We know that good habits can have a great influence on us, but negative habits have an influence too. Everyone knows how hard it is to break a bad habit, but there’s good news! Come discover effective ways to replace your bad habits…and their destructive influence.
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In our last episode we began talking about habits, which are learned routines or behaviors that we repeat pretty much without thinking about them. We’ve taken the bulk of our material from a book by James Clear called Atomic Habits, as well as a book by Charles Duhigg called The Power of Habit. They’re worth your time to read because they’re full of interesting information—more than we can cover in two podcasts.
We also talked about the habit loop that James Clear wrote about. It consists of: Cue, Craving, Response, and Reward. The cue is the trigger that causes your brain to initiate a behavior. The craving provides the motivation to act. The response is the actual action, the behavior. And the reward is the goal, the thing you get for doing the behavior. We encourage you to go back and listen to that episode if you haven’t yet.
In today’s show, we’ll give more tips for developing a habit, plus we’ll talk about some ways to say goodbye to habits that aren’t serving you well. The reason why this is so important is because habits shape our lives.
Habits Shape Our Lives
James Clear writes in his book Atomic Habits, “Researchers estimate that 40-50 percent of our actions on any given day are done out of habit.”
That can be good, because habits reduce cognitive load and decrease the number of necessary decisions we have to make, which frees up more brain power for creative tasks. We’re writers, so of course we want all the creative energy we can get.
Our goal is to give you some tools to put new habits in place to help you live a life more in tune with God’s vision and purpose for you and your writing. For example, maybe you want to start a habit of:
- Being more grateful by thanking God every day for something specific
- Praying before you write each day
- Reading one new craft or marketing book each month
- Meditating on one of God’s qualities each night. 2 Corinthians 3:18 tells us that when we’re “beholding the glory of the Lord” we’re “being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another…”
- Writing encouraging notes to others
Often people will ask how long it takes to form a habit, but James Clear argues that that’s the wrong question. He says, “Habit formation is the process by which a behavior becomes progressively more automatic through repetition.” It’s these repetitions that actually change your brain. So the right question to ask is how many repetitions does it take?
To help you feel like you DON’T have to be a perfectionist about this, studies have shown that missing one repetition isn’t the end of the world. It’s not like you need a string of thirty successful attempts in a row or you’ll have to start all over again. But when you do miss, you’ve got to get back on track as soon as possible, because you don’t want to start repetitions for a new habit of skipping your habit.
Making a Habit Easier to Start
If we want to create a new habit, our goal is to make sure the behavior gets repeated. And one of the best ways to do that is to make it easy. So easy it almost feels hard NOT to do it. You want to reduce the friction associated with that habit to as close to zero as you can get.
1. Prepare in Advance
One way to reduce friction and make your habit easier is to have what you need ready in advance. If you want to start a habit of going to the gym to workout, for example, pack your workout bag ahead of time and have it ready to go. Choose a gym that’s on the way to or from work.
Or, do you want to eat healthier? Make healthy meals on the weekend and have them ready to warm up during the week when you’re too tired to cook and you’re tempted to eat junk food or fast food for dinner.
2. The Two-Minute Rule
Another way to make a habit easy is to use the two-minute rule. The new habit should take less than two minutes to do. Our biggest hurdle can often be just getting started. The two minute rule makes the habit so easy that you’re willing to do it, and it’s almost hard NOT to do it.
If you want to start a daily writing habit, for example, consider starting with one sentence a day. It’s almost ridiculous, right? You can do that. One sentence. ANY sentence. You might even feel silly not writing another sentence after the first one. But don’t write that second sentence. Because that’s not the habit you’re working on. What you actually want to establish is the habit of putting your behind in your writing chair every single day. You’re working on the habit of showing up for your writing time.
After a month or so, when you’ve repeated this action—putting your behind in the writing chair—often enough that you go there almost without thinking about it, you can work on staying long enough to write two sentences, or a paragraph. That’s just one possible way of making a writing habit easy to start, but you get the idea. The two minute rule is probably the single best idea on how to start a new habit.
3. Make Habits Satisfying
Another way to make a habit easier to start is to make it more satisfying. We like to repeat behaviors that feel good, that give us some sense of pleasure.
In Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit, he talks about how people rarely, if ever brushed their teeth before a toothpaste called Pepsodent came along. Only about 7% of Americans even had toothpaste, but a decade later, 65% had toothpaste, mainly Pepsodent. And it was effectively sold all over the world.
The inventors of Pepsodent had a brilliant ad campaign that helped create a habit of teeth brushing. What nobody realized at the time was that part of the appeal of Pepsodent was that they had added citric acid, mint oil, and a few other chemicals that were supposed to make it taste fresh. But those ingredients also acted like a mild irritant that created a cool tingling sensation in people’s mouths. This sensation was something people liked. It made them feel like their teeth were clean. The tingling made the habit satisfying, and it turned into a craving that helped drive the habit loop.
Within a few decades, other toothpaste manufacturers figured this out and started changing their own recipes to create that same sensation. Even today, most, if not all, toothpaste formulas are created to have the same effect.
So when you want to form a new habit, look for ways you can make that habit immediately satisfying. For some habits, this might be easy, but for others, it can be challenging, because for some habits, while we know they’ll benefit us in the long run, it’s hard to see a benefit right NOW.
For example, if you want to exercise everyday, this has long term benefits, but on your first day of exercise you’ll probably feel none of those benefits. You might even feel more tired than normal. So how can you give yourself an immediate reward to help satisfy you?
Remember the commercial for apple watches that showed a couch potato type of guy sitting on his couch, and then his watch reminded him to stand up? Then they fast forwarded through time and repetitions, and he started walking, then running. They showed this happening over and over and with each repetition this guy goes farther and passes his old self, and at the end, he’s swimming. What was that commercial all about? Creating a picture for a reward. Apple was effectively showing this guy’s long term benefit all in the space of thirty seconds to help create a craving for that new self.
Another way to create an immediate reward is by using habit tracking. For example, the little rings on the Apple watch that keep track of how many times you stand or move during the day aren’t an afterthought. They’re deliberate. They give you an immediate reward, the satisfaction of filling all your rings. They even have little games with cute animal rewards.
If you like to keep things low-tech, you can habit track by putting a big check mark on your calendar for everyday you perform your behavior. All those marks help you see your progress. They offer proof that you’re making a change that’s important to you. They also provide a visual cue for the habit you’re working to create.
Habit tracking also helps keep you focused on the system. Remember that the idea is to slowly incorporate change into your life by focusing on systems that help you create the life you want to live.
Habits can be wonderful tools for productivity and for a life lived in accordance with our values. But there is a flip side. Remember how we said 40-50% of our actions on any given day are done out of habit? That means you may not be aware of a significant amount of your behavior. So, how do you know if your habits—these things you’re not thinking about—are serving you or hindering you?
We said this in our last episode and we’re saying it again now because it’s so important: We encourage you to devote time to carefully observing your behavior. Make a list of your habits—write them down!—so you can consider them impartially. Then you can make choices about which habits and behaviors point you in the trajectory you want your life to go, and which don’t. And the ones that don’t? It’s time to change them.
For example, many writers struggle with doubts and negative self-talk. And, side note here, we’ve seen it so often we developed a Going Deeper Workshop called Overcoming Damaging Self-Talk to help writers break that insidious habit.
James Clear has some useful guidance on changing habits. For every idea he gives to helping you start a habit, he applies the opposite advice to habits you want to change.
1. Avoid Cues
Rather than making your cues obvious to help you start a habit, one of the best things you can do to change a habit is to eliminate your exposure to cues. So, rather than create a time and place plan to help you do a behavior, figure out instead how you can avoid that time and place to help you avoid a behavior associated with that time and place. You want to avoid your cues. If you drive by a coffee shop everyday on your way to work, and you want to stop getting coffee there because you’re trying to cut down on caffeine, or save money, or whatever, change your route to work. Even if it takes you longer, it’s worth it not to drive by your temptation everyday.
Changing your behavior isn’t about staring at your temptation in the face and saying no. Often it can be as simple as avoiding that temptation to begin with. James Clear points out that research shows those who we think are disciplined are really just better at “structuring their lives in a way that does not require heroic willpower and self-control.” That’s a big piece of the puzzle when it comes to changing habits.
In fact, the reason willpower isn’t the way to go when trying to change or avoid a habit is that those cravings are engraved in our brains. Once they’re set, we can’t help but be affected by them. But, when you eliminate the cue that starts the craving, you don’t have any reason to do the behavior.
So, one way to help change habits is to make your cues invisible. If you feel you eat too much junk food, don’t buy it. Send your spouse to the store so you’re not even tempted to buy it. Or don’t go down that aisle. Or put it on a high shelf way in the back of your cupboard—like the cupboard over the refrigerator that’s practically impossible to get to so you don’t see it every time you open your cabinet for something else.
If watch too much TV, get rid of it. Or, get rid of cable and internet so you have far fewer options. Or put it in a room that you don’t go in very often. Have you noticed that so many houses seem to face all the furniture toward the TV? Rearrange your furniture. Take your TV out of your bedroom if you watch too much late night TV.
Another thing you want to do when you’re looking at what’s going on with your cues is to check what’s happening with your habit stacking. Maybe you find that you come home from work, change clothes, and grab a dinner that you eat in front of the TV, and then never get up until bedtime. Change the stack. Don’t eat in front of the TV. Don’t rely on your willpower to turn the TV off at 7pm so you can write. Or maybe, if you must eat in front of the TV, put your TV outlet on a timer that shuts off at 7pm, and use that as a new cue to stand up and to go to your writing spot.
2. Make It Hard
We talked earlier in this podcast about making the behavior of a habit easy if we wanted to encourage it. Well, if you want to discourage it, make it hard. That’s in essence what we’d be doing if we stuck all our junk food in the cabinet over the fridge—not just taking the cue out of sight, but also making that junk food hard to get to. There’s a lot of friction involved in dragging a chair or step ladder over to the fridge and digging that food out.
If you want to cut down the time you spend on social media, take the app off whichever device you mostly use. If you’re always on Facebook on your phone, take it off your phone and only allow it to be on your computer. Or, download one of those apps that limit or cut off access to websites you designate. That’s one way to use technology to help you. It becomes a commitment device, and a choice you make in the present locks in your behavior in the future.
Use technology for your benefit where you can, because in today’s world, technology is sometimes against us. Have you noticed how binge watching has become so popular these days? One reason is because companies like NetFlix make it so easy to keep watching. The next episode just starts right up for you. You have to work, to exercise willpower, to actually turn it off, and that can be hard.
3. Make It Unattractive
Aside from technology, You can use people to help you change your habits. You can use what’s called a habit contract, which can make your habit less satisfying.
To make your habit less satisfying, create an unpleasant cost, basically a punishment. Remember that our brain wants to repeat behaviors that are rewarded and avoid those that are punished. So perhaps you want to stop worrying, or swearing, or whatever. You can make a habit contract with a willing friend. You tell her you’ll put a dollar in a jar every time you give in and actively worry, or swear, or whatever, and every week your friend gets the money and goes out to a fun coffee place without you. You get left behind, or whatever else is painful to you. Maybe she’s a supporter of a football team you hate, and she gets to buy hats and mugs and all kinds of stuff for her team, and you have to then use them all. Be creative and have fun with this.
Of course, we don’t want to leave you with the idea that all habits are simple and fun to break. They’re not. In fact, Charles Duhigg writes, “…a habit cannot be eradicated—it must instead be replaced.” He also stresses that there isn’t any one, sure-fire method that works for everyone to create behavior change. But in his book, he walks through what he calls “the Golden Rule of habit change.”
Studies show that you can’t completely extinguish bad habits, but you can have a great deal of success if you keep the old cues, keep the old rewards, but substitute a different behavior. That’s the simple rule, and it makes sense because it’s the behavior that you’re trying to change.
This is a good method because some cues you just can’t avoid. For this to work, however, you first have to recognize what your cues are, what the reward is, and most important, you have to be very sure what your craving actually is. James Clear writes that “a craving is just a specific manifestation of a deeper underlying motive…It is the desire to change your internal state.”
The behaviors we have attached to satisfy our cravings aren’t necessarily the best ways to achieve the desired change in our internal state. Cues and rewards aren’t necessarily bad, but the behavior we choose after the cue to get that reward can be a problem. For example, someone may feel anxious and crave relaxation, but if the behavior of getting drunk sprung up to get that reward, that’s not good. Relief from anxiety can be found in other ways that don’t involve alcohol, so that’s the behavior that could be modified. You can have a cue of anxiety, and a desire for a relaxed state, which gives you motivation to act, but you achieve that reward with a different behavior.
Charles Duhigg gives a good example of how behavior can be modified through habit reversal training which is founded on the Golden Rule of habit change. There was a woman who wanted to stop biting her fingernails. Her habit was so bad that her fingertips were often covered with scabs. Her psychologist, by questioning her, helped her uncover what the cue was for this habit—she felt tension in her fingertips.
Awareness of the cues is the first step in modifying a habit. So many of us do our habits out of…well, habit, so we may be completely unaware of what our cues are. But it’s crucial that we identify them. For example, one of the reasons Alcoholics Anonymous is so effective is that it forces members to identify all their cues.
The therapist for the woman biting her fingernails sent her home with a notecard and told her to put a checkmark on it every time she experienced the cue of tension in her fingers. This helped her become even more aware of her cues.
But you also have to understand the reward. Through her therapist’s questions, the woman discovered that she was often bored when she felt the tension in her fingers and after she bit her fingernails it was better, and it turned out that what she was craving was the physical stimulation.
So the therapist moved to the next step and gave her what’s called a “competing response.” When the woman felt the cue in her fingers, she was to put her hands in her pockets, or pin them under her legs, or grab hold of something like a pencil—anything that would make her unable to bite her nails. After that, she had to immediately find some sort of quick physical stimulation like knocking on a tabletop or rubbing her arm. So she was achieving the same reward—a physical stimulation, with the same cues triggering it. But she was changing the behavior—the response or routine. The end result is that the undesirable behavior is successfully modified to something acceptable.
To sum it up, you recognize your cues, identify your craving and rewards, and introduce a competing behavior that can achieve the same reward. And we can’t stress this enough: you have to go deep to accurately identify your craving. For example, our alcoholic isn’t craving being inebriated. That person is craving something that being inebriated provides, be it relaxation, numbness, acceptance within a peer group, the ability to forget something terrible, or whatever. So it’s vital that you dig deep into your own motivation.
If you write fiction, pretend you’re a character in one of your novels and don’t be satisfied with the superficial answer. Maybe you want to stop snacking at work. You need to understand why you’re snacking. Ask yourself what you’re really after. Are you truly hungry? Are you just bored and in need of a break? Or are you tired and need something to wake you up?
There’s one other important aspect of successful behavior change we need to cover, and that is the belief that change is possible. You have to believe it. Charles Duhigg quotes J. Scott Tonigan, a researcher from the University of Toronto, who says, “I wouldn’t have said this a year ago—that’s how fast our understanding is changing, but belief seems critical.”
One of the things that helps boost belief is the power of others believing. Groups can help foster belief. Duhigg points out that belief is a vital component in Alcoholics Anonymous. He quotes a senior scientist at the Alcohol Research Group who says, “At some point, people in AA look around the room and think, if it worked for that guy, I guess it can work for me. There’s something really powerful about groups and shared experiences. People might be skeptical about their ability to change if they’re by themselves, but a group will convince them to suspend belief. A community creates belief.”
So one of the best things you can do when trying to change a habit is find other like minded people who can support you and help foster your belief. But let’s not forget the most powerful belief. The belief that with God, all things are possible.
Some of you may know that Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, attributed his ability to overcome alcohol to God. And many other people interviewed by researchers also point to God as the reason they don’t relapse even in the most difficult of times.
Of course, researchers wanted to discount this. You can’t really test God in a hypothesis and that, among other things, can make researchers uncomfortable. But God kept coming up over and over in the interviews. So much so that researchers couldn’t discount it. Their solution was to neutralize the notion of belief into a generic statement that belief is necessary, but they say a belief in general, either in themselves or some other higher power, will do.
I think we do need belief, we need hope. But we as Christians understand that the highest power in all existence is God, the Creator of all things. And he’s not bound by our understanding, our limitations, our beliefs, or our habits. Psalm 139:13-16 (NIV) says,
“For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.”
How encouraging it is that when we want to change behaviors or create new behaviors and routines, we have Almighty God. Take this to God. Ask him which behaviors are helping you and which are harming you. Trust him to give you the guidance you need.
Jeremiah 32:27 (NIV) says, “I am the Lord, the God of all mankind. Is anything too hard for me?” He can show you your habits. He can show you how to change them.
Job 42:2 (NIV) says, “I know that you can do all things; no purpose of yours can be thwarted.” God knows what works best for you. God knows which habits are hindering you.
Isaiah 46:9b-10 (NKJV) says, “I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like Me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things that are not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will do all My pleasure.’”
We serve an amazing God. A God who wants us to act in a way that’s best for us. In a way that he designed us. In a way that makes us better reflections of him. Take this to him and watch and see what he does!Come discover effective ways to change your bad habits...and their destructive influence in your life and writing. #amwriting #christianwriter @karenball1 Click To Tweet
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Have you ever had to change a habit? How did you do it?
Books mentioned in the podcast
THE NOVEL MARKETING PODCAST
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Commandment #1 is: Love thy reader as you love thy book.
This is the greatest commandment and the most foundational. If this is wrong, you can’t fix it with the other commandments. If you want readers to care about your book, you need to care about readers.
A lot of new authors fall in love with their books. They write the book they want to write, regardless of what readers want. Then writers start trying to figure out how to find readers and make them want the book. That’s backwards. Caring about your reader isn’t something you tack on at the end as a promotional tactic. It is where you must start.
You need to know thy reader, listen to thy reader, and serve thy reader. Jesus told his disciples that the greatest among them would be those who are servants. Approach your writing out of love and with a servant’s heart.
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