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Successful Behavior Comes from Little Tricks More Than Lofty Ideals


There is a one-hundred percent chance I will work out this morning. It’s raining. I’m cold. I’m hungry. I have a lot of work to do. I have emails to catch up on. So many distractions. How do I know I’m going to exercise? Because I put on the lycra shorts I wear when I row on the rowing machine and every time I wear them I row. They aren’t that comfortable for anything else, so there’s no point in putting them on except to row. And switching to wearing something else feels like defeat, so once I put them on, it’s easier to row than not.

The decision to put on the shorts takes no effort. I just do it. In the back of my mind I know I’m choosing to get myself into a serious workout that will have me sweating from the first minute, cause my leg muscles to burn starting about two-thirds through, leave me panting and unable to talk for a few minutes when I finish, but that distant awareness doesn’t make putting them on any harder.

Putting on these shorts is a trick to get started. It works.

You can talk about health benefits all day, but knowing about them doesn’t work nearly as well as this trick.

A client told me about a role model of hers, a successful leader who starts her days by drawing a smiley face every day on the shower wall, which brightens her day and motivates her every time. It doesn’t change the world, but it changes her approach to it. Talking about the value of an optimistic outlook doesn’t give you an optimistic outlook, no matter how lofty it sounds. It’s too abstract. For her, the smiley face does. Tricks work.

When my stepfather quit smoking he filled a jar with old used cigarette butts and water that smelled revolting even to a smoker, which he opened to smell when he wanted a cigarette, and it helped him quit. Talking about emphysema and cancer doesn’t stop people from craving cigarettes, no matter how important. It’s too abstract. The trick does.

I’ll bet nearly all successful people base nearly all their successful habits in little tricks like that. These tricks aren’t the only thing they use, but they work.

When I look at the habits I consciously started, I find tricks at the root of nearly all of them. When I start my burpee sets, I don’t think about doing all twenty-five. I think of starting just the one. It’s a trick. Once I start the one, I finish the remaining twenty-four-and-a-half. It works.

If I put my cleaning supplies in the middle of my bathroom floor before going to sleep, I’ll use them to clean up in the morning when I see them.

If I put on my running shoes, I’ll go running.

Sadly, most successful people, when they talk about their success, even when they want to help people, talk about the lessons they learned on reaching success. Those lessons sound nice and may give some direction, but they aren’t what led to that success. We want to reach their success, not just hear what it’s like. Those lofty lessons don’t help as much as those tricks.

How do you find those tricks?

In my experience, you find them through the discipline of doing the thing you want to do and finding what works. You’ll make them up, as long as you stick with the task long enough. I think that’s a major reason I value self-imposed daily challenging healthy activities (SIDCHAs) so much: sticking with them gives you tricks that lead to success. Beyond the success in their domain, the more you do them, the more they show how to replicate your success in that domain into any other domain. You learn that anyone who succeeded in some other area probably motivated themselves like how you are, they just applied it to a different area.

If you look at what you do that’s hard, I bet you’ll find tricks you use. People tend to think of their tricks as crutches or silly things they hide, suspecting other people don’t use them so they should graduate from them to feeling more real motivation. I don’t find it works that way. You don’t lose your tricks, you just get so used to them you don’t think about them.

If you have tricks, share them below. I’d love to learn them. Maybe I can use them. I bet others will too.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get on the rowing machine and work out.

Professor of NYU
Joshua Spodek co-founded and led several ventures. He coaches and teaches leadership, entrepreneurship, sales, and related skills at Columbia Business School and NYU using experiential, project-based learning. He holds five Ivy League degrees, including an Astrophysics PhD and an MBA, and studied under a Nobel Laureate. He helped build an X-ray satellite for the European Space Agency and NASA, and holds six patents. His current passion is developing methods to master business's soft skills, even for geeks like him.