Using the path of least resistance to build new habits — Excerpt from The Happiness Advantage

In the following paragraphs, Shawn Achor explains how he managed to form a new daily habit by planning ahead and making it easier for him to play his guitar every day.


THE 20-SECOND RULE

How to Turn Bad Habits into Good Ones by Minimizing Barriers to Change
D uring one of the first trainings I ever gave on Wall Street, an impatient-looking man
stood up in the back of the room and shouted over the heads of his fellow analysts.
“Shawn, I know you’re from Harvard and everything, but isn’t this all a huge waste of
time? Isn’t positive psychology just common sense?”
I felt my heart drop into my stomach. I hadn’t yet been in the consulting business long
enough to know that being publicly challenged like this comes with the territory. Still, I
gathered my wits and did my best to address the inquisitor head-on. I started by telling
him that positive psychology draws on ideas from many esteemed sources ranging from
ancient Greek philosophers, to hallowed religious traditions, to modern-day writers and
thinkers. What’s more, I went on, the principles and theories are then empirically tested
and validated. So while some of the ideas espoused by positive psychology may very
well be common sense, it’s the science behind them that makes them unique and
valuable. Clearly, though, this guy just wasn’t buying it. He sat back down with a smug
look, and I moved on to the next question, trying to accept the fact that you just can’t win
them all.
Not until after the session, as I sat with several of the analysts over lunch, did the
significance of this encounter reveal itself. “Do you remember that guy who stood up
during your talk?” one of them asked. I said that I very much did. Another analyst leaned
in close. “That guy is the most unhappy person here. It’s like a rain cloud follows over his
head all the time. We can’t put him on any teams because he’s toxic.”
This was a turning point for me. Here was someone who had dismissed most of what I
had just been saying as too obvious to even discuss; yet apparently it wasn’t obvious
enough. I realized that he was the living embodiment of one of the greatest paradoxes of
human behavior:
Common sense is not common action.
Would you be surprised if I told you that cigarettes are not a great source of vitamin
C? Or that watching hours of reality television will not dramatically raise your IQ?
Probably not. Similarly, we all know that we should exercise, sleep eight hours, eat
healthier, and be kind to others. But does this common knowledge make doing these
things any easier?
Of course not. Because in life, knowledge is only part of the battle. Without action,
knowledge is often meaningless. As Aristotle put it, to be excellent we cannot simply
think or feel excellent, we must act excellently. Yet the action required to follow through on
what we know is often the hardest part. That’s why even though doctors know better than
anyone the importance of exercise and diet, 44 percent of them are overweight. 1 It’s
also why organizational gurus are often messy, religious leaders can be blasphemous,
and why even some positive psychologists aren’t happy all of the time. I work with
countless business people who complain that every Monday they make the same
resolutions to stop procrastinating or quit smoking, to keep up with their in-box, or start
seeing their kids more; yet every Friday they find themselves wondering where the week
went and what got in their way.
The fact of the matter is, positive habits are hard to keep, no matter how
commonsensical they might be. Like most people, I wage this same battle every January
1, and by January 10, I’m right back where I started. In fact, the New York Times reports
that a whopping 80 percent of us break our New Year’s resolutions. 2 Even when we feel
committed to positive change, sustaining it for any real length of time can seem nearly
impossible. All too often our pledges go unfulfilled, and today’s treadmill becomes
tomorrow’s clothing rack. If our brains have the capacity to change, as we now know they
do, why is changing our behavior so hard, and how can we make it easier?
WE ARE “MERE BUNDLES OF HABITS”
During the years I spent working in Harvard’s research lab, my workday started with a
long ride up the elevator in William James Hall. The 15-story building has been home to
Harvard’s psychology department for decades, and it has housed more than its fair
share of fascinating research—from B. F. Skinner and his famous box, to rambunctious
bonobo monkeys and genetically engineered rodents. (All humanely treated, which is
more than we can say for the graduate students.) The discoveries made by the building’s
namesake, though, might be its proudest heritage.
While his brother Henry was gaining worldwide fame as a novelist, William James
was carving out his own niche in history with his breakthroughs in the field of psychology.
Born a few years into the second half of the nineteenth century, James applied his
training in medicine, philosophy, and psychology to his lifelong study of the human mind.
He taught Harvard’s first experimental psychology class in 1875 and by 1890 had
published Principles of Psychology , a 1,200-page tour de force that became the
precursor to the modern psychology textbook. As I tell my students every year, think of
the poor undergraduates who took William James’s class before you complain too
loudly about this week’s reading assignment.
In my mind, though, the greatest contribution William James made to the field of
psychology is one that was a full century ahead of his time. Humans, James said, are
biologically prone to habit, and it is because we are “mere bundles of habits” that we are
able to automatically perform many of our daily tasks—from brushing our teeth first thing
in the morning to setting the alarm before climbing into bed at night. 3
It is precisely because habits are so automatic that we rarely stop and think about the
enormous role they play in shaping our behavior, and in fact our lives. After all, if we had
to make a conscious choice about every little thing we did all day, we would likely be
overwhelmed by breakfast. Take this morning as an example: I am guessing that you
didn’t wake up, walk into the bathroom, look quizzically into the mirror, and think to
yourself, “Should I put on clothes today?” You didn’t have to debate the pros and cons.
You didn’t have to call on your reserves of willpower. You just did it—the same way you
probably combed your hair, gulped your coffee, locked your front door, and so on. And,
excepting the exhibitionists in the reading public, you did not have to remind yourself all
day to keep these clothes on. It was not a struggle. It didn’t deplete your reserves of
energy or brainpower. It was second nature, automatic, a habit.
None of this seems particularly groundbreaking to us today. But what William James
concluded was indeed crucial to our understanding of behavioral change. Given our
natural tendency to act out of habit, James surmised, couldn’t the key to sustaining
positive change be to turn each desired action into a habit, so that it would come
automatically, without much effort, thought, or choice? As the Father of Modern
Psychology so shrewdly advised, if we want to create lasting change, we should “make
our nervous system our ally instead of our enemy.” 4 Habits are like financial capital
—forming one today is an investment that will automatically give out returns for years to
come.
DAILY STROKES OF EFFORT
Of course, this is where the phrase “easier said than done” has particular relevance.
Good habits may be the answer, but how do we create them in the first place? William
James had a prescription for that, too. He called it “daily strokes of effort.” This is hardly
revelatory, basically a reworking of the old dictum “practice makes perfect.” Still, he was
on to something far more sophisticated than he could possibly have known at the time.
“A tendency to act,” he wrote, “only becomes effectively ingrained in us in proportion to
the uninterrupted frequency with which the actions actually occur, and the brain ‘grows’ to
their use.” 5 In other words, habits form because our brain actually changes in response
to frequent practice.
In fact, James had this exactly right, though it would take a hundred years before
neuroscientists could explain why. Remember how we learned that the brain’s structures
and pathways are flexible and elastic? Well, it turns out that as we progress through our
days learning new facts, completing new tasks, and having new conversations, our
brains are constantly changing and rewiring to reflect these experiences. With apologies
to the delicate nuances of neuroscience, here is what is happening in a nutshell: Within
our brains are billions upon billions of neurons, interconnected in every which way to
form a complex set of neural pathways. Electrical currents travel down these pathways,
from neuron to neuron, delivering the messages that make up our every thought and
action. The more we perform a particular action, the more connections form between the
corresponding neurons. (This is the origin of the common phrase “cells that fire together,
wire together.”) The stronger this link, the faster the message can travel down the
pathway. This is what makes the behavior seem second nature or automatic.
This is also how we become skilled at an activity with practice. For instance, the first
time you try to juggle, the neural pathways involved are unused, and so the message
travels slowly. The more time you spend juggling, the more these pathways get
reinforced, so that on the eighth day of practice, the electrical currents are firing at a
much more rapid pace. This is when you’ll notice that juggling comes easier, requires
less concentration, and that you can do it faster. Eventually, you can be listening to music,
chewing gum, and having a conversation with someone else, all while those three
oranges are flying through the air. Juggling has become automatic, a habit, cemented in
your brain by a solid new network of neural pathways.
Given all that William James had right so many years ago, we should forgive him the
one thing he got wrong. He believed, as did most scientists of his day, that this ability to
create lasting brain change was exclusive to the young—essentially, the “you can’t teach
an old dog new tricks” school of thought. Thankfully, that’s not the case. As you’ll recall
from the beginning of this book, scientists now know that the brain remains plastic and
malleable well past the age of 20, through even our most senior years. That means that
we have the power to create new habits and then reap the benefits whether we’re 22 or
72.

THE GUITAR THAT WOULDN’T PLAY ITSELF

When I first learned about the science behind this phenomenon, I was eager to test it out.
Could I really rewire my brain and create a new life habit by doing the same thing each
day for a few weeks? It was time for an experiment, and the easiest way to do one was
to make myself the subject.
I decided to take up the guitar once again, since I already owned one and knew that I
enjoyed playing it. Because common wisdom has long proposed that it takes 21 days to
make a habit, I decided to make a spreadsheet with 21 columns, tape it to my wall, and
check off each day I played. 6 By the end of the three weeks, I felt confident that (a) I
would have a grid full of 21 check marks, (b) daily guitar playing would have become an
automatic, established part of my life, (c) my playing would improve, and (d) I would be
happier for it.
Three weeks later, I pulled the grid down in disgust. Staring up at four check marks
followed by a whole lot of empty boxes was more discouragement and embarrassment
than I needed. I had failed my own experiment, and worse, I was no closer to telling
potential dates that I was a musician. Worse still, I was shocked, depressed even, at
how quick I had been to give up. A positive psychologist should be better at following his
own advice! (Of course, the feelings of failure only deepen when you realize you’re now
a depressed positive psychologist.) The guitar was sitting in the closet, a mere 20
seconds away, but I couldn’t make myself take it out and play it. What had gone wrong? It
turns out that the telling words here are make myself. Without realizing it, I had been
fighting the wrong battle—one I was bound to lose unless I changed my strategy.

WHY WILLPOWER IS NOT THE WAY

Tal Ben-Shahar loves to tell what he calls “the story of the chocolate cake.” Back home in
Israel, Tal’s mother was famous for her delicious chocolate cake. One afternoon, when
Tal and his friends arrived home from school, she pulled one out of the oven and offered
everyone a slice. Tal refused, citing his strict training regimen for the National Squash
Championships. So he sat and watched enviously as his friends devoured their
mouthwatering snack; then they all went back to their homework. Hours later, Tal returned
to the fridge to examine the cake. It still looked delicious. But no, he thought, he would
stay strong. Another hour passed, another check on the cake. Yup, still there. Soon, it
was all he could think about. Finally, in the middle of the night when everyone else was
sleeping, Tal crept down to the kitchen and devoured the entire remaining cake. Every
last bite.
Anyone who has ever tried to maintain a strict diet has experienced this failure of
willpower. We deny and deny ourselves until all of a sudden we can’t take it anymore,
and the floodgates break. Five successful days of carrot sticks and tofu wedges are
followed by a pizza binge or a feast fit for five. As any dietician will tell you, relying on
willpower to completely avoid unhealthy food nearly guarantees relapse; that’s why
people who crash diet are more likely to regain weight than people who eat healthily but
don’t deny themselves—and why only 20 percent of dieters are able to keep off the lost
weight for any extended length of time. 7 The more we attempt to “stay strong,” the harder
we eventually fall—usually right into a tub of Ben & Jerry’s.
The point is that whether it’s a strict diet, a New Year’s resolution, or an attempt at
daily guitar practice, the reason so many of us have trouble sustaining change is
because we try to rely on willpower. We think we can go from 0 to 60 in an instant,
changing or overturning ingrained life habits through the sheer force of will. Tal thought
telling himself he was on a diet would be enough to keep him away from his mother’s
chocolate cake. I thought telling myself to follow some spreadsheet would discipline me
enough to practice the guitar. Well, that worked … for four days. Then I went back to
regularly scheduled programming.

WILLPOWER GETS A WORKOUT

The reason willpower is so ineffective at sustaining change is that the more we use it, the
more worn-out it gets. You may know this intuitively, but it took renowned researcher Roy
Baumeister hundreds of chocolate chip cookies and a lot of disgruntled research
subjects to prove it as fact.
In one of many studies on the subject of willpower, Baumeister and his colleagues
invited college students into their lab, instructing them not to eat anything for at least
three hours prior to the experiment. 8 Then he split them into three groups. Group 1 was
given a plate of chocolate chip cookies, which they were told not to eat, as well as a
healthy plate of radishes which they were welcome to eat to their heart’s content. Group
2 was presented with the same two plates of cookies and radishes, but they were told
they could eat off whichever plate they liked. Group 3 was given no food at all. After
enduring these situations for a significant length of time, the three groups were then
given a set of “simple” geometric puzzles to solve. Note the quotes around simple. In
truth, this was another one of psychology’s favorite tools: the unsolvable puzzle.
As I learned the hard way through my Help the Elderly experience, psychology
researchers love using impossible games to see how long participants will persevere at
a task. In this case, individuals in Groups 2 and 3 long outlasted those in Group 1, who
quickly threw up their hands in defeat. Why? Because the students who had to use every
ounce of their willpower to avoid eating the enticing chocolate chip cookies didn’t have
the willpower or mental energy left to struggle with a complex puzzle—even though
avoiding cookies and persisting on a puzzle are seemingly completely unrelated.
Studies have replicated this finding with a huge range of tasks designed to tap
willpower. 9 In one, people were asked to watch a humorous film and suppress their
laughter, then solve difficult anagrams. In another, they were instructed to write about a
day in the life of an obese person without using any stereotypes, then were told to
suppress a specific thought (“don’t think about a white bear”). And indeed, no matter
what the tasks were, they always performed significantly worse on the second than the
first. If they had resisted laughter for ten minutes, they couldn’t persist on an anagram. If
they had suppressed stereotypes, they couldn’t avoid thinking about a white bear. And
so on.
The point of these experiments was to show that no matter how unrelated the tasks
were, they all seemed to be tapping the same fuel source. As the researchers wrote,
“many widely different forms of self-control draw on a common resource, or self-control
strength, which is quite limited and hence can be depleted readily.” 10 Put another way,
our willpower weakens the more we use it.
Unfortunately, we face a steady stream of tasks that deplete our willpower every single
day. Whether it’s avoiding the dessert table at the company lunch, staying focused on a
computer spreadsheet for hours on end, or sitting still through a three-hour meeting, our
willpower is consistently being put to the test. So it’s no wonder, really, that we so easily
give in to our old habits, to the easiest and most comfortable path, as we progress
through the day. This invisible pull toward the path of least resistance can dictate more of
our lives than we realize, creating an impassible barrier to change and positive growth.

AN OFFER YOU CAN’T REFUSE

As you might imagine, advertisers and marketers make their living on the path of least
resistance. Ever bought something with a mail-in rebate? Did you actually mail it in?
Didn’t think so. That’s why companies offer them. This is also why magazines send us a
free five-week subscription, then automatically start deducting money from our account
in the sixth week. Sure, we can refuse the offer, as long as we mail back that little card
saying, “No thank you, I would like to cancel my subscription.” Unfortunately, that requires
just too much activation energy, and the gimmick pays off for the magazine.
In the world of marketing, the term is “opt-out”—a genius invention, really, that takes
supreme advantage of human psychology. Opt-out marketing is when people are added
to mailing lists without ever consciously consenting, so that if they want to stop the
barrage of promotional e-mails, they must actively unsubscribe themselves. To
“unsubscribe” requires finding the tiny link at the bottom of the e-mail, then clicking
through one or two more websites before finally arriving at the desired destination. The
company is betting, often successfully, that this process involves far more energy and
effort than most people are willing to expend.
Martin Lindstrom, a marketing expert who uses neuroscience to explore the
psychology of our consumer habits, points out that phone companies are special
benefactors of this strategy. 13 There is almost always a better monthly plan available
than the one the phone comes with, but we usually stick with the default because it’s just
too difficult to do the research and then even more difficult to switch plans. One
especially fascinating study Lindstrom did on the famous Nokia ringtone, perhaps the
most ubiquitous four-note sound in the world, revealed the powerful pull that the path of
least resistance has on us. By using fMRI technology to analyze people’s brains during
exposure to the sound, he found a nearly universal negative emotional response. And yet
amazingly, 80 million Nokia users have it as their ringtone. Why would they keep the ring
that grates on their ears and sends them into an emotional tailspin every time they get a
call? Because it’s the default option. And whether we’re aware or it or not, default
options are everywhere, shaping our choices and our behavior in all areas of our lives.
At the grocery store, we buy more food off shelves that directly meet our eye and less
off those that require us to look up or kneel down. 14 Every retailer knows this, and you
can be sure they exploit it by putting the most expensive brands at eye level. Online
advertisers now conduct market research with sophisticated eye-tracking machines,
determined to develop the perfect place for a banner ad on a website, the place that we
will see without expending any additional energy. 15 In clothing stores, too, everything is
set up to capitalize on our gravitation to the default path. As Lindstrom points out, we’re
more likely to buy an item of clothing if we can give it a “sensory test run” by touching the
fabric, so the most expensive clothes are set at the perfect height for such an
experience. Try this out the next time you enter a store. When your hands are at your
side, each table of clothes sits almost exactly at your fingertips, begging to be grabbed.
In the workplace, the path of least resistance is especially maladaptive, luring us into a
whole host of bad habits that breed procrastination and undercut productivity. I often
encounter this problem in my own professional life, but I had to travel all the way to Hong
Kong for the gravity of the situation to really hit home.
THE PATH TO DISTRACTION
It was the second day of the training session I was giving at a large technology company
in Hong Kong, a city so electric it makes Times Square look like Topeka. I had found
some time to work privately with Ted, one of the lead managers on the marketing team,
who was struggling to keep up with his workload. No matter how much he worked, he
always felt behind, and he had to keep extending his hours to keep up with it all. “I don’t
do anything except work now,” Ted confessed, “and it’s still not enough.”
I told him that he wasn’t alone. I hear this same story, almost word for word, no matter
what country I’m in or who I’m talking with. Regardless of our job description, we never
seem to have enough time to get everything done. Eight-hour workdays turn into 12- and
14-hour ones, and still we feel behind. How can this be? Why do we have so much
trouble being productive? After listening to Ted describe, from start to finish, how he went
about his day, two important answers suddenly clicked into place: (1) Ted was working
all the time, and (2) Ted was almost never working.
When Ted arrives at 7 A.M. , the first thing he does is open his Internet browser. His
home page is CNN, so he starts reading up on the day’s breaking news. His intent is to
scan the major headlines and move on, but invariably, he ends up clicking through the
other links that catch his eye. Then without even thinking about it, he opens two different
websites where he checks his stocks and investments to see how they fared overnight.
Next, he checks his e-mail, which will continue to stay open throughout the day, alerting
him every time he receives new messages. Once he wades through his in-box, clicks on
a couple more links and attachments, and fires back a few responses, he’s ready to get
to work. Sort of. Turns out, Ted generally gets about 30 minutes of real work done before
he takes a quick coffee break. Then he sits back down at his computer, where he can’t
help but notice that his home page has a whole new batch of headlines to scan. And
what’s this? Ten new e-mails? He’d better read them. Then he checks his stocks, again,
just to be sure financial Armageddon hasn’t kicked in. Finally, Ted refocuses and gets
into a groove writing a new marketing plan … which lasts for about 10 minutes until his
concentration is broken again by the arrival of new e-mail. To quote Kurt Vonnegut, “and
so it goes.”
Does this sound at all familiar? After a few quick calculations, we concluded that Ted
probably checks his stocks three times an hour, his e-mail five times an hour, and news
websites about once an hour. And that’s actually quite typical. The American
Management Association reports that employees spend an average of 107 minutes on
e-mail a day. 16 A group of London workers I spoke with admitted that they checked
stocks about 4 or 5 times an hour; that’s 35 times a day. And I suspect that if most office
workers tallied up all the minutes they spent each day on blogs, social networking sites,
Amazon.com, and so forth, it would paint a very alarming picture indeed. No wonder it’s
so hard to get anything done!
And that’s not even the worst of it. The actual time we give to these distractions is part
of the problem, but the larger issue is that our attention hits a wall each time we stray.
Research shows that the average employee gets interrupted from their work every 11
minutes, and on each occasion experiences a loss of concentration and flow that takes
almost as many minutes to recover from. 17 Yet in today’s world, it’s just too easy for us to
be tempted. As a New York Times article put it, “distracting oneself used to consist of
sharpening a half-dozen pencils or lighting a cigarette. Today, there is a universe of
diversions to buy, hear, watch and forward, which makes focusing on a task all the more
challenging.” 18
As Ted and I worked to find ways to minimize the distractions, I had an epiphany: It’s
not the sheer number and volume of distractions that gets us into trouble; it’s the ease of
access to them. Think about it. If you want to check your stocks, do you have to sit there
and watch a stock ticker run through the whole alphabet? Of course not. You can
program a website to update you on the ones you’re interested in and give you regular
updates. If you want to read the latest political news or some commentary on the hot new
movie, do you have to troll through all the dozens of sites and blogs to find one on the
desired subject? No way. You can set up an RSS feed for your favorite blog topics and
have them delivered right to your inbox. Similarly, you can get all your favorite sports
news, celebrity gossip, restaurant reviews, and everything else e-mailed right to you.
Technology may make it easier for us to save time, but it also makes it a whole lot easier
for us to waste it. In short, distraction, always just one click away, has become the path of
least resistance.
REDIRECTING THE PATH: THE 20-SECOND RULE
In allowing himself to be swept along this path, Ted had become ensnared in a series of
very bad habits. In his case, these all involved procrastination, which got me thinking:
Could the psychological mechanisms that were derailing Ted’s productivity also explain
why I had failed to follow my regimen of guitar playing? Had the path of least resistance
led me astray? I thought back to that initial experiment. I had kept my guitar tucked away
in the closet, out of sight and out of reach. It wasn’t far out of the way, of course (my
apartment isn’t that big), but just those 20 seconds of extra effort it took to walk to the
closet and pull out the guitar had proved to be a major deterrent. I had tried to overcome
this barrier with willpower, but after only four days, my reserves were completely dried up.
If I couldn’t use self-control to ingrain the habit, at least not for an extended period, I now
wondered: What if I could eliminate the amount of activation energy it took to get
started?
Clearly, it was time for another experiment. I took the guitar out of the closet, bought a
$2 guitar stand, and set it up in the middle of my living room. Nothing had changed
except that now instead of being 20 seconds away, the guitar was in immediate reach.
Three weeks later, I looked up at a habit grid with 21 proud check marks.
What I had done here, essentially, was put the desired behavior on the path of least
resistance, so it actually took less energy and effort to pick up and practice the guitar
than to avoid it. I like to refer to this as the 20-Second Rule, because lowering the barrier
to change by just 20 seconds was all it took to help me form a new life habit. In truth, it
often takes more than 20 seconds to make a difference—and sometimes it can take
much less—but the strategy itself is universally applicable: Lower the activation energy
for habits you want to adopt, and raise it for habits you want to avoid. The more we can
lower or even eliminate the activation energy for our desired actions, the more we
enhance our ability to jump-start positive change.

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