Photography by Jens Ingvarsson.
Right now, I’m editing my next book, Before and After, an examination of the most interesting subject in the world: how we make and break habits.
In the book, I identify multiple strategies that we can use to make it easier to foster good habits. One of the most familiar, and most effective, is the simple, straightforward, powerful Strategy of Convenience. And then, there's its counterpart, the Strategy of Inconvenience.
We’re far more likely to do something if it’s convenient, and far less likely to do something if it’s inconvenient, to an astounding degree. For instance, in one cafeteria, when an ice cream cooler’s lid was left open, 30% of diners bought ice cream, but when diners had to open the lid, only 14% bought ice cream, even though the ice cream was visible in both situations. People take less food when using tongs, instead of spoons, as serving utensils.
We can use this tendency to help strengthen our habits. One habit that many people want to form? Regular exercise. And, when they explain why they find it difficult, they often point to inconvenience.
I’ve found that it’s very helpful to think very hard about exactly why exercise seems inconvenient. Instead of just thinking, “Oh, it’s such a pain, I can never get to the gym,” really think it through.
Identify the problem. Often, by identifying the problem, you identify solutions (see some examples below)—which may be easier than you expect.
Maybe it’s a pain to pack up the gear when you're leaving the house in the morning, or it takes too much time to work out. Or, it’s a pain to drive and park there, and again to secure your place in a popular class or to wait your turn on equipment. Maybe it takes too much time to get there or you always forget something you need.
Again, identify the problem, and then find the solution. High-intensity workouts take very little time. Many forms of exercise don’t work up a sweat. A friend told me, “Even though my gym has multiple branches, I found it very inconvenient. I finally realized that sometimes I’d go to the gym from home, sometimes from work, sometimes from my girlfriend’s apartment, so I never had what I needed. I bought multiple sets of everything — deodorant, shoes, a giant bag of cheap socks. I have what I need, so I don’t have an excuse to skip.” Hey, whatever works.
Justifications based on convenience may also be loopholes, so it’s helpful to use the Strategy of Loophole-Spotting. (How I love loopholes! They’re so funny.) It may also be helpful to consider this list of questions to understand how to shape your habits better. For Obligers, the problem may not actually be convenience, but accountability. Obligers do well to figure out ways to build in the external accountability that’s key for them.
If you’re thinking, “Gretchen, your book about habits sounds so fascinating! When can I get my hands on it?” well, look for it on sale soon.