In the 1990s, public health researcher Stephen Luby, working in the neighbourhood of Karachi, Pakistan, achieved a huge 52-percent reduction in diarrhea among the local children. Pneumonia rates dropped by 48 percent, and skin infections by 35 percent. Luby’s secret? Nice soap. Luby had known that handwashing and basic sanitation were essential to reducing illness. The locals understood this, too; they weren’t turning their knowledge into a habit. Everything changed when Luby worked with Proctor and Gamble to introduce a premium soap into the neighborhood for free. Overnight, handwashing became a satisfying experience. The new soap lathered easily and smelled delightful. Suddenly, everyone was washing their hands because it was now a pleasurable activity.
I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of change. What causes some people to embrace it? What aspects make habits stick? And most importantly, what makes picking up a new habit so hard?
The last question has bugged me the most because I’ve tried to pick up a few new habits over the past few years but haven’t been able to stick with them. Upon more profound research, I realised that there was no immediate return for the habits that I was trying to nurture.
For example, you can’t pick up a new language or start playing a guitar solo from attending an hour-long webinar or some random YouTube video. You would love to, but that’s not how learning works? That’s not how motivation works either! So, one of my friends tried this hack — he rewarded himself $20 after attending each guitar lesson. The money would go into a new bank account that he created for purchasing a specific Gibson Les Paul guitar that cost $1,400.
The result? He kept showing up for his class three times and week while watching his savings grow over time. In about six months, he not only did buy his favourite guitar but also because very proficient in playing one. In his words, “someone worthy of playing a Les Paul.”
The critical lesson here is that immediate returns can help you build new habits that otherwise may take a long-time to reap the rewards. You can apply my friend’s hack for travel, writing a book, buying a house, saving up for a car, or anything that strikes your fancy.
It’s essential also to understand that obsessing over immediate returns might encourage bad habits. For example, most smokers know that if they keep at it, they’re running the risk of being susceptible to lung cancer in about 20 years, if not today. But they can’t see, think, or feel beyond the craving for nicotine and the immediate stress-relief that smoking gives.
The fix is to swap out the immediate gratification of smoking with something else. One of my other friends have been wanting to quit smoking for several years but couldn’t. When he learned about the concept of habit-stacking and the psychology of immediate gratification, he knew what to do.
Each time he would feel like smoking, he would lay back in his home office’s recliner, set a timer for 10 minutes, and do focused breathwork. Instead of going out for smoke breaks, he would go to the lawn, sit in a corner, and meditate if he was in the office.
He had initially challenged himself to replace smoking with breathwork exercises and meditation, but after realising the positive benefits, he kept extending the challenge and went on for 90 consecutive days. On the 91st day, he formally declared that he’s quit smoking and hasn’t smoked in the past 90 days. The result was a calmer mind and much more fortified lungs, thanks to the breathwork.
What strategies do you have in mind to keep immediate gratifications in check so you can keep yourself on track for the ultimate, longer-term reward? If you think there’s nothing, get creative like my former-smoker friend. Who would have thought one could replace smoking with meditation and breathwork?
Try it. Experiment. That’s the only way to know and grow a habit.