The Tesla Technique
I’ve talked a lot about the concept of “best practices” but how do you implement them? How do you turn a good idea for a behavior into a habit?
I call this strategy the “Tesla Technique” and it’s been adapted from a few sources: mainly the Tiny Habits program by BJ Fogg and The Power of Habit book by Charles Duhigg, with a little bit of Mark Forster, and GTD (Getting Things Done) from David Allen.
Let’s break the strategy down.
The first thing to understand about habits is that they have three segments. (This is covered very well in the Power of Habit book if you’re interested to learn more).
The segments are: Cue → Action → Reward. To this I’ve added a fourth, which is the environment. So you have an environment that has a cue, which triggers you to do an action, for which you get a reward. E-C-A-R, which is why it’s called the “Tesla Technique”.
You can start putting them together like this:
Environment = w is how I’ll set things up so that…
Cue = When x happens…
Action = I will do y…
Reward = and celebrate by giving myself z.
Let’s look at a specific example.
I want to start exercising regularly. I’ve been wanting to exercise on my treadmill but I always put it off. In fact, it’s gotten so bad that I have my dry cleaning hanging off of it.
First, I try to think about my environment.What type of environment will more likely lead to the behavior I want?
When I get home from the dry cleaners, I’ll hang my cleaning directly in my closet. Right now, I’m going to go hang the dry cleaning up and I’m going to put my running shoes and my workout clothes right next to my bed.
Notice that I’m not trying to actually do my run right away: I’m just setting up the environment.
The second part is defining a cue. This is the first part of an implementation intention in other words.
When I wake up,
Then, what’s the action?
I will put on my running clothes and shoes.
When I wake up, I will put on my running clothes and shoes.
Finally a reward:
I will tell myself “Good Job!”
That way, I get dressed in my running clothes and shoes right away. I might need to build a subsequent tiny habit to get on the treadmill and start running. But typically the crucial element is the first part of the entire behavior sequence. Runners sometimes say that the hardest part of the run is lacing up your shoes. The trick isn’t to get yourself to run mile 2 and 3 mostly, it’s to get yourself out the door to run mile one. So you build the tiny habit to put on your running gear and get out the door. Mark Forster calls this trick “I’ll just get the folder out”.
The Tesla Technique combines a few useful concepts into one, so let’s talk about the way these things all build together.
- The technique asks you to examine what your current environment is. It does you no good to try to meditate in a room that has workers jackhammering in the street. Take a good look at your environment and make sure it supports what you’re trying to do. This can run the gamut from minimizing distractions, lowering the activation cost (tk – link to scaffolding post), setting up a way to reward yourself (is there a TV in my home gym area? Should there be?). Looking at the holistic way that this habit fits into the rest of your life can be beneficial. (TK – link out to scaffolding)
- It makes you pre-plan when and where. This is the “implementation intention” strategy.
- It intentionally makes the behavior small. Even tiny. David Allen talks about breaking your projects into “next (physical) actions” which is the literal next step in your projects. It’s not “figure out color scheme for the house” – it’s “go to the paint store to pick up chips”. Allen’s contention is that if you are feeling resistance, it’s because you haven’t broken up the amorphous mass of “something to do” into “do this specific thing”. It turns “run marathon” which is something most of us would find intimidating to “take next step” which is manageable for nearly all of us.This lets us trick ourselves into “I’ll just do the first step…” and then that becomes the next step, the following step, and so on.
- It asks you to reward yourself. I don’t know about you, but my normal operating procedure is to be very hard on myself. But it’s like working for a boss that’s always abusive to you: you’ll just do the minimum to get him out of your hair and then go back to doing whatever you want to do. Rewarding yourself, even with a simple “Yes!” and fist-pump, or a verbal “Good job, <self>.” Can transform your relationship with the habits you’re trying to instill in yourself. Often times, people wonder why they’re having trouble creating a habit. “I’ve done it for 21 (or 30, or 90…) days in a row and it’s still just as hard as ever!” Using some kind of reward can transform this from something that sucks into something you look forward to. Try sprinkling reward sauce all over your “gotta do” vegetable platter. You can use something called Temptation Bundling and only watch your favorite show from the back of an exercise bike, only listen to your favorite podcasts while you are lifting weights, or listening to your favorite books while you clean the house, or walking while you play WoW. Juicing up the rewards can really pay dividends and get you looking forward to things you otherwise would skip, and it can be as simple as listening to a great album while you work your way through your inbox.
Sometimes our habits just aren’t sticking. Using the Tesla Technique can be a great way to troubleshoot. If you’re interested in this method, most of this is straight out of the Tiny Habits “playbook” which can benefit you enormously. Here’s the signup link – as I write this, the program is literally free, takes less than half an hour of total “work time” and gives you practice at a lot of the skills that you need to change your habits, and you get personalized email coaching. Check it out, and while you’re waiting for your session to start, think about your environment.