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Use This One Simple Trick to Conquer Any Bad Habit

Use This One Simple Trick to Conquer Any Bad Habit

Lots of people misunderstand what exactly goal setting can do for them. I think Seth Godin sums it up perfectly here:

Your audacious life goals are fabulous. We’re proud of you for having them. But it’s possible that those goals are designed to distract you from the thing that’s really frightening you – the shift in daily habits that would mean a re-invention of how you see yourself.

– Seth Godin

We all have our big, fat audacious goals. Me? I’d like to be the next Hugh Howey. I want loads of readers hungry for the next part of my story. And the royalties that would come with a best seller wouldn’t hurt either. And when do I want it? Now! But the sad truth is I’m not going to get it unless I do the small daily steps that lead to that big, audacious success.

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If Not Goals, Then What?

Habits, not goals, are the more direct route to productivity and success. What exactly are habits? Habits are something that you don’t have to think about. You just do them. Taking your conscious mind out of the equation makes bad habits very hard to change and good habits very hard to develop. So, why bother with habits? Simple, once you make a good habit yours, it’s no longer a chore that your subconscious mind targets for procrastination. In Charles Duhigg’s book, “The Power of Habit” he talks about what he calls the Habit Loop:

  • Cue: the trigger, what causes you to do the behavior
  • Routine: the behavior itself
  • Reward: then benefit you get from the behavior

The Golden Rule: Do This to Change Bad Habits

The most important concept from Duhigg’s book is his Golden Rule of Habit Change. The Golden Rule says the most effective way to change a habit is to keep the Cue and the Reward the same. Only change the Routine.

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I wanted to apply this to developing the habit of writing every morning. How does that happen? First, I had to make space in my life for some extra writing. I wanted to write every morning when I get out of bed (before my daughter gets up). The old morning habit:

  • Cue: 6:30 am, time to get up
  • Routine: drink coffee and stare out the window, 45 minutes
  • Reward: caffeine and relaxation

That’s a pretty comfortable habit. I decided to start small to maximize my chance for success. Here’s the first change:

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  • Cue: 6:30am, time to get up
  • Routine: write for 15 minutes on previously outline material
  • Reward: caffeine and relaxation

I was skeptical that I would be able to carry this out. I like my coffee. Coffee in the morning is not optional. But, following the Duhigg’s Golden Rule, I didn’t do something crazy like try and wake up 30 minutes earlier to get my extra writing time. Let’s face it, 6:30 is early enough, don’t you think?

It Turns Out I Can Write the Words AND Drink the Coffee

Making sure that I had something outlined made writing for 15 minutes pretty easy. There were no plots to ponder, no places to research, just words to write. I could do that! Then I kept my reward the same, my beloved coffee in my favorite chair. But a funny thing happened on the way to the comfy chair. My “required” 45 minutes of coffee time in the morning was reduced. I found myself ready to start the next part of my day in more like 15 minutes. Eventually, I painlessly transitioned this time to writing. So, I harvested 30 minutes of “free” writing time from my day!

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It turns out that morning is a peak brain power time for me and for most other people. That 30 minutes of writing is usually my best of the day. That time writing with no external influence has become crucial to my work. Actually, any period right after a recharge/rest period is good time to do your more challenging work for the day. If you are considering transitioning a less desirable habit into something more productive, I encourage you to look at your morning. You may be surprised, like I was, to find you already have the time you need for your new endeavor.

Featured photo credit: Coffee/David Leggett via flickr.com

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Last Updated on July 21, 2021

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system.”[1]

A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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From Creating Reminders to Building Habits

A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being 6 hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

The Wonderful Thing About Triggers — Reminders

A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

How to Make a Reminder Works for You

Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

More on Building Habits

Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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Reference

[1] Getting Things Done: Trusted System

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