Name: Kabar B.
Lives: Seattle, WA
Family: Married father of a 4 year old little girl with #2 on the way.
Work: Nurse Liaison at a major hospital
Stays active by: Walking a ton at work
Hobbies: Playing music, meditating and playing Destiny (multiplayer 1st person shooter game)
In this post you'll see how Kabar went from zero to habit with something that will massively improve the quality of his life and help him be a better dad to his kids and husband to his wife.
First, he learned a few things about how habits work. Then he used that knowledge to go from working against his brain's natural tendencies, like most people do, to actually putting them to work for him,
He did it, and so can you. Here's his story.....
The New Habit Kabar Wants To Start
Kabar suffers from back pain. He's had this problem off and on for most of a decade. Strange thing is, he knows a quick, easy, free way to treat it. It's an exercise called the Founder that strengthens the muscles along your spine. If you've got chronic or acute back pain, you may want to check it out.*
Kabar swears by the Founder. He knows it works for him because he tried it before and his back pain went away. He liked it so much he bought the book and read it and did all the exercises for awhile (there is a whole series of exercises in the book; the Founder is the primary one). But then he stopped. Like a lot of us, knowing what to do isn't enough to stick with a solution, even one as easy as the Founder, over the long term.
Kabar wants to start doing the Founder every day to keep his back from hurting. And he wants to keep doing it over the long term, for the rest of his life.
*Disclaimer: Check with your doctor before starting any new exercise program. I'm not a doctor and am not qualified to offer medical advice.
Why This New Habit Is Important To Him
Kabar's back pain isn't constant. It comes and goes. But when it comes, it completely sucks. It affects his ability to be active, his mood, even how he treats people, including the most important people in his life, his wife and daughter.
I asked him what he thought would happen 10 or 20 years down the road if he didn't do anything about it. He said he figured the pain would get worse until it hurt so bad he had to do something about it. Then once the pain went away he'd go back to not doing anything until it started to hurt again.
But he'd rather not have the pain at all, especially if he can achieve that with a quick, easy, free, effective solution that he already knows how to do. He just has to do it.
Why He Doesn't Already Do It
When he did the Founder before, Kabar would focus on doing all of the exercises in the book really well. He says it takes about 15 minutes to do them all and you're supposed to do them twice a day. So it's a good 30 minutes a day and some of the exercises involve laying down on the ground. Not horribly difficult, but a substantial daily commitment.
At first, everything would be great. He'd be super motivated and focused. But eventually his enthusiasm would dissipate and he would run out of motivation. And then he'd stop.
All of the good reasons he started doing the Founder were still there. He still knew his back pain was going to come back and still believed the Founder worked. It's just that when his back didn't actually hurt it wasn't, in his words, "in his attention", and he couldn't stay motivated enough to do the work. Then once the pain returned, he'd get back into it.
What Kabar needs is something to bring the Founder into his attention when his back doesn't hurt. Optimally, he would actually crave doing the exercise and because he craved it, he would do it automatically, without having to try hard.
Recap: Habit Fundamentals
It's easier to do something if you understand it. Here is a recap of the basics of how habits work, as I understand them, based on NY Times bestseller The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg and the work of Stanford University researcher BJ Fogg, creator of the Tiny Habits program and the Fogg Behavior Model.
Habit Loop: Habits are made up of three components. The cue or trigger that prompts you to do something, the routine or action that you do in response to the cue, and the reward you get that drives you to continue to do it. Cue-action-reward. Together they are called the Habit Loop
Craving: A habit loop done consistently over time will cause your brain to start craving the reward as soon as it sees the cue. That craving is what causes the action to become automatic - habitual.
Consistency over intensity: Most important is how consistently you perform the action and get the reward after the cue happens. The common new habit killer is going for intensity and results before your craving and habit have been established. You have to do it in the right order: habit first, results second.
Plan to fail by defining success small: You are human. Willpower, motivation and self-discipline are fleeting and unreliable. Don't rely on them to make a new habit last and don't beat yourself up when they fail you. Plan for it. Do this by defining success as a version of your action that is so small you can do it even on your worst day.
That way even if you don't have the time or motivation to say, go for a 30 minute jog, you can still do your small version of say, stepping outside with your running clothes and shoes on for 10 seconds.
Getting started is often the hardest part. Once you're outside there's a pretty good chance you'll go for a run or at least a walk. And even if you just go back inside after the 10 seconds is up, you have won. You were successful even on a really bad day. You kept jogging a part of your day, even if only in a very small way. There's a massive emotional and psychological difference between doing that and doing nothing.
This is key and can be tough to get your head around. If you're not nodding your head here and saying, "Yeah, that makes total sense." then stop here and check out my post Why Tiny Habits Are Such a Big Deal. It includes a link to a TEDx talk where BJ Fogg explains the concept himself.
How Kabar is Going From Zero To Habit
Trigger: Kabar wants to do the Founder daily, so he needs a daily trigger. He decided to use his daily shower as his trigger. Another way to say that is that he will "anchor" his new habit to his existing daily habit of taking a shower, He usually showers in the morning, but not always. This inconsistency is something I'll dig into more further down.
Action: Kabar wants to do an abbreviated 30 second version of the Founder every day. He thinks this is the minimum he needs to do to keep his back pain away.
Reward: Kabar thinks that the emotional and psychological satisfaction of having done what he said he was going to do, and having done something good for his health will be enough reward, so he's going to start with that rather than use an external reward.
So Kabar's habit loop is: After he finishes his shower he will do the Founder for 30 seconds and feel awesome about it.
Using Small Success to be Consistent
The 30 second version of the Founder that Kabar is using is pretty small already, so he has put himself in a good position to overcome issues of low motivation or lack of time.
We still talked through the importance of using consistency to build the habit though. And I think that over time, even 30 seconds can start to feel like a big thing. I recommended he define success as doing the Founder for only 3 seconds so he could still win even if he ever found 30 seconds too daunting,
The habit loop and "defining success small" are the foundations of starting a new habit. But there are lots of other things you can pile on top to remind you to do your thing and to boost your motivation. For example, teaming up with other people, tracking your progress on a calendar or in an app, or just telling lots of people about your new habit.
Kabar decided to use a habit app on his iPhone called Productive. I use Productive myself. I love it's clean, simple design and how easy it is to use. I also like the way it has a couple of different ways of reminding and motivating me. You can check out my detailed review of Productive here.
The other thing that will help Kabar stay on track is just the fact that we talked about it so much. And he knows we'll be talking about it again and he wants to be able to say he did what he said he would.
The biggest risk I see to Kabar's new habit is that he's anchoring it to an activity - taking a shower - that doesn't always happen at the same time each day. Some days he'll shower at night instead of in the morning. If he finds himself forgetting to do the Founder, he'll likely want to look for another trigger.
The other thing he should pay attention to is whether the reward he's decided to use - the internal satisfaction he gets from doing the Founder - is enough to create the craving that's required to make the action automatic and habitual. If it's not, he should look for something else to use.
How It's Going So Far
Kabar and I met about 5 weeks after we set up his habit plan. Overall, the update was really positive. Kabar said that he had done the Founder every day since our initial meeting. And he was confident it had become a habit for him, because he's been able to do it so consistently, because he's felt the effort required to do it become smaller over time, and especially because, on a day when his trigger failed and he didn't see the app reminding him on his phone, he felt himself crave the Founder. That's the habit loop spinning on it's own automatically. I was so stoked for him when I heard that.
Kabar said there were three things he thought contributed most to his success at starting his new habit. The fact that it was so small and easy to do was a big deal. Another was that he was motivated to be able to give a good report the next time we met. The last was just that it seemed to be working. He still had a bit of back pain, but it was less intense and lasted for a shorter duration than it had in the past.
Lessons Learned That You Can Use To Change Your Life With A New Habit
The biggest realization I had while working with Kabar was just how poor of a motivator the prospect of future pain is. Kabar said it himself. When his back didn't hurt and the pain was "outside of his attention" he just wasn't motivated to do anything to prevent it from coming back. Even though he'd felt the pain before and knew how much would hurt and affect him when it returned.
It seems crazy when you stop and think about it like this, but this inability to sacrifice even just a little bit today to get some future benefit or avoid some future pain is so common. It reminds me of an interview I listened to recently with a guy named Jonah Lehrer who writes the Frontal Cortex blog on Wired.com and wrote a best selling book back in 2010 called How We Decide. *Note, the interviewer is a guy named Derek Halpern. Derek is a little over the top in both his website and his interviewing style. You've been warned... :) The two parts of the interview I reference below are at 1:10 and 27:45.
In the interview, Jonah shares that as much as we might think we are rational, logical decision makers, in fact, emotions drive our decisions far more than logic does. I'd heard that before, but what was new for me was that our emotions, the main drivers of our decisions, have a real problem understanding the future, and specifically, of taking into account future consequences of decisions we make today.
Finding out about this "blind spot" that our emotions have was a real revelation for me. It explains, at least in part, why we don't do things we know we should do, especially when they aren't that hard, expensive or uncomfortable. Not saving for retirement. Overspending with credit cards. Not doing a simple exercise to prevent future back pain. All of these require immediate sacrifice in order to prevent future problems, and so overcoming them requires us to overcome a natural tendency.
So how can you use this realization to make better decisions and improve your life?
I think just understanding how it works helps a bit. Now when you feel reluctant to, say, contribute to your 401k, you'll be able to attribute your reluctance to your "emotional blind spot" and push past it a little easier than before.
It also reinforces just how important the reward is in your habit loops as a tool for offsetting this neurological obstacle that you have to overcome.
Next time you're trying to do something that you know you should do, but aren't terribly excited about, remember that your emotions who are guiding you simply can't see all the way around the bend. Nudge them in the right direction by giving yourself some kind of reward for doing what you know is best.
Is there anything you claim you want to do but can never seem to start or stick with? What do you think is keeping you from it? I'd love to hear from you. Just email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I read and personally respond to every email.
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Like this? Share it. I'd sure appreciate it. Thanks and take care... - Shaun