Remember Joanna Jast and all those tips she gave you on how to improve focus and concentration while you work on memory improvement?
Joanna’s back with a new book called Hack Your Habits and in this episode of the Magnetic Memory Method Podcast, we’ve got her here to talk about it.
As always, I’ve got the interview transcript for you below and would love to hear your comments and questions in the discussion area below. Enjoy!
Why You Don’t Have To Have It All Mapped Out
To Get A Handle On Your Habits
Anthony: You go into your personal story in the introduction. Why do you think you faced so many challenges and what was the turning point?
Joanna Jast: It’s interesting you’re asking me this question. I actually thought about it the other day on my way to work. And – I don’t really have the answer. I suppose it’s the combination of many factors: my temperament – which is like emotional and behavioural building blocks for personality and to large extend is hardwired, inborn, so my temperament, my upbringing, the environment I grew up in, the challenges I faced in life and the solutions to those challenges I chose to follow etc.
I haven’t got it all ‘mapped out’, but I think the key reasons why I’ve faced so many difficulties is my low threshold for boredom, poor ability to delay gratification, my self-compassion, which drives many of my willpower failures with: ‘But you deserve it, Joanna… you’ve had such a bad day’.
The turning points? There have been quite a few. But if I was to choose the key turning points that led me to create my own system for building better habits, it would be the following three:
The first one the day when my study routine was born. It was actually accidental – I wrote about it in my book Laser-Sharp Focus. It was the moment when I decided to stop trying to study in the evening, sitting on the sofa or on the bed and start doing it in the morning, at my desk.
To cut a long story short, I suddenly realised not only how much more productive and effective my study sessions became, but also how much happier I became – with better grades, more energy and time to do other things in life.
Now, 20 years later, looking back at what happened, I realise that back then I created a study routine, which over the years became my productivity and now writing routine that has transformed my life. My study routine happened to be one on those keystone habits – habits that create a ripple effect throughout our life, creating space and energy for more healthy habits to emerge and grow stronger, ultimately transforming our lives.
How The Secrets Of Behavioral Economics
Can Improve Your Life
The second turning point was the day when I heard about Behavioural Economics for the first time. It was during a lecture on marketing. I went home, did more research, read books, articles, did a course and… fall in love with the approach. I thought this could be something that would work for me. So I started experimenting with various behavioural economics strategies. Initially, I applied them to sort out my finances – so paid off my debts and started saving money. Then, I started experimenting with my exercise routine and eating habits.
And the third pivotal point was, when I refined my exercise routine, my running routine to incorporate all the lessons I’d learnt about human nature and my own difficulties in forming habits, and particularly – my previous failures in establishing a reliable exercise routine. I used many of the behavioural economics strategies I’d learn about when doing it. And now I’ve got a running routine, where I run 3 times per week, whether I feel motivated or not (and at least once a week I don’t feel motivated at all), whether is raining, or 100% humidity, or my foot is sore. I just do it.
The Truth About Your Age And Your Habits
Anthony: Is the problem of habits age specific? Does it apply to all ages equally?
Joanna Jast: I don’t know, really. I think this is a problem of our times though – so this modern age. We become more aware of the role and the impact of habits, good and bad, on our health, happiness, success, on our lives, and also we realise that motivation and willpower have limits. And that’s why we think about our habits more, we become interested in strategies for improving them.
You can say that ‘habits are in fashion these days’. And it’s nothing negative – on the contrary. I’m very happy to see that many people are turning away from relying on unreliable motivational strategies towards using more practical approaches to transforming their lives.
So it’s not only scientists, or health and fitness fanatics who are exploring habits. Many people, of all ages, are seeking better understanding of habits, and their own habits in particular, to improve their health, happiness, wealth, relationships and many other aspects of their personal and professional lives.
Anthony: Talk about putting systems on autopilot. It sounds too good to be true. What does “autopilot” mean and how can a person get started?
Joanna Jast: Putting a system on autopilot is about creating a system that makes you perform certain behaviour, or a sequence of behaviours without thinking much about it, without putting much energy into it. It’s like getting up in the morning and washing your face or brushing your teeth.
Most of us do it automatically, without thinking: Oh, geeesh, first, I need to wash my face, then, I need to brush my teeth, and then – I comb my hair. These are things that most healthy adults would do automatically every morning. These are habitual behaviours – well engrained in our brains, within the neural pathways.
For me putting a system, say an exercise routine, on autopilot is about creating a system that kicks in as if with a push of a button, and makes you go out and run three times per week, rain or shine, whatever your motivation level, or the mood of the day.
How To Harvest The Power
Of Your Desired Outcome
Anthony: How can you get started?
Joanna Jast: I suggest you start with the end result in mind. Start with what you want to achieve. You need to understand what problem you are trying to solve, but more importantly, what you are trying to achieve.
I like the concept of Desired Outcome, which I’ve borrowed from user experience design field. Desired Outcome is what we really want. Not what we think we want. Not what other people are telling us we should want. But what we’re really really want.
In my new book, Hack Your Habits, I write about my own struggle to cut down on my carbohydrate intake. I’ve got a sweet tooth and sadly, also use sweets as a reward and a way to boost my ‘motivation’ or willpower to carry on with tasks I don’t really want to do, tasks that are too difficult, too complex, etc. There was a time I was eating a lot of sweets. I was going through a stressful time personally and professionally, and this was my way of dealing with stress. So I wanted to cut down on my carbs.
So initially, I thought about this task as a cutting on my carbs task, a diet-changing task. I was all motivated to do that, and all. But it didn’t work.
So I looked at the whole issue again and really wanted to zoom in on what I cared about. And don’t get me wrong, I do care about my health, but the instant gratification monkey that lives in my brain always tells me that I can start again tomorrow, and now – I can have that biscuit.
So I had to start with the Desired Outcome. Yes, I wanted to eat less carbs, but what I really wanted out of it was to be able to resist sweets and toast with jam.
So I reframed my goal, taking into consideration my personality, my temperament, my weaknesses and strengths. I’ve got a competitive streak, I’m an achievement junkie, and I get excited with new ideas and testing them. So this ended up as an exercise in self-control and I did really well.
2 Of The Most Powerful Questions You’ll Ever Ask Yourself
So the Desired Outcome is where you need to start. What do you want out of it? Do you really care about it? And it has to be something you really care about, you care about. If you don’t care about it truly and deeply, it won’t really happen.
Anthony: You talk about getting the diagnosis right when tackling a problem. What does this mean and how does one get started?
Joanna Jast: I really like this quote from Albert Einstein:
’If I were given one hour to save the planet, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute solving it’.
And I would do the same.
If you’re trying and trying and trying to solve a problem, say of your unhealthy diet, or an unproductive study routine, and you’re constantly failing, it may be that you’re using an ineffective strategy, but it may also be that you’re trying to solve the wrong problem.
In medicine, getting the diagnosis right is crucial to an effective treatment plan. And getting it wrong can really result in people dying. This is not as serious as that with habits, but in the end, if you don’t understand, if you don’t define your problem correctly, you can waste a lot of time, energy, and even money on trying to fix something that is not the reason for your struggles.
Let me reiterate it: the better you understand what’s wrong, what’s not working, the more targeted your solutions, your treatment will be.
How to go about diagnosing your problem? Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as doing an X-ray or a blood test, but it is doable.
Start with self-reflection, and be honest with yourself.
For me there are two major components to understand any problem you have: you – how you operate, your personality, motivation, strengths and weaknesses and your context.
The context is the external environment, your internal environment and your social environment. And they all come with their own limitations – what’s possible and constraints – what’s appropriate.
Why It’s Never Mind Over Matter
And it’s important to include that context -your physical environment, and your social environment as well. The power of those external systems that force us into behaving in certain ways is really undermined by many people. We think it’s all mind over matter – but if your physical environment or social context, is not conducing to exercising, or a healthier diet – it makes the change much, much more difficult. So don’t underestimate that.
And once you’ve got a good understanding how you and your problem or your habits goals sit within you and your context, you are in a good position to start tackling it.
So self-reflection if used with a healthy dose of honesty, is a great tool for discovering, diagnosing your problem. You can ask other people for their opinion what they think is not working for you. But then, they will be biased and what’s more important – they may not have access to some of your hidden motivations, or aspects of your personality or life you don’t share with others.
How To Get Started Fixing Persistent Problems
To get a really good grip on what’s wrong when fixing persisting problems, I ask myself two questions:
The first question is: What is this for? What is this doing for me? What purpose does it serve? What need does it meet? And this works really well with habits, because every habit serves a purpose. And most bad habits, such as overeating, procrastination, or shouting at your kids usually either helps either deal with boredom or with stress.
And the other questions I ask myself is: why have I failed at addressing it so far?
And once you’ve got it figured out, it will fall into those categories I’ve just talked about – you and your context. It should give you a better understanding of what it is and why you’re struggling to address it. And from this point, finding the best solution is quite straightforward really.
Exactly When You Should Run From
S.M.A.R.T. Goals Kicking And Screaming
Anthony: Talk about SMART goals. What’s your major concern with this popular approach to goal setting?
Joanna Jast: The SMART goal setting framework is very popular, and it does work for most things, but in my opinion it does not work for habit goals, and for a number of reasons.
First of all, let’s look at the last letter of this acronym: T – time-bound. Setting a habit-based goal with a deadline for achieving it is not a good strategy. Why? Because habits take as much time as they take to develop. Some of it is in your control, but let’s not forget we’re talking about creating or rearranging neural pathways in your brain. That takes time to shift.
Studies shows that habit formation depends on many factors, and most importantly on the person working on it – their motivation, personality, their context, as well as on the complexity of the habit itself. A simple habit can take a few days to develop, a more complex one, such as exercise – up to several months.
So if you give yourself a deadline for your habit goal, you may be bitterly disappointed if you don’t achieve it before it. That’s just setting yourself up to fail. So when setting habit based goals, don’t give yourself a deadline, but rather create a schedule for your new routine.
Then, there is the matter of measurability , so the letter M- how do you measure your success in a achieving your habit. In my opinion, it’s important to look at it carefully and measure what you want to achieve. And my advice is to link it with your desired outcome.
So if you, like me, testing your ability to resist marshmallows, you measure your ability to resist marshmallows, not the side effect, the healthy eating side effect of it, or weight loss. When I’m building a new habit, I’m not interested in performance measures – I don’t care how far or how fast I run (I try not to at least), but I’m focused on getting it done every time I’m supposed to do it. So practice is more important than performance when working on developing a new habit, and we should measure accordingly.
Why You Need To Be Realistic With Your Habits
And there are two more aspects of the SMART framework I have an issue with it’s the A and R – achievable and realistic.
Call me cynical, call me a party pooper but I am not a big fan of being aspirational when setting your habit goals. It’s great to feel inspired and motivated to achieve greater things in life, but in the end the reality of my life is what It is, and no matter how hard I try to refrain from eating sweets by the sheer power of my willpower and my desire to be slim and beautiful, it’s going to collapse on day 3 or 4. That’s what the 30 years of my experience in doing it tells me.
So being realistic and setting habit goals that are achievable again refer to you and your context – your personality, your motivation, your inner world, your physical environment, your social environment and all these things that affect us with all their limitations and constraints.
Anthony: You mentioned two kinds of environment, internal and external. What are these and why is understanding the difference important?
Joanna Jast: The difference isn’t really that important. I just like having things organised in my head. I also like to make that distinction because it makes it easier to you look for solutions later on. And that’s how I look at difficulties in addressing habit problems. It’s again the same thing: the better you understand where your challenges come from, the easier it will be to find a solution to your problem. So we’re back to the importance of correctly diagnosing the problem.
Your external environment is what surrounds you – your physical environment, your house, workplace, the gym you go to, the supermarket where you shop; your financial situation, even the weather.
Your internal environment is the environment you create for yourself – your thoughts, your emotions, your motivation, your values, what happens with your body.
How To Use Cues To Hack Your Habits
Anthony: What are some of the “cues” you talk about? Which is the most important in your opinion?
Joanna Jast: Cues are very important. Cues remind us that we need to do something. They prompt us, trigger us to do what we’re suppose to do. They whole idea of a habit as a repetitive action in response to a cue, really relies on the cue being enough of a trigger.
So if you want to have an effective trigger, effective cue, find one that stands out in your environment. There is little point in putting your cue on a sticky note, and pinning it up on a corkboard full of similar sticky notes. You won’t see it.
I say: choose something that disrupts the fabric of your reality. Just like the sound of a notification ‘time to go for a run’ popping up on your screen. And it disrupts what you’re doing, right? But that may be not enough. If then instead of going for the run, you just snooze or close the notification, it’s just doesn’t work, does it?
So once again, it’s very important that the cue you choose stands out in your environment and is hard to ignore. The best cues are those that have a cost of ignoring involved.
The Cost Of Ignoring Your Cues
I’ll give you an example of what I mean by having the cost of ignoring the cue. So I run three times per week. And my cue is seeing my greasy hair in the mirror in the morning – I run on days when I need to wash my hair. This is how I know it’s my running day.
And the cost of ignoring this cue is that I’d have to go to work with my hair unwashed. That’s unacceptable. Or that I have to jump in the shower and wash my hair. I don’t like washing my hair in the morning. So if I wanted to back off and don’t go for a run – there is a cost involved. And it’s just so much easier to just go for a run.
Anthony: Talk about checklists. What’s the most important thing people need to know about them when building habits?
Joanna Jast: Checklists are fantastic tools. Checklists help saving lives, prevent infections and industrial accidents. Checklists are simple, effective, they lower your cognitive load, they have high reliability. Research shows that if you follow a checklist, you’re 75% less likely to miss any of the steps required – and reduce the likelihood of failure to carry out your desired behaviour from 23% to 6% .
I use checklists particularly early in the process of establishing new habit, when I’m still learning what to do, when, in what sequence. I can’t rely on my memory anymore and I don’t want to add any more cognitive load to it.
The best way of creating a checklist is to:
- Focus on critical steps and use as few steps as possible (the more steps you have, the more intimidating the checklist looks and the less likely you are to follow the steps – that’s just human nature
- Ideally, you want it to fit on one page (my checklists need to fit on a standard size post-it note – no room for writing novels!)
- Make sure the sequence of steps fits the flow of your behaviour (e.g. Don’t turn your fitness tracked on before you put your running shoes on)
- Use simple sentences and basic language
- Have it visible and ideally where you will be carrying out your new habit. So if you’re trying to create a productivity or a focus routine – have your checklist somewhere in your workspace; highly visible to you of course. If you have a checklist for working out – keep it either with your workout gear, on your phone if you use your phone for tracking your workouts, or maybe even in the pocket of your running jacket.
How To Make Your Habits Perpetuate Themselves
Anthony: What is a habit loop?
Habit loop is the secret formula for creating and remodelling habits. It’s a three-element self-perpetuating cycle that is behind any automatic behaviour. It consists of three key elements:
- Cue (also called reminder or trigger) – which we’ve just talked about
- Routine (sometimes called Behaviour, Action)
Every habit rests on these three pillars: Cue that prompts you to carry out the Behaviour, which is then reinforced by the Reward. The more of those habit cycles you go through, the more often the behaviour gets reinforced, the stronger the habit is ingrained in your brain, and the stronger the neural pathway that is created in your brain.
What To Do If You Fall Off The Wagon
Anthony: What should someone do if they miss a day on their habits? How about a week? A month? A year? Is there a difference when it comes to getting back on the wagon?
Joanna Jast: There are habit building strategies that rely on performing your action every day – for example ‘don’t break the chain’ but actually, research shows that missing on a day in your habit routine does not make a difference to our habit formation process, but psychologically it may.
I wouldn’t worry too much about missing a day. I do it sometimes, not very often and only for very good reasons. Because life does get in the way of best-laid plans, so I just accept that. Sometimes you will be just too busy or too tired, or maybe sick, or you may have something super-important to do. Don’t beat yourself up about not ‘turning up’ one day. But get back on track as soon as possible. Don’t let the not turning up become a pattern, because this is when it becomes a problem.
When it becomes a pattern? You may have your own individual ‘definition’ of pattern, for me it goes like that: once can happenstance, twice is a coincidence, three is a pattern.
The more days you miss, the harder it will be to return to your routine.
If you notice that you miss your routine are more and more often, you need to look at your system again. Because it means your system is not working as well as it could or should.
And for me, it’s going back to the beginning – maybe not necessarily to the desired outcome, but at least going over all those limitations and constraints that come from within me, or from my environment. Because it my system is not delivering as well as it used to, it means that something has changed.
And sometimes those changes are temporary. For example you are on holidays and working away and you’re struggling to keep your exercise routine up because your environment is different. And sometimes the change may be more permanent. For example if you just had a baby your productivity or sleep routine may be affected in a way you’ve never experienced before.
Things like that will happen, because that’s part of life. For me, it’s always about being mindful that your habit system will also be affected. So it is crucial that you recognise when it happens and adjust your system to cater for your changed needs, or changed life circumstances.
The key thing is to realise when a temporary change has become more permanent, and make appropriate adjustments in your system. Or redesign it completely.
Why Your Willpower Resources Are Limited
Anthony: You talk about how willpower needs to replenish itself. What’s this all about?
Joanna Jast: This is about the concept of willpower or ego depletion – the theory that the amount if willpower we have is limited. We have like a willpower tank, where only so much willpower can be stored. And every time you use some of that willpower from your tank, there is less left for later. The amount of willpower will not increase, until you are able to replenish it. And that goes back to the studies done by Roy Baumeister, who is a social psychologist and one of the key researches in the field of self-control and willpower.
However, newer research challenges this belief about willpower depletion, suggesting that we have as much willpower as we perceive it. So again, it’s all in the mind.
Personally, it’s not a scientific argument, I know, but personally I experience those willpower outages quite often, and I’m aware of typical situations that are likely to cause it.
I’m also very conscious that I don’t have much willpower and need to be careful in how I use it. I make sure that I’m able to recover safely before I make any silly decision when my willpower tank is on zero.
What helps with the process of replenishing willpower is rest, and sadly, something sugary, or at least of a sweet taste in your mouth.
How To Experience A Miracle Every Morning
Anthony: What is scribing?
Joanna Jast: Scribing is one of life SAVERs, as Hal Elrod calls them. One of the key elements of the morning routine he recommends in his bestselling book the Miracle Morning. (Silence, Affirmations, Visualisation, Scribing, reading, Exercise)
In a nutshell scribing is about taking a minute out of your time, in the morning, to write down what you’re grateful for, what you’re proud of, and the results you’re committed to creating for that day. Doing so, you put yourself in an empowered, inspired, and confident state of mind.
It’s scribing is journaling that encompasses gratitude – one of the key factors in creating the sense of happiness and fulfilment in life, positive affirmations, stock-taking, reminding yourself of your goals.
It’s an excellent to start your day.
One Of The Most Powerful Principles
You Can Ever Live By
Anthony: You have a bonus section in the book. What habits did you use to get in contact with all those high-profile authors and convince them to contribute to the book?
Joanna Jast: It’s not really about me or my habits. The people who contributed to my book, Steve SJ Scott, Hal Elrod, Stephen Guise and Martin Meadows – they are amazing people, who are very generous, humble, and have fantastic knowledge and experience to share and they desire to use it to help other people. And that’s really what it is about – collaborating in helping people become happier, live more fulfilling lives.
But from the practical point of view, what helped me in reaching out to them, it’s not a habit, but more a principle I live by – it’s about building relationships with people; it takes time and you need to invest upfront.
Anthony: What’s coming up next for you and where can people get in touch?
Joanna Jast: At the moment I’m very excited with the launch of my new book: Hack Your Habits. 9-steps to finally break bad habits and start thriving. I’ve been also getting a lot of emails and messages form people asking me to help them transform their habits, speed up the learning and adaptation curve. I’m not providing individual support at the moment, but I’ve been thinking about it. So watch this space.
Early next year, my previous book Laser-Sharp Focus will be published as an audiobook and I’m really excited about it, too. I’m also thinking about translating the into other languages, as people have been asking me about it.
For now, if you want to stay in touch – visit my website www.shapeshiftersclub.com and subscribe to my newsletter to keep up to date and get some insider tips on habit hacking, focus sharpening and faster learning. You can also try to catch me on Twitter and on Quora – which is the only site I allow myself to browse when procrastinating.