For my local book club, I recently read THE POWER OF HABIT:Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg. In general, I don't love nonfiction, unless it involves research for one of my books, so I wasn't particularly excited about this pick. But I’ve had a few habits I’ve wanted to change for years (stress eating, anyone?) and needed new strategies. (And I like gathering with my fellow book-lovers over wine and appetizers to chat about books.) So I gave it a whirl.
I’m happy to report that I found THE POWER OF HABIT very interesting, indeed. The concept was rooted in behavioral psychology methods, particularly in how the brain becomes trained to expect a particular reward associated with a specific cue. The kicker is creating a “craving” for that reward that will become associated with the cue.
For example, a man who worked in advertising in the early 1900s was given the task of selling a new brand of toothpaste. At the time, brushing teeth wasn’t even the norm. His campaign helped to make it a habit by suggesting in the advertisements that teeth "formed a film" during the day. This was genius because the moment a readers saw that, they have the urge to run their tongues over their teeth. (I know I did.) Lo and behold, yes, it seems there is a film there. Because that's normal. The film isn't particularly bad for your teeth, but it became the cue. He associated this cue (the feeling of a "film" on your teeth) with a reward (the feeling of clean teeth).
But what scientists found later was that the brands of toothpaste that were selling well contained a certain (unnecessary) ingredient such as citric acid that created a craving...they made the gums tingle. Teeth-brushers came to crave the tingling sensations, and didn't feel their teeth were clean unless they felt that reward from brushing.
So it's the behavioral cycle of cue-craving-reward that led to habit formation.
The book contained many examples of how individuals and corporations created successful change by analyzing habits, but what I was most struck by is how I’d done this myself with my writing. I started writing in 2001, but I tell people I didn’t “seriously” start writing until 2006, when I made it a priority in my life. A daily habit. And now, if I don’t write for a couple days, I start getting the “itch” to get some words on the page.
But the easiest example of how I've created a habit involves Starbucks. In the past couple years, I’ve found my local coffee shop is the easiest place to get a large quantity of writerly things done in the most efficient amount of time. My home is littered with other cues...dirty dishes that need to be done, piles of laundry that need to be folded. But at Starbucks, my only cue is my computer, and the smell of coffee that gets my brain going. I get my coffee drink of choice, set up my computer, and get down to work for two or three hours. I make the most efficient use of my writing time when I’m in that environment.
I created a cue (the Starbucks environment & drink) that generated a reward (writing work done!). And I craved that feeling of success (and, probably, the coffee).
Now, if only I could create healthier habits for exercise and diet...will have to work on that one.
What patterns would you change if you could (and if you dare to share)? What cues and rewards could you employ to create better habits?