The Power Of Building Habits

The author of Dilbert, Scott Adams, is an interesting chap.  I find him funny and his thoughts on how he manipulates his own mind, body and behaviours are quite fascinating.  He refers to us humans as “moist robots” which always makes me laugh.

One of his “things” is that he trains himself to do things and puts himself in positions and situations where those things get reinforced.  In essence, he creates habits and then stacks the deck in his own favour of retaining the habit, by making sure he makes it easier to maintain than to break.

A great example he gives is with food.  He has a whole physical philosophy around energy that I’m not sold on and won’t get into, but for him, his diet is really important.  Like most people, he would probably prefer to eat potato chips or his favourite things, Snickers and Diet Coke, but he doesn’t think that’s good for him.

To correct that behaviour, he started eating better – carrot stick, brussel sprouts, buttered popcorn, peanuts, etc.  He flavours those boring things with things like tons of salt and butter so that they taste good and he eats as much of those foods as he wants so that he loses the urge to reach for a Snickers.

Over time he’s basically trained himself to eat those replacement foods.  To further ensure his success, he loads his fridge up with pre-cut carrot sticks sitting in a container of water or pre-cooked brussel sprouts loaded with parmesan cheese and salt that he can pop in the microwave for ten seconds and eat.

He creates the habit and then sets up his environment to support his choice by making it easier for him to have than to make some other choice.

I did this with my daily emails that I send out –  decided that I would write an email and send it every day before I went to bed, no matter what.  The idea was that writing and publishing every day was going to be good for me.  I wanted to form the habit of creating quality content every single day and getting into the hands of my audience.

I had originally thought about doing a daily blog then linking to it in ActiveCampaign and sending out a summary.  I realized that this was not setting myself up for success.  The simplest path to success was to send them as emails; it was easier for me and it was easier for people reading it – no clicking around, waiting for browsers and it was available to be read when it suits you.

It happened for 284 consecutive days.  Every single one of those days I wrote and sent an email before I went to bed.  There was even a night at some ungodly hour where ActiveCampaign screwed up and lost my email, so I had to start again from scratch – even that day got an email, albeit abbreviated and a bit agitated.

But that came to a screeching halt two days ago.  I wrote the email, it was a bit late and I was pretty tired.  I gave the email a quick read and hit the button to send it.

Well, at least I thought I had.

I’d actually pushed the Save & Exit button, hadn’t noticed that I didn’t go through the proper send procedure and just went to bed thinking nothing of it.

Yesterday when I sat down to write my email I noticed in my dashboard that the email was still showing as Saved and then I realized what I’d done.  I wasn’t angry or anything, I was just slightly deflated.

I opened the email, hit send and walked away from the computer.

One thing that’s motivated me to keep the streak alive is fear.  I knew by about the second month in that I’d created the good habit, the one I’d wanted to create when I started this daily email journey.  There was never any question in my own mind every day that I needed to do the email and I never found myself thinking, “Oh, maybe I’ll skip it today.”

But there was always the fear of that.  I was afraid that if I took a day off then a week later I might skip another day.  Then maybe a second one that week because I was tired or whatever.  Then the habit would be lost.  That’s been my fear and motivator.

So where does that leave us?  The streak has been broken.  What now?

The biggest thing is that I didn’t break the habit intentionally – I made a mistake from fatigue and didn’t catch it.  That’s the silver lining for me.  I didn’t choose to fall off the wagon in a manner of speaking, it just happened.

What I’m most proud of is that this is Day 2 of a new streak.  More importantly, I’ve not even flinched about it – there’s no doubt in my mind about not continuing.

When we form good habits and surround ourselves with structure to ensure that we maximize the continuation of our positive habit, then the occasional slip won’t hurt us.  If we’re being honest, in my situation I feel more determined to start again.

The most important part of forming a good habit though is that you have to want the outcome.  Not your wife, not your business partner, not your boss… You.

You’re the one who has to own the outcome and do the work to make it happen.  You’re the one who has to have the willpower when things get tough.  You’re the one who is going to feel the frustration when you slip up.

The challenge for you today is, think about something you’d like to achieve, what habit you’d need to form to make that happen and then think about how you could structure things to make sure you maximize your chances of sticking to that habit.  I’ve written and published over 400,000 words this year in large part because of my habit, so this works – you just need to take it onboard and make it work for you!

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