Advertising
Advertising

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.

Advertising

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.

Advertising

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:

Advertising

  • 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!

Advertising

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

More by this author

This Is What You Should Do When You Have To Give A Short Speech change bad habits Use This One Simple Trick to Conquer Any Bad Habit

Trending in Productivity

1 The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain) 2 What to Do When Bored at Work (And Why You Feel Bored Actually) 3 6 Effective Ways to Enhance Your Problem Solving Skills 4 How to Concentrate and Focus Better to Boost Productivity 5 15 Productive Things to Do When Bored (So Time Is Not Wasted)

Read Next

Advertising
Advertising
Advertising

Last Updated on July 17, 2019

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

What happens in our heads when we set goals?

Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

Advertising

Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

Advertising

One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

The Neurology of Ownership

Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

Advertising

But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

The Upshot for Goal-Setters

So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

Advertising

It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

More About Goals Setting

Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

Reference

Read Next