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How to create a new habit

(MoneyWatch) It's been estimated that anywhere between 75 percent and 90 percent of our daily behavior is habitual. In other words, most of what we do is not because it is the most efficient, most successful, or most productive, but simply because we've always done it that way. We are, as they say, creatures of habit. While this is usually offered as a reason for being stuck, unhappy, or unhealthy, I see it as an opportunity. If most of our daily routine is conducted unconsciously, all we have to do is change our habits and we can tap into these automatic behaviors. Said another way, if our life is already on autopilot, doesn't it make sense to spend some conscious effort planning the route?

So, we just need to change our habits. This is easier said than done, of course. They are called habits for a reason. One of the first things you learn as a therapist or executive coach is that you shouldn't try to eliminate a behavior, but instead you need to help the client replace the behavior. We've all experienced how this doesn't work. Have you ever tried to stop smoking, eating snacks while watching TV, biting your nails, etc.? When you stop a behavior you feel naked -- it feels uncomfortable and strange. Sheer willpower might get you through an evening or maybe even a week, but the vacuum becomes too uncomfortable and we look to fill it. But with what? If we don't have a new behavior that replaces the old, we will take the path of least resistance and revert back to the old behavior.

The solution then, is not to "break" the habit, but to replace it. It's similar to what nutrition experts refer to "crowding out." Instead of trying to stop TV snacking altogether, they suggest chomping on a few baby carrots, apple slices, or popcorn. You're still snacking, but you've replaced the unhealthy snacks with more nutritious foods.

But what if you want to create a new habit? For that, we'll turn to Dr. BJ Fogg, founder of the Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford University and creator of the Fogg Behavior Model, which states that for any behavior (new or old) to occur, you need three elements: Motivation, Ability, and a Trigger. In my recent interview with Dr. BJ Fogg, he said something very insightful. Actually, he said a lot of things that were insightful, but the one that hit home for me was that he said most people, when they are trying to start a new behavior such as jogging in the morning, making sales calls, or writing in a gratitude journal each day, focus on the first element -- motivation. This is also where most self-help books, business coaches, and others focus their attention. Unfortunately, this is usually the wrong place to start. We can get excited to exercise in the morning, but still fail to do it because we aren't sufficiently reminded.

According to Dr. Fogg, he says a much more painless place to start is the Trigger. The Trigger is the reminder, the call to action, or the cue to take notice or do something. Remember, you need all three elements. You may have the Ability to exercise and you may even have enough Motivation to exercise, but without a Trigger, you won't do it. The key, then, is to create at least one Trigger for each new habit you want to create. Use the environment as much as possible. In the jogging example, I've coached people to leave their workout shorts and shoes next to their bed so their Trigger is that they literally step into their jogging gear as they get out of bed.

What Triggers can you create in your environment that will remind you to engage in a new behavior? The possibilities are limitless. Have fun manipulating your environment to help you create new and better habits. Remember, if our life is already on autopilot, we might as well set a great destination.

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