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When creating new habits, “subtle” doesn’t work

Creating a new habit is not an easy thing to do. Even if it’s something we’d really like to do regularly, we get side-tracked, distracted or simply forget. This is why it is so important to make your new habit “obvious” – as James Clear calls it in his book “Atomic Habits”. Make your new behaviour so obvious that it becomes difficult not to do it.

But how can you do that?

There are a variety of ways you can do that. The important thing is that you give yourself enough cues to perform the desired habit. Involve as many senses as you can to make it as obvious as possible.

Let’s work with this example: say you want to start your day with a few minutes of planning rather than just jumping in and starting the day with being reactive by answering emails.

Design your environment (low to no tech)

Leave your planner on your laptop. This way it is the first thing you see when you sit down at your desk.

Put up a sticky note saying “Plan Your Day” on your screen before you close down for the day. It will still be there first thing in the morning reminding you of what you need to do first.

Add planning to an existing habit (so called “habit stacking”) – whatever the first thing is you do when you sit down at your desk, create an implementation intention that says: “Once I have done x, I will take out my planner and plan my day.” Write that down in a variety of places and commit it to memory.

If you have an accountability buddy (someone to speak to regularly to check up on each other’s progress for work or fitness goals, etc.), you can include your new habit in the check-in. Being accountable to someone other than yourself can be very powerful and motivational.

Design your environment (with tech)

Set an alarm on your phone to a few minutes before you start your workday and call it “Planning”. Your phone will alert you to do what you need to do.

Set a recurring diary entry for “Planning” as your first appointment of the day so when you open Outlook, it will immediately remind you.

If you’re using an online planning app keep it in an open tab in your browser or make it start automatically when you start up your computer. On a tablet or on your phone have the planner icon on the home page in a prominent position.

Make it easy for yourself

The idea behind all these techniques is to make it as easy for you as possible to remember performing the new habit. This works, of course, not only for planning but for any other habit you want to establish. Make it as easy as possible to do the desired action. Leave notes for yourself in obvious places, such as on your door, your mirror, your window, etc. Have a reminder pinging in at the relevant time. Leave out the tools and items you need.

In a previous blog post, I talked about the importance of only changing one habit at a time. You can see why it would get really messy and confusing if you tried doing all this for more than one habit. Once your new habit is established you won’t need the reminders anymore, you’ll be doing your action automatically. You can then set up your system for the next habit.

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