An edited version of this piece was also published at Weave: The Social Fabric Project
Just in time for those last-minute resolution makers, The New York Times published an article on December 31st called “How to Crush Your Habits in the New Year with the Help of Science.” It’s an overview of game-changing new research that has taken the personal development space by storm in recent years. I should know—I’m married to a habits coach.
The article is filled with all the tips my husband usually shares with his clients, my favorite of which is something Stanford psychologist BJ Fogg calls tiny habits. The idea is that when setting out to achieve a goal or form a new habit, we usually set ourselves up for failure by thinking too big. Of course, it’s useful—even vital, as the NYT piece points out—to choose a goal that’s lofty enough to be genuinely inspiring. But the trick is to kickstart the change process by identifying the very specific behavior that would bring about the realization of the goal, and then break it down into an action so small that it would be downright ridiculous not to do it. This tiny action is what you work to habit-ize. For example, if you want to start exercising more, instead of committing to going to the gym for an hour every day, you should commit to doing two pushups every day. That’s it.
The research shows that tiny habits work because getting started is by far the most difficult part of cementing a new behavior. Our brains much prefer inertia to change, and they’re great at coming up with all sorts of reasons why tomorrow is the better day to start that new routine—especially if it feels daunting. But by placing the bar so low that it’s almost impossible not to do it, you work around that problem, and fuel your motivation with small wins, which builds what psychologists call self-efficacy.
You might be thinking, What’s the point of doing two pushups? That’s about as beneficial as counting walking to the pantry for a snack as exercise. Here again, however, the research shows that the trick is to just get yourself down on that floor doing the pushups. And more often than not you’ll find that once you’re down there, you’ll go for twenty, not just two. And before you know it, you’ll become what James Clear, a habits expert, calls “the sort of person who works out every day.”
And so as I’ve set out to enact my 2019 resolution to become “the sort of person who connects meaningfully every day” I’ve decided to follow the advice of the habit scientists.
The first problem with a goal like “connecting meaningfully,” though, is that it’s so squishy. What’s the behavior I’m really hoping to introduce into my life? Does making small talk with the kid ringing up my groceries count as connecting? What about waving to my neighbors? Reading friends’ posts on Facebook? It’s easy to see how this exercise could quickly become, well, meaningless. And so I’ve decided to start with the specific action of reaching out. But because relationships are a lot more organic than pushups, I’ll have to leave the definition open a little bit to include all the ways it’s possible to reach out—calling, texting, emailing, visiting, stopping to chat on the street—but the main thing is that I originate the interaction. Oh, and that I do it for a certain amount of time.
Because here’s the thing about this goal. One part of what makes this a “challenge” for me is that I suffer from a bit of social anxiety. I always get in my head about remembering people’s names, and I spend a little too much time wondering whether or not they think I’m boring. But I also worry a lot that I’m interrupting or inconveniencing people by calling or stopping by. And I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in this. We now live in a culture where privacy is paramount, which can often make the mere fact of checking in on people feel intrusive. So there’s that bit of nonsense that I really need to get over if I’m going to spend an entire year working to reconnect. This is the area where I really need some small wins to boost my self-efficacy.
But it’s also exactly this anxiety that will tempt my corner-cutting brain to chicken out and count waving as I drive by my neighbor as reaching out. Which would basically mean I’m doing the same thing as always, just patting myself on the back for becoming a stellar community builder. According to the science, the solution is to take away the loophole my brain is constantly trolling for, so putting a clock on my goal gives me a firm metric by which to measure whether or not I actually “did it” in a given day, and therefore whether or not I deserve that back-patting.
The other thing that makes a seemingly simple thing like reaching out a “challenge” is the time pressure and busyness that we all suffer from in the modern world. I’m a full-time working mother. In a given day I count myself lucky if my husband and I interact in any way more meaningful than planning who’s picking my daughter up from school and who’s heading up the bedtime routine. We are all so pressed for time these days that connection—that rare and beautiful thing that happens when we take the time to see and hear someone else, and they to see and hear us—is often the first thing to get squeezed. And so if I’m going to connect, I’m going to have to make it a priority by choosing to devote a slice of my very limited time to it.
So when I first conceived of my January challenge, I thought I’d do it for an hour a day. I mean, if I’m serious about really engaging in meaningful interactions, not just small talk, we’re going to have to leave some time to get real, right? The problem is that I set that intention on December 31st, and it’s now January 4th, and I haven’t done it yet. Not once.
The reason for this, as I’ve reflected, has everything to do with the fact that we live in a culture that doesn’t view connecting for its own sake as productive, valuable, or a good use of time. It’s not that I haven’t wanted to reach out to other people this week—or really for the many years now during which I’ve felt disconnected—it’s just that it always seems to slip to the lowest spot on a crammed to-do list. I’ll get around to making friends and building relationships after all the important stuff gets done. Which, at the rate I’m going, might slate it for sometime in my late 60s.
Call in the habits coach.
The expert diagnosis is, simply, that my brain (conditioned as it is by culture and wired-in bad habits and a whole load of false assumptions it maintains, including the idea that getting the laundry folded is more important than having friends) is daunted by my goal of doing something new and a little anxiety-provoking for 60 whole minutes every day. So I bumped it down to 30 minutes. And still nothing. And now we’re down to 15. Any lower than that and things get embarrassing.
And so we have arrived at the (highly scientific) Challenge #1 for Project Reconnect: Fifteen minutes per day of deliberate, intentional reaching out—in any form, so long as I do the reaching. For the entire month of January.
Check back next week and I’ll let you know how it’s going!