by Rebecca Hass
Bad Habits. That’s what’s holding you back. If you could just develop better habits, you’d finally be creating the career you want as a freelancer.
Procrastinating no more. Without those bad habits, you’d be getting things done ahead of time, well researched, and beautifully turned out with time to spare.
You know what you need to do, and yet, if you’re like me, you don’t do it. I have the best of intentions, but within minutes of sitting at my desk to get to my work, my bad habits start.
A pop up message appears. I have a new message on FB to check. Then a breaking news item scrolls through, I take a quick look at that. Then I see the number on my twitter app and I have to look. What’s up? Retweets? A new follower? That video looks funny, it will just take a moment to watch and so it goes.
Bad habits like this happen at such an unconscious level, I hardly notice the time go by before I discover I’ve wasted an hour. If only I had more willpower!
Willpower is a Lie
You know from experience that when you identify the habit you want to change, the first voice you hear is “The voice of reality.”
That voice tells you “That’s just the way it is, and you can’t change it. Remember all the times you‘ve tried before and failed?” It uses the argument that if you had more willpower, or better self-discipline, you would have changed this already. But that’s a lie. Science tells us a different story.
We aren’t weak; we are humans, wired for rewards. That’s how habits are born. My inability to ignore the siren call of procrastination has to do with my pleasure centre.
The Pleasure Principle or How a Habit is Born
Every time you do something new, your brain is asking the critical question: What’s in it for me? Is this an action worth repeating? Did it feel good? Or did it feel bad?
If it feels good, then dopamine gets released in our brain, that sweet drug of the pleasure principle. Like an addict, our brain is wired for pleasure and it will unseat all cool logic or long-term vision wisdom.
Basically, your inner two-year-old shows up and just throws a tantrum for what it wants. Once your brain has logged an experience as worth repeating, it is continually scanning the horizon for its dopamine fix. It doesn’t take much.
How Do I Break a Habit?
You aren’t bad, or weak, you just need to understand the science of the pleasure principle and you have the key to changing your bad habit for the habit you know you want.
The bad news in this fight is that you can’t delete the craving for the old habit, but you can replace it. In studies with rats and humans they have found that the brain still lights up with the old craving, but if a new more powerful payoff is in place, it drowns out that old habit.
You can actually make a better choice in that moment. Sort of like two radios are playing, but you choose which habit (or tune), you want to crank up.
Let me show you how to turn up the volume on the habits you want.
The Tool: Identification of The Habit Loop
Charles Duhigg, author of the Power of Habit, says all habits follow this pattern:
Cue: a trigger, or sign for your brain that it can go into an automatic mode and use the habit.
I sit down at my computer.
Routine: The habitual action that occurs next.
I start to work, but get distracted by checking FaceBook, Twitter, Instagram and whatever else comes onto my screen or whoever pops into my home office.
Reward: This is the dopamine release that tells your brain that this is worth remembering and repeating.
I enjoy the social contact because working alone so much of the time is hard. Whether it is virtual, or an interruption by phone or someone in my house, I am happy when I connect with people.
To Win the Fight, Here is What You Need to Do.
Change a bad habit
The key is to change only one thing. The routine. The cue remains the same, and the all-important reward with the pleasure principle also stays the same.
In the example above I’m rewarded by the social connections but I’m also frustrated that I’m not getting my work done. Succumbing to social media is a bad habit.
Following the recipe means I will keep the cue and sit down to work at the computer. But the routine will change. No longer will social media hijack me. I will eliminate the pop windows, the alerts, and I will post a “Do Not Disturb” sign on the office door.
Once I’ve worked to my goal (whether to finish the project or for a set amount of time) I get my reward. The reward is connecting with friends and family. The reward will be at the end of the routine. I can even beef it up with coffee with a friend, or time devoted to just social app play. The routine will stick because I still get the reward that I care about.
Here is another example:
Cue: I finish my work for the day
Routine: I end up spending hours laying in front of the TV/computer games/Netflix
Reward: I feel relaxed
If I want to be less of a couch potato I can put in a new routine, but it has to pay of the same way. I need a new routine that gives me relaxation, or I won’t succeed.
Maybe I try going for a walk in the park, or reading for a half hour instead. If it makes me feel relaxed, I have a winner for a new routine.
Start a Good Habit
Let’s say I want to begin a social media campaign for my business to promote my work. That doesn’t even exist in my current schedule, how do I start a good habit?
This time I have three new things. Cue, routine and reward. The cue and the routine are self-evident. I schedule in a few hours a week for this new habit and off I go.
To get over my initial dread of starting to figure out this part of my business, I need a powerful reward and it needs to be immediate. Eventually I will appreciate how this work helps my business, but off the top I can’t delay my gratification. I need that dopamine rush, and fast.
Rewards can be anything that works for you. One study gave runners a small square of chocolate after each run for the first three months. After the initial use of chocolate for motivation, most of the runners continued without that reward. Eventually the health benefits were motivation enough and a new good habit was born.
Be adventurous with this task and experiment to see what works for you.
Tips to Get Started
- Decide what you really want to change. Make a list. Choose to make change where you know you would feel a big impact. Having the right fuel for change really helps you stick to it.
- Keep track of the cue for the activity. Being clear about the cue will mean you are on the ball to change the routine.
- What is the most powerful reward for you? This can be tricky to figure out so get curious and explore.
- Try this: Make a list of things that feel rewarding. Then you will have a resource for creating new habits.
Rebecca Hass is a writer, broadcaster and Certified Life coach living in Victoria BC. She is a regular columnist on NXNW on CBC Radio One where she offers advice on how to get unstuck and get what you want from your life. Her radio documentaries have been heard on CBC Radio One’s The Sunday Edition, Tapestry and The Doc Project. Learn more at www.Rebeccahass.ca.