It isn’t all that surprising when you find yourself struggling with anything from learning new skills to busting through the mental roadblocks that are holding .

It’s the ways that people struggle that I find most interesting. Maybe that makes me weird, but it’s also paved the way for most of my biggest successes.

And through 7 years of teaching our courses and workshops - especially our flagship 30x500 - Amy and I have earned a unique lens into the surprising ways that thousands of professional creatives struggle. We’ve also found that there’s one thing that consistently helped strugglers move forward.

As they say, “the struggle is real.”

Today I want to share how we learned to help our students kill that struggle at the root.

We first started noticing the struggle when our earliest 30x500 students would seem to go out of their way to avoid completing assignments.

They’d fall behind. They’d self-flagellate. Rinse, repeat.

Over and over, we saw our students:

  • read the lessons and emails, but not really study
  • skip over lessons, thinking “I don’t need this”
  • believe that their deepest fears and anxieties were the most likely outcomes, and stop dead in their tracks (seriously, I can’t tell you how many people would lose their head over the fear of publishing a blog post because someone on the internet might disagree)
  • find or create distractions when things got tough or confusing
  • get excited, and then drop off

At first, we tried warning people that these mistakes were common, and avoidable. But those “warnings” turned into reminders that repeated over and over on our email list.

Which led to more distractions. And more self-flagellation.

Finally, after months of observation and research, we discovered the single common cause of nearly every struggle our students had:

Their habits.

You see, most of us have been groomed by our personal and professional lives to go in one direction.

  • Our students would see ideas they thought they understood and a habit would kick in. They’d skim instead of study.
  • Our students would start feeling anxious when they tried something new and a habit would kick in. They’d avoid trying for fear of “doing it wrong.”
  • Our students would get a burst of creative inspiration and a habit would kick in. They’d put the unsexy research aside to start building.

The problem was that our lessons attempt to reverse the direction without first altering these underlying habits.

So we turned to research. Like we do!

First, Amy put on her research hat and found some fantastic studies, materials, and techniques from habit experts like BJ Fogg and Charles Duhigg and instructional design experts like Kathy Sierra.

Sidenote, we love those folks and their work. They inspire us. They’ve each helped make us better teachers, not to mention better people. We HIGHLY recommend their books and programs. Seriously, go read ‘em up.

Then, research in hand, we took these ideas back to the lab.

We took our observations of the most common mistakes our students made. We mixed in the research and examples. We created our own set of exercises designed to baby-step people through the process of understanding and improving their own hidden habits before they ever touched a page of the core 30x500 material.

The first time we ran this new “mini course” we started hearing something different from our students. People were literally having epiphanies about why they’d struggled in the past without us having to explain it to them.

“I’m starting to realize that 30x500 is worth the price of admission based solely on the distilled knowledge of 8000+ books Amy has read and converted into small, actionable chunks.”

  • a 30x500 student who isn’t wrong

Most importantly, for the first time, we saw a dramatic increase in our students’ results.

After introducing our habits mini-course, more of our students beat the struggle to go from zero to one. And that’s the hardest struggle of them all.

Looking back over the last 7 years of teaching, there’s only one thing that consistently turns struggles into success. It’s almost like a light switch.

And that’s when people take control of their habits.

Learn your hidden habits

Research says that roughly 40% of the decisions we make every day aren’t actually decisions, they’re habits.

That’s a lot of habits!

The problem is that most of the time, we don’t even notice a habit until it’s taken us off track.

So how helpful would it be if you could learn a way to track down your sneakiest habits in just a couple of minutes every day?

You can! During our 30x500 mini-course on habits, our students learn a super-simple technique based on a research method called the Experience Sampling Method.

And now, for the first time outside of 30x500, you can try this technique for yourself!

Step 1 - Set a few “random” reminders to go off during your work day

Start by picking a block of time where you want to start improving your work process by taking notice of your habits, and set a few “random” times to set alerts (e.g. 9:35am, 11:38am, 1:42pm). Try setting different times on different days to mix it up and catch different parts of your day.

Step 2 - Set up a journal page or blank document with a few questions

Doing a little bit of “mis en place” always makes things much easier. On each page or section, write down these questions:

  1. What am I doing?
  2. How did I start doing this?
  3. Why am I doing this (is there something I want to happen, or avoid)?
Step 3 - Start sampling!

Each time one of your alerts goes off, pause what you’re doing and fill in your journal entry.

Don’t over think your answers, you’re just documenting what you notice.

Step 4 - Analyze your notes

After you’ve collected a week of journal entries, it’s time to study.

  • Each answer to “What am I doing?” is a potential habit routine, something that you do instinctively.
  • Each answer to “How did I start doing this” is a potential habit trigger, something that your brain reacts to by triggering your routine.
  • Each answer to “Why am I doing this? is a potential habit reward, something that consciously or subconsciously motivates you to complete the routine.

Then, ask yourself:

Do you notice any recurring patterns in your triggers or rewards?

What are your most valuable routines? What are most harmful or distracting routines?

Do you have any habits that you want to modify or improve?

This exercise will help you develop the mindfulness & awareness you need to examine your automatic habits!