This One Strategy Can Help You Stick With Your Good Habits Every Day
In 1993, a small bank in Abbotsford, Canada hired a 23-year-old stock broker named Trent Dyrsmid.
Dyrsmid was a rookie and nobody at the firm expected too much of his performance. Moreover, Abbotsford was still a relatively small suburb back then, tucked away in the shadow of nearby Vancouver where most of the big business deals were being made. The first popular email services like AOL and Hotmail wouldn’t arrive for another two or three years, so geography still played a large role in business success. And yet, despite his disadvantages, Dyrsmid made immediate progress thanks to a simple and relentless habit that he used each day.
On his desk, he placed two jars. One was filled with 120 paper clips. The other was empty. This is when the habit started.
“Every morning I would start with 120 paper clips in one jar and I would keep dialing the phone until I had moved them all to the second jar.”
And that was it. 120 calls per day. One paper clip at a time.
Within 18 months, Dyrsmid’s book of business grew to $5 million in assets. By age 24, he was making $75,000. Within a few years, outside firms began recruiting him because of his success and he landed a $200,000 job with another company.
Volume of Work
I asked Dyrsmid about the details of his habit and he said, “I would start calling at 8am every day. I never looked at stock quotes or analyst research. I also never read the newspaper for the entire time. If the news was really important, it would find me from other ways.”
In other words, Dyrsmid had decided that success in his field came down to one core task: making more sales calls. There was no secret sauce. There was no magic bullet. Good habits were the magic bullet. And so, Dyrsmid put his energy toward the fundamentals that actually determined success rather than getting distracted by the details. In fact, he eliminated every detail that detracted from the task.
Consider how this strategy may have differed from his peers and colleagues. It’s not hard to imagine other stock brokers in the firm spending their mornings catching up on research, checking the latest analyst reports, or digging through stock quotes. These are actions that are easy to justify. After all, shouldn’t a well-informed broker perform better? By the time they began making calls, however, his fellow brokers would already be dozens of calls behind Trent. Add that gap up, day after day, and it isn’t hard to imagine why Trent performed so well relative to his peers.
Trent Dyrsmid’s story is evidence of a simple truth: Success is often a result of committing to the fundamentals over and over again. (See: “Everybody already knows that” is very different from “Everybody already does that.”)
Habits That Stick vs. Habits That Fail
Compare Trent’s results to where you and I often find ourselves. We want to be consistent with our workouts, but struggle to make it into the gym. We know we should write more Thank You notes, but can’t seem to find the motivation to get them done. We’d like to achieve our goals, but still procrastinate on them.
What makes the difference? Why do some habits stick while other fail? Why did Trent’s paper clip habit work so well? And what can we learn from it when it comes to improving our own behavior?
The Power of a Visual Cue
I believe that the paper clip strategy works particularly well because they provide a visual cue to perform the behavior.
Here are a few reasons visual cues work well for building new habits…
Visual cues remind you to start a behavior. Whenever you are excited and motivated about starting something new, it can be easy to convince yourself that you will simply remember to do your new habit. “I’m going to start eating healthier.” Or, “I’m going to focus and get to the gym more often.” A few days later, however, the motivation fades and the busyness of life begins to take over again. Hoping you will remember to do a new habit is usually a recipe for failure. This is why a visual stimulus, like a bin full of paper clips, can be so useful. There is no need to write a Post-It Note or set a reminder on your phone. The paper clips are sitting right there and staring you in the face. They are always reminding you to get started.
Visual cues display your progress on a behavior. Everyone knows consistency is an essential component of success, but few people actually track how consistent they are in real life. Without data, however, it is so easy to lie to ourselves about how reliable our habits are in real life. The Paper Clip Strategy avoids that pitfall. If the paper clips haven’t been moved, you haven’t done your habit today.
Visual cues can have an additive effect on motivation. As the visual evidence of your progress mounts, it is natural to become more motivated to continue the habit. The more paperclips you place in the bin, the more motivated you become to finish the task. (Visual cues can also be used to provide fear-based motivation. I have heard of weight loss clients moving glass marbles from one bin to another for each pound they lose. Once you move a marble over, you definitely don’t want to move it back.)
Visual cues can be used to drive short-term and long-term motivation. The paper clip strategy provides a visual cue that drives your behavior on any given day. Each morning, however, you start from scratch with no indication of how you have done over the previous weeks and months. This is where another type of visual cue can be useful. The “Don’t Break the Chain” Calendar that I described in my article on the Seinfeld Strategy can be used to showcase your consistency over longer periods of time. By stacking these two methods together, you have a set of visual cues that track your progress over the short-run and the long-run.
Creating Your Own Paper Clip Strategy
There are all sorts of ways to use the paper clip habit for your own goals.
Hoping to do 100 pushups each day? Start with 10 paper clips and move one over each time you drop down and do a set of 10 throughout the day.
Need to send 25 sales emails every day? Start with 25 paper clips and toss one to the other side each time you press Send.
Want to drink 8 glasses of water each day? Start with 8 paper clips and slide one over each time you finish a glass.
Not sure if you’re taking your medication three times per day? Set 3 paper clips out and flip one into the bin each time you swallow them down.
Best of all, the entire strategy will cost you less than $10. Grab a box of standard paper clips. Then get two standard paper clip holders. Decide your habit and start moving those bad boys from one side to the other.
Everyone likes to believe they are the exception and that the standard rules of human behavior don’t apply to them. “I’ll remember to do this habit because I really care about it.” Or, “Trust me, I work hard every day.”
In truth, we all have a tendency to revert to the mean. We all drift back toward our default behaviors. We tend to remember our good days and brush away the below average performances by seeing them as exceptions. That is why we need visual cues to track our progress truthfully and provide a trigger to get us moving each day.