Get Clear On When, Where, And How

Estimated reading time: 2 minutes


New behaviors require willpower, and there’s no trick or technique that eliminates the need for willpower. But we can reduce the amount of willpower required to perform new behaviors using strategy. And one of the best strategies we can use is to reduce the number of decisions involved in performing the new behavior.

This is critical because making decisions is mentally taxing, and we need to reserve our mental strength for the exercise of willpower. Therefore, anytime someone decides on a new behavior to engage in, be it exercise, meditation, reading, or anything else, they would be wise to get clear on when, where, and how they will perform this new behavior.

For example, if I say that I’m going to start reading more but fail to make a clear plan of action, I probably won’t succeed. But if I decide in advance when, where, and how I will read more, I’ll probably do it. I might decide to read every morning, immediately after breakfast, for 15 minutes, sitting at the desk in my home office, with my cell phone in airplane mode, from the book that is sitting on that desk. It may seem unnecessary, but the specificity of the plan actually helps a great deal. Having a well-defined plan of action means that I don’t have to decide what to read, how much to read, where to read, or when to read. The fewer decisions I have to make, the easier it is to begin.

Plus, the more consistent I am about the time, place, and mechanics of the new behavior, the more quickly it will turn into an automatic habit. If I always read at my desk after breakfast, my brain will quickly learn that this is just what I do, and it will come to expect me to be reading right after breakfast. When that happens, the feedback loop that drives how I think, feel, and act will be working in my favor.

In their book, The Power of Full Engagement, Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz describe the research behind this method:

A broad and persuasive array of studies confirms that specificity of timing and precision of behavior dramatically increase the likelihood of success. The explanation lies once again in the fact that our conscious capacity for self-control is limited and easily depleted. By determining when, where and how a behavior will occur, we no longer have to think much about getting it done. A series of experiments have confirmed this pattern…

In perhaps the most dramatic experiment of all, a group of drug addicts were studied during withdrawal—a time when the energy required to control the urge to take drugs severely compromises their ability to undertake nearly any other task. As part of the effort to help them find employment post-rehabilitation, one group was asked to commit to writing a short résumé before 5:00 P.M. on a particular day. Not a single one succeeded. A second group was asked to complete the same task, but also to say exactly when and where they would write the résumé. Eighty percent of that group succeeded.

Vague notions about starting new behaviors are ineffective. If you’re really committed to behavioral change, get clear on when, where, and how it will happen.


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