Want to know the LAZY way to create new habits?
(Side benefit: This works way better than using willpower…)
Because in this post, we’re going to show you the #1 principle of habit change.
It’s a secret strategy that causes your old habits to wither and die…
And helps make your new habits stick long-term.
If you’ve ever tried to change a habit and failed, you may think you’re a lazy slob with no willpower...
But that’s not true!
You just didn’t know how to shape your environment in the right way to make the change.
You didn’t know about this secret strategy.
Here’s the skinny on how to do this:
Do you remember where we talked about how the Elephant is lazy and will take the easy path when it’s tired?
You can actually use that to your advantage to create a new habit!
You want to make it hard to do the old Negative Habit you’re trying to stop doing. That way your Elephant gives up.
So you put barriers and obstacles in the way of the old habit.
The Elephant sits down on the ground and crosses his little wrinkled knees and says, “Oh this is too hard!”
On the flipside, you want to make it easy to do the new habit you’re trying to install.
You set up the environment so that everything is easy and within reach so the Elephant goes, “Wow, this is so easy!”
Before we dive into the action steps, let’s do a quick review...
Activation Energy: Step 3 of the PEAK Method
This is Step 3 of the PEAK Method. The A in PEAK stands for Activation Energy.
This step is where the magic happens in our ritual creation process!
As a quick review:
At this stage, you should have picked out the Pillar Ritual you’re going to install.
You should also have decided on the Exact Cues you’re going to use to remind you.
If these terms are unfamiliar to you, make sure you check out our post that outlines the PEAK Method.
How to use “Activation Energy” to your advantage when creating new habits
In this session, we’re going to explain a concept called “Activation Energy.”
In chemistry, Activation Energy is “the amount of initial energy needed to start a reaction.”
In other words, for a chemical reaction to take place... it requires some initial energy to make it happen.
The same concept applies for taking any action in life!
Every action you take, every habit you do… Requires some amount of energy to get the ball rolling.
You can think of Activation Energy like this:
“How much energy or effort does it take me to do this particular habit or behavior?”
If the Activation Energy is high… it means it takes a lot of effort, energy, or willpower to do the habit.
If the Activation Energy is low… it means it doesn’t take much effort, energy or willpower to do the habit.
Your current habits usually don’t need much Activation Energy
As a general rule, your old habits don’t need as much Activation Energy. That’s usually because you’ve made them easy to do.
Think about how little energy it takes to sit on the couch and watch TV at night.
All you have to do is grab the remote (usually sitting on the table conveniently right next to you)...
Point it at the TV and press a button to turn it on.
Or think about how little energy it takes to check your e-mail…
For most people, they can just pull their phones out of their pocket and press a button and they’re in their email.
What if you increased the Activation Energy required to check your email…?
For example, what if you had to go through 10 different steps and it took you 5 minutes to log into your e-mail?
Would you check your e-mail as often?
Also, as a general rule, your new ritual needs more Activation Energy.
Your environment may not be set up so that it’s easy to do your new ritual. You may have to make a lot of small decisions or jump through a lot of hoops.
Because you haven’t practiced your ritual, you also haven’t created a neural pathway in your brain. That’s why the ritual is unfamiliar, and awkward at first.
For example, let’s say you want to wake up earlier and work out in the morning.
This habit requires a LOT of Activation Energy.
You might have to do a series of things to start working out.
Here are some of the things you may have to do:
Come up with an exercise plan
Wake up earlier to get your workout in before the buttcrack of dawn
Get your exercise clothes ready
Sign up for a gym
Drive to the gym each time you want to work out
That’s a lot of initial energy to make it a habit!
All of those things require Activation Energy. And it may feel overwhelming to your lazy Elephant.
The key to this step is to use your Elephant’s laziness against it.
And this is how you do that:
You increase the amount of Activation Energy it takes to do the old habit.
In other words, you make the old Negative Habit hard to do.
Then, you decrease the amount of Activation Energy it takes to do the new ritual.
In other words, you have to make the new Pillar Ritual easy to do.
The 20-Second Rule: How one psychologist “tricked” himself into practicing his guitar more
Shawn Achor describes Activation Energy in his book The Happiness Advantage. (It’s a great read, by the way!)
In the book, he shares a simple rule of thumb you can follow called the “20-second rule.”
The 20-Second Rule:
If you add 20 seconds of time or effort to your habit, you’re much less likely to do it.
Achor gave a great example of how he used this rule in his book.
He wanted to stop his bad habit of watching TV at night.
Instead of watching TV, Achor wanted to create a new habit of practicing his guitar at night.
He knew that if he made it hard to turn on the TV, he wouldn’t be as likely to watch it.
So he removed the batteries from the remote and walked them 20 seconds away into his bedroom. Then he put them in his dresser drawer inside a pair of socks.
Also, he put his guitar right next to the sofa where he usually sat.
That way it would be within reach when he sat down.
In other words, he made it easier needed to start practicing his guitar. He decreased the time and effort (Activation Energy).
And he made it harder to watch TV at night. He increased the time and effort (Activation Energy).
The first few times he came home from work he would plop down on the sofa and reach for the remote.
Dang!! It wasn’t working. Then he remembered he had taken the batteries out.
He would get frustrated for a moment because he was tired and wanted to watch TV.
Now his Elephant faced an important decision:
Should he go through the hassle of getting the batteries and putting them back in the remote?
Or… should he do the easy thing and start practicing his guitar?
He knew he would have to stand up and walk 20 seconds to his bedroom to get the batteries. And then walk back to the TV.
Since he was already sitting on the sofa… he decided to do the easy thing.
He grabbed his guitar, which was sitting right next to him, and started practicing it.
Pretty soon, he had created a new ritual of practicing guitar at night.
Do you see how this simple change is so powerful?
You can apply this principle in so many unique and creative ways!
In fact, we’re going to make a bold statement…
Not using the Activation Energy principle is the #1 reason people fail to change their habits!
Ok, let’s give you more examples of how to apply this principle to your life…
How to apply the principle of Activation Energy to your habits
The goal with this step of the PEAK Method is very simple:
As much as possible, you want to make your old negative habits harder to do…
And your new ritual easier to do.
Remember that your Elephant likes to do the easy thing. It doesn’t like things that are hard or that take a lot of steps.
Use that fact to your advantage!
Increase the Activation Energy of your negative habits (Ie. Make them harder to do)
For this step, you also want to remove all temptations from your environment. Or at least make it difficult to get to them.
For example, Josh used to have the bad habit of checking social media in the morning right after he woke up.
So he made it harder to do…
He put his phone in a different room at night, far away from his bedroom…
That way he wouldn’t wake up and immediately grab it.
He also installed an extension on his computer that blocked social media or news sites.
Decrease the Activation Energy of your new ritual (Ie. Make it easy to do)
After you’ve put barriers in place of the Negative Habit, it’s time to look at your new Pillar Ritual.
You want to decrease the Activation Energy of the new ritual to make it super easy to do.
That means removing any barriers to doing it, or setting up your environment so you’re almost forced to do it.
Here’s an example of this principle in action:
Nita enjoys going for a walk during the day to get some exercise.
She makes sure to leave her walking shoes, a pair of socks, and a spare set of clothes in her car at all times. She never knows when she might want to walk. And now, she has no reason not to!
Some people take this to the extreme. When Shawn Achor wanted to start running in the morning, he went to bed at night in his running clothes. Shoes included.
That way he rolled out of bed and was ready to go. In fact, it would have been harder for him to take off his clothes and NOT go running!
Here’s another example:
Josh was trying to create a new ritual of writing a gratitude journal every day.
So he put pens and notebooks near every chair in his house. He even put a pen and notebook inside a ziplock bag on the porch outside, right next to his favorite chair.
Alright, let’s show you how our “habit hero” Rachel applied this step to her new Pillar Ritual…
Applying this step to Rachel’s Negative Habit of staying up late watching TV
Let’s go back to the case study we’ve been using during this series on rituals.
Rachel’s Negative Habit: Staying up late watching TV
Rachel’s Pillar Ritual: Getting to bed by 10pm
We asked Rachel how she could make it harder to stop watching TV so late…
We also asked her how she could make it easier to be in bed by 10pm.
Here’s the plan we came up with:
Rachel realized that the first problem she had to solve was her tendency to stay at work late.
She had already set up Exact Cues on her phone to remind her to stop working.
Now she took it one step further…
She used an app that automatically shut her computer down at 6pm.
The app gave her a five-minute warning to save her work, then her computer went to sleep.
The second thing she did was enlist the help of her husband. Luckily, he also wanted to get to bed earlier.
So they decided on a fixed time to watch TV from 7:30-9pm.
They also took the TV out of their bedroom. This kept Rachel from watching TV instead of reading a book at night to wind down.
Rachel also set an alarm for 9:15pm using her Google Home smart speaker. The alarm reminded her to stop what she was doing and start reading her book.
Ok, so you now you’ve seen an example of the Activation Energy principle in action.
Now it’s time to apply it to yourself...
- What can you do to make your old Negative Habit hard to do? Can you put barriers in the way of it?
- How can you remove barriers to doing your new Pillar Ritual? What can you do to make it easier to do?
Recapping Step 3 of the PEAK Method: Activation Energy
The goal of this step is simple: Make the Negative Habit/s hard to do.
You want to discourage your Elephant by putting up barriers and obstacles in the way.
Remember that if you can add an extra 20 seconds of time or effort…
That’s usually enough to interrupt your old pattern.
Also, make it easy to do the new Pillar Ritual you’re trying to create.
Remove all obstacles and barriers that give you an excuse to not do it.
The key with this step is to be flexible.
Sometimes you can stop your Negative Habit by installing a simple barrier.
For example, we had a client who broke his habit of logging onto Facebook during the day.
All he did was move the Facebook app from his home screen on his phone to the fourth screen.
Removing the temptation of seeing the app and adding a few extra finger swipes was enough to stop it.
Sometimes it's not so simple. You need to put more or bigger barriers in the way of your old habits.
If you’re changing a habit you’ve had for a long time, it’s gonna be harder to change.
That’s because the habit has become hardwired into your subconscious brain (Elephant).
The reality is that creating a new Pillar Ritual is always a work in progress when you’re first starting out.
That’s why the fourth and final step of the PEAK Method is so crucial:
Note: This is a series about why change is hard, and how to create new rituals that fuel your success.
Dr. Nita Matthews-Morgan & Josh Matthews-Morgan are the co-founders of Learn Your Brain.
They are a unique mother-son team who specialize in helping entrepreneurs and business owners master their mindset.
They’re the authors of Deliver: How to Perform Your Best When it Counts the Most.