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How To Make It Impossible To Fail

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from Maneesh Sethi of Hack the System.

It’s funny how long two minutes can be.

Just a few weeks ago, a package arrived: a Sonicare EasyClean Toothbrush. The toothbrush has an automatic timer which dings every thirty seconds until two minutes have passed.

It’s a strange thing, the mental passage of time. The first thirty seconds feel like a millennium—when the heck is this brush going to ding? By the second ding, I’ve begun walking, or pacing, or thinking, but it still feels like an eternity.

The third ding? I barely even notice it. And the fourth feels like barely an instant.

Of course, each ding really takes exactly thirty seconds, but time doesn’t always act like it should. Just like how the first five minutes of a jog feel longer than the rest, or how the first sentence of an article takes hours — but the rest seems to take minutes.

The Sonicare toothbrush, however, is an example of a Failure-Proof Environment. Once you decide to start brushing, once you hit that on-switch, the brush won’t stop until two minutes have passed. When I use a regular toothbrush, I usually quit after twenty seconds or less, but by constructing a failure-proof environment—in this case, by buying a fancy toothbrush—I built a system that forces me to succeed. Building this system—this failure-proof environemnt—is the key to any habit change.

So, how can you build a failure proof environment? How can you force yourself to build better habits?

How to Construct a Failure-Proof Environment

Think about this: how many times have you promised yourself to eat better? It’s easy for your sane-superego to make a promise on January 1. But you know the rest: a couple days later, someone hands you a cookie. Your insane-emotional-id-self takes over, and forgets what the real you wants. All it can say is “cookie cookie cookie.”

Damn lizard brain.

The good news? There is a way to short-circuit this process. The secret is called precommitment.

Precommitment is the process of making a promise, when you are in your sane state, that will prevent your tempted insane-emotional-id-self from doing something bad. Imagine that on January 1st, you decide to take a flight to a deserted island, one without cookie-trees. It’s not so hard to say no to a cookie when they are impossible to find.

My first experience with precommitment was during a 28 day trek through the wilderness. I had no access to cookies, Facebook, or any other distraction. And I lost 23 lbs in 28 days — my first experience with a drastic environment change. For five days in a row, I was alone in a cave — just myself, a pen, and a notebook. Without access to distractions, there was no choice. I wrote more in those five days than I had written in the previous year.

Precommitment is the process of creating an enviroment that forces you to succeed.

You might not be able to find a month to hike in the wilderness, but there are still ways to use precommitment in your normal life. Let’s take a look at some examples.

Precommitting via the Bet Switch Mechanism

What’s another way to force yourself to stop eating that cookie?

After I returned from the wilderness, I quickly noticed the weight returning. I needed to get back in shape for a TV show I was filming, but I couldn’t just run away into a forest this time. So what did I do? I used the Bet Switch Mechanism.

The Bet Switch Mechanism is simple: you precommit to something using a bet. In the case of weight loss, I promised my friend that for every non-paleo-diet item I ate, I would pay $50 / item. In other words, that cookie wasn’t just a tasty dessert—it was $50. Instantly, my cravings disappeared. I no longer would use the excuse ‘let me just have one…’ before engorging on a mountain of chocolate and ice cream and Love Actually. I lost 15 lbs in 4 weeks. The incident worked so well that I created a guide to help others hack their habits.

I used the same tactic with Leo Babauta — for a week, I had to write for thirty minutes at 9am. Failure? $50. And Leo ended up getting paid.

I use this tactic all the time. Heck, if I don’t finish the article you are reading now by 11:59 PST, I owe a friend $250 :p

Are you trying to finish something, but just not finding the motivation to do so? Find a friend to bet with. It doesn’t have to be money—one of my female friends puts her favorite dress on the line.

You can use to find someone to bet with, if you don’t have someone nearby to work with.

Precommitting using the Craigslist Slapper Technique

Still not feeling motivated? Precommit by hiring someone to force you to work.

A few months ago, I hired someone on Craigslist to sit down next to me. Her job was specific: every time I used Facebook, she was required to slap me in the face.

Sure, it sounds stupid, but the act of hiring someone makes you much more likely to actually DO something. With my slapper, my productivity increased by 4x.

Today, when I have a project I just have to finish, I hire someone to sit next to me and force me to work. This way, even if my stupid lizard-brain wants to check Facebook and use Twitter, my slapper — my most powerful failure-proof precommitment tool — keeps me in check.

In the same vein, do you want to start going to the gym? Precommit by hiring a personal trainer for two months in advance. You will probably miss the gym on your own, but you won’t miss an (expensive) appointment with a trainer.

The key here is set an appointment with someone else. It’s easy to not show up to the gym alone, but you’re much less likely to do so if it means disappointing your trainer or friend.

Putting it all together

At the end of the day, it comes down to a decision — are you going to change your habits? Or are you going to live the same way you always have?

If you’ve made the decision to change, check out my Minimalist Guide to Hacking Your Habits. It’s a guide and set of worksheets that will show you the specific processes of habit change, and guide you along the way.

A year from now, you’ll wish you had started today.

Maneesh Sethi has spent the last five years as a digital nomad—traveling the world and building businesses . He created a minimalist guide for Zen Habits readers to help build better habits. Get the guide and check out Hack the System.

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