Want New Habits? Set Up More Reminders.

Change is only possible through the cultivation of new habits. Most of the time these habits grow or fade thanks to tiny, daily reminders.

We are, after all, trying to replace old habits with new ones, and we’re entitled to some help.

Reminders can be people or places, words, smells or feelings. They are formed through promises we make to others and intentions we set for ourselves.

Reminders nudge us to do the things we said we want to do—they push us forward when we feel like ignoring our best-laid plans, and, on the days we forget those plans entirely, reminders put them in front of us, in plain sight, where they’re impossible to ignore.

The reminder distracts us from the delusion that the choice of whether to do this new thing, today, is a big decision. It’s not. We already said this was important to us, and that decision won’t improve if we revisit it. Our job, today, is to start. Once we start, we tend to continue.

So whether it’s making a plan to meet someone for an early morning walk, chopping up the raw vegetables we want to eat instead of chips, a colleague giving us a supportive nod right before we walk on stage, or just whispering our intention to ourselves before a difficult conversation, one of our jobs is to set up reminders everywhere.

They help us turn our plans into habits, our habits into practices, and our practices into the new person we aim to become.

Commitments are a series of choices that we make again and again.

Reminders help make each of those choices a little more straightforward.

Ritual Reflections

At a reception at the Lean Startup conference, where I was speaking last week, I struck up a conversation with a couple as waited on a food line. The three of us had started the day together in the hotel’s small, dark, grey gym, with ESPN blaring.

“How was your workout?” the woman asked, kindly.

“Oh, it was terrible,” I replied. “Truly, every minute was awful. But I finished.”

It was true. I’d had a tiring week, had rushed to catch my 6-hour flight to Las Vegas, wore earplugs all night because the hotel room was so loud, hadn’t eaten breakfast, and was feeling sluggish. I didn’t feel at all like running on the treadmill, but hoped that after I started it would get easier or better.

It never did. This is normal.

I exercise a lot, and at least half of the time I don’t really feel like doing it before I go. I mostly ignore that feeling and the accompanying thoughts, because they tell me almost nothing about what will happen once I get going, let alone how great I’ll feel afterwards.

I notice the same pattern with my kids. This weekend I had to wrench my 7-year old daughter from a lazy Sunday afternoon TV show to get her to practice her ukulele. As kids do, she vocalized all the feelings she had at that moment. “I don’t want to!” “I’m too tired!” “Can we do it a little later?”

But this morning, before school, without protest or prodding, she was in her room strumming away, belting out “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

It’s made me realize that most of what we do as parents is to try to instill good rituals.

Rituals of saying please and thank you. Rituals of putting dishes away after a meal. Rituals of how we go to bed. Rituals of doing homework early in the day. Rituals of always saying hello when we enter the house and goodbye when we leave. Rituals about using our phones and when we put them down. Rituals of reading before bed. And on and on.

These rituals only stick if they are for all of us.

My days are no different, filled with ritualistic behaviors: on the train into work, how I act when I get into the office, how and what I eat, what I do on a long-haul flight or how I get to sleep in a hotel room in a different time zone.

These rituals can be comforting, helpful and reassuring. They can be positive, well-thought out, and intentional. They can lead, day by day, to big positive changes.

Or, they can work against us: reinforcing the limitations we’re feeling in our lives, distracting us from what’s going on right now, buttressing our limitations…different flavors of short-term relief we trade, moment by moment, for a future we say we want.

Rituals are powerful because they help us push through the protests we’re feeling in our minds and bodies – whether we say them out loud like my 7-year-old, or we voice them silently. Rituals are a pre-determined set of priorities that free us from the decision of whether we should do this or that.

How we use our rituals is up to us. But when we watch someone who is doing something that seems impossible – running on a freezing cold and rainy morning; showing up perfectly pressed for work no matter what’s going on around them; always listening carefully; writing a blog every day — we should remember that what we’re witnessing isn’t a display of willpower, talent or skill.

It’s the result of ritual.

Norms, tipping, generosity and scarcity

Buy a sandwich from the deli, or a hot dog from the guy on the street, and the rules of the game are clear.  You’re told a price, you pay cash, done.

Reroll the tape, but this time you pay with a credit or debit card.  Depending on the machine they’re using, there might be a spot for “TIP _______” and you find yourself wondering whether and how much to tip for that same sandwich.

When a friend emails you about a cause that’s dear to him, there a normal set of responses you have to that situation – nothing, something, it’s up to you, but the steps you take follow a well-worn path.  Same story if you’re, say, at a Wall Street firm and a colleague asks you to buy a table at the benefit where she’s being honored – the numbers are just bigger.

On and on we go, hurtling through life with shorthand response to situations, because that makes things so much easier, because it feels like the only sensible way to process everything that’s coming our way.

But, just to be clear about what’s going on here, that shorthand is a function of norms, previous practice and social expectations.  Scarcity and real economics have very little to do with how we act.

The fun part – a piece of Generosity Day – is turning these norms upside down to see what that feels like: a $20 tip on a $5 taxi ride; telling the hot dog vendor to keep the change; telling your waiter that you’ll also pay the bill for the couple sitting next to you; agreeing to help a person who emails you out of the blue even though you don’t feel like you have the time.

My bet is that breaking these norms feels totally outrageous, that your heart races a little when you do it.  That’s the feeling of acting differently.  Then, when the rush passes, your head has the chance to process how glib you often are with that extra $20, but right here and right now, at the hot dog stand, handing over a $20 bill for your $5 hot dog – and not getting the change back – feels ludicrous.  Let the introspection begin.

One reason to give this whole thing a try is as an exploration of the norms and limits you’ve set around your life and your actions.  They may be just right for you.  Or your generosity experiment might afford a glimpse into how you could behave differently all the time – whatever “differently” means to you.