Starting Small

I have spent many a half hour of my short life watching the Simpsons, but from all that time there’s really only one scene that has stuck with me.

Some kind soul has uploaded it here if you’d like to watch with me:

In this clip, Homer teaches his son Bart to shave. We don’t get to see most of the shaving process – what we see is the aftermath, as Homer tears up a piece of toilet paper and applies the pieces to all the places where he’s cut himself. “And we put one here, and here, and anywhere you’re bleeding…” explains Homer, as if it’s the most natural thing in the world.

It seems so stupid when we see Homer acting like this. The obvious thought is: why doesn’t he try to improve the way he shaves, so he doesn’t end up in pain every morning?

That’s exactly why this is such a compelling scene, at least to me. Because this sort of behavior – to put it simply, sticking to our routines, no matter how ill advised they may be – really is the most natural thing in the world. We are all like Homer, whether we like it or not.

But that’s fine. You can even use this to your advantage. The trick is to put in the effort as soon as you can so that you have the right routines. Once that’s done, you can stick to them all you want.

Of course, that’s easier said than done.

I suspect you’re familiar with the phenomenon of people joining a gym in January, only to stop going after only a few weeks. Why? These people aren’t stupid. They legitimately want to get in shape. Are they just weak-willed?

Well… Yes! Here’s the simple truth: willing yourself to do something is hard! It’s tiring! And who needs one more hard decision in their day – especially when your life is already full of challenges?

Most people can’t consistently choose to go to the gym. But a routine is different. A routine, once it’s stuck in your brain, requires no willpower at all.

When I first started thinking about this stuff back in 2011, I started small. I picked something that (a) I knew I could do consistently, and (b) I knew would definitely be good for me: flossing. Everything else in my life could fall apart, and it eventually did, but by God I was going to floss every. Single. Night. No excuses.

This was long before I got serious about self-improvement, but it taught me a lot about the psychology of routine.

For the first few weeks, almost every night I would get ready for bed and I’d have a mental argument about whether I could skip flossing, just this one night. C’mon, I’d think, it’s such a hassle. My gums are feeling peachy, I don’t want to go aggravating them. And hey, flossing most nights is still pretty good, probably better than most people these days. You don’t want to overdo it, right?

But I was accepting no excuses, so I flossed every single night despite my own objections. And you know what? After a few months, I was brushing right past complaints with a single thought. After a year, on the rare occasion I felt an objection bubbling up, I would simply laugh it off, recognizing that tiny, whiny part of the brain I had long since learned to ignore.

And now I’m just a person who flosses.

The interesting thing, though, is that ever since I trained myself to have a flossing habit, other changes have been much easier. It’s as if the mental pathways involved in changing a routine have been strengthened over time. Which makes a lot of sense.

Your results may vary, but I heartily recommend this strategy to anyone who has had trouble changing the patterns of their life. Pick something small to start with, something inconsequential even, just so long as you can stick with it. It might be something like flossing, or it might be as simple as committing to putting your keys in the same place every time you come home. The real purpose of this exercise is to examine your own mind, and to figure out what lengths you need to go if you want to change it, and have those changes stick.

I bet you’ve got all sorts of ideas about things you could be doing better. Well, time to get started! You don’t want to be like Homer Simpson all your life. Or maybe you do – in which case, hey, keep up the good work 😉

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *