Head over to the kitchen to boil up some water. I can’t write anything without coffee. I do the same thing when I first come into the office. Start up my computer and mosey over to the kitchen.
Part of this habit has to do with the shot of caffeine I get, but I suspect it’s mostly a delaying tactic. Writing anything is going to require mental energy, and I want to put it off. And for me, coffee also comes with another reward – an accompanying piece of chocolate.
After reading Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, I’ve come to the conclusion that I’ve actually got my habit bass akward. My coffee routine does eventually lead me down a path to some sort of productivity – but it’s a long winding road with many diversions and detours into my email inbox and elsewhere on the Internet. A far more efficient approach would be to sit down, write this thing and then reward myself with the coffee and chocolate when it’s done.
Forming such strategies is one of the big themes of Duhigg’s book: We humans are slaves to our habitual natures (according to some studies, 40 percent of what we do in a day is not the result of any conscious decision making) so there is not much point fighting them. A better option is to make habits work to our advantage.
In its simplest form, a habit has three components: a cue, a routine and a reward. The key to changing habits is not to avoid the cues or to change the rewards. Rather, it involves changing the routine that leads from cue to habit. Duhigg recounts how a few years back he noted he was gaining weight, at least in part, because every afternoon at 3:30 he would break and go get a chocolate chip cookie. A series of experiments, such as having tea instead, chatting with colleagues or taking a brisk walk, suggested that what he really wanted was a break from work and interaction with colleagues. Instead of getting a cookie, he started taking 10 minutes to chat and found that he got the same reward from the activity. The cue stayed the same and the reward was similar, but the routine was markedly different. The result? He lost 21 pounds!
Though scientists didn’t put a name to this cue/routine/reward mechanism—the habit loop—until well into the 20th century, entrepreneurs have long understood the importance of routines. Duhigg tells the story of Claude Hopkins, the advertising wizard behind Pepsodent and the man who, in the early 1900s, got us all to start brushing our teeth every day. He found a cue: feeling a weird film on teeth. Through ads, he offered a solution: brush every morning. The reward: clean, bright tingly teeth. All toothpaste companies now add chemicals to toothpaste solely to create that tingly feeling. As Duhigg’s own cookie experiment showed, it’s not just big corporations who can benefit from this. Individuals’ lives and small business cultures can be positively impacted by adjusting what the author refers to as “keystone” habits. Insistence that a certain security routine be followed, for example, can lead to a feeling among staff of enhanced concern for their safety. That can make them more open to following other company initiatives.
The secret is to identify the cues and rewards driving particularly behaviors, and then adhere to what is known as the Golden Rule of Habit Change: only change one part of the loop at a time. To change a routine, for instance, keep the old cue and find a routine that delivers an old reward. Don’t try to change everything at once.
Finished! Now it’s time to head over to the kitchen. I can already smell the beans. I know, I am double-dipping on the reward, but it’s going to take time to rewire my brain. One thing at a time …