To Avoid Bad Habits, Add Some Friction

Rosie Spinks writes about how to create a meaningful life in a chaotic world. Formerly a lifestyle and business reporter. Find me: @rojospinks.

Making something fractionally more difficult has a way of clarifying whether you need to do it.

Acouple of months ago, I decided I was going to stop putting my usual half a teaspoon of sugar into my cup of coffee in the morning. It was a small change, but part of a broader effort to cut down sugar in my diet.

I didn’t want to rid my entire pantry of sugar, lest I need it for some future baking adventure or to even out a sauce. So I simply took the small sugar bowl and lid that lived next to the coffee jar on my countertop, and dumped its contents into the bin.

For the first week, as I made that first cup of bleary-eyed coffee in the morning, I briefly thought about how it would taste just marginally better with that half a teaspoon of brown sugar lumped in. But then I thought: Ugh, to do that, I’d have to get the bag out of the pantry, unseal the bag, probably spill some sugar on the countertop in the process, and then clean it up. So never mind. In another week or two, I’d forgotten about the sugar altogether.

Therein lies the subtle magic of adding friction. If there is something you repeatedly do but would rather not — or something that you want to do more mindfully—don’t underestimate the power of intentionally making it just a fraction more annoying or difficult to do.

Here are some other examples: I have a note on my phone where I track all my day-to-day spending on things like food, groceries, coffee, and treats. Yes, it’s annoying to have to remember that I bought a few things on my walk home every time I do it. But that is exactly the point. It means that every time I spend money, it has to be worth the (very mild) pain threshold of adding it to the budget note. As a result, it makes it much more feasible I actually stay within my budget.

I also often log out of my social media accounts rather than leaving myself permanently logged in. While entering my credentials and doing two-factor authentication really only takes 30–45 seconds to complete at most, that added layer of extra effort often makes me stop and ask myself: Do I really want to be on Twitter right now, or am I just filling up time. Almost always, it’s the latter.

Of course, it’s simplistic to call a habit uniformly “bad” or “good.” Individual context, needs, and preferences all matter. For example, when I fancy eating a treat, or snack-food, or bar of chocolate, I do not consider that inherently bad. But I know if I had all my favorite treats, snack-foods, and chocolate in my houses 24/7, it would quickly become so. Adding friction — a quick walk to the shop when chocolate is in order—means I make the choice an intentional, and more enjoyable, one.

The opposite of this logic is also true: If you want to work out in the morning, lay out your shoes or mat. If you want to make sure you make dinner rather than ordering in, prep your ingredients ahead of time. But I’m always amazed out how little added friction it takes to make me question my autopilot and make a better choice.


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