By Michelle Seaton
Why is it so easy to pick up bad habits and so difficult to form good ones? More specifically, why do so many writers struggle to transform writing from a chore—something to delay and avoid—into a habit, making it something they automatically do every day? In his book “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business,” author Charles Duhigg analyzes the essential components of habit formation. Not surprisingly, marketing firms and product developers have co-opted the research on habit formation to help them insinuate their brands into our lives. Duhigg believes that we can use this same information to build our own good habits and break bad ones.
In short, you need three things to form a habit:
- A Cue. Something outside of yourself that causes your brain to go into a sort of automatic mode.
- A routine. The habitual thought or action or feeling.
- A reward. The payoff that tells your brain to remember this routine, because it’s wonderful.
In the research that Duhigg describes, this cycle involves a monkey named Julio who looks at shapes on a screen, and when a triangle appears (cue) he pulls the lever in front of him (routine) and gets some drops of juice (reward). In time, he anticipates the reward of juice even before he sees the triangle on the screen. Then he craves it. In our lives, we form habits in an alarmingly similar pattern. We sit down at our desks ready to work and feel that familiar twinge of anxiety (cue). Instead of working, we reach for the email, web browser, telephone, candy (routine)—anything that offers a pleasant distraction from our anxiety (reward). Over time, we all do what Julio does: we reach for the distraction even before we feel the anxiety. Eventually, we crave the distraction before we sit down to work.
This is how we allow weeks and months to pass without making any progress on our work.
Does Duhigg discuss ways to undo habits? Yes he does. The key is you have to replace the current routine with a new routine. The anxiety cue will always be there, and you must provide a reward, but you can change the routinized action, the unthinking act of reaching for a distraction. You need to insert a different action, and you need to practice this new routine.
Many prolific writers have created deliberate, ritualized warm-up exercises for their writing sessions: they play a word game; they re-type the paragraph they wrote the day before; they write morning pages; they print out one page and line edit it to get going. One of my friends would write a memo to himself about his work in progress. Whatever ritual you choose, make it sacred, because it will have the power to prevent you from distracting yourself with something meaningless.
This system of cue-routine-reward can help you transform bad habits into good ones, and it also works well when you set out to create new habits. (Duhigg even has a flow chart to help you try this at home.) Remember that the cue must be specific, such as a time of day. Remember, too, that the reward can be almost absurdly small. These days, I reward myself by tracking the number of minutes I spend writing every day. At the end of my writing time, I estimate the number of minutes spent working and write that figure on a daily calendar, or Evernote. At the end of every week I add up the numbers. You could say that I’m aping Julio, in that sometimes in the late afternoon I wonder how much time I’ve spent writing this week and if it’s more than last week (cue). This makes me reach for my notebook (routine), and then I anticipate writing down another number in my calendar (geek reward).
Excuse me, I have a number to jot down.