Habits are a great tool to make improvements in life but the downside is they take lots of effort before they become ingrained. In the initial stages we simply forget. We try a new habit once or twice and then it can fall by the wayside.
One easy way to adopt a habit is to change our physical environment. Put something in day-to-day life that we’ll see, stumble over, or even block our path.
Out of sight, out of mind
You probably already do this sort of thing. Want to remember to take a package when you leave for work? Put the package by the front door so it’s not forgotten. If it’s in the closet it’s more likely to be left behind. As they say, out of sight out of mind.
Or we leave notes on the refrigerator. Reminders for dry cleaners, dentist appointments, and the plumber’s phone number all show up there because it’s easier to remember when it’s right in front of us. In fact there’s an entire industry of refrigerator magnet people who are determined to attach messages where you will see them.
Coaches post motivational messages so their athletes will see them. Walk into any high school locker room and you will notice signs like “Winners never quit and quitters never win.”
Surgery is more important than the dry cleaners
I recently read “The Checklist Manifesto” by Atul Gawande and one story in the book (pages 98- 100) is about how a simple physical device helped prevent surgical infections.
The director of surgical administration at Columbus Children’s Hospital developed a short pre-surgery checklist. The surgical director also happened to be a pilot and recognized the value of the pre-flight checklists used in aviation. That’s what inspired him to develop a similar checklist for surgery.
The director also knew it was easy to forget to use a checklist so he created a triggering mechanism to make sure the checklist wasn’t overlooked. That mechanism was a six-inch long metal tent that he instructed nurses to place over the surgical instrument kits.
The tent was labeled with the words “Cleared For Takeoff” as a reminder for the surgical team to complete the pre-surgery checklist.
That small device was a simple and effective trigger to remember the checklist since before anyone could pick up a scalpel they had to remove the tent. And since the nurses already had the habit of laying out surgical instruments it was convenient to add one more step of covering the instruments with the metal tent.
A matter of life and death
One of the checklist items was to verify that appropriate antibiotics were given to the patient before surgery to prevent infection. In fact, infections during surgery can be a significant complication leading to serious illness or even death.
Before the checklist was developed, one-third of appendectomy patients at that hospital were not receiving appropriate antibiotics. A review 10 months later indicated that 100% of such patients now received the correct amount of antibiotics before surgery.
It’s amazing how the one small change of adding a physical barrier with the visual cues of “Cleared For Takeoff” made a huge difference in the health of appendectomy patients. An error rate for antibiotics of 33% was reduced to zero and likely prevented many medical complications.
How can we use this idea?
We may not be doing surgery but we can use the same concept to help establish whatever habits we want. Make your own physical reminders and place them where you can’t help but see them.
Want to go walking in the morning? Put your shoes in the bathroom doorway so you’ll have to step around them.
Want to write in your journal everyday? Put your journal in your bed on the pillow.
Want to drink more water? Get a glass and write on it bright red letters, “Hey you! Drink more water!” Then put it on the kitchen counter or on your desk at work.
Always late for appointments and you want to start leaving 10 minutes earlier than you need to? Put reminders on your mirror, which could be a 3×5 card or even a brightly colored, full-sized sheet of paper. Tape them up so they can’t be missed and include any message you want.
Want to change eating and snacking habits? Put a sign on refrigerator or cupboard doors. Or you can wrap a ribbon around the door that you’ll see to remind you of what change you want to make.
With phones and laptops the options expand even more. We can easily set alarms to remind us to do something or put messages on our screen savers so we see them throughout the day.
So if you want to change a habit or establish a new one, think like a surgeon and create a physical reminder that makes it impossible to forget.