How to Build Systems to Help Establish New Habits

Joel Gerschman

In this video you’re going to learn exactly how to build systems (not goals) that will increase your chances of successfully establishing a new habit. 

Episode Highlights

We’re big fans of Atomic Habits by James Clear. And one of the key takeaways is it’s not enough to set an intention to build a habit. You need to have the right mindset, the skills that the habit requires, and you also need a system that makes the habit more likely to succeed. 

In this video Joel gives an example from his own life of a habit he was trying to establish and why it failed the first time around.

Then Joel reveals how he used a “commitment device” to embed the habit into a larger system which led to the habit being successfully established.


Raph (00:00)
Hey, Raph and Joel here from “Digital Autopilot”. So we’re gonna do another session here to continue the topic of developing good habits in your work or personal life. Mainly on the ideas that we’ve learned from a book that we’ve both been reading, called “Atomic Habits” and that we gifted to some of our clients recently. So Joel had another idea that he wanted to talk about, about being more committed in those good habits and what sort of mechanism you can use in that. So Joel, share with us some of these ideas. Let’s have a chat.

Joel (00:39)
Sure. No worries. And you forgot our fist bump.

Joel (00:50)
And I’m gonna be kind to you today. I promised before this session that I wouldn’t put you on the spot as I usually like to do so…

Raph (00:58)
Yeah, well I’m not sitting down so you can’t put me in the hot seat. So, there’s no seat.

Joel (01:03)
So look, I’d love to share just a couple of really helpful insights around building and in particular keeping habits, making them part of your life, integrating them into your life so that they actually work and help you. There’s lots that we can say about it. And there are some golden nuggets in James Clear’s book, “Atomic Habits”, but I’d like to focus on one in particular and it’s around building commitment around habits.

So, very often what happens is we take on a new habit and we take on a new activity that we think is important or worthwhile in our life. And we start off with lots of enthusiasm and that slowly, slowly drops off over time to the point where we’re no longer performing the action and it’s not having an impact on our life. So, question is how do you keep that? I’d actually like to share with you a framework for thinking about behavior change and this framework actually applies to any behavior you wanna change, whether it’s in your business, whether it’s in your personal life. And what I’m gonna do is actually share my screen with you right now. And, we’re gonna do a little bit of drawing together.

So here’s our Digital Autopilot canvas and what I’m gonna… Let me give you a two minute crash course on human behavioral change. You see when we wanna change a particular behavior, we start with some kind of vision in mind. So let’s put that here. We’ve got a vision that we wanna achieve. Now, in order to achieve that vision we actually need a few key components. So to achieve the vision, I’m gonna draw a bit of a triangle for us here.

Raph (03:08)
This is not a creative arts course, by the way if you’ve just started listening or watching.

Joel (03:13)
Yeah, correct. It’s definitely not. So at the very top is what I’m gonna call, “Mindset”. What that means is if you wanna create a particular change in your life, you need to be thinking in the right way. You need to buy into the change. You need to have the right belief in order for that to happen. I’ll give you, share some examples in a moment. Mindset is one component, but it’s not all we also need the right skills. In other words, it’s one thing to have the right belief systems. But if we don’t know how to do the thing that we are trying to do, it’s gonna be a problem. We need to build our skillset, but that’s not all. We also have one more component and that’s what I’m gonna call “Systems”. Systems are these processes that are in place and embedded in your life that enable you to to perform the right activities in line with your mindset in order to achieve the vision. Now, I’ll give you a practical example and I’ll tell you about how I did this poorly. So, about 10 years after I got married, I decided that it was time to get fit again. You see, I used to be quite fit and about 10 years after I got married, I realized I’d actually not really done much exercise for 10 years.

Raph (04:42)
Just blame your wife. She cooks too good.

Joel (04:47)
Yeah. Yeah. It wasn’t just about the eating. It was also no physical exercise, whatsoever. I used to go to gym two to three times a week and then it just all fell off a hill, once I started having kids.

Raph (05:01)
Kids can do that to you.

Joel (05:04)
So anyway, I decided go get back into it. So I had a vision. My vision was to get fit. Now, in order to achieve that vision you obviously need to have the right mindset. So one of the key beliefs was that doing physical activity, for instance, on a regular basis is a important way to get fit. And obviously I already had that right mindset. I bought into it. I knew it. I was used to it.

Raph (05:32)
Being healthy in general, where, you know for some people it could be physical activity. Some people could be just eating better but just being healthy in general, I would say.

Joel (05:40)
Correct. And if you don’t have that mindset already that that’s important, then no strategy’s gonna help you. So that’s Step one. You have to believe it. Step two is the skills. So, I already had the skills for fitness. I knew exactly what to do when I went to a gym. I did it for years. Myself. I didn’t need anyone to tell me. I already had the skillset. And so what did I do? I did what many people do. And that is, I bought a gym membership. Sounds like a good strategy, right?

Joel (06:12)
And of course, I went to the gym for the first week, the second week. By the third week, instead of going twice a week, I went once. By the fourth week, I didn’t go at all. The fifth week, I went again. But by the sixth week, it was basically all over. Right. I’d stopped going. And it became a very expensive gym membership.

What happened? I started with great enthusiasm. I had the right mindset. I had the skills. Problem was, I didn’t have the right systems in my life to embed that habit. In other words, what I said to myself was, “You know what? When I get time, I’ll go to gym, right.” I didn’t put it into my life in a framework. And, and as a result, who really has spare time these days? Right? So I found that I didn’t have time. I didn’t make time.

So what I did is I changed my approach. After I realized this, I did two things which were fundamental. Number one is I said to myself, “I’m gonna create a system in my life. Right? I’m gonna create a regime where I just decided that I was gonna go to gym twice a week on particular mornings each week at a particular time.” In my case, it was 5:45 AM in the morning. That was gonna be my time for gym before the day starts really. And before my other responsibility commenced that was when I was gonna do it.
That already was helpful, but it actually wasn’t enough. What I did was I put in place what James Clear calls a “Commitment Device”, right. Sometimes called an “Accountability Mechanism”. But what it was was I knew I needed some way to hold me accountable for actually rocking up at 5:45 AM when it’s still dark outside on two mornings a week. And so what I did was I employed a personal trainer. Yes, it did cost me some money, but it was well worth it because what happened was I had someone who I knew was waiting for me. I didn’t actually need the trainer to give me the skills. Cause I knew, I really knew what to do. Yeah, I learned a bit extra from him as well, but that’s not why I hired him. I didn’t need him to teach me the mindset. Cause I already had that. I needed him to hold me accountable to create a commitment device so that I would rock up. Cause I knew he was waiting there for me.

You know what happened? Soon as I put that in place, the change was embedded in my life. And for many, many years, right up until COVID a couple of years back, I was going two days a week, literally hail, rain or shine and my fitness improved dramatically, as a result. And for that, this fundamental idea is really about building systems in our life and putting in place a way to make that system a way to hold us accountable for that system to keep us committed to that system. And if you can do that, you can create massive change whichever area you want to implement it.

Raph (09:17)
Right. I was even gonna say that, that’s a great example because you’re getting other people involved. And when there are other people involved, you can’t sort of hide whether it’s telling people that you’re going to do something or communicating about it. But in your case, you’re paying someone to show up. So you kind of feel like you have to be there. I even feel like personally, just like writing a to-do list, even if it’s something regular, like a good habit. So at least you tick it off every day. I would say it’s not as impactful as maybe paying someone and making sure you turn up but at least it’s something small saying, “I wanna tick this thing off every day.” Whether it’s a reminder in your phone cause at least it’s a reminder saying, “You know what I had this vision. I had this belief. I know I’ve got the skills but this is to remind me to do it.” You know, little things. Could be just, paying certain checks or putting some savings away every month. And it reminds you and you know there’s accountability there. You see that message on the phone or on that to-do list. You know that at one point in time you thought about this idea that it should be a good thing to do.

Joel (10:26)
Well, the savings one that you just mentioned, putting savings away is a great one. In fact, James Clear actually uses that specific example. He talks about wherever possible, automate the activity and make the decision beforehand so that you don’t have to decide on it at the time. So, he’ll say for example, set up an automatic savings plan where a certain amount of money goes to your account into savings and you’ve already made the commitment. It’s already happening and you don’t actually have to decide every day to do that particular act.

Raph (11:03)
Even more than that. What I just read recently in his book was that you give it a name. So if you can name that bank account or that jar where you put the money in for that savings, like call it the saving for European holiday. And I think the example he said, like a husband AND wife were trying to either eat healthier but to save money at the same time. So every time they didn’t go, they didn’t get that takeaway meal, but they cooked at home home, that’d put let’s say $50 in the saving for the European holiday trip. So they would see that. So there was that commitment system, so to speak that not only were they committing to each other but they could actually see how things were developing as they went along. So that was in a way like a progress tracker that might be another topic to maybe discuss.

Joel (11:59)
Yeah. Visual cues to help you see the change that you’re making.

Raph (12:04)
And apps have been fantastic. There’s probably too many apps but there’s some very good apps. Whether it’s fitness, weight loss and savings or trying to track that progress and seeing that and you see that in surveys, for example, you do one question and then the bar moves a little bit across and somebody feels, “Oh, well I’m actually moving towards that goal, that vision.” Like you said.”

Joel (12:28)
So there you have it, guys. There’s our strategy for the day. See if you can, when you’re taking on a new habit that’s gonna help you in some way in your life. If you can look for a way not just to have the right mindset and skillset but to create a system in your life and create an accountability or commitment mechanism around it, to hold you accountable for the change you wanna make. Good luck implementing it in your life.

Raph (12:53)
And I was gonna say if you got any ideas that we haven’t mentioned about ways, some systems or good ideas, pop in a message or comment below.

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