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Blog // Adaptability
August 18, 2020

You Don’t Need To Be A Hero To Change Your Habits

We think changing our habits requires something big and heroic. But big changes often start out small, with little adjustments.

‘15 minutes a day is enough.’
‘It can’t be.’
‘Just try it.’

I used to teach guitar. It’s not something I talk about. I did it because other guitarists did it. And it helped pay for strings and food.

The question of practice would always come up. Even people who weren’t getting lessons would ask, ‘How much do you have to practise?’

Before answering that question, you pause. Because what you, as a professional musician, do to practise isn’t what a student, especially a beginner, might need.

Back then, my guitar practice schedule was pretty out there. Two to three hours a day was normal. And that was just for the mechanics of playing. Add more time for learning theory or new songs. Add even more for doing maintenance on guitars, experimenting with recording and effects, writing arrangements, or just jamming with friends.

But all of that isn’t what someone is asking you when, a few months into learning the instrument, they ask, ‘How much practice should I do?’

So I settled on saying, ‘Fifteen minutes a day.’

How I got there was a simple process. I looked at the amount of material a beginner or intermediate guitarist might practise, assuming they were getting lessons weekly or fortnightly and assuming they wanted to make a step change in their playing over the course a year.

Then I thought, assuming they practised every day, in a focussed and distraction-free way, what was the minimum time they needed to play through the material. And somewhere from 10 to 15 minutes felt like the answer.

I asked my students to do exactly that. Practise 15 minutes a day. Never less. They all got better. A lot better.

I didn’t ask them to practise like I did. I asked them to practise the way they needed.

Heroism Stops You From Changing Habits

We overestimate how much effort is required to develop a habit, whether it’s practising to learn a musical instrument or improving a skill we already have – and mostly because we underestimate how effective a small effort can be at driving change. Especially if we sustain that effort for a long period.

So we’re tempted to make one of the greatest mistakes of all: trying to change heroically.

We muster equal parts courage and delusion and march forth with a plan to radically alter how we live. We make our goals as big and bold as possible.

And we fail.

We fail to recognise where the effort should go.

We make one big effort, instead of making a lot of small efforts.

Practising 15 minutes a day is doable because there are plenty of 15-minute slots you can slip the practice into. There are fewer 60-minute slots. And, if you need to add some time for getting ready, you are still only 20 minutes. But 65 minutes suddenly feels like two hours. And if you practise an hour a day, every day, you’re going to be changing strings a lot more often, which is more time and effort you have to budget for. The resistance comes when the change we strive for is so big.

Be Atomic Not Heroic

The tragedy is we usually don’t need to be heroic. Thinking we do holds us back from making all sorts of changes and improvements in our lives.

This is the key insight from James Clear’s book, Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones . A small change sustained for a long period can lead to a dramatic change.

Clear outlines four ways to build new habits, by making sure they are obvious, attractive, easy to follow through on and satisfying.

He also suggests something I left out of the earlier story about guitar practice: change your environment.

Change Your Environment To Change Your Habits

‘Make a space to play guitar,’ I would tell students.

Don’t waste your time taking your guitar out of its case, trying to find your sheet music, setting up a stand, or finding somewhere to sit. Prepare the space. Have your guitar, music stand and sheet music ready. Make sure you have a chair or a stool and a decent light. Then, when it’s time to practise, you practise.

It’s like the opening lines of Wendell Berry’s poem, ‘How To Be a Poet’:

Make a place to sit down.
Sit down. Be quiet.

Creating the right environment removes the hesitation and decision making from the doing. Designing your environment to support good habits beats willpower every day of the week.

Design For Better Habits

This is the message of Brian Wansink’s book, Slim by Design: Mindless Eating Solutions for Everyday Life.

From a long-term study of more than 1,500 people who had struggled with diets, Wansink found the people who best managed to make sustained changes didn’t do so heroically. Rather, they made a few changes, usually just one or two, but they stuck with them, typically for at least 25 days a month. People who tried to make radical changes to their eating habits often got frustrated and gave up.

Wansink also found that kitchen design made a difference in people’s eating habits and health. Not how big, or pretty, or Instagram-worthy a kitchen was, but how it was filled. Having snacks or sugary cereals didn’t determine if people were fit or not, but having them out on display often did.

“Our Syracuse study showed we could roughly predict a person’s weight by the food they had sitting out.”
– Brian Wansink

A number of design-driven changes to the environment – from making the kitchen less “loungable,” making healthier snacks visible while hiding less healthy ones, and by making it easier to cook from scratch – all supported good eating habits.

When it comes to changing our habits, it’s best to start out small, stick with it, then design the spaces around us to support the change.

Daniel 4 years ago

I like that term ‘heroic change’, I may borrow it! I’ve noticed a similar pattern in my own and others attempts to make sweeping changes to their habits. It’s certainly been the case for me that the small steady changes have succeeded more often than the heroic ones.

I wonder why we do that given the success rate is so poor? I guess the media does popularise the idea of the heroic change in films and grand gestures do feel good but surely results should push us the other way…

Thats an interesting observation from slim by design. They have snack stations at work (cookies, chips, etc) and I’m a natural grazer so working from home this year has resulted in some weight loss mostly due to lack of available snack; plenty of fruit, crackers and hummus has been consumed!

fernando 4 years ago

Heroic change makes for great stories and TV shows. From makeovers to dramatic home renovations. Sometimes it can work out but it’s a brutal way to live.

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