Building Successful Habits: Visualization

Have you ever decided you wanted to start working out in the morning before work? You’ll set the alarm an hour earlier and crawl out of bed for three, maybe even four days in a row. But then comes a client dinner or the weekend and you have to take a morning off. The following Monday comes and when that early alarm goes off you have no motivation to get up early and end up hitting snooze. Motivation on its own is not going to help you create a lasting habit because without anything else reconfirming it, motivation will fade with time.

Trent Dyrsmid and the Paper Clip Strategy

In his book, “Atomic Habits” James Clear has a chapter about a small local bank in a Vancouver Canada suburb that hired a 23 year old Stock Broker names Trent Dyrsmid. Given his age and the size of the bank, Trent was not expected to have all that much success, but he was able to prove all of the doubters wrong thanks to a very simple daily habit.

Within a year and a half, Trent was bringing in $5 million for the firm and making $75,000 year ($125,000 today after adjusting for inflation). He credited his success to what he called his paperclip habit. Every morning he started with two jars on his desk. The first was filled with 120 paper clips. At 8 am Trent started to make sales calls and after each call he would move 1 paperclip from the first jar into the second jar. He did this over and over until all 120 paperclips were in jar 2.

While everyone else was ready the financial section of the paper each morning or catching up on last nights hockey game (this was in Canada remember), Trent was sitting at his desk slowly watching the paper clips accumulate into jar 2. 120 sales calls is a huge daily volume, but seeing the paper clips grow in jar 2 created visual progress for Trent that reaffirmed his motivation so that it did not fade. Overtime this just became the default for him and it helped him become one of the most successful employees at the bank. All before the age of 25.

Why Visualization Helps to Create Habits That Stick

I’ve already mentioned the instant satisfaction that comes from seeing yourself take small steps of progress, but visual cues can offer more than just that feeling of satisfaction:

Visual cues can remind you to start a habit

It would have been easy for Trent to lose motivation one morning and join the rest of his team bullshitting about whatever each morning, but seeing his jar of paper clips when he got in each morning reminded him of that feeling of motivation each morning and renewed his motivation to continue making phone calls. This can be put towards any number of habits, be it a reminder to eat healthy 10 meals a week, go to the gym or for a run 4 days a week, etc. Setting up something like Trent’s paperclip strategy can offer a great reminder to stick to your goal of creating a new habit.

Visual Cues can be used to reinforce short-term and long-term motivation

The paper clip strategy is a great way to maintain high levels of motivation for daily goals, but what about for long term goals? James Clear also talks about the “Seinfeld Strategy” on his blog. He mentions how Jerry Seinfeld credits his success as a comedian to writing everyday, and each day that he did he would put a big X on the calendar he had hanging in his bedroom. After three days of writing jokes Jerry had a chain. At that point, Jerry’s only goal was to not break the chain, and the calendar allowed him to visualize that chain each days and the joy of watching it get longer and longer each month kept him motivated to keep writing.

I think that these two methods (coupled with the aggregate of marginal gains) can be stacked to multiply the effects that visualization can have on habit formation. If you want to start a side hustle then start off by getting 3 paper clips and print out this weekly calendar. Start your side hustle habit by doing three things for it every week. This could be something as simple as signing up for an account on WordPress and creating a website, or maybe you sign up to walk dogs with Rover. It doesn’t matter what the task is as long as it moves you a step closer towards earning additional income. But each time you complete a task every week move one paperclip to the other jar. After all three paperclips are in jar 2, cross off that week on my calendar. After three weeks you will have a chain of X’s and at that point your only goal is to not break the chain.

The reason I mentioned the aggregate of marginal gains though is to not start too big with your weekly progress. Start with just 3 paperclips and after the first month add a 4th. After month 2 add a fifth, etc, etc.

You won’t notice the effects immediately which is why these visual cues are so important. Be sure to put your calendar and paperclips somewhere that you will see them each day too.

I hope this strategy is able to help all of you, please be sure to comment below how you plan to use this or have already used it in the past!

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