will be very hard to quit. If your entire peer group consists of smokers, then going against the social consensus of “smoking is OK, and something that we all do” will be a true uphill battle. A quitter in a peer group of all smokers is likely to face all kinds of subtle disapproval ranging from exaggerated compliments – “wow, you’re so healthy now, are you going to do a triathlon next?” – to direct disapproval – “you’re not going to turn into some kind of health Nazi, are you?”. While difficult and sometimes painful, if the new habit is truly important to you, you may need to reduce or even eliminate your interactions with peer groups that reduce your chances of successfully installing that habit. In the words of the late Jim Rohn, “you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with” .
Substitute a placebo. Lately I have been in the process of reducing my consumption of coffee and other caffeinated drinks, with the intent of eventually quitting. To avoid the discomfort of withdrawal symptoms, I have one cup of caffeinated coffee in the morning. Then, I have as many cups of decaf as I like during the day. This permits me to continue with the ritual of taking a break, getting up and walking over to the coffee maker, preparing a cup, and taking it back to my desk. Don’t underestimate the power of ritualized behaviors – they can be as hard or harder to break than a chemical dependency. By breaking the chemical dependency first, and then modifying the ritualized behavior, I create a greater likelihood of success.
Schedule. It’s easier to make a habit into a valley if you do it at the same time each day or week. By associating a particular day of the week or time of day with your new habit, you anchor the new behavior more firmly in your life.
Associate. By anchoring a habit to a pre-existing habit you are more likely to install the new habit more quickly. A trivial example is taking medication right after you brush your teeth before bed, but you can certainly use this with more substantial habits as well.
Eliminate / create obstacles. Make it as easy as possible to practice the new, desired habit, and as hard as possible to practice the “anti-habit” (if applicable). For example, people who have problems with saving money are encouraged to use direct deposit to automatically send a certain amount of money to a savings account per month (eliminating an obstacle to regular saving), and to place their credit cards inside a block of ice in the freezer (creating an obstacle to binge spending – an “anti-habit” to saving).
Prepare in advance. If you plan to go running in the morning, place your shoes and running clothes right in front of the bedroom door. If you want to change your eating habits, make food in advance so that when you are hungry, you have plenty of choices available that work with your new diet. Never assume that you will think in an intelligent way when you are hungry, thirsty, tired after waking up, fired up with excitement after playing with a new electronic gadget, or looking at caller ID to see your toxic ex-boyfriend’s number. Prepare the groundwork to execute on your new habit when you are in a high-motivation state and thinking clearly, especially if that habit critically depends on your behavior when you might not be thinking as clearly.
Synergize. Some habits facilitate others. For example, quitting smoking might naturally go together with eating more nutritious foods and practicing yoga. Generally speaking, if you could easily collect the habits under a single umbrella with a single name, then they might be good mutual supports for each other. The previous example might fit a label of “cleansing” or “detox”, for example. Be careful, though – it’s important to avoid overwhelming yourself with too much change, since in that case it’s easy to “snap back” and bail out on all your new habits at once. The positive side is that when this approach works, you can create rapid change in a given area of your life, and install mutually reinforcing habits very quickly.
For additional power in creating a habit, you can combine several of these approaches. The more of them you use, the more likely your new habit will be to stick. Creating new habits is a challenge that we all struggle with, so stack the deck in your favor. Using these eight techniques will help to make any desired new habit a regular part of your life, Moreover, the more you practice them, the more skilled you become at the overall process of creating new, wanted habits and eliminating old, unwanted ones. You will become a true “behavioral landscaper”, and you will be able to transform the “hill” of a desired habit into the “valley” of a deeply-ingrained habit with increasing ease.
 Not you personally – I know you and I are both completely free thinking individuals. I mean all the other people who are reading this article who might be susceptible to peer pressure and need a little advice about it 😉
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