Planting Winning Habits
One of the simplest models describing the mechanics of automatic behaviour is the Habit Loop, popularized by Charles Duhigg in his book The Power of Habit. I know, it’s nothing new, but it is simple and easy to understand – and when well applied, very effective.
But to be honest, I had been putting off testing it on myself. Yes, I had fiddled a bit with it, but I hadn’t really committed to it.
As habit formation is a theme which has begun to evoke more and more curiosity among my clients, there was no putting it off any more. I had to “take the spoon into the beautiful hand”, as we say in Finland. (Seriously, who has come up with these?) In other words, roll up my sleeves and put myself out there as my own guinea pig.
It took me a while to come up with the habit I wanted to acquire, because I wanted it to be a “winning” one. By that I mean one that lasts, and one which would help me to get closer to the goals and focus areas which were important to me.
At the same time, I didn’t want my challenge to be too big, since I intended to report about my success (not failure) at a lecture I was giving in a month’s time. And really – why not engage in something that gives you at least some more odds at winning than losing, especially if you can choose the battle?
My Habit Loop
I decided that I would tackle my challenge of procrastination in one specific area: making sales calls. (In hindsight, this was one of the most challenging habits I could have chosen for myself, but at the time I made the decision I was in very good energies and nothing seemed impossible.)
At that time, my Habit Loop looked like this:
1) Cue/Trigger: Calendar says “Make sales call to X”
2) Behaviour: Engaging in mundane tasks to distract myself.
3) Reward: Feeling relief…for the moment
In addition to this seriously slowing down my company’s plan of world domination I happened to read an article which claimed procrastination can deplete your mental energy, so that sealed it. You can only to a certain point instruct your clients with: “Don’t do as I’m doing – do like I say you should be doing!” I needed to walk the talk.
So, happily I designed my new habit. My habit loop, I planned, would look like this:
- Cue/Trigger: Calendar says “Make sales call”.
- Behaviour: Enthusiastically make sales call.
- Reward: Pride and relief about task accomplishment.
Yeah, in theory, that is. But you know what? Nobody had mentioned the one thing messing up at least my Perfect Winning Habit Loop: The Instant Gratification Monkey (brought to life by Tim Urban).
(from the website: www.waitbutwhy.com by Tim Urban)
When making the little habit plan, my rational decision maker was proudly sitting at the steering wheel of my brain. But what happened as soon as I encountered my cue? The I.G. Monkey shoved that rational character just over board and steered me right towards more “comfier” waters. This didn’t happen every time, but my bet was on the monkey every time my energies were not up to a 100%.
How do you deal with the monkey then?
Experts recommend, for instance, adopting a mindset of becoming “curiously aware” of what is happening. In other words, observing what is playing out in your mind, your body and your emotions.
As much as I love – and frequently use – this approach, this time it just was doing it for me. My fantasy just got the better of me (and I suspect the I.G. Monkey was behind this rampage, as well): Watching the monkey in action was just waaaaay too much fun. Actually, it multiplied itself and by the end of my mind movie, it had formed a committee of monkeys who were all debating amongst themselves which would be the most gratifying evasive behaviour I should engage in, so I didn’t even get that one done.
I decided to use my old strategy from the football field. Whenever I would feel fatigue or other discomfort I would use that feeling as a trigger or cue to start running after the ball like I had an angry stray dog chasing me. It was imperative not to wait for the thoughts to kick in: “Should I try to get that boll…? But it feels like it goes very fast… and our defenders are so good, they can surely handle it…or should I…?
In short, it was just about engaging in action, not thinking. The sooner, the better. Just Doing It. In this case, quickly grabbing the phone, speed dialing the number etc. Of course, this resulted in that I hadn’t a clue what to say on the phone and nearly got a panic attack when realizing the phone was ringing and someone answered…
I had been so focused on my “just do it” that I forgot who I was calling and why. But you just have to take those small hiccups as part of the learning curve. (Yes, the monkeys showed up afterwards jumping up and down: “I told you so!” and yes, I might have shouted something back. We are only human, right?)
For some clients who are battling with going for a jog, taking a break during the workday, engaging in a meditation practice, praising a team mate etc. this has proven to be a good strategy, as well. Just directing the focus on the doing, immediately after the trigger/cue sets in. (Choosing an appropriate cue is also important – juicy stuff for another blog.)
What was the result?
However, for it to work you have to have planned the desired behaviour really clearly beforehand. It helps also if you imagine it several times in advance in your mind’s eye. But please – do not ever, never, never – engage in a discussion with your IG monkey. If you want to be building winning habits that one is a sure strategy for failure. Take it from someone who has lost countless battles.
And how did it eventually play out? Did I manage to create a winning habit?
I like to think so, even if it is only a month old and will still need many repetitions to be (almost) fully automatic. The habit has become easier and I use it more frequently, also when trying to put off some other uncomfortable tasks. It is not a perfect streak, however, and that I am grateful for. Because that would just wake up my Inner Perfectionist…
What Awesome Winning Habit would you like to create for yourself or your team? I so admire you! Wishing you the best mix of energy, wisdom, clarity, self-compassion and fun!