Exploring the Power of Habit

Word count: 638

Reading time: About 2.5 minutes

As soon as I saw the title of the book The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg, pictured here, I wanted to read it. Even if the work had nothing to do with writing (and that’s pretty much the case) I reckoned I could grab some useful tips that I could apply to my own core area of interest.

What I didn’t predict was how utterly engaging the book would be. Want to know why the product Febreze started life as a dud, before becoming an ultra best-seller? Curious about how swimmer Michael Phelps managed to set a world record in a race while suffering from leaking goggles? Wanting to figure out how Rick Warren managed to start a brand new church and attract not just hundreds but  thousands of people in a secular society? Duhigg, an investigative reporter for the New York Times, answers all these questions and finds a common theme that binds them.

For Duhigg, it boils down to what he calls the habit “loop.” In this loop, an environmental cue automatically leads to a behavioral routine that results in a reward. For example, let’s say you have the bad habit of writing a blog entry or a report at the very last minute.

To change this habit, Dughig offers four suggestions:

  1. Identify the routine
  2. Experiment with rewards
  3. Isolate the cue
  4. Have a plan

The routine is the easy one: Whenever you think about writing, you procrastinate. You go and do something more interesting, first, and you delay writing until the last possible minute.

The rewards are slightly more complex: How do you possibly get rewarded by being late? Is it because you don’t know how to start writing? Are you afraid that if you devote an hour to writing something that won’t be enough time (so writing at the last minute forces you not to spend too much time on it)? Do you find the task of writing unspeakably boring so procrastinating is actually more interesting for you?

Duhigg suggests you try a series of other rewards you might offer yourself (writing in very short bursts over a longer period of time, limiting the overall amount of time you allow yourself to spend on the writing project, giving yourself a nice reward, such as going to a movie, for finishing early) and then rating how they make you feel. He then proposes that after each of the new rewards you write down the first three things that come to mind when you’re finished. As Duhigg writes, “By experimenting with different rewards, you can isolate what you are actually craving, which is essential in redesigning the habit.”

Isolating the cue is perhaps the most difficult part of this experiment. But almost all habitual cues fit into one of five categories:

  • location
  • time
  • emotional state
  • other people
  • immediately preceding action

So, if you’re trying to figure out the cue for procrastinating about writing, write yourself notes on each of these five things so you isolate the pattern. In your case, let’s imagine the primary cue is that you’re worried about what other people are going to think about your writing.

Finally, make yourself a plan. The secret to building a new, better habit  is to make new choices and keep doing this over time. If you habitually procrastinate about writing and if you’ve discovered that this is because you’re worried about what other people are going to think about your writing you need to recognize this and give yourself some rewards that will satisfy your true concern.

For example, you might start writing EARLIER (to remove some of the time pressure) and LIMIT your writing time (so it doesn’t take over your life.) Whatever you do, address the real cue and you will be taking the first important step to breaking a bad habit — whether about writing, or anything else.

Oh, and read this book!