How I Used Fear to Develop New Habits

Or, How to Run From Something Versus Working towards Something

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Use Fear to Develop New Habits

We’re wired to avoid pain. It’s deep in our brains — the limbic system. This is the oldest part of our minds. You can hack, tweak, study, and will yourself away from it, but this ancient system will win when we’re at our weakest moments (such as building a new habit).

I’m a bit of a habit junkie. I try to develop new habits and patterns to tweak things I want to change about myself. Whether it’s exercise, eating, meditation, writing, or communication, there are no shortage of new habits we can develop.

Most of us take the hard way. We try and force the new habit into shape. We get real excited about the new habit on the first day, and by the third, the new habit is all but a flicker of its original fire. We quickly learn that habit building through willpower alone is a useless errand.

Then we reached habits 2.0.

Charles Duhigg showed us there’s a better way. By tacking a new habit to an existing one, we learned we don’t have to rely on willpower to force habits into place. All we need is a little reminder, using a habit we already have. Our habit-building got easier, but we were still traveling in the wrong direction.

Remember, our brains are much better at avoiding pain than seeking pleasure.

All the current, neuvo-methods of habit building require an award for the completed task. If we do our homework we get a cookie. If we write today we get that special coffee drink. If we cold-call 100 people we get to meet our friends at the bar.

These habit-building rewards all go towards pleasure-seeking.

What if we used our ancient, STRONG, pain-avoidance parts of the brain to build our habits instead. No, you don’t have a spare lion to chase you, but we all have pains we like to avoid.

I learned this pain-avoidance concept from Dr. Jordan Peterson. He gave a quick mention of it during YouTube video, and I thought the concept was revolutionary. These methods of conditioning have been used in psychology for decades, but habit-building lies on the fringes.

What if you could build any habit you want, and you could do it while using your brain for leverage, instead of working against it?

The end result is the same. There’s either a lion chasing you, or a cookie dangling before you. The bigger motivator is clear. You can look at the worst of habits, drug addiction, and the result is the same. The pain of withdrawal is stronger than the seeking of ever-fleeting pleasure. The addict gets to the point where she feels little pleasure, while the running from withdrawal becomes stronger and stronger, to where she’ll do ANYTHING to avoid it.

You don’t have to be a meth-head to use this process on yourself.

What does this fear-based habit-building look like:

Let’s use me as an example. I’m a writer. I KNOW I should write everyday. I WANT to write everyday. And I write MOST days, but let’s say I still haven’t developed the habit of writing everyday, of doing the work automatically whether I want to or not (I do now, but it was a hard habit to build).

Automatic behavior is what we’re trying to program in ourselves. Willpower alone is too weak. When I write, I tend to put many tasks before it. The writing is hard, and although I enjoy it, I’ve turned my passion into a lion I’m running from.

How to reverse the process to fear-avoidance habit-building:

Use the acronym L.A.S.T.

  1. Find the lion — In order to build the daily writing habit I need something to run from not towards. In my case I use the loss of FREEDOM. If I don’t write, I won’t sell books. If I don’t sell books, I’m stuck in my day job. If I’m stuck in my day job I’ve lost my freedom. Yes, I love writing. And I’ll do it for free, but someday I want to make a living from it.
  2. Find the anchor — Here, we use Duhigg’s process. We look at a habit we already have and anchor the new one on top of it. When I wanted to build the habit of drinking water every morning I placed my water glass next to the coffee maker. I make coffee every day no matter how I’m feeling. The water gets consumed automatically.
  3. Find the smallest — Take your habit and whittle it down to the smallest, simplest version of the task you can accomplish. When you’re developing a new habit the process is fragile. The slightest hiccup with break it. Floss one tooth, do one push-up, avoid one can of soda. In my case the daily habit is to write ONE word. If I hit my one word goal, my habit-building is a success for the day.
  4. Find your tracker — If you don’t track your habit-building you can’t measure it. If you can’t measure it you won’t know if you accomplished the habit. I use a simple, one-click, tracker app in my phone. The app tracks my progress over months and years. The results are binary. I can find my problem days (the weekends) and tweak my lion to make it scarier until I can’t help but run towards my habit.

I find it best to develop one new habit at a time. It can take 60 days or more to make a habit permanent, so make sure you really want this new change in yourself.

There will be days when your lion’s asleep in her den. You’ll fall off the wagon and beat yourself up. Making mistakes is part of the process. Kick your lion into showing her teeth again. Make her mad and get her running. If you miss a day make sure you run towards it tomorrow.

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