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The Amazing Secret Behind All Habits

The Amazing Secret Behind All Habits


    “21 days for a habit to sink in…” 

    “Habits must have positive reinforcement…” 

    “You must go ‘cold turkey’ for a real habit to sink in…” 

    Have you ever heard these myths about habits?

    They may not be necessarily wrong, but they are incomplete.

    Habits tend to be like fleeting, mystical “pots of gold” for us humans–we want them, and reach for them, but they’re often just out of our grasp. They promise a better life, filled with more success, more productivity, and better results in every arena.

    But they’re hard to set. 

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    Of course, the problem with most habits is that they’re not something we can just think about–we need to actively try to implement them, remind ourselves to think about them, and even keep written reminders in the corners of our homes that remind us to think about them!

    In a word, habits are difficult.

    I don’t know how many times I’ve met someone with a particular character trait–for example, the proverbial “strong and silent type”–and told myself that I’d work to “be more like that.” I can’t remember how many times I’ve read about an historical person who’s personality I wanted to “borrow” and make my own–like Einstein’s journaling habit, or Ben Franklin’s creativity, for example.

    These are the types of habits that we all want–the specific aspects of character, personality, and daily habits that promise to make us into perfect specimens of humanity. However, as you probably know, these habits are also usually directly contradictory with our own genetic predispositions.

    In other words, we’re trying to pit our voluntary habit-creation neurons against our involuntary makeup–not a match that will be won easily.

    Thankfully, there’s a better answer. 

    The answer to the questions “how to set a habit that sticks” is one that’s deceptively simple–but don’t disregard it for its simplicity. It’s a “secret” for that reason; something as seemingly complex as “habit-setting” we assume to be much trickier than it really is.

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    To say Charles Duhigg wrote a book that helps with habit-setting would be an insult to his name–the man wrote the book on the subject, after years of study, experimentation, and many hours of research, testing, and interviewing. It’s more a treatise on habit setting than a simple guidebook.

    For our purposes, though, we’ll focus on the truly simple method of habit-setting in human adults, using research that Duhigg proved and wrote in his book, The Power of Habit.

    The Habit Loop

    Duhigg describes a habit not as a singular effect in the brain, but as a “chain” of related events–the “Habit Loop.”

    The Habit Loop is made up of three components:

    • Cue/Trigger
    • Routine
    • Reward

    The Cue or Trigger phase is what “triggers” a certain routine–technically, this is the start of a habit. A Cue can be anything from walking past the snack machine at work when you go to the restroom, or it can be more complex, like seeing a particular sign on a particular road when you’re driving with a particular person.

    The Routine is the part of the habit loop that’s triggered. It’s “what you do” after the Trigger. You see the snack machine and immediately feel hungry. In trying to chase a reward (usually subconsciously), your brain pushes you through the Routine until the Reward is reached.

    The Reward is exactly what it sounds like–though it doesn’t need to be an actual positive effect. It’s simply the final stage of a habit loop, telling the brain that the Routine is finished. Because our habits usually end in reward, like “eating a bag of chips and feeling satiated,” or “running a mile and feeling accomplished,” we describe this stage as a reward.

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    So how do you change a “bad habit?”

    Duhigg thankfully doesn’t leave us with just this scientific explanation of a habit loop–he goes further to describe what we can do to target and change a specific habit from one we think is “bad” into one we’re happier with.

    It starts with making the subconscious Trigger and Routine stage something we’re conscious of. The most effective thing his test subjects did was genius, and delightfully simple (in theory!):

    Duhigg told them to keep an index card and pen or pencil with them at all times, and make a tally mark each time they found themselves going through their habit loop.

    A great example of this was his nail-biting test subject. Every time she felt the urge to bite her nails–or actually found herself biting her nails–she made a tally on the card.

    After a few weeks, her index card was full of tally marks (she had to start on the back of the card!), but she was acutely aware of the Trigger phase–she knew exactly when she would have nail-biting urges would strike.

    What this young lady discovered was that her Habit Loop looked like this:

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    • Cue: The desire to bite her nails (caused by stress, wanting something to do, whatever)
    • Routine: Instead of biting her nails and carrying on about her day, she now must tally it up on the card.
    • Reward: The reward of biting her nails (less stress, anxiety, whatever) was still there.

    She still bit her nails, but her Habit Loop changed slightly so that she was more conscious of her “bad” habit.

    The second step of the Habit Loop

    The second thing Duhigg told her to do was to change the Loop slightly–just the Routine phase.

    This time, he had her add an “–” dash next to each tally mark that represented when she effectively fought the urges: when she recognized the Cue to bite her nails, but didn’t:

    • Cue: Desire to bite her nails ensues.
    • Routine: Instead of biting her nails, she actively remembers her task and marks a dash on the index card.
    • Reward: She’s given herself the small satisfaction biting her nails once provided–without needing to bite them.

    …and you can guess what happened. 

    Sure enough, after a short amount of time (remember, she’d already spent a few weeks building a new Habit Loop for nail-biting), she no longer needed to bite her nails! The urges were still sometimes there, but her Habit Loop had changed so that the Reward was no longer biting her nails–it was the satisfaction of making a tally mark and a dash when she didn’t bite them!

    The power of this exercise is immediately and effectively useful to any of us–whether we bite our nails, smoke, drink too much, or whatever. We can use the Habit Loop and the science behind it to set new habits for ourselves that remove “bad” habits, set new “good” ones, or even make drastic personality changes in our lives.

    I’ve experienced these effects first hand, and it’s an amazing and powerful system. Give it a shot, and let me know what you think!

    (Photo credit: Workflow Loop via Shutterstock)

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    Last Updated on September 18, 2019

    15 Best Organizing Tips For Office Organization and Getting More Done

    15 Best Organizing Tips For Office Organization and Getting More Done

    You may think that you don’t have time for office organization, but if you really knew how much time that disorganization cost you, you’d reconsider.

    Rearranging and moving piles occasionally doesn’t count. Neither does clearing off your desk, if you swipe the mess into a bin, or a desk drawer.

    A relatively neat and orderly office space clears the way for higher productivity and less wasted time.

    Organizing your office doesn’t have to take days, it can be done a little at a time. In fact, maintaining an organized office is much more effective if you treat it like an on-going project, instead of a massive assault.

    So, if you’re ready to get started, the following organizing tips will help you transform your office into an efficient workspace.

    1. Purge Your Office

    De-clutter, empty, shred, get rid of everything that you don’t need or want. Look around. What haven’t you used in a while?

    Take one area at a time. If it doesn’t work, send it out for repair or toss it. If you haven’t used it in months and can’t think of when you’ll actually need it, out it goes. This goes for furniture, equipment, supplies, etc.

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    Don’t forget about knick-knacks, plants (real or artificial), and decorations – if they’re covered with dust and make your office look shabby, they’re fair game.

    2. Gather and Redistribute

    Gather up every item that isn’t where it belongs and put it where it does.

    3. Establish Work “Zones”

    Decide what type of activity happens in each area of your office. You’ll probably have a main workspace (most likely your desk,) a reference area (filing cabinet, shelves, binders,) and a supply area (closet, shelves or drawers.)

    Place the appropriate equipment and supplies are located in the proper area as much as possible.

    4. Close Proximity

    Position the equipment and supplies that you use most within reach. Things that you rarely use can be stored or put away.

    5. Get a Good Labeler

    Choose a label maker that’s simple to use. Take the time to label shelves, bins, baskets drawers. Not only will it remind you where things go, but it will also help others who may have a need to find, use, or put away anything in your workspace.

    6. Revise Your Filing System

    As we move fully into the digital age, the need to store paper files has decreased.

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    What can your store digitally? Are you duplicating files? You may be able to eliminate some of the files and folders you’ve used in the past. If you’re storing files on your computer, make sure you are doing regular back-ups.

    Here’re some storage ideas for creating a smooth filing system:

    • Create a meeting folder – Put all “items to be discussed” in there along with items that need to be handed off, reports that need to be given, etc. It’ll help you be prepared for meetings and save you stress in the even that a meeting is moved up.
    • Create a WOR folder – So much of our messy papers are things that are on hold until someone else responds or acts. Corral them in a WOR (Waiting on Response) folder. Check it every few days for outstanding actions you may need to follow-up on.
    • Storage boxes – Use inexpensive storage boxes to keep archived files and get them out of your current file space.
    • Magazine boxes – Use magazine boxes or binders to store magazines and catalogs you really want to store. Please make sure you really need them for reference or research, otherwise recycle them, or give away.
    • Reading folder – Designate a file for print articles and documents you want to read that aren’t urgent.
    • Archive files – When a project is complete, put all of the materials together and file them away. Keep your “working folders” for projects in progress.
    • File weekly – Don’t let your filing pile up. Put your papers in a “To File” folder and file everything once a week.

    Learn more tips on organizing your files here: How to Organize Your Files for Better Productivity

    7. Clear off Your Desk

    Remove everything, clean it thoroughly and put back only those items that are essential for daily use.

    If you have difficulty declutter stuff, this Declutter Formula will help you throw away stuff without regretting later.

    8. Organize your Desktop

    Now that you’ve streamlined your desktop, it’s a good idea to organize it.

    Use desktop organizers or containers to organize the items on your desk. Use trays for papers, containers for smaller items.

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    Don’t forget your computer desktop! Make sure the files or images are all in organized folders. I’d recommend you clear your computer desktop everyday before you leave work.

    9. Organize Your Drawers

    Put items used together in the same drawer space, stamps with envelopes, sticky pads with notepads, etc.

    Use drawer organizers for little items – paper clips, tacks, etc. Use a separate drawer for personal items.

    10. Separate Inboxes

    If you work regularly with other people, create a folder, tray, or inbox for each.

    11. Clear Your Piles

    Hopefully with your new organized office, you won’t create piles of paper anymore, but you still have to sort through the old ones.

    Go through the pile (a little at a time if necessary) and put it in the appropriate place or dump it.

    12. Sort Mails

    Don’t just stick mail in a pile to be sorted or rifle through and take out the pieces you need right now. Sort it as soon as you get it – To act, To read, To file, To delegate or hand off. .

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    13. Assign Discard Dates

    You don’t need to keep every piece of paper indefinitely. Mark on files or documents when they can be tossed or shredded.

    Some legal or financial documents must be kept for specified length of time. Make sure you know what those requirements are.

    14. Filter Your Emails

    Some emails are important to read, others are just not that important.

    When you use the filter system to label different types of emails, you know their priority and which to reply first.

    Take a look at these tips to achieve inbox zero: The Ultimate Way to get to Inbox Zero

    15. Straighten Your Desk

    At the end of the day, do a quick straighten, so you have a clean start the next day.

    Bottom Line

    Use one tip or try them all. The amount of effort you put into creating and maintaining an efficient work area will pay off in a big way.

    Instead of spending time looking for things and shuffling piles, you’ll be able to spend your time…well…working and you’ll enjoy being clutter free!

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    Featured photo credit: Alesia Kazantceva via unsplash.com

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