150 – How to Build Useful Habits

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How to Build Useful Habits Write from the Deep podcast with Karen Ball and Erin Taylor YoungWe all have habits. Some good, some not so good. But did you realize that your habits can save you from such things as decision fatigue and damaging behavior? Come listen in as we explore how to turn your habits into powerful allies in a world overflowing with tension and struggle.

But first, thank you to all our patrons on Patreon! You help make this podcast possible!

We talked about decision fatigue in episode 149, and we mentioned that habits can help us reduce the number of decisions we have to make every day. Then in episode 146, we covered five things no one told you about the writing journey—and one of those things was that you need more healthy habits than you realize. If you haven’t had a chance to listen to those episodes, I encourage you to do that. 

Today we want to help you put healthy habits into practice by covering how to build habits. Not only that, but how to build these habits in a way that doesn’t take Herculean effort.

Let’s face it, sometimes we see a person who has all kinds of great habits, and we think she must be the most disciplined person in the world. Guess what? She’s probably not. And you don’t need to be either. There are secrets to building great habits, and we’re going to share them with you.

Let’s start with a simple definition so we all know exactly what we’re talking about when we say “habit.”

What is a habit?

First, here are a couple of definitions of habit from Webster’s dictionary:

: a settled tendency or usual manner of behavior

: an acquired mode of behavior that has become nearly or completely involuntary

But I like how James Clear, in his book Atomic Habits, defines a habit. He says it’s “a routine or behavior that is performed regularly—and, in many cases, automatically.”

Atomic Habits is a useful book for lots of information, ideas, and examples, and we’ve taken the bulk of the material for this podcast from it. It’s worth the time to read because we can’t cover it all, so I recommend it to you. Another classic book on habits is Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit.  

James Clear argues in Atomic Habits that “changes that seem small and unimportant at first will compound into remarkable results if you’re willing to stick with them for years.”

I agree with this, and I think it helps to put habits in a more user-friendly light. Habits shouldn’t be about radically changing your life to incorporate fifty new regimens. Instead, creating habits is about implementing small changes that slowly accumulate into the kind of lifestyle you’ve always wanted but maybe didn’t think you were disciplined enough to have.

Let me reiterate. We’re saying these changes SLOWLY accumulate, and slowly make a difference. The effects of habits generally don’t operate on a linear progression. So no, you can’t go from being a couch potato to a marathon runner in one week, any more than you can instantly go from being a person who can’t seem to find time to write to a person who produces a novel every 6 months.

But you could do those over time if you developed the right habits and overcame the wrong habits. Now, there’s nothing wrong with having goals like that: to run a marathon or write a novel in 6 months. But, counterintuitively, James Clear says that one of the secrets to helping people build habits is to focus not so much on the goal as on the process. 

He gives an example about cleaning a messy room. If you manage to get it cleaned up, you’ve got a momentary change—it’s now clean. You’ve solved the problem at a surface level. But if you’re not a tidy person, then that room is going to be messy again very soon, and you’re back to square one. If you focus on your system, on creating habits that a tidy person would have, then you’ll be solving your problem at the systems level, and you won’t have a messy room to begin with.

So how might this apply to writing? Writing a novel is a wonderful success that lots of people never achieve. But it’s also just one achievement in time. Becoming a consistent, dependable, productive writer is a lifestyle. If you build habits that focus on the systems level of that lifestyle, you can write one book or, just as easily, you can write thirty books. That kind of productivity becomes much less daunting. 

So, how do you build a habit? James Clear’s book breaks habits down into a four-step process. This is a predictable pattern because our brains are predictable. They’re always trying to figure out what’s happening around us and how to respond in a way that’s most satisfactory to us. When our behavior results in good consequences, our brain says, “Hey, that was good. Remember that and do it again.” When the consequences are negative, our brain says, “Hey, don’t do that again.”

The pattern of a habit is: Cue, Craving, Response, and Reward. 


The cue is a trigger that causes your brain to initiate a behavior. It’s a situation your brain recognizes and ties to a reward. For example, you come home from work to the smell of cookies baking in the oven, because let’s imagine you have a wonderful spouse who loves to bake, and sometimes when you come home, there are cookies in the oven. Your brain knows that the smell of cookies often ends in a delicious, satisfying taste experience. And this wonderful aroma of cookies leads you to the next step of the habit pattern: craving.


You WANT that delicious cookie. You desire that cookie. You are motivated to get and eat that cookie. And it’s not because it’s an attractive round shape or color, though it may be a lovely cookie. What you’re really after is that delicious taste sensation that happens when you eat the cookie. 

Without motivation, you have no reason to act. Without a spouse making cookies, you don’t come home to a cookie smell. But we’ll pretend you do have that spouse, so there is a cookie smell. So what do you do? You make a response.


The response is the third step of the pattern. A response is the behavior you do because of the craving. This behavior is the actual habit. Now, a response does depend on how motivated you are and how much resistance there would be to carrying out the behavior.

For example, if you just came home from having dental work done, and your tongue is completely numb so that you couldn’t taste anything, much less chew, you’re probably not going to eat that cookie. But most of the time, a plate of your favorite cookies fresh out of the oven will generate the response of eating one, and this will bring you to the last step of the pattern: your reward.  


The reward is the delicious taste sensation. Rewards are the whole reason you do the behavior. James Clear calls rewards “the end goal of every habit” because they satisfy our cravings. They also teach us which behaviors we should repeat.

If your spouse’s cookies always taste great, your brain will want to repeat the reward over and over. But, if your spouse has an unfortunate and consistent problem following recipes, and salt frequently gets substituted for sugar, the terrible taste will be a negative reward, and your brain will urge you NOT to eat those cookies no matter how they smell.

So, if you have a cue that triggers a craving, and the craving motivates a response, and the response provides a positive reward which satisfies the craving, that becomes a cycle you’re going to repeat. The reward will eventually become associated with the cue and you’ll have a habit loop.

One other quick example of habit is putting on your seatbelt when you get in the car:

Cue: You get in your car.

Craving: You want to travel safely. 

Response: You put on your seatbelt.

Reward: You aren’t injured during the trip.

Now, lots of times you don’t even get in an accident, but if you do, chances are you were safer because of your seatbelt. We all probably know somebody who’s life was saved by a seatbelt. 

If you know someone who was injured because of wearing a seatbelt, that may have become a negative reward, and so you DON’T wear a seatbelt.

Ultimately though, many of us put on our seatbelt without thinking about it because habits become unconscious.


This is all fine and dandy information, but where is the part about this being easy? About not needing to be a hyper-disciplined person? That comes in understanding some tricks to making habits easy to start. This is where James Clear’s book really shines and becomes worth the read. We only have time to give you a few of his tips.

1. Make a “time and place” plan

Two of the most common cues that initiate a habit are time and place. If you want to develop a new habit, decide in advance where and when you’ll do that. So, if you want to develop a habit of exercise—let’s say walking everyday—then determine when and where you will do this.

This actually works. An experiment about exercise in Great Britain showed that participants who made a plan of when and where they’d exercise were far more likely to follow through.

Be sure to pick a specific time that happens everyday without fail, and a place that’s easy to get to.

For example: Every morning, right after breakfast, I will walk around the block.

“Every morning” does happen everyday, but that’s not specific enough. “After breakfast” is specific. And the place “around the block” is simple enough. You don’t have to drive to get there. Just go out your door.

Another benefit to making a plan is that you don’t have to make a new decision. You’ve already made it when you made the plan. Your job is to merely follow through with the plan you already made.

Here are some other examples of plans:

At noon every day I will stand up and stretch for 10 minutes.

Before I get out of bed every morning, I will be still and listen to God for 10 minutes. Psalm 46:10 even encourages us to do this when it says to, “Be still and know that I am God…”

To help you pick good a good time to plan your habit, make a list of things that happen in your life everyday without fail. That’ll give you more flexibility and options that you may not think of otherwise.

Think about what might be your pivotal times of the day, where one habit can alter the course of your whole day. For example, I know that I do best if I exercise first thing in the morning. For me, that’s become a key to starting my whole day off right.

2. Stack Your Habits

Sometimes the easiest way to get a new habit started is to attach it to a habit you already have. One simple example of this is if you wanted to build a habit of flossing your teeth, you could stack it on top of brushing your teeth, assuming brushing is something you do everyday. 

Another example is something I do: I eat a protein bar every morning. I cannot get my work day started without food. So that’s the time when I do my Bible study. It’s a linked habit now. I grab my protein bar and my Bible and I know I’m unlikely to skip Bible reading because I’m extremely unlikely to skip my protein bar.

Stacking your habits can become an extremely powerful means of creating a lifestyle you want or need. I suffer from severe chronic insomnia, and I need every possible help I can get when it comes to falling asleep. After habit stacking, I’ve come to the point where I have a whole wind-down routine every night (that takes into consideration the lighting, the temperature, what I’m focusing on etc.). It starts an hour before bedtime, and truly it’s helped.

One of the reasons why it’s effective is that not only am I doing the right things to help prepare for sleep, I’m not making any decisions about whether I want to do this specific thing or not. I’m just doing it and letting my mind go to the places it needs to go to for calmness and sleep.

Randy Ingermanson, in his Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, wrote a article on habits and what he called his “Daily Startup Habit.” That’ll give you another real-life example of how you can powerfully use habit-stacking.  

One key to habit stacking is to make sure you pick a good time and a compatible habit. Like flossing your teeth goes pretty well with brushing them. But if you’re brain dead in the morning before your first cup of coffee, don’t stack a habit of writing before your coffee. And maybe not even after, depending on how long it takes you to wake up. If you love to eat messy barbecue chicken wings for lunch, don’t decide your lunch hour is the best place to stack a habit of writing either, unless you want a messy keyboard!

One of the things James Clear suggests is that you do a “habit inventory” before you think about what new habits you want to start and which habits you might want to stack. It’s good to be thoroughly familiar with what you’re already doing—habits you like and want to keep, as well as habits you don’t like and want to stop.

3. Make Your Cues as Obvious as Possible

Remember, a cue is what begins the habit loop. It’s the reminder. You want it to be as noticeable as possible. A simple example of how important visual reminders can be is the end caps in bookstores. Those are prime places that publishers pay extra for. They want potential buyers to SEE and crave their books.

I have a medication I need to take every night. It’s on my nightstand. That’s an obvious visual cue. When I wanted to be sure I practiced guitar everyday, I had it sitting out on a stand, not put away in the case. The healthy snacks at my house are easier to spot than the chocolates.

When you’re trying to start a new habit, ask yourself what you can do to create an environment that encourages your habit. Maybe, if you want to become the type of person who only eats healthy snacks, you only have healthy snacks in your house. James Clear says, “If you want to make a habit a big part of your life, make the cue a big part of your environment.”

Or, let’s go back to wanting the habit of writing everyday: create a dedicated place in your home where you write. You see the space, it triggers the cue to do your writing, because it signals to you that you want to be the type of person who writes.

4. Increase the Temptation of Your Habit

This is a simple trick: If there’s a habit you want to start that you don’t anticipate liking very much, bundle it with another activity or habit that you really like. Maybe you love looking at puppies on Instagram, but you hate processing your email. So, you can decide something like this: After I have my coffee everyday (so you’re picking a time), I will process email. After I process email, I will look at puppies for five minutes.

Or, if you want to start a habit of eating one vegetable snack per day, you could say: At 3:00 while I have my afternoon vegetable snack, I will look at puppies. Again, this would totally work for me!

But there’s more…

We’ve talked about what habits are and given some tips to easily building new habits you want. Stay tuned for the next podcast in this series, where we’ll bring you a few more tips for building habits, as well as some guidance about how to change habits you no longer want.

Until then, think about your habits. Pray about them. Ask God to show you what he thinks about your habits. Which ones are serving you well? Which aren’t? What do you need to add in your life to help you in this task of writing he’s given you?

Are your habits working for—or against—you? #amwriting #christianwriter @karenball1 Click To Tweet


What is the easiest way you’ve found to build a good habit?


We’re excited to have a sponsorship from the Novel Marketing Podcast, with host Thomas Umstattd Jr. He knows what he’s talking about, friends, and we highly recommend his podcast!  It’s the longest running book marketing podcast in the world. You can find it at NovelMarketing.com or in your favorite podcast app.

One of Thomas’s recent episodes was “How to Write Book Reviews Readers Will Want to Read.I loved this episode because it covered a useful skill writers can use to help build a following among readers. Thomas talks about different kinds of reviews, different angles you can take for your reviews, as well as how to write reviews that are NOT boring. 

If you want to attract readers to your writing, writing reviews in an interesting way not only helps readers get to know you and your style, but readers love you for providing useful information for them. They WANT to find new books to read. I encourage you to check out this episode of Novel Marketing in your favorite podcast app or at NovelMarketing.com, where you can find plenty of other book promotion and platform help as well!


Thanks to all our patrons on Patreon! You help make this podcast possible!

Thanks so much to our September sponsor of the month, Priscilla Sharrow! She’s working on her memoir called Bonked! Life, Love, and Laughter with Traumatic Brain Injury, which is under contract with Redemption Press. Learn more about Priscilla at her website priscillasharrow.com and follow her blog for the TBI/PTSD community.

Many thanks also to the folks at Podcast P.S. for their fabulous sound editing!


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