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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 getitdonein30.com 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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Neither Averting Nor Craving in Each Moment
How Taking Care of My Finances Changed My Life
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7 Strategies for Dealing with Toxic People
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How to Beat Procrastination with Daily Training
The Time When We’ll Be Present & Content
A Simple, Powerful Self-Compassion Method
When Others Frustrate You
Your Internet Habits Create Your Reality
The Case for Replacing Exercise with Play
Leave Yourself Wanting More
Fail Faster at Habits
The Anti-Bucket List
Getting Started with the Discipline Habit
The Case for Caring About Your Work
Questions of Priority
The Futility of Always Pushing Myself to Be More
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You’re Not Doing Life Wrong
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An Addict’s Guide to Overcoming the Distraction Habit
The Source of Contentment
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What You Can Say Instead of “I Don’t Feel Like It”
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The Girl Who Saw Through the Illusions
A Gradual Approach to Healthy Eating
Unconditional Acceptance of Yourself
My Typical Day: How I Get People to Think I’m Productive
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In Praise of Limits
The Art of Being My Dad
5 Ideas to Create an Amazing 2015
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Overwhelmed by All the Changes You Want to Make
My 2014 Successes and Failures
Finding the Motivation to Change Your Entire Life
When You’re Lonely
The Brain’s Fast Mode
5 Questions to Simplify Your Life During the Holidays
The Zen Habits Holiday Gift Guide
The Four Hidden Habit Skills
The Power of Delay
Overwhelmed & Rushed? Do a Stress Assess
Writer as Coder: The Iterative Way to Write a Book
Please Support the Zen Habits Book
Are You a Lift or Drag Force?
When Resistance Smacks You in the Face
When Your Plate is Too Full
The Quickstart Guide to Quitting a Bad Habit
The Zen Habits Book is Almost Done
A Quick Guide to Gaining Confidence When You Socialize
The Empty Container
The Realization
A Guide to Changing Self-Destructive Behaviors
Pushing Past the Terrifying Dip in Motivation
It’s Not Too Late to Change Bad Habits
The Smart Way to Stick to Habits
My Most Effective Learning Tools
What I Do When I Fail
How to Put Your Writing in Public
The Productive Sprint
The Biggest Reasons You Haven’t Changed Your Habits
Seized by the Thunderhold of Fear
What to Eat for Fat Loss
The Heartbreaking Cruelty of Comparing Yourself to Others
A Brief Guide to Overcoming Instant Gratification
How to Get Motivated After a Vacation
7 Strategies for Facing Your Internet/TV Addiction
How to Breathe
7 Discipline-Mastering Practices
7 Rules That Keep My Life Simple
An Education in the Majestic Sierra Nevada
The Lies Your Mind Tells You to Prevent Life Changes
How to Believe in Yourself
Don’t Waste a Moment
How to Find Your Life Purpose: An Unconventional Approach
How to Be Great
Making Yourself Work
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How to Master the Art of Living
The Delusional Fantasies We Live With Each Day
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How to Be Prepared for Anything
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The Painful Beauty of Impermanence
How to Change Other People
Pursuing Happiness When It’s Already Within You
The Quickstart Guide to a Decluttered Home
Parental Zen: How to Keep Your Cool as a Parent
Looking for Love
How to Stop Your Habit Changes From Getting Derailed
Why We Have Regret
The Essence of Fatherhood: 6 Simple Lessons
A Call for Revolt: Advertising is the Anti-Minimalism
The Frustratingly Slow Pace of Making Changes
My Struggles with Eating Boring Food
The No Procrastination Challenge
Creating a Lovely Morning
A Father’s Manifesto: Raising Young Men Who Respect Women
Turn Inspiration Into Action
Coming Back From a Setback
The Gift
A Guide for Young People: What to Do With Your Life
No Excuses: Minimalism with Kids
How to Make a Marriage Work
Love Notes
Flavorless: My Month of Food Boringness
The Letting Go Ebook, Free
The Miracle of the Self-Compassion Habit
How I Tackle a Big Writing Project
The Habit Action List
The Reality of This Moment
Confidence in Your Business
10 Ways to Do What You Don’t Want to Do
On Making It Through Tough Journeys
The Hard Stuff Often Matters Most
What to Think About During Exercise
You’ll Be OK
The Most Important Two Minutes of Your Life
A Call for Compassion for the Defenseless
The Cure for Your Distraction Syndrome
You’re Not Worse Than Other People
Being Mindful of Your Stress
What if You Didn’t Have to Worry About Yourself?
The Universe of a Single Task
Simplifying Is Painful
Becoming Emotionally Self-Reliant
How I Cleaned House & Simplified My Work Life
The Busy Person’s Guide to Reducing Stress
My Month Without a Smartphone
What I’ve Learned as a Writer
What the Exercise Habit Did For Me
Fear is the Root of Your Problems
This Moment
36 Lessons I’ve Learned About Habits
The 3 Do-What-You-Love Conundrums
How I Conduct My Business
Constant Task Switching
The Habits of Five Amazing Founders
The Incredible Importance of Sleep for Habits & Motivation
What Really Motivates Us to Stick to a Project?
I Tried to Quit & It’s Too Hard!
Unwired: A Month With Limited Internet, & Now No Cell Phone
Procrastination is a Mindfulness Problem
Letting Go of Judging People
Don’t Scratch the Itch
Become Happy in the Face of Physical Misery
How Repetition Can Kickstart a Habit
Zen Productivity
When You’re Feeling Self-Doubt & a Lack of Motivation
The Child That Holds Us Back
Stateless Mindset
My Month of (Almost) No Internet
12 Changes for 2014
Essential Zen Habits of 2013
The Fear of Being Alone
The Calm Approach
Things Every Man Should Own
Family Gatherings: The Ultimate Mindfulness Training Ground
Letter to an 18-year-old on the Career Path Less Traveled
A Method to Find Balance
16 Surprising Lessons from My First 50-Mile Ultramarathon
The Simple Fitness Habit Holiday Challenge
Struggles with My Morning Internet Fast
Surrender, Mindfulness & Entrepreneurship
How I Learned to Stop Procrastinating, & Love Letting Go
Finding Focus
When You Run Out of Ideas
The Necessary Art of Subtraction
Jealousy & Suffering
How Creativity Works, & How to Do It
Self-Discipline in 5 Sentences
Make It Your Job
Developing Selfless Compassion
Lyrical Learning, & Why We Learn Habits Wrong
A Month Without Sugar
Why I Read (+ a Dozen Book Recommendations)
12 Indispensable Mindful Living Tools
Burn Down the Farm
My Most Minimal Travel Setup Yet
The Exquisite Habits of the Founder of Blue Bottle Coffee
3 Little Tricks to Deal With People Who Offend You
My Healthiest Travel Routine Yet
Startup Founder Megan Casey’s Habits of Priorities
My Pursuit of the Art of Living
A Month Without TV or Video
The Way of No Debt
Letting Go: How to Live With the Loss of a Loved One
The Way to Be
Ramit Sethi’s Entrepreneurial Habits
The Time to Shut Down
The Pain & Beauty of Life Changes
8 Creativity Lessons from a Pixar Animator
Zen Mountain: Leave It All Behind
Overcoming the Social Costs of Being Different
Finding Quiet and Mindfulness Through Food
My Failed Month of ‘No Sitting’
The Thinking Habit That Changed My Life
Liking Healthy Foods is a Choice
Unschoolery: My New Blog on Unschooling
My Advice for Starting a Business
Creating Your Habit Environment
Travel Lessons with My Family
Easier Decision-Making: Conduct Experiments
Simplify: Let Go of Your Crutches
The Fear of Being Found a Fraud
The Flexible Mind
Declutter Your Life
A Month Without Coffee
The Healthful Vegan Diet
Living the Quiet Life
The Art of Tasting Chocolate Mindfully
Why Fear of Discomfort Might Be Ruining Your Life
The Habits of Happiness
How to Keep Habits Going During Travel
A Year of Living Without
The Key Habits of Organization
I Failed
Vegan Guide to San Francisco
The Futility of Comparing Yourself to Others
A Secret to Dad Greatness
Habits: A Simple Change in Mindset Changes Everything
The Worry That You’re Doing the Wrong Thing Right Now
6 Steps To Being More Creative
How I Finally Faced My Weight & Debt Problems
Working with the Obstacles in Your Path
9 Rules for a Simpler Day
The Little Book of Contentment
The Obstacle is the Path
5 Lessons in Contentment from Billionaires Warren Buffett & Charlie Munger
Smile in Each Moment
A Guide to Practical Compassion
6 Steps To Healing Yourself
The 7-Day Vegan Challenge
Why You Should Write Daily
Achieving Without Goals
Flowing with the Stresses of Kids (or anyone else)
Habit Mastery: Creating the New Normal
Defeat Distraction: Refocusing with Purpose
Expanding the Envelope: A Method for Beating Anger
A Guide to Practical Contentment
The Practice of Work Mind & Vacation Mind, Simultaneously
How to Eat Real Food Without Spending Hours in the Kitchen
Quitting Your Habits
The 38 Best Methods of Successful Exercisers
How To Make It Impossible To Fail
The Not Knowing Path of Being an Entrepreneur
How to Change Your Life: A User’s Guide
Getting Your Family On Board with Life Changes
How to Stick to a Habit When Life Falls Apart
Zen Mind in the Middle of Chaos & Stress
Create a Sacred Space in Your Heart
Meditation: The Most Fundamental Habit
Creating the Genuine Connections We Long For
Tremors of Psychitude: One Little Trick to Find Purpose and Motivation
Create the Habits of Being Lean, in 7 Years
Walled-in: Life Without Facebook
The 7 Habits of Calmness
The Four Habits that Form Habits
Advice to My Kids
My 10 Essential Email Habits
The Daily Checklist
Sticking to a Habit: The Definitive Guide
The Meditation Diet: How I Lost 60+ lbs. by Savoring
The Power of Habit Investments
Discomfort Zone: How to Master the Universe
The Most Successful Techniques for Rising Early
Do Less: A Short Guide
How to Savor Life
What We Lack in a Hyperconnected World
Simplify the Internet
12 Rules to Live By
The New Rules of Fitness for 2013
52 Changes for 2013
The Unprocrastination Month, and the Relaunch of the Sea Change Program
Essential Zen Habits of 2012
The Other Person is Never the Problem
The Do Plan, or Why We Know But Don’t Do
28 Brilliant Tips for Living Life
The Clutter-free Holiday Guide
The Little Trick to Make Any Moment Better
Tim Ferriss vs. Leo Babauta Showdown: On Whether Goals Suck
The Work You Love is Waiting For You
The 7-Step Method to Find Focus for Writing
The Buy-Nothing Holiday Survival Guide
Challenge: Buy Nothing Until 2013
How to Learn Anything
Shaken By Life’s Beauty, Shaken
Untrack: Letting Go of the Stress of Measuring
15 Great Excuses Not to Form the Fitness Habit
How to Make Health Insurance a Bad Bet
Why the Fitness Habit is More Important Than the Plan
The Willingness to Think Differently
Create a Superhealth Community
A Vegan Tour of NYC