Your house is holding you back -- seriously
In 2010, I woke up one Saturday morning and decided to stop eating sugar. I would only eat beans, veggies, and meat from then on.
A year later, I was still reliably eating the same way.
I didn’t need to “baby step” anything, change my environment, or build any fancy cues into my context.
I just did it.
A couple of years later, I decided that I was going to start weightlifting. I was going to get “jacked” (as the young whippersnappers say).
So I did what any thoroughly nerdy behavioral scientist would do: I came up with a behavior-change plan. I tweaked my apartment to support my goals.
I made sure to put my gym shorts and shoes in front of my door before going to bed so I would bump into them first thing in the morning.
I got a membership to the closest gym to my house, and even purchased these snazzy things called “Perfect Pushup” handles—so that I could some a bodyweight workout at home if I was too lazy to go to the gym. I got special headphones meant for the noisy gym environment so I could listen to an audiobook or one of my favorite podcasts while grunting away on the bench press.
Oh, and I also talked my roommate, an affable and muscular gym-goer named Jake, into inviting me to his daily workouts—so I had the whole social pressure thing added in.
I had created the perfect soup of behavior-design tweaks. There was no way I would fail.
Except somehow I did.
After a month or two of hitting the iron, I just stopped going.
Jake’s invitations were ignored. My gym shoes and shorts were cast aside.
My perfect pushup handles were buried under a pile of clothes.
All was right in the world. I was, and would remain, my slightly puffy self.
Then, something big happened.
I packed up my computer, my bed, and my shorts and went across town—to a cozy part of the city called Duboce Triangle.
That’s when my turnaround began.
Before I knew it, I was going to the gym 6 days a week. My shirts got small, my abs started to protrude, and my protein powder budget went through the roof.
Another successful habit!
At the time, I was kind of confused. I wondered why I was able to so easily become a gym rat in my new place when all my previous efforts had resulted in failure.
Then it hit me: It’s because I was in a new context.
Habits are like reflexes. They’re automatic responses we initiate when we have a certain problem and are in a familiar context with a known solution.
As I’ve written in the past: “Habits are, simply, reliable solutions to recurring problems in our environment.”
This is why I think the best thing people can do for their own self-development is to move houses (or cities) every couple of years. Nothing will jolt you out of your current set of habits faster than a move.
It’s a chance to wipe the slate clean and start over again.
When I moved to my new place in Duboce Triangle, I was able to start fresh. I was able to re-write my behavioral repertoire—and I made gym-goin’ one of my primary focuses.
So that explains the success of my gym habit… but does it explain the earlier success I had with my diet?
Actually, it does.
My first four years in San Francisco, I ended up living in 5 different places (don’t ask).
It was a chaotic (and hilarious) time. I have some epic stories from that period of my life I’ll write about sometime. But the important thing is that every ~10 months I was able to build a new set of habits that better matched my ever-evolving priorities.
I made the sugar-free lifestyle one of my behavioral focuses soon after I moved into a new place in 2010, and was able to quickly make it an effortless part of my routine.
But I fell into a set of bad habits when I was living with Jake, which had solidified by the time I tried to turn the ship around with my (failed) behavior-design offensive.
It wasn't until I wiped the slate clean again with my move to Duboce that I was able to realize my fitness goals.
You may feel like you're stuck in a rut right now--and you might be. if you're young and you don't have a family, you should seriously consider shaking things up a bit. If you're tied to your apartment, your house, your city... well, that's a harder problem. In that case, all you can do is use an accurate understanding of your strengths, weaknesses, likes, dislikes, and personality to figure out the *right* new behaviors/habits to do. Habit hacks and tweaks won't help you.
But personality-based habit formation is another topic for another time...
PS: Happy 2019!
PPS: If you want to book time with me to talk about habit formation, personality science, new year’s resolutions, etc. you can do it here: https://calendly.com/behavioral